Friday, December 2, 2011

New Definitions for Information Operations

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


joelhar said...

In order for me to adequately comment on your piece, I would have to at least double the word count, so let me limit my response.

First, a bit about me. I've been working in "IO" for around 15 years. I've worked IO at the Pentagon, in a few different military units, in the corporate world, at a professional trade association and now as a consultant. I also teach a graduate level course at a major university in Washington DC, 300 hours of very intensive study, discussions and exercises.

My first problem with what you write is that it is apparent you have not read the Secretary of Defense's memorandum of 25 January 2011, where he gives us a new definition - a radical departure from past definitions. In it he says this is what IO does. All those components you refer to no longer define IO, they are but tools in the tool box and the number of tools is quite literally, unlimited. - if that doesn't work type in SECDEF Memorandum Information Operations into google and it should pop up.

You state there are two things which one can do to information: give it to them or withhold it. Not true. I can damage, destroy, degrade, deny, etc . I can deceive, I can alter it, I can withhold part and let the rest go, I can spoof it, the list is literally quite long.

I skimmed the rest of the article, as I didn't want to waste too much time, but I wanted to leave you with one last parting comment. Commando Solo does not transmit propaganda, it transmits military information, provides military information support. This information is truthful, not in the least propaganda.

Aaron said...

Joelhar, thanks for your comment. IO is not my primary area of work, and I was not aware of the SecDef's memo of 25 January. It seems we are in strong agreement: "The current definition... places too much emphasis on the core capabilities. This has led to excessive focus on the capabilities and confuses the distinction between them an IO as an integrating staff function. Successful IO requires the identification of information-related capabilities most likely desired to achieve desired effects and not simply the employment of a capability." That having been said, I've spoken in the last few months with officers who affirmed that US Army IO often remains - at least in their bailiwicks - capabilities driven and conceptually muddled. The new definition has yet to fully trickle down.

I'll defend my contention that information can only be conveyed or withheld. Damaging, degrading and denying information are all variations on withholding it. Deception, spoofing, and altering are all methods of conveying (usually false or misleading) information. While the permutations of conveying or withholding information are legion, I'd argue that trying to put a label on each one confuses, rather than clarifies, how they might be used.

Finally, I take exception with your assumption that truthful information cannot be propaganda. Truthful ideas can be propagated in the same way that false ones can be, and both can be used to serve US policy.

Anonymous said...

First off to address this question on propaganda it's openly acknowledged within the PSYOP community that "we do PSYOP the enemy does propaganda." They really are the same thing we just choose not to use the term propaganda because of the negative connotation that is attached to the word. Additionally propaganda, like PSYOP can of course be truthful, in fact it is extremely dangerous to include lies and false facts in PSYOP campaigns because if your products are discovered to be false you have lost credibility, which is extremely hard to get back.

I would assert that IO is suffering from several things that are in fact related to definitions. One of the problems is that IO is struggling to expand beyond what it was intended to do. The initial idea was for it to be a coordinating function to make sure that all of the core capabilities were not working against each other and so they could more closely coordinate operations they were involved in. It seems to me that IO planners are often concerned with making their own impact and controlling the operations of core capabilities without the requisite knowledge of how to carry out CNO, PSYOP, etc... They are significant problems that result from IO attempting to create their own "products," often times they end up competing with PSYOP objectives and. Now you can probably tell by now that I am writing from a PSYOP perspective, so I may be a little bias.

I feel like the lack of clarity in our current definitions also stems from the competition between IO planners and the fields that make up the capabilities. Something that I have to point out is that the Army does not consider IO to be enough of a stand alone field to justify training initial entry officers or enlisted personal. The functional area (FA30) is a mid-career move for officers who are at least a CPT. To me it seems that the lack of definitions and identity in IO have cause many officers to clash over where it begins and where it ends. Which is unfortunate because I have seen some excellent IO officers who have perfected the art of coordinating all of these functions to work harmoniously together. With that said I will be interested to see where IO goes over the next few years. Maybe I'll even jump into FA30 later on.