The following article is an original work published by the Information Professionals Association. Opinions expressed by authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the Information Professionals Association.
By James P. Farwell and Michael Miklaucic
Events in Afghanistan and Ukraine demonstrate powerfully the need for Congress to increase funding for Information Warfare (IW). IW has mattered since ancient times. But in today’s threat environment, it can play not only a central but equal role to kinetic operations. Congress needs to recognize this evolving reality and ensure that funding for IW capacity and its corollary, thought leadership, are well funded.
Capturing Kabul capped the Taliban’s twenty-year objective and showed how warfare is changing. The Taliban didn’t defeat the Afghan army through conventional combat operations. Rather than bullets or bombs, it used IW to influence, persuade and coerce; to defeat their enemies’ will to fight.
What is IW? Academic definitions litter academic literature. Operationally, it means the use of information or electronic communication technology to conduct warfare. The Taliban’s tactics illustrate it.
The Taliban leveraged the world press to transmit an image of a moderate and reformed organization – an image since proven false. They mastered social media which—combined with bribery and assassinations—enabled them to persuade warlords and tribal leaders that resistance was useless. Isolated and widely dispersed government military units at far-off checkpoints and outposts, cut off from their chain of command, capitulated to Taliban IW and psychological operations which offered desertion or death.
The United States and allied militaries should reflect carefully on this aspect of warfare. The United States tends to undervalue information operations. It under-resources thought leadership and execution in this potent domain. Unless that attitude changes, stiff challenges confront the West as hostile powers advance the science of IW.
IW is ancient, yet like war itself, its character is constantly changing. Russia used IW in Syria with sophistication and great effect in 2015-2016, but its current efforts in Ukraine have been a debacle. As University of London’s Ofer Fridman pointed out in an interview with one of the authors (this article being the primary source for interview excerpts), in Syria, Russians made a great show of limited airpower and the judicious use of boots on the ground. It has used expendable mercenary proxies instead of the sons of Russian mothers who might protest their children’s deaths, as happened in the war in Chechnya. Russia publicized repairing its base in Latakia. It boasted about transferring military hardware to the regime, and talked up how Russian forces were fighting alongside pro-Assad forces. Putin exhorted a call to arms in the UN General Assembly just before Russian troops entered Syria. Yet Putin understood that the Russian people had limited tolerance for casualties. Within six months Putin announced a draw-down, as Russia’s goals had been achieved.
It’s shock and awe. In Dr. Fridman’s words, “the role of the Russian military in Syria was more a battle for the hearts and minds of domestic and international audiences than eliminating terrorists on the ground or saving Assad. In other words, the military was tasked with conducting a decisive and carefully staged performance of silver rockets, brave soldiers, shiny hardware and fast achievements to influence the political behavior of audiences.” The strategy boosted Russian prestige and influence in the Middle East and it did help save Assad’s regime. In Ukraine, as in Syria, Russia is using IW to create strategic effects.
Ukraine however illustrates how IW is changing. Putin’s strategic use of IW in the current Ukraine war has blown up in his face, although as the conflict has progressed, Russian IW efforts tactically–such as contacting Ukrainian soldiers at the front and threatening their families and using disinformation about campaign results to build up Russian morale while diminishing Ukrainian morale and using Electronic Warfare to increase the impact of its artillery shelling –have seemed more vigorous and on-target.
But Putin has lost the strategic information war. Instead of weakening opposition to his aims, he has inadvertently managed to unite NATO – notably through the June 2022 Madrid Conference of NATO leaders — wreck the Russian economy, visited crushing casualties and humiliation on his formerly feared military, and turned Russia into a pariah throughout much of the world.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership has enabled Ukraine to seize control of the war narrative by portraying itself as a prospective Jeffersonian democracy of good people resisting belligerent Russia’s aggression and butchery. Everything Putin’s forces have done has reinforced that narrative. Putin and his generals are portrayed as war criminals. Even China dialed down its initial support for Russia, although it verbalizes support for the “legitimacy of Russian action to protect its national interests.”. It has turned down Russian requests for arms and logistical support.
For its part, China—our so-called “pacing threat”—embraces a Military Strategy that draws upon Sun Tzu, who famously declared: “The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” China’s approach includes seizing the moral high ground, justifying actions through contorted interpretations of legal notions, dominating and influencing news and media coverage, and psychological warfare. China’s full-spectrum assault includes economic, political, diplomatic and military means, integrating initiatives such as its Belt and Road Initiative, 5G technology, and its Thousand Talents program to harvest academic intellectual property.
These diverse initiatives are integrated into comprehensive information campaigns that tout the inevitability of Chinese rejuvenation as the leading global economic power, its championing of non-Western values, and its protection of sovereignty. What these campaigns don’t reveal is the Chinese 2049 vision, which envisions China as the globally supreme economic power, with all other nations relegated to a tributary role.
By contrast, the United States disdains information manipulation, regardless of intent. That is misguided. IW may determine the outcome of future engagements or conflicts. Interestingly the unprecedented U.S. public release of de-classified intelligence revealing Putin’s invasion plans based on false pretexts was highly successful in setting the stage for the Ukrainian IW campaign that followed and put Russia on the information defensive. Putin and Russia were successfully portrayed as the aggressor, an image they have not been able to shake.
Some have advocated the resuscitation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) which was dismantled unceremoniously in 1999. USIA was not as sharp a tool as some romantically remember it, but it did institutionalize the use of information for strategic purposes. Some of its responsibilities were re-assigned to the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Few if any would argue that these reassignments make the United States competitive in the IW domain. The Pentagon must embrace IW and build more and better IW capabilities to keep the United States competitive, because the civilian agencies are simply not resourced or incentivized, and its adversaries are on the march. Its allies and partners need to do the same.
The good news is that IW warfare capabilities are relatively inexpensive. As Congress deals with funding issues – supplemental funding for the Ukraine war offers a vehicle — it must give IW added priority, resources and visibility. Our security depends on it.
About the authors
James Farwell has advised the US SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND and U.S. Department of Defense. An Associate Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Communication, Dept. of War Studies, King’s College, U. of London and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., his books include Information Warfare (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2020) and Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown U. Press, 2012). Dr. Miklaucic is the editor of PRISM, the flagship publication of the National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and not that of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies, or COCOM.
Michael Miklaucic is a Senior Fellow at National Defense University and Editor-in-Chief of the NDU quarterly journal PRISM. Prior to the Department of Defense he worked at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.