Small Wars Journal

The Great Enabler: Capitalizing Upon Operations in the Information Environment

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 2:00pm

The Great Enabler: Capitalizing Upon Operations in the Information Environment

Evan Salbego

In 2015, the Department of the Army made the decision to strike Information Operations (IO) billets from Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) across the force. Simply put, IO practitioners at that level were somewhat under-utilized and many commanders felt as though they lacked value beyond the scope of Special Project Officers. It didn’t help that the legalities required of IO seldom applied to garrison operations.

A few stragglers survived in the fires and combat aviation brigades, but their fill-priority remained low compared to billets closer to the strategic front. As staffs bid farewell to their IO practitioners, many assumed causation; that IO had simply lost relevance at their level, a fallacy which persisted until our adversaries began moving in the exact opposite direction. ISIS began growing its narrative across Afghanistan in 2015 and Russia announced the development of new Information Warfare Troops about a year later. The army’s reduction of IO billets undoubtedly conveyed severely mixed signals to the greater force. Given the stakes at hand, our visible military investments in the Information Environment (IE) should have increased, not decreased.

But, surely, some formations had been operating without IO Officers for some time. What lessons could be gleaned from these units to benefit the force? Furthermore, in an era short on IO positions and high in non-lethal threats, what else could brigade formations do to prepare themselves to take advantage of the IE instead of tripping over it?

To explore how smaller units (brigade and below) conducted IO without an allocated billet, I began observing and coaching Military Police (MP) brigades during Warfighter exercises in early 2016. More than a month’s worth of observations has since provided valuable introspect into how our force regards operations in the IE.

IO is a function. IO Officers integrate, synchronize, and ultimately orchestrate operations in the IE through a number of Information-Related Capabilities (IRCs). To compete in an increasingly complex IE, at a minimum, a unit must constantly engage and assess its target audience while ensuring that its own operational information remains secure. Unfortunately, some IRCs, which should be regarded as enablers, become challenges for units deprived of a dedicated IO Officer or IO Coordinator (IO COORD) trained to analyze the IE and recommend effects to the commander.

Perhaps more than any other formation, an MP brigade benefits from proximity to the populace which provides a viable platform from which to convey its narrative. Without needing a push from an organic IO officer, MP doctrine emphasizes the significance of engagements and assessments to support informational themes concurrent with higher:

[MPs] conduct police engagement to deliver messages and support informational themes that are consistent with friendly military goals and actions. Deliberate and frequent interaction with the population allows military police to quickly gather large quantities of information that can support situational understanding, protection efforts, and the police activities.

-- FM 3-39, 1-6

However, although engagements inform our assessments which, in turn, shape future phases of the operation, they seldom provide a complete picture or solution. This is where more technical capabilities might come into play.

From my perspective as an observer, it became clear that MPs understood capabilities better than some Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), possibly from the emphasis of their doctrine. In each specific instance, a number of these IRCs became involved early on, unveiling an unexpected trend: as if these units had been sharing notes, the respective commanders selected their PAOs to manage an otherwise diverse portfolio of capabilities each time.

At the beginning of one particular exercise, the training audience gained a Civil Affairs (CA) battalion and Fires LNO, capabilities that any unit would be lucky to receive. The command cell also lined up a veritable revolving door of local government officials and NGO counterparts with which to engage. In addition to the standard responsibilities of disseminating command information, the brigade PAO had been charged with the duties of an IO COORD to integrate and synchronize the unfamiliar players.

Although perhaps not ideal, this decision still made sense. The command clearly understood that the PAO’s skillset overlapped with IO regarding the use of information, communication, and assessments, but perhaps not as much in the way of targeting, influence, or IRC integration. Without an operational familiarity of certain capabilities or how to use them synergistically to derive effects on the battlefield, much was left to guess-work for the remainder of the exercise. Several opportunities to gain positions of relative advantage in the IE were ultimately lost.

To their credit, the units I observed adapted well and their PAOs were always identified as leading talent among their peers, especially given the heaping workloads associated with dual-hatting. However, had someone been nominated to attend the correct training prior to these exercises, the commander’s ability to assess and preempt certain adversarial actions and narratives would have increased noticeably.

What commander wouldn’t want to take full advantage of his or her capabilities? Despite what may appear to be a limited example within the microcosm of MP operations, these observations indicate similar challenges faced by our leaders in other formations and at lower echelons. Whether tactical, operational, or strategic, the Information Age has afforded humanity a near-level playing field upon which to compete for and dominate in the IE. Such capabilities have clearly affected how our forces must now operate and ultimately endeavor to achieve victory, even in the most austere corners of the world. But, when flashy capabilities like Civil Affairs (CA) or Military Information Support Operations (MISO) are unavailable, there are still several ways for units to maintain a sharpened edge in the IE without spreading their staffs too thin.

One such opportunity resides at Fort Leavenworth, KS, within the Mission Command Center of Excellence. To supply the growing needs of our military, the Force Modernization Proponent Center, home of U.S. Army Information Operations, recently adapted their IO Qualification Course to train personnel nominated by their units to perform the duties of the IO Coordinator (IO COORD) without altering their career path. Similarly, the 1st IO Command located at Fort Belvoir, VA, provides a host of familiarization courses to aspiring IO COORDs, many of which supply Mobile Training Teams (MTTs) for convenience to the receiving unit.

Success on the battlefield requires more than disseminating a prescribed set of themes and messages before rolling through the objective. Sixteen years of continual warfare reinforce this point. Just as commanders are expected to utilize the physical environment to out-maneuver the enemy, it is quickly becoming even more important to out-maneuver the enemy in the IE. World conditions today dictate that success cannot be met without this mastering this increasingly complex key terrain.

As members of a force temporarily hamstrung by fiscal constraints, we must continue to grow, adapt, and win in any environment. To quote LTG(R) Metz, former MNC-I Commander, “We must learn to employ aggressive IO. We cannot leave this domain for the enemy; we must fight him on this battlefield and defeat him there just as we’ve proven we can on conventional battlefields.”

This means training and exercising emerging techniques in a rapidly evolving world. The Information Environment should be viewed as an enabler, not a hindrance, and the leaders who train their formations to traverse it effectively will ultimately overcome those who do not. By employing a more information-centric approach as a cornerstone of our operations, we can ultimately win faster and more efficiently. Conversely, if we neglect to train ourselves to take advantage of the Information Environment, although we may continue to win smaller battles along the way, we will never win another war.

Categories: IO - information operations

About the Author(s)

Captain Evan Salbego is an Information Operations officer in the United States Army. As an analyst for the Information Operations Proponent at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he studies the evolution of Information Warfare and its potential effects on future military operations. Twitter: @evan_salbego