Ever since I began studying information operations (IO) five years ago, I have been frustrated with the definitions. Too many are bureaucratic non-definitions, often circular in nature. "The Office of Special Studies conducts studies that are special." What is 'special'? "Special refers to studies, particularly those carried out by the Office of Special Studies." You get the idea.
Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the five "core capabilities" of Information Operations overlap terribly. Nor are they all really capabilities. Electronic warfare (EW) pertains to the physical waves of radios, radar, etc; it is a medium (or, to be more specific, operations in a given medium). Likewise, computer network operations (CNO) pertains to a medium. But military deception (MILDEC) and operational security (OPSEC) are both activities , which can be carried out in a varied of media. Psychological operations (PSYOP) are defined as operations by the military to convey information to a foreign audience to influence it. Again, that is an activity, and arguably one that encompasses MILDEC. Thus, if one hacks into an enemy computer to plant bogus information which will deceive him, one is engaging in CNO, MILDEC and PSYOP all at once.
It may be time to return to the drawing board. What, at the most fundamental level, is IO? Let me propose that its primary realm is the mind of the enemy. This makes it distinct from intelligence which, most fundamentally, pertains to our own mind and what we know (and adding to that body of knowledge).
There are really only two things we can do to the enemy's mind: we can convey information to it, or we can withhold information from it. We may be trying to make him feel fearful, over-confident or ignorant; we may be trying to make him attack the wrong location or hold back from attacking all together. But IO contains only two fundamental activities for accomplishing all those missions and more: we can convey information or withhold it.
Withholding information is conceptually simpler, so we will deal with it first. There are two basic means of withholding information: (1) preventing the enemy's eyes and ears from collecting it and (2) preventing its effective communication to headquarters.
Preventing collection can be either passive or active. Passive collection prevention means employing security, that is, metaphorically (or sometimes literally) building fences. Security includes computer firewalls (part of computer network defense, or CND), background checks, ID cards and a host of other measures designed to prevent the enemy from getting close to information he might like to obtain. Active collection prevention involves targeting enemy attempts to collect information. This can include physical destruction of enemy satellites or reconnaissance craft, but it can also include the capture or turning of enemy agents, which is the realm of counterintelligence (CI). CI often makes use of knowledge about the enemy - intelligence - to improve its collection prevention capabilities; if you know the enemy spy is coming, it is much easier to arrest him.
Preventing enemy communication can take a variety of forms: physical destruction of communications infrastructure, jamming of enemy signals (EW), or destroying enemy computer networks with viruses (a form of computer network attack - CNA).
While there are many forms of withholding information, this activity is relatively straight-forward. More complex is conveying information to the enemy. One of the reasons for this is that while the enemy's ignorance is almost always an obvious good for us, his possession of information - be it true or false - requires a more complex plan. Moreover, IO can also target third parties that are not necessarily enemies, including neutral nations or populations under enemy governments.
There are two ways of dividing means by which information is conveyed to the enemy. The first schema for thinking about this involves the true/false/partly true division. (This should not be confused with white, black and grey propaganda, terms which refer to the stated source of propaganda, rather than its contents.) Any body involved in conveying information may convey truthful messages; on the other hand, certain organizations - such as the Peace Corps and Voice of America - do not knowingly convey falsehood, since doing so would undermine their basic mission. While outright deception certainly has its utility, half-truths are often more useful, and must always be used to support deception.
The other method of dividing means of information conveyance is by medium. To some extent these media correspond to the IO "core capabilities". Electromagnetic waves are clearly the realm of EW, while the bits and bytes of computer information belong to CNO. Physical observation of troop movements may be prevented by OPSEC, or exploited by MILDEC. Words and images (carried via leaflets or broadcasts) may be conveyed by PSYOP as well as non-IO entities. Although such functions as White House press conferences are not primarily concerned with IO, they should be planned in coordination with a larger IO strategy to ensure consistency.
At the very top of this hierarchy of definitions lies a question about which we have said relatively little: What do we want the enemy to do? That is why IO tries to get inside the enemy's head in the first place. The answer to that question will vary from one situation to the next, but it is the essential question. Closely related to it is a second: What do we want the enemy to think? The answer to the first question may be that we want the enemy to attack a position which he cannot take, suffering major losses in the process. If that is what we want him to do, we will try to accomplish that end by making him think that our position is weaker than it is. Around this we build an IO strategy, both denying and conveying information. We capture his spies and jam his radar so he cannot see the true strength of our position. We also release some true information about the presence of certain commanders elsewhere, suggesting that the units they command are not located at the position in question. Moreover, we also convey false information, suggesting that our forces are thin, perhaps because we believe the enemy will attack elsewhere.
These various categories and definitions are not perfect. Counterintelligence, for example, can gain useful information from turned enemy agents, and thus belongs to the field of intelligence as well as IO. Furthermore, CI can be used both to deny the enemy information as well as to convey information to him.
In spite of this and other shortcomings, I think this schema has much to offer. It provides a logical hierarchy of functions which allow for clear understanding of inter-locking roles. A tactical PSYOP unit may drop leaflets or conduct shows of military force, but both are methods of conveying information to the enemy, and both require some understanding of how the enemy processes information in order to craft effective messages. An emphasis on what IO does and how it does it, rather than how the Pentagon divides it into boxes, may allow for more flexible operations in the field and better outcomes for our IO commanders.
Pictured is an EC-130 Commondo Solo aircraft of the 193rd Special Operations Wing, used for propaganda broadcasts. Picture via FlightSchoolList.com.