Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), courtesy of Wikipedia. Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo (1773), courtesy of Wikipedia.

Summer Essay Campaign #8: “Integrating the Message and the Fist”

To Answer Question #6: “How does an officer integrate information operations and kinetic tactical actions?”

By Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Bazin

Since even before the Greeks used deception to sack Troy, information, disinformation, secrets, and lies have played a central role in military operations.  Arguably, an officer’s primary weapons system is information. To bring to bear the warfighting functions and accomplish any mission, an officer must think critically and continually communicate information up and down the chain.  Equally, any military action conveys a message to adversaries and other key stakeholders.  So, if information holds a fundamental place in officer business, just how should an officer integrate information operations and tactical kinetic actions?

The world of information operations is complex and getting even more so every day.  As such, there are many different opinions on what exactly comprises information operations and many officers conflate and confuse with information operations with cyber.  To diverge from a known point, joint doctrine currently defines information operations as:

The integrated employment of electronic warfare (EW), computer network operations (CNO), psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception (MILDEC), and operations security (OPSEC), in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.

            The first portion of this definition describes the tools in the toolbox (EW, CNO, PSYOP, MILDEC, and OPSEC).  The second portion describes the desired outcomes (to influence, disrupt, corrupt, usurp, or protect).  This definition provides the means at an officer’s disposal and describes desired ends.  Next, to get after the real question, this post will discuss some of the nuanced ways to handle information operations in the contemporary context.

Understand Authorities and Redlines

            Many of the tools of information operations are extremely powerful. As such, very high levels of command tightly control their employment.   First and foremost, officer’s must know what the limits what they are allowed to do and what they cannot do.  Just like any centrally controlled support capability, (e.g., artillery, CAS, etc.) it is incumbent on the tactical commander to request what capability they need.  In the future, tactical commanders may have more authority to synchronize local information operations independently, but today that is the exception not the rule.

Pass the Front Page of the New York Times Test

            A key part of General Mattis’ command guidance at USCENTCOM was that before taking any action, the command must clearly understand what message the action will convey.  When there are difficult cultural and language barriers, actions may be the only means of information exchange.   Actions always speak louder than words, and ultimately action communicates intention.  The wrong tactical action could quickly have a disastrous impact at the policy level (e.g., Abu Ghraib, videos of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses, etc.).   Additionally, transparency is a driving force in the world today and it is safe to say that anything you do today could end up on the Facebook tomorrow (e.g., Snowden, Manning, etc.).  Simply, what you and your unit do must be ethically sound and pass the front page of the New York Times test.

Understand the Nature of Information and Disinformation

            At times, there are indistinguishable lines between propaganda, talking points, press releases, and open-source media.  At the end of the day there are only really three types of information, black (untruths), white (truths), or grey (half-truths), and the adversary can and will use all three to advance their agenda.  In addition, the contemporary adversary understands unconventional warfare very well.  As such, they will often use rumor and intimidation to control perceptions.  In countering deception, the truth is often the best and only effective equalizer.

Be Comfortable with Complexity While Maximizing Uncertainty

            By its nature, conflict is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous due to fog, friction, and chance.  An officer must be comfortable with complexity while at the same time maximizing uncertainty for one’s adversary.  Here, the old unofficial axiom of the British foreign office applies to information operations as well:  divide to conquer, unify to rule.

Bottom-line: Integrate Information Conceptually and Graphically

            At the Army’s Unified Quest war game in winter of 2013, one of the findings was that the Army should approach information operations in similar fashion to other war fighting functions.  The recommendation was that the Army should develop specific graphical control measures for information operations use.  Tactical commanders typically draw intent graphics on digital maps to depict a desired tactical affect tied to a specific place and time.  It makes sense that to integrate desired outcomes, the time-tested tactical synchronization matrix and map graphics would work well as well.

            In conclusion, these are but recommendations and observations, and not in any way hard and fast rules.  Despite its importance over history, most officers do not understand information operations as well as they should.  Unfortunately, in the future, the information environment will only become increasingly uncertain and complex.  Just as overcoming past complex challenges, to integrate information operations really the officer only has only one prudent course, to seek understanding and then to lead the way.