Speed, Volume, and Ubiquity: Forget Information Operations & Focus on the Information Environment

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Written by Michael Williams

US Army Information Operations officer, retired

[Originally appeared in thestrategybridge.org, July 26, 2017]

What is Information Operations (IO)? This short response to the question posed by The Strategy Bridge should be as short and simple as lifting a sentence from U.S. military doctrine. Alas, it isn’t, and this paper could easily extend for hundreds of pages and be just a description of the debate itself[1]. Part of the reason for this tendency toward the lengthy is an urge to deconstruct information operations into some list of capabilities and to explain how a particular capability is vital in a rapidly changing environment. Instead, we should encourage those not familiar with information operations to see it as a vital component of planning in an information environment that is much more important to military planning and operations with each passing day. This focus on capabilities does more to confuse than enlighten, and simple alternatives are available.

U.S. military doctrine began well enough in the 1990s to answer the question of what the mission and functions of information operations are and should be[2]. As the impact of the information environment has grown, however, doctrine writers continues to narrow the focus in subsequent iterations of information operations doctrine by attempting to narrow the field to specific capabilities or to suggest the role of information operations was to integrate specific capabilities in support of operational and tactical objectives. This has obscured the original concept of information operations. Perhaps a better alternative for future doctrine would be to return to the original intent, and define it as the use of any tool to create an effect in the information environment which results in one or more persons making a decision supporting friendly force’s missions or undercutting the decision-making of the enemy. Does this make all planners information operations planners? No, but it does require that all planners include an understanding of the information environment-which may require the assistance of such an expert.

Whether it is a tactical deception to support a battalion-sized operation, or the use of mass media and the internet to influence a large population, a precondition for successfully planning and conducting information operations is the study and understanding of decisions by human-beings necessary or desired to achieve the mission. Just as we must understand the terrain to conduct ground operations successfully, understanding the information environment-including the cognitive terrain-is necessary as well.

The discussion of which capabilities or tools are “part of information operations” undercuts the entire concept and hamstrings the planner[3]. As in any operation, planners develop courses of action using available and requested (or desired) resources and capabilities. The value of an information operations planner is the ability to break down an operation into the potential decisions made by the enemy and the population within which friendly forces must operate. This is part of mission analysis and must be the activity at which the information operations planner is most capable and practiced.

Information operations is also the application of capabilities, and like any other service member an information operations planner must have an understanding of how to apply weapons systems within their expertise and to integrate those capabilities into the fight. However, just as cyber operations cannot be conducted without regard for the content of a website or an email, the overarching information operation must consider what decisions must be disrupted, prevented, etc. The tool used to achieve the information operations objective need not come from any list of information-related capabilities.

How does this understanding of information operations differ from what military planners and operators have always done? Haven’t commanders always endeavored to understand the decision-making of the enemy? Of course! For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte was a master planner of information operations. His development of the military Corps and Brigade structures and the assignment of mission-type orders to his subordinate commanders meant his Army’s decisions were made more quickly than those by his opponents, which were using a centralized chain of command. He knew his commanders could make logical, effective, and rapid decisions to turn the battle to his favor, and by doing so out-pace the decision-making cycle of his opponents. Making these changes to create moments in time (even if fleeting) when the commanders had information superiority is an example of an information operation.

So, in the modern era, what has changed to necessitate specialists in information operations? In my opinion, three important things about the information environment have coerced the change: speed, volume, and ubiquity. Effective information operations planners understand how to use intelligence or organic resources to gain an understanding of the information environment which may encompass an area far greater than that of the the physical area of operations. These same planners must also have a good understanding of how to apply a range of capabilities to achieve the desired effects.

Identifying the changing nature of the information environment is nothing new. U.S. Army Field Manual 100-6 (and later Field Manual 3-13) and Joint Doctrine in an early version of Joint Publication 3-13, all from the 1990s and early 2000s, stressed the need to consider the changes wrought by the instant availability of information nearly anywhere on the globe. The brigade-level satellite downlink previewed in Desert Storm brought unprecedented levels of situational awareness and created a need to consume and make sense of an ever-growing volume of information-information which would inevitably be in possession of the enemy. Throughout the 1990s, the volume of readily available information grew, as did the speed with which information was disseminated. After 9/11, the U.S. military found that even in remote areas of Afghanistan where public infrastructure was non-existent, American military members could find a link to global telecommunications. The satellite telephone had become common among deployed forces and the enemies they faced. Later, the emergence of the smartphone increased the availability of information. Now, we consider the handheld computing power of smartphones and download speeds sufficient to watch live video as commonplace.

These three characteristics of the information environment-volume, speed, and ubiquity of connectivity-conspire to ensure no matter the level of operation, the ever present flow of information has the ability to influence military operations. Human beings-whether farmers in the developing world, London investment bankers, or military commanders-consume, consider, and react to information. The principles and practice of war cannot ignore this.

So, what exactly is information operations? Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates conducted a comprehensive review of the information operations field-both from a policy and a budgetary standpoint-and among other changes modified the definition to:

“The integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operations to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”[4]

Like anything produced by a large bureaucracy (and every significant player in the Pentagon had a comment about this definition) the definition is, inevitably, a compromise. It has the key elements of any good definition of information operations: decision-making is central, information operations can be directed at the enemy or anyone else who can affect the outcome of military operations, and information operations cannot be limited to any particular capability. Yet, questions remain: Can cyber operations be part of information operations? My assertion is: Of course they can. Can Military Information Support Operations (MISO) be part of information operations? Again, my opinion is they are. Can the use of specific operations security measures to limit the information available to an enemy commander be part of information operations? I think this becomes obvious once it is understood that information operations are about the integration of the information environment into the planning and conduct of any military operation.

Examining the institutional assumptions the U.S. Department of Defense hold regarding information operations is a necessity, but obsessing over the definition of information operations and what capabilities it may or may not include is a distraction. The impact of the information environment and its increasing importance to military planning and operations is well supported by an examination of U.S. military operations over the past 20 years. How we continue to adapt to the changing nature of the information environment and educate our leaders on the impact of the changing characteristics of the this environment is critical. When consideration of the information environment as a component of the terrain has become second nature to planners and leaders, perhaps information operations as a discrete field will pass into history. We aren’t there yet.

[1] For example, consider the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy-led review of Information Operations directed by Secretary Gates. The review was conducted over a period of six months and led to a series of recommendations including a new definition of Information Operations, the redesignation of PSYOP as Military Information Support Operations, and a host of other directives (many budget-related) which were partly fulfilled. The results of this study and its hundreds of pages of supporting documentation culminated in a Secretary of Defense Memorandum dated 25 January 2011, Strategic Communication and Information Operations in the DOD.
[2] See FM 100-6 Information Operations, August 1996 and JP 3-13, c. 1998 as well as the foundational thoughts on the role of information post-Desert Storm in Network Centric Warfare | Alberts, Garstka, and Stein (1999).
[3] The current definition of IO in Joint Publication (JP) 1-02, The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms suggest the door remains open to any capability under the heading of Information Related Capabilities, but looking up Information Related Capabilities we see the same ‘laundry list’ of capabilities. One positive development is the inclusion of “cyberspace operations” though cyber publications observed by the author make no mention of planning cyberspace operations under the rubric of information operations.
[4] SecDef Memorandum signed 25 January 2011, Results of DoD IO Program Review