Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, “Full-Spectrum: Capabilities and Authorities in Cyber and the Information Environment.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competition with peer and near-peer competitors in the cyber and information spaces. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD of the Army Cyber Institute and MWI fellow Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
In the past few years, joint force and interagency leaders have increasingly emphasized the growing importance of information warfare. The US military services have each made strides toward updating doctrine, procuring the right equipment, and reorganizing force structure to better compete with our adversaries. The Joint Staff is working to publish JP 3-XX, which will define the joint lexicon of operations in the information environment (OIE), information warfare (IW), and the roles and responsibilities of the services both for organizing, training, and equipping their OIE forces as well as how to employ them.*
While these strategic updates are important and will assist in ensuring that the joint force plans and executes operations from a point of shared understanding, there are activities and initiatives that can be done now to ensure that we are best postured to compete globally.
Despite the popular image of electrons flowing through cyberspace, IW is inherently a human endeavor, and getting the best minds together in the same room is the responsibility of commanders everywhere. Strengthening the relationship between information warfare professionals spread across the military services by leveraging formal and informal relationships is an easy and cost-effective way to increase our competitive advantage. While each service retains specialists, equipment, and knowledge spanning the spectrum of information-related capabilities, this article will focus on the Air Force’s relatively new 14F information operations (IO) officer, the Army’s psychological operations (PSYOP) 37 series, and the Army’s FA30 (information operations) functional area.
It may come as a surprise to some that the Air Force possesses an information operations capability. Understanding the history behind the Air Force specialty code 14F’s recent establishment demonstrates why its development is so significant. While US Army PSYOP forces and their capabilities are by no means new, the youth and size of the Army’s PSYOP branch relative to the Army as a whole means that the shared knowledge within the joint force about the unique capabilities of modern Army PSYOP forces remains quite low.
Many of the changes that are currently happening to information operations capabilities are a direct result of the military’s strategic shift toward great power competition. The Department of Defense is engaged in persistent competition, and in order to gain and maintain a competitive advantage, the US military must be prepared to meet our adversaries wherever and however they operate. Even though the tools and capabilities utilized for competition are important, nothing will ever subsume the criticality of investing in human capital. It is our hope, by highlighting the many opportunities to cut through imaginary barriers across the services in this article, that we can collectively invigorate cross-service cooperation and ultimately improve the effectiveness of the US military’s information warfare efforts.
So . . . the Air Force Does Information Operations?
In May 2018, the US Air Force established the IO badge, designed for those in the Air Force specialty code 14F. IO officers integrate physical and informational Air Force capabilities to influence target audiences or adversary decision making, including specialization for leveraging PSYOP, military deception, and operations security. What makes a 14F unique among both Air Force and joint force peers is the occupation’s particular focus on the social sciences. It is a firm requirement that 14Fs hold a degree in a social science, like behavioral science or anthropology. The Air Force believes that academic expertise enables 14Fs to better integrate target audience personal, cultural, and cognitive biases into planning, whether the target audience is a specific adversary decision maker or a neutral third-party audience.
Today, 14Fs are responsible for executing three specific mission types. The first, and most common, is at the air operations center (AOC). The AOC is the beating heart of the joint forces air component commander while in theater, fulfilling a similar role to a joint operations center. It is through the AOC that the Air Force plans and executes air operations. Although each AOC is organized in a similar way, every AOC includes its own unique mix of an information operations team (IOT) and an influence operations cell within the IOT. It is also common to find the influence operations cell manned entirely by 14Fs and possibly find the IOT being led by one too. The IOT coordinates cyberspace operations, space, electronic warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) planners to enable cohesive nonkinetic operations. In addition to those functions, many combatant command and major command J39 billets—traditional IO staff directorates—are being filled by 14Fs as well.
The second major mission for 14F officers is within special operations units. You may find 14Fs using their talents to combat disinformation through Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific, where adversaries “continuously sow” disinformation to achieve their regional objectives. Another point of interest would be US Special Operations Command’s new joint military information support operations (MISO) WebOps Center, where 14Fs leverage their social-science academic backgrounds to more effectively “address the opportunities and risks of the global information space.”
