From Jargon to Jointness: Understanding the Information Environment and Its Terminology
Robert S. Ehlers, Jr. and Thomas A. Drohan
Information, Competition, and Strategy
The Department of Defense (DoD) spends much time and effort trying to make sense of the Information Environment (IE). While the IE appears new, it is not. Rather, it is simply the latest definition for making sense of the ways in which human beings use information to influence the direction and outcome of competition and conflict. A brief reading of military theory, from any age and across cultures, reveals the ubiquitous importance and often decisive role of having a superior understanding of one’s adversaries, and the centrality of using that understanding wisely to gain advantage. Information is the means by which all parties to a conflict build understanding of one another and themselves, and the IE is the medium through which this information flows as various players use it to influence each other’s decision calculus.[i]
Nonetheless, there is still disagreement and outright confusion about what the IE is, why it matters, how to operate within it, and how to develop a terms and definitions relating to it. While terms and definitions comprise the primary focus of this article, it is most useful to discuss them in the context of interactions between information, competition, and strategy.
At a basic level, “the IE” defines the information-heavy arena within which states and non-state actors “wrestle” with competitors, adversaries, enemies, and others for long-term advantage as they seek to achieve grand-strategic priorities. Grand strategy “exists at a level above those strategies intended to secure particular ends, and above the use of military power alone to achieve strategic objectives. It seeks to secure and advance a nation’s long-term, enduring, core interests over time. A nation’s grand strategy shows great persistence over time, orienting on those interests deemed most important; interests for which virtually any nation will spend, legislate, threaten, or fight to defend or advance.”[ii]
To achieve grand-strategic aims, states and non-state actors coordinate political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII) instruments of power (IOPs) to gain long-term advantages in information-heavy complex problems (ICPs) across the global IE. The information IOP is particularly important because it suffuses all others and thus influences their effectiveness. The collective employment of IOPs, when orchestrated and nested within an effective meta narrative, can increase a state’s informational and physical power. The USG and its partners must become better at such long-term influence campaigns.[iii]
Unless the utopians are correct and war is disengaging itself from human nature, the DoD must be ready to win lethal conflicts. However, policy makers must also integrate DoD effects in support of a US meta narrative short of armed conflict. Military capabilities need to be used to “win the peace” of persistent non-violent competition. In this sense, it is important to engage in information campaigns rather than simply actions. This requires fusing physical and information power, which in turn requires major changes in how the USG and DoD structure themselves to address ICPs over long time periods. Paradoxically, lethal actions are more likely when there is no effective grand strategy or meta narrative. Resulting crises often surprise policymakers and lead to a reflexive “What do we do?!?” approach rather than a reflective “What is the problem?” approach. The former often leads to an outsized focus and reliance on lethal actions, or on posturing and threats that jump to lethal actions due to miscalculation. Getting well ahead of this state of affairs is a central purpose of any grand strategy. This requires highly proactive, balanced, and integrated information-and-operations approaches, which in turn requires a good understanding of the IE and its core aspects.
Core Aspects of the IE
The IE is global in nature and encompasses multiple ICPs or “problem IEs.” The global IE is a highly complex and emergent system of systems in which information moves and produces rapid, high-order impacts and unanticipated consequences. It also comprises a wide range of actors with much greater influence than before. Because information flows are often not controllable even by powerful states, they can produce disproportionate and often counterproductive effects. Non-state actors, which create various forms of influence to achieve their own strategic aims, now play a central and often disruptive role as influencers and force multipliers within the global IE and ICPs. Further, they tend to be unregulated by any corpus of laws and act outside of accepted international norms. Non-state actors use new media and other technological advances to reduce or even undermine the effectiveness of statecraft. Consequently, a diverse group of actors can now generate alternate information-centric forms of power to exert influence across a range of problem sets.[iv]
Exerting influence is difficult because ICPs are complex and contested. Opponents are often in positions of advantage and have the initiative. Each ICP has unique actors, drivers, and characteristics, requiring different levels of scale, focus, and effort. Determining appropriate levels of response is further complicated because an ICP is a system within the larger global IE system-of-systems. Successfully mitigating a threat in one ICP can impact another or even create entirely new problems. Therefore, the nature of the IE requires discerning what is distinctive to a given problem set.
While a collective understanding of the IE is still maturing, many of its fundamental qualities are evident. The IE is ubiquitous. It is largely unbounded, relatively unregulated, hyper connected, and it exists simultaneously in multiple domains and problem sets.[v] Advantages in the global IE are temporal even with highly effective condition-setting. No players can fully control it. They can only seek to gain advantage for a period of time. In an information-dense, hyper-connected problem set in which states have limited control over flows of information, the audience reception of and reaction to information must be prioritized and shaped. The ability to shape outcomes is key to generating influence. Yet there are limits to how much shaping is possible. Decision makers must consider carefully their capacity to shape and influence when aligning ends, ways, and means. In combination with the open-ended ICPs that are the norm in today’s security environment, these dynamics highlight the need for long-term focus and strategic patience to address problems within the global IE.
As articulated in DoD documents, the IE comprises three dimensions: physical, informational, and cognitive (including human and machine actors). The physical dimension comprises the infrastructure facilitating the transmission, reception, and storage of information. The informational dimension, which incorporates cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum, includes the wired networks and energy fields allowing content and data flow to be collected, processed, stored, disseminated, and displayed. It links the physical and human dimensions. The cognitive dimension includes the individual and collective minds of decision makers and all others who act upon and are in turn affected by information flows.[vi]
Based on these core aspects of the IE, the DoD defines it as “The aggregate of the individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate or act on information.”[vii] This foundational definition is incomplete because it does not emphasize context or the agency of advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is also insufficient for helping people to understand what the dynamically changing IE is, and what it means. The global IE and ICPs acquire new meaning as information interacts. It is thus crucial to properly understand and frame information. Decision makers seeking to gain advantage need to understand each ICP’s unique contextual, cultural, cognitive, and temporal characteristics, and how these relate to the ICP’s companion Operational Environment (OE).
The DoD is beginning to take account of these complexities by using this updated definition:
The information environment comprises and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and impact knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization. The information environment also includes technical systems and their use of data. The information environment directly affects all OEs. Information is pervasive throughout the OE. To operate effectively requires understanding the interrelationship of the informational, physical, and human aspects that are shared by the OE and the information environment. Informational aspects reflect the way individuals, information systems, and groups communicate and exchange information. Physical aspects are the material characteristics of the environment that create constraints on and freedoms for the people and information systems that operate in it. Finally, human aspects frame why relevant actors perceive a situation in a particular way. Understanding the interplay between the informational, physical, and human aspects provides a unified view of the OE.[viii]
Despite the improvements in this definition, current doctrinal and operational approaches tend to create a false dichotomy by asserting that the IE and the OE are usefully separate, and that one predominates over the other. Despite acknowledging that “The information environment directly affects all OEs,” pride of place in the DoD continues to go to the OE. Other Five Eyes (FVEY—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, US) partners take the opposite approach. In reality, the IE and OE are highly interconnected, interdependent, and interactive — an IE-and-OE. Understanding this relationship is foundational to effective long-term efforts in the global IE.[ix]
To understand the term “Information Environment,” it is necessary to break it into its two component words. “Information” is “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence.”[x] Further, it is “built on standard structures having a unique meaning and distinct units or values.”[xi] In terms of information as data, it is used “in context to inform or provide meaning for action.” This leads to knowledge, which is simply placing information in context to enable action against a target. Knowledge is obtained from investigation, study, or instruction, both openly and using the tools and tradecraft of intelligence. Finally, information is “something…which justifies change in a construct (such as a plan or theory) that represents physical or mental experience or another construct.” In this context, delivery of information occurs to change or reinforce the decision calculus of target audiences.
An “environment” comprises “the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded.” However, the fuller definition is more revealing: “the complex of…factors…that act upon an organism or…community and ultimately determine its form and survival.” Viewed from the perspective of General Systems Theory, this element of the larger definition takes on real significance, as does the third and final piece of the definition: “the aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.”[xii]
Combining these definitional components yields a basic understanding of what comprises the global IE. To be of use, information must be conceptualized, contextualized as knowledge, understood, and delivered to target audiences within a specific environment for a specific purpose. Done properly, this will tend to yield a degree of influence over target audiences, causing them to act in ways advantageous to the influencer.
Different kinds of information and delivery techniques thus have varying importance depending on the target’s contextual and cultural realities, including decision makers’ cognitive processes and emotional states. Understanding that there are multiple ICPs at play within the global IE reminds us that even though these problem sets are distinct, they are often intertwined, interactive, and interdependent. Addressing them in close coordination with their companion OEs requires specific types of information and delivery mechanisms.
It is thus useful to discuss “the IE” within the context of a specific problem and look beyond it to the manner in which larger-order (non-problem specific) information impinges on it. Doing so highlights the immense connectivity at play. In the global IE, information is moving between and among players across local contexts. The physical world at the quantum level is highly entangled even at great distances. The global IE thus drives information flows during ongoing efforts to influence decisions and behaviors across the competition continuum. This competition exists from cooperative peace to existential conflict, with the vast majority occurring in the middle of the continuum—the “gray zone.” The competition continuum informs what an ICP encompasses and how those working it might gain advantage. Failing to understand how an adversary views a problem will negatively impact efforts to achieve an end-state. Actors within ICPs often have highly differential levels of commitment and willingness to endure sacrifices. It is vital to design information-focused activities accordingly.
The Australian Defense Force (ADF) has articulated the conceptual nuances of the contemporary IE-and-OE and its impact on national security, operational concepts, force design, and capability development. Its Information War: ADF Manoeuvre in the Information Environment conceives of the battle for influence taking place across a spectrum of contest—in other words, along the competition continuum. This contest is psychological and physical, preventive and causative, with conflict and violence at the far end of the spectrum.[xiii]
This ADF concept of Information Maneuver in the global IE is vitally important. Along with physical maneuver, information maneuver occurs in the global IE, ICPs, and corresponding OEs. The term facilitates a better understanding of why, how, and when to use information, and to coordinate its release with other activities. Synchronization of information delivery is an intrinsic characteristic of maneuver. The ADF is determining how to use information maneuver to gain positional advantage. Our competitors continue to do the same.[xiv]
Mass, the cousin of maneuver, also plays a key role. Information mass complements physical mass but can be used independently of it, while physical mass relies on the use of information for its employment. Information mass and momentum may even set conditions for avoiding the use of physical force and its expensive massing and maneuvering of assets.[xv]
What Comprises “the IE”?
The global IE is the overarching arena within which opponents try to gain advantage in a problem set. Each has its own character and thus drives operations within it. Based on a holistic perspective of the global IE and ICPs, “the IE” reveals the following attributes:
First, each ICP within the global IE is unique and dynamic. It contains information already produced, currently being produced, and not yet produced. Understanding what the latter might be and how to develop it falls in the realms of anticipatory analysis and sense making.
Second, the global IE, ICPs, and OEs are interwoven, interdependent, and coequal. Referring to a common OE-and-IE avoids a false dichotomy and promotes the integration of information-specific activities and effects into a larger operational or strategic design or plan.
Third, information maneuver and mass are interdependent with physical maneuver and mass but also transcend them. Engaging in information maneuver within a an ICP and its companion OE involves employing information temporally and spatially for maximum effectiveness. Maneuver within an ICP goes hand in hand with producing the proper degree of “information mass” at the right places and times to ensure one’s own meta narrative, narratives, and messages overwhelm and render ineffective those of the opponent.
Fourth, working effectively within the global IE and its ICPs requires much more than just an understanding of the individuals, organizations, and systems within them. People must understand the problem they are trying to address; the adversary’s and others’ views of it; and the interrelationships between ICPs and their companion OEs.
With these characteristics clear, it is possible to offer a preliminary definition of the IE:
“ ‘The IE’ is an informational and operational space within which opponents mass and maneuver information, often in careful coordination with physical assets, to gain competitive advantage within an ICP. It is not a single entity, but rather a composite of the global IE and many ICPs related to distinct and contested problem sets with national-security relevance. Effective operations within the global IE and an ICP can yield long-term advantage over an opponent. However, depending on the opponent’s skill, any advantage gained may be short-term. The global IE and its ICPs are therefore also arenas within which various players must engage in long-term competition and conflict, seeking to gain competitive advantage and as much initiative as possible. This has clear and major implications for shaping organizational structures and processes to facilitate effective long-term efforts. To gain advantage within an ICP, it is also necessary to consider carefully how and to what end information mass and maneuver interacts with other actors’ effects. Mass and maneuver are inherent in any ICP, not merely the means by which one employs information within it. Finally, because each ICP within is unique and requires its own range of skill sets and insights, a tailored aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems is required to work it effectively.”
This working definition provides a foundation for thinking about terms and definitions relating to the global IE and ICPs, and how best to align them to different kinds and levels of effort.
Terminology for the Global IE and ICPs
Having developed a baseline set of terms and elements defining and comprising the IE, its cousin, the OE, and key dynamics such as the competition continuum and information mass and maneuver, it is now possible to discuss key information-focused terms currently in use across the DoD and its FVEY counterparts. The intent here is to develop a common set of terms, an alignment of them, and a means for understanding how each relates to and helps achieve influence and strategic aims within the global IE and ICPs. The DoD and its FVEY partners have made progress toward these objectives, but there is still some distance to go.
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is limited commonality of terms. Focusing on the most important ones and how they relate to the “FVEY National Priorities and IE Frameworks” graphic discussed earlier provides a means for aligning terms and definitions. Terms requiring particular attention include Shaping and Influencing (S&I), Information Warfare (IW or iWar), Operations in the Information Environment (OIE), Information Activities (IA—not to be confused with Information Assurance), and Information Operations (IO).[xvi]
At the level of grand strategy, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) uses S&I—a term focused on the complex and long-term process of shaping and influencing target audiences’ decisions and behaviors in the global IE and ICPs. This explicit focus on a WoG, all-IOP approach to gaining advantage and supporting one’s strategic priorities is extraordinarily important. The DoD needs an equivalent term to align what it does in the global IE with what the rest of the US Government (USG) does. S&I represents the full range of coordinated WoG actions to gain advantage at the level of grand strategy. This includes using all IOPs in a coordinated approach, working with partners to synchronize actions, and engaging with IGOs and NGOs to meet common objectives.
Moving to strategy within each of the IOPs (and in this specific case military strategy), the ADF uses the term “Information Warfare.” While it has different meanings across the DoD, it is clearly agreed-upon and aligned within the ADF and Australian WoG. “iWar,”as the Australians call it, is “the contest playing out in the global IE as states and other actors compete with and confront each other in pursuit of their interests, alongside disruptive non-State actors.”[xvii] As such, it contributes to S&I at the level of grand strategy.
At the operational level of the competition continuum, in the realm of IA, terms diverge again. For the Australians, IA involve “coordinated and synchronized actions to place civilian and military elements into a position of advantage in the information domain in order to affect the understanding, will and capability of specific targets.”[xviii] This includes the integration, synchronization, and coordination of two or more Information-related capabilities (IRCs) and involves shaping and influencing activities; IO (the operational-level planning process required to engage in Information Activities); and Inform and Influence Actions (IIA). These work together to produce effects on a target’s will, capability, and decision calculus.
For the Canadian Forces (CF), IA seek to affect one or more dimensions of the IE (physical, informational, cognitive). By impacting the character or behavior of a target as a first-order effect. This involves affecting that individual’s or group’s understanding, perceptions and will, with the aim of affecting behavior in a desired manner. The UK also uses IA in a unique way, viewing it as “the primary means of influencing will; promoting identified themes to target audiences through messages; seeking to predispose, persuade, convince, deter, disrupt, compel, or coerce target audiences to adopt a particular course of action; or to assist, encourage, and reassure those following a desired CoA.”[xix] The Americans incorporate operational-level efforts into OIE, with “IA” simply referring to Information Assurance.
The US term, OIE, is particularly useful at the operational level. OIE are “actions taken to generate, preserve, and apply information power…to increase or protect competitive advantage or combat power potential within all domains of the operating environment.”[xx] In evolving DoD terminology, IW is a sub-set of OIE conducted throughout the competition continuum to dominate an ICP at a specific place and time.
The British Armed Forces have a term corresponding roughly to OIE: Information Campaign. It is useful because it takes a long-term approach in the context of a campaign. This campaign seeks to “coordinate the information output of all government activities undertaken to influence target audiences (specifically decision makers) in support of policy objectives, while protecting their own decision makers from undue influence.”[xxi] The two mutually supporting elements of Information Campaigns include Information Operations and Media Operations.[xxii]
FVEY partners do not agree on the meaning of tactical terms, either. Information Operations, a term now out of favor in the DoD, is being replaced with “Information Functions.” The Australians see IO it as an operational-level planning process for integrating lethal and non-lethal actions against key elements of a target’s will and capability. This is similar to the US definition, which has long viewed IO as a staff function to facilitate the integration of IRCs as force-multipliers for campaigning. The Canadians view IO as the coordinated planning for and use of information activities comprised of IRCs. The UK sees IO as an integration strategy for the full range of IRCs and higher-level efforts, not as a capability in its own right. The Australians have the clearest and most useful term for tactical-level actions: IIA.
Even the term IRC has different meanings. Australians view it as a set of tools, capabilities, and processes for engaging in IIA and IA to produce influence at the level of grand strategy. Canadians see IRCs as activities intended to affect one or more dimensions of the IE (the same definition as they use for IA). The UK term, Tools of Influence Activity, places IRCs within the larger construct of operational and strategic efforts. Finally, US military doctrine views IRCs as the tools, techniques, or activities affecting any of the three dimensions of the IE.
Because the DoD lacks clear IE-related terms and definitions at the level of grand strategy, other terms it uses often appear disjointed. In developing clear terms, the DoD must remain focused on what matters most: producing superior combinations of effects at the level of grand strategy. Doing so is a foundational aspect of the design and planning processes.
