Information Warfare (IW) has become so mainstream that it, or at least aspects of it, are being reported in the national press. In less than a week, The Australian ran two reports on disinformation campaigns by China, Iran and Russia about the COVID-19 pandemic. The reports assessed that the intent of the campaigns was to try and conceal the real cause of the outbreak and to undermine Western nations generally, and the US specifically.
These are not the first stories in the media regarding IW. Previously, Russian disinformation campaigns were reported to have been mounted during the 2016 Presidential election campaign and the MH-17 investigation.
Despite this, there is surprisingly little understanding of what IW is. This is largely because IW is exceptionally broad and encompasses several other forms of warfare. Describing IW as warfare about information is woefully vague and inaccurate – it tells us nothing about what IW really is.
Information being valuable and requiring protection is nothing new. It is as old as warfare itself. But, in an interconnected world, access to quick, accurate, secure information, infrastructure and services is essential to the military. Subsequently, the ability to deny, delay or degrade these to your opponents could potentially prove decisive in war.
Equally, the ability to deceive your opponents about the true nature of a situation would provide obvious and – for your opponent – potentially lethal advantages.
So, IW can be said to be about using alternate means to achieve goals that used to require serious military force and a lot of bloodshed – e.g. annexing a part of another country. In other words, IW is the effort to win wars either without fighting, or with as little fighting as possible, by influencing your opponent’s mindset.
Another definition is: "The use and management of information to pursue a competitive advantage, including offensive and defensive efforts."
From this it can be understood that IW is a form of political warfare, where targets include a nation state’s government, military, private sector, and general population. Ultimately the target of information warfare activities is human cognition.
US IW Doctrine
IW is considered to include the physical, cognitive and information dimensions. It is used to manage information to pursue a competitive advantage in both offensive and defensive operations. IW has been used to describe narrower activities like network operations, electronic warfare, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security – all of which are components of IW. Despite this, currently there remains no official US definition of IW.
However, there is a recognition of the importance of IW and the need to incorporate it into US military doctrine. The executive summary of the Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE) document states “The changing role of information has allowed state and non-state actors to influence global audiences, rapidly gain momentum, and advance their objectives. Adaptive state and non-state actors are proficient at using information to gain an advantage over the Joint Force."
JCOIE is blunt about the effects IW can achieve: “Joint Force’s adversaries are bolder and accept more risk operating in this changing Information Environment. As a result, they create political, social, and military advantages that exceed their traditional combat power." One example from Iraq is cited in a vignette. In March 2006, US special forces conducted a successful operation. Less than one hour later, Jaish al-Mahdi (the group victim to the operation) released a video purportedly showing its soldiers had been executed whilst at prayer by the US special forces soldiers. The US military took three days to respond and also grounded the special forces battalion until the investigation had been completed – 30 days later. A small terrorist organisation therefore executed a successful IW operation which tied up the US government for 30 days.
Although JCOIE is a step in the right direction – emphasising the joint nature of IW – it mainly focusses on the military aspect of IW and only briefly mentions the involvement of other government or non-government organisations. Comments in this regard are confined to aspirations about the need to cooperate with allies and non-military agencies to ensure ‘consistent integration of words and actions’ which is intended to ‘achieve a unity of effort’.
Russian IW Doctrine
Russian IW doctrine has been shaped by the Russian belief it has been victim to a near-constant anti-Russian IW campaign since the fall of communism. In Russian eyes, the Colour Revolutions and Arab Spring rebellions were coordinated by the US, using social media as one of the primary tools to unseat incumbent governments. This belief is also held by China and Iran. It was these events that persuaded Russia to re-consider the effects of IW.
A 2011 Russian strategy document, the Convention on International Information Security, defines IW as “a conflict between two or more States in the information space with the goal of inflicting damage to information systems as well as carrying out mass psychological campaigns against the population of a State in order to destabilize society and the government; as well as forcing a state to make decisions in the interests of their opponents.”
In Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, the objective of IW is to achieve political goals without the utilisation of military force. Increasingly, IW is becoming central in conflict and confrontational situations as the perceptions of the public and elite have become the Centre of Gravity in determining the outcomes of conflict and confrontation.
Russian IW doctrine does not distinguish between war and peace. It sees use of IW as a way of competing with Western technological superiority using fewer resources whilst still increasing their sphere of influence.
Russia is implementing policy and practice to promote the importance of IW to reach parity with nuclear and conventional power. Russian doctrine emphasises that IW operations are not confined to the military. National institutions and non-governmental bodies (i.e. Russia Today / Sputnik) are involved. Russian doctrine suggests the promotion of Russia’s interests needs all of society involved. In fact, Russian doctrine advises a ratio of three parts non-military to one part military in terms of IW activity.
Information Warfare is considered a ‘holistic’ doctrine which includes:
- Computer Network Operations (cyber operations in Western parlance)
- Electronic Warfare
- Psychological Operations, and
- Information Operations.
International commentators have observed that modern Russian IW does not prioritise the truth. Quite the opposite, modern Russian IW wants to create doubt and distrust, cause confusion and distractions, and to demoralise and polarise target populations.
The creation and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation, commonly referred to as ‘fake news’, is a vital component of Russian IW. It includes the manipulation of slogans, arguments and disinformation with selected true information which is used to influence target governments and populations. Examples of Russian IW are found in tactical, operational and strategic spaces.
During the Ukraine conflict, it has been reported that Russia has sent text messages to Ukrainian soldiers advising them to abandon their positions (tactical IW). They have also sent texts to Ukrainian families advising their son has been killed in action. This often causes the family to call the soldier (operational IW). Moments later, Russian artillery bombards locations with clusters of mobile phone activity. If this is true then Russia has combined IW with cyber warfare, information operations, and artillery to employ psychological and kinetic effects.
Other obvious IW activities include denying any Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict long after it was obvious to all that Russia was not just involved but had directed the conflict from the start (strategic IW).
Another reported Russian IW campaign was its interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. Reporting suggests this engaged a wide range of Russian IW assets, including misleading adverts on social media, hacking political party and election databases and leaking stolen personal data. Overall, the goals of this campaign are assessed to have been undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to advantage Donald Trump’s.
This campaign had many of the hallmarks of a Russian IW campaign: use of disinformation to create misinformation, stealing data from IT infrastructure, and smearing individuals to undermine them and to further Russia’s goals and weaken trust in democracy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been very revealing, not only for Russia’s surprising inability to subdue the much smaller nation of Ukraine, but also of Ukraine’s innovative use of modern systems and techniques. