Finding the Right Words: Ending the Confusion on What “Information Operations” Actually Means
By Daniel de Wit and Salil Puri
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The Defense Department is confused. Numerous manuals and joint publications testify to the importance of information and influence in the contemporary operating environment, as do countless studies, articles, books, and official testimony. And yet despite this trend, different sectors of the military have adopted widely divergent concepts of the role of information in competition and conflict, leading to a fractured understanding of how the military should view information functions, and even what they should be called. “Information operations” has been the standard term across the military for twenty-five years, though its usage has changed significantly since it was originally employed in the context of the 1990s-era “revolution in military affairs.” In the post-9/11 period, the Army briefly experimented with “inform and influence activities” before returning to information operations, while the Marine Corps and Joint Staff began using the term “operations in the information environment” in 2018. As a result of all this definitional churn, elements of the military have embraced two very different understandings of what the term “information operations” is meant to describe and how it fits into the military’s broader operations and campaigns. One faction privileges lethal action, and sees information operations as a mechanism to provide commanders with an awareness of the battlespace and a means to precisely target enemy assets. The second uses information operations to describe activities designed to influence behaviors for strategic effect, ideally without lethal action.
This discrepancy is not merely academic. Influence and battlespace awareness are both important functions - the United States must be able to succeed in the day-to-day the contest short of war and should that contest rise to the level of armed conflict. The confusion about what information operations are is likely to hinder U.S. forces’ ability to conduct either of these functions effectively. In keeping with the U.S. military’s longstanding preference for decisive and lethal solutions to strategic problems, this confusion is also likely to result in organizational changes that overemphasize major combat operations at the expense of success in the ongoing contest for influence with great powers like China and Russia.
The current public conversation surrounding information operations has focused on influence operations that Russia and China employ against the United States and its allies. However, for many in the military, information operations are viewed as a means to ensure that friendly commanders are aware of enemy movements and other battlespace developments while also denying that awareness to the enemy. This view originates in the decades after the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military focused on preparing for potential war against Soviet forces in Europe. As Major Christopher Lowe argued in a 2010 thesis for the Command and General Staff College, this history means that “Information Operations is designed for battle, not a battle of ideas.” Lowe’s thesis charts the history of information operations to the development of “command-and-control warfare” in the 1970s and ‘80s, and its subsequent success in rapidly defeating Iraqi forces in the Gulf War of 1991. In 1996, Army Field Manual 100-6, Information Operations, codified this concept in official doctrine. This manual’s introductory section notes that “Targeting an adversary's information flow to influence his perception of the situation or prevent him from having or using relevant information contributes directly to decisive operations.” Writing in 2010, after more than a decade of American efforts to win a “battle of ideas” against violent extremist groups, Lowe argued that the Army was “not disposed to conduct Information Operations as designed,” and that it would need to return to its original definition from the 1990s in order to succeed on future battlefields.
This concept continues to hold currency in some sectors. Consider a recent article by Commander Mike Dahm (retired) in Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. Dahm defines “information warfare” as “Offensive and defensive actions in physical and virtual space that enable and protect the friendly force’s ability to access, process, and communicate information that also deny, exploit, corrupt or destroy an adversary force’s ability to use information.” Dahm directly contrasts this with influence operations, which he dismisses as of lesser importance:
Among the more problematic permutations of information warfare are those that describe it as a bloodless endeavor having everything to do with information but seemingly nothing to do with warfare. Meddling in elections may be a serious threat to national security, but it is not warfare [emphasis added].
Dahm’s approach neglects the ways that America’s adversaries understand warfare, which is far more expansive than the traditional Western definition focusing on armed conflict between the uniformed forces of competing states. China’s “three warfares,” for example, employ economic, informational, and psychological tools to achieve national objectives, and say nothing about lethal action. Adversaries will exploit competencies where the US military is unfamiliar and unprepared - what irregular warfare expert David Kilcullen calls “conceptual envelopment”.
Dahm is right that modern weapons systems are dependent on information to function, and that denying the enemy this information (by, for example, deploying decoys or jamming communications signals) will render such weapons ineffective, and However, by narrowing his understanding of warfare to only lethal actions between opposing sides, Dahm’s version of information warfare would leave the United States vulnerable to China’s three warfares and similar approaches that Russia and Iran use to achieve strategic gains without triggering a U.S. military response. Dahm may insist that what these nations are doing is not warfare, but that point will be immaterial if they are able to achieve their objectives without ever needing to resort to warfare as Dahm would define it.
Contrast Dahm’s article with one by Major James Micciche in the War Room, an online forum produced by the U.S. Army War College. Micciche views the current geopolitical environment as not conducive to conventional military operations due to the economic interdependence of nations and the skyrocketing cost of high-end weapons systems. In response to these circumstances, Micciche argues that the United States is hobbling itself by designing its strategies and operating concepts around major combat operations and must instead follow Sun Tzu’s famous invocation to “win without fighting.” Micciche uses information operations and information warfare interchangeably, using both to refer to methods of influencing key target audiences in order to achieve strategic objectives while remaining below the threshold for kinetic action.
Dahm and Micciche are writing reflects their respective services. The fact that they could publish articles in service-aligned forums in the same month while espousing diametrically opposed concepts of the role of information operations indicates a severe lack of clarity on the subject within the Department of Defense. Additional examples of this disconnect abound. For example the stated mission of the Navy’s Information Warfare Community is to “defeat any enemy by using Assured Command and Control, Battlespace Awareness, and Integrated Fires to achieve Freedom of Maneuver across all warfighting domains.” This highly technical definition of information warfare, as the Navy calls it, contrasts with the Marine Corps’ definition for information operations, which is focused on the use of information to “affect a relevant decisionmaker in order to create an operational advantage for the commander.”
Resolving the discrepancy between technical and human-focused definitions of information operations is particularly important given that the former describes an exclusively military activity, while the latter is often led by agencies outside of the Defense Department. A variety of organizations contribute to American influence efforts, most notably the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the U.S. Agency for Global Media. These agencies regularly amplify the Defense Department’s “military statecraft,” which includes combined exercises and civil-military engagements, to hammer home the fact that the United States is a reliable partner and ally. In order to effectively synchronize with these efforts, the Defense Department must speak the same language as the other agencies engaging in this space. This will only be possible if the entire force uses the same terms to distinguish between operations designed to shape perceptions and operations designed to enable highly lethal combat operations. While the distinction between these two paradigms may be clear enough for units executing them in the field, the lack of clarity in doctrine will inevitably lead to confusion when they conduct the necessary coordination with the staffs of the Geographic Combatant Commands. These staffs will struggle to provide appropriate guidance and direction to their subordinates engaged in the inter-agency planning process if their manuals, checklists, and standard operating procedures are unclear as to what “information operations” are or how they fit within national, strategic-level plans to compete with and deter America’s adversaries.
Clarifying the Field
The first step to resolving this issue is to clarify doctrinal concepts. “Information operations” is clearly too broad a term, a shortcoming that allows officers from across the Joint Force to use it to describe a disparate set of capabilities and activities, some technical and some human-focused, and many of which have little functional relationship to each other. In order to differentiate between operations to ensure sufficient battlespace awareness for precision targeting, on one hand, and the actions taken to advance American influence, on the other, these fields should fall under different doctrinal terms.
The technical capabilities and activities used to acquire sufficient information to enable accurate, on-demand kinetic strikes and to deny the same to the enemy should fall once again under the rubric of command and control warfare. This is a term that speaks directly to the actions it is meant to describe, greatly reducing any room for confusion. Doctrine for command and control warfare should cover all actions taken to ensure accurate battlespace awareness and to deny it to the enemy, including the employment of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications systems. It should also include all methods for denying such awareness to the enemy, from the employment of physical decoys to jamming signals. Operations intending to shape or guide the opinions and perceptions of key audiences should be described as influence operations, which indicates that this field is concerned with shaping the battlespace by guiding target audiences toward specific actions deemed favorable to U.S. objectives.
These terms are designed to refer to the objectives sought and are agnostic as to the units performing them. For example, psychological operations units, for whom the influencing of target audiences is the primary mission, can have a role to play in command-and-control warfare. In a major conflict, PSYOP troops might use disinformation to confuse a commander about the location of planned actions in order to trigger an enemy deployment in one location that leaves a gap elsewhere, creating opportunities for U.S. planners. Such an operation should properly be understood as influence in support of command-and-control warfare since its objective is to confuse enemy commanders about developments in the battlespace, and as such it shares the same objective as the deployment of decoys or electronic warfare systems. Conversely, the cyber domain, which is often grouped with electronic warfare and command-and-control functions, will also remain a key battleground in the fight for influence over target audiences. As two officers recently wrote for the Modern War Institute,
Arguably, success against extremism and propaganda in the cyber domain hinges less on deftly maneuvering within the hypertext transfer protocol and more in the psychological battlespace—that is to say, through understanding the “gray matter,” or decision-making apparatus, of adversaries and their foreign populations. The internet is the means, not the ends.
For both influence operations and command-and-control warfare, the terminology used is reflective of the stated objective, rather than the type of unit conducting the operation or the domain in which it takes place. As such, command-and-control warfare must not be thought of as particular to highly lethal conventional forces, nor should influence operations be understood as the exclusive purview of special operations forces. While different forces may specialize in one or the other as a primary mission, creative planning will allow both conventional and special operations forces to engage in each of these fields, depending on the requirements of joint force commanders at any given time.
The reigning confusion within the Defense Department over the meaning of “information operations” is setting the United States up for failure as it prepares for an era of burgeoning great power competition. Far from a semantic matter of definitions between services, this issue directly affects the ability of the armed forces to effectively counter hostile influence efforts and shape the global operating environment in ways favorable to the United States. Achieving a doctrinal change of the magnitude that this article calls for is not a small endeavor, but without a clear understanding of the varied ways that the military engages with information functions, commanders in the field will struggle to adequately employ each set of capabilities in its proper context. Clearly, an overemphasis on preparation for large-scale combat operations will hinder effective action in the competition for influence below the threshold of war. By the same token, an excessive focus on shaping the battlespace via influence operations will leave U.S. forces unprepared should deterrence fail and major combat operations become necessary. Clarifying joint doctrine so as to distinguish between these two fields, and then integrating the change into joint exercises, is a necessary step to force commanders to engage with the full range of operations, from influencing foreign perceptions to command-and-control warfare.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of their respective agencies, chains of command, or of the Department of Defense.