Achieving national or supranational influence in and through the global IE is not solely a military function. In fact, the military should generally support a larger, ongoing, Whole of Government (WoG) effort. The entire purpose of seeking an information advantage is to achieve strategic priorities and desired end-states short of armed conflict. In this sense, the military must offer a range of information-focused options to policymakers in pursuit of strategic priorities. It is thus crucial to place all such efforts within the context of informational power, through the conduct of OIE, with the objective of affecting behavior through the use of information.[xxiii]
Moving Toward a Clearer Understanding and Alignment of Terms
To fix the terminological and definitional challenges facing the DoD, terms need to align from the level of grand strategy to that of tactics. Further, they need to be linked in such a way as to clarify how the actions defined by the terms support one another. The following graphic moves from the level of the global IE, strategic priories, a meta-narratives to the most tactical activities within ICPs. Note that each tier of the graphic contains a reference to meta narratives, narratives, or messages; the time horizon required to operate effectively at each level of effort; and the specific terms each FVEY partner uses to define information-related actions at that level of effort. In several cases, terms are overlapping or missing. This graphic serves as a means for determining how the DoD might formalize an aligned and effective set of terms and definitions for actions taken in the global IE and its various ICPs:
When viewed through this lens, terminological and definitional problems become clearer. In the case of grand strategy, only the Australian term, S&I, is formally in place. The UK term “Information Campaign” and the US “OIE” do not reach this level. Without clear terms and definitions for efforts at the level of grand strategy, the DoD is at a disadvantage as it tries to align and deconflict terminology at all other levels of competition. The DoD does seek to place OIE within the larger framework of “Strategic Narrative Guidance”—the only clear means by which it aligns OIE with a meta narrative.[xxiv]
Even here, though, the ADF takes a broader, WoG approach while DoD terms lack any explicit connection to larger USG and allied or coalition efforts.
At the level of tactics, IO is being replaced “Information Functions” (IF). The ADF equivalent, Inform and Influence Actions (IIA), remains unchanged. This term links the tactical-level “inform” activities with the strategic-level “influence” such tactical actions should achieve. The shifting DoD terms and definitions for these tactical actions are troubling because tactical activities are the component parts of all higher-level actions.
Proposed Common Terms and Supporting Rationale
Given the disconnects and inconsistencies, it is imperative that the DoD develop common terms and definitions for the Services to use. Ideally, they would also correspond with those of our FVEY partners. The following is a useful starting point for senior leaders currently trying to bring greater order, alignment, and effectiveness to IE-related terms and definitions:
The term “Shape and Influence” is the only one currently formalized for use at the level of grand strategy. Both of its component words—“shaping” and “influencing”—are at the heart of the long-term, concerted effort required to gain advantage in the global IE and its ICPs, and thus to achieve strategic priorities. The term serves its purpose well.
The deep Australian understanding of and definitions for IW / iWar make these terms the best ones to address information-focused actions at the level of (military and other) strategy. Neither OIE nor the UK’s Information Campaigns correspond to this level of effort.
At the operational level (both theater and subordinate campaigns), OIE is a very useful term with a definition tailor-made to address information-heavy actions at the level of operations. The UK’s “Information Campaigns” is also purpose-fit to this level of effort.
Tactical-level terms are still not mature, clear, or consistently applied, with the exception of the Australian IIA. The two component words—“inform” and “influence”—address what needs to be done at the tactical level (informing) and implies how that will pay strategic dividends (influencing). The emerging term “Information Functions” is also useful but, unlike IIA, does not indicate what those functions are intended to do.
The Information Environment Assessment Cube is another, more visual means for thinking about how the terms and definitions just discussed can fit into a clear, logical, and effective framework for planning and executing information-focused campaigns and actions. This cube is an adaptation of a joint unity of effort framework (34) with “front-facing” examples.
The cube allows for an alignment and prioritization of terms, definitions, and actions to facilitate greater commonality of understanding and approach throughout the DoD. When combined with the Hierarchical Representation of Levels of Effort and Terminology (Figure 1) and the Proposed Common Terms (Figure 3), it provides a way forward—not by any means the only way forward, but a useful one.
This article represents a means for making sense of and resolving the current IE-related terminological and definitional challenges facing the DoD. It is not by any means conclusive or even holistic. However, it is a valuable tool for understanding how to integrate and align lexicon. By defining and contextualizing the global IE, ICPs, OEs, and information mass and maneuver, among other things, it gives DoD personnel and senior leaders an approach for bringing IE-related terms and definitions to maturity.
The sooner the DoD does so, the more effective the United States will be in obtaining its strategic priorities amidst the long, complex, information-heavy problems facing it in the current century.