The final mission for 14F officers is manning the various continental US-based reachback units, like those found within 16th Air Force, the Air Force’s first information warfare component numbered air force. The organization combines cyberspace operations, electronic warfare, IO, ISR, and weather in order to present information warfare capabilities and solutions to the various geographic combatant commands, with an emphasis on reducing the information stovepiping that is common among the various information-related capabilities in the military and interagency. Of particular note is the information warfare cell, which has been integral to providing IW and other information-related capabilities, with a particular emphasis on cyber-enabled MISO. Although a relatively recent development in terms of Department of Defense years, 16th Air Force has set the standard for what information operations and strategic communication should look like for the Air Force, and 14Fs have been a core part of that work.
So, yes, the Air Force “does” IO and does it well. The unique education requirements for the Air Force’s 14Fs combined with planning and executing operations that emphasize leveraging the cognitive domain, and career-enhancing opportunities (e.g., advanced education and the Education with Industry program) make the Air Force 14Fs unique and valuable members of the joint force’s IW roster.
Information Warfare Will Play a Lead Role in Great Power Competition
Great power competition is the latest focus of leaders within the Pentagon. If the great power competition trend began with former President Barack Obama’s rebalance toward the Pacific region and continued with former President Donald Trump’s focus on the People’s Republic of China, it is now solidifying under President Joe Biden. In particular, the White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance specifically calls out China as the United States’ most aggressive threat and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin refers to China as America’s “pacing threat.”
Using the term great power competition to define interactions between the United States and other global powers may be new, but the rules that define great power competition are not. The most important of those rules—such as nuclear deterrence theory, mutually assured destruction, and a norms-based international world order—are legacies of the Cold War. However, what makes great power competition more dynamic is a renewed emphasis on IW as a means of exercising soft and hard power.
While the purpose of this article is not to join the chorus of voices attempting to define IW—it is important to recognize some of the term’s key attributes. For example, any definition of IW will involve new technological developments, such as cyber warfare, social media, and space operations, and some a bit older, like psychological operations or electronic warfare. Definitions aside, one truth remains—leveraging the information function is all about influencing your adversary’s decision-making cycle while protecting your own. This is where the critical intersection of IW and great power competition comes into play. The process of influencing adversary decision making was particularly important during the Cold War, where one wrong move could set the world on a crash course toward nuclear war. In fear of a small nation-on-nation kinetic engagement driving the Soviet Union and United States into full-on conflict, the preferred methods of competition became those of intrigue and proxy wars—terms that now all fall under competition below the threshold of armed conflict.
The IW revolution is expanding. With it, opportunities to compete under the threshold of armed conflict are becoming increasingly more complicated and pronounced. Influence operations are not limited to leaflets and loudspeakers but can now be expertly delivered directly to the intended target audience with products carefully designed with the assistance of data-driven artificial intelligence. Cyber operations allow adversaries to target nation-states and nonstate actors with deniability. Space operations, which were once the business of a handful of superpowers, now feature a diverse set of players competing for resources and developing never-before-seen capabilities. Whereas the first space race was mostly a battle of prestige, the modern iteration has nation-states competing with multinational companies for limited orbital availability while also fielding new capabilities such as continuous global coverage ISR, satellite-based internet, and more.
Winning in great power competition requires clear strategic vision and direction along with desired end states. Influence operations coupled with new technological capabilities represent the United States’ most potent tool to meet end states, all while competing under the threshold of armed conflict. The practice of influencing adversary decision making is complicated and requires disciplined and well-coordinated whole-of-government operations, the integration of kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities, and an understanding of how cognitive factors impact an adversary leadership’s decision-making cycle. To conduct IW effectively, the US military must leverage the cadre of professionals who have the multidisciplinary education, experience, and dedication to increase our opportunities for success.
Getting IW Professionals in the Same Room
While the diversity of IW talent across the joint force is a good thing, we run the risk of stovepiping our information professionals like our intelligence-related capabilities were stovepiped in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Each military service retains tremendous IW talent. The unique assessment, selection, and training pipelines found across the services leads to diversity of thought. If nothing else, even just the unique qualities everyone brings to the fight based on their respective service’s culture enables joint access to potential capabilities and personnel that might otherwise be missed or overlooked. Ensuring that all IW capabilities are communicating, integrating, and operating together will lead to increased chances for success in great power competition.
For its part, the Army retains numerous specialists in the constituent fields of IW—ranging from electronic warfare and cyber operations specialists to graphic illustrators and videographers. Compared to the Air Force’s 14F IO officer, it is the Army’s 37-series military occupational specialties and FA30 functional area that maintain the most complementary skill sets. Army PSYOP officers and noncommissioned officers and FA30 officers often find themselves in similar roles as their Air Force counterparts—as part of an information operations working group, often as the chief. PSYOP forces, with their focused training in language, culture, and influence practices, are the Army’s premier influence agents, exploiting psychological vulnerabilities to gain competitive advantage. FA30 officers are trained in the integration of all information-related capabilities (e.g., MISO, military deception, and PSYOP) and work to ensure information operations are well planned and coordinated to achieve the commander’s intent and desired effects. While many of these functions may seem similar, they each require extensive specialized training.
When information professionals from across the services are brought together effectively, they can achieve incredible effects. In practice this cooperation seldom occurs outside of a theater of operation. There are, however, opportunities for joint events throughout a unit’s training cycle—usually in the form of joint multinational training exercises like Pacific Sentry in the Indo-Pacific and Eager Lion in Jordan. Recently the Air Force ran its first information warfare test exercise, which included opportunities to synchronize IO, electronic warfare, cyberspace operations, and more. Joint exercises are fantastic training laboratories that develop important lessons learned and shared understanding across the services. While participation in joint training exercises should be encouraged and continued, there are numerous opportunities for smaller-scale cooperation that can be leveraged and sustained over the course of a training year. Repeat exposure to joint force information warfare specialists—and the informal and formal relationships that result—provides IW professionals with a tremendous opportunity to accelerate their effectiveness.
First, missions that normally call for an Army 37 series or FA30 should also consider tasking Air Force 14Fs as well. 14Fs are equally qualified to perform these tasks and also bring a unique skill set and perspective that can enhance IO effectiveness. Additionally, the experience and exposure 14Fs would gain through operating in these roles will lead to increased coordination between joint information warfare professionals in the future.
Second, formal, and informal exchanges should be expanded between the Air Force information operations community and PSYOP units. These include increased attendance at IW-related training courses (like the Army PSYOP Officer Qualification Course, which Air Force 14Fs already attend), participating in unit exercises, and instructor exchanges. The relationships developed between Army PSYOP and Air Force IO officers during these events often lead to additional joint training opportunities during pre-mission training and even to broader collaboration during operational deployments. We can attest to this, having experienced it firsthand.
In reality, interservice coordination is, in large part, driven from the bottom up and requires significant pushing and pulling to connect. Commanders—in both the Army and the Air Force—should strongly incentivize and encourage their IW professionals to seek out, and participate in, joint training opportunities. Units at all levels should routinely invite joint service counterparts to participate in training—even for small unit–level exercises. The nature of information warfare requires collaboration—training in a single-service, siloed environment is unrealistic. Ultimately, the United States must learn to unify and coherently wield its IW capabilities in concert to gain strategic advantage and to win in great power competition, and the first step is to start bringing all IW forces together to foster collaboration and coordination.
Each military service has its own rich history of information warfare and service-specific culture tends to color how IW professionals approach problems in the information domain—and that is a good thing. However, the Department of Defense needs to be more creative and committed to finding ways to bring all IW professionals together in the same room to better leverage the skills of our joint partners if we are to gain advantage over our adversaries in great power competition. Breaking down the imaginary barriers between services and building bridges among the various IW specialties is crucial if our country is going to compete against our near-peer foes in the modern era. To do this, we must focus on growing the information warfare force we need for today, and for the future.
*While information warfare as a term has been in use for decades and has seen an uptick in use recently, it remains an undefined term in joint doctrine. Similarly, information operations does have a joint definition, but the services offer their own definitions as well. JP 3-XX is set to establish the joint terms for OIE, IW, and IO, and to encourage the services to adopt similar language. The Air Force is currently set to revise its service definitions toward the JP 3-XX definitions.
Captain Robert Stelmack is former chief, Air Force Information Operations Reachback Team, 67th Operations Support Squadron. He is currently the Air Force’s first information operations officer to attend the Naval Postgraduate School’s MS in Information Strategy & Political Warfare program.
Captain Don Gomez is an Army psychological operations officer currently assigned as an instructor of Arabic at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a Leadership Fellow with the Center for Junior Officers and has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, US government, or any organization with which the authors are affiliated.
Image credit: Airman 1st Class Jonathan W. Padish, US Air National Guard (adapted by MWI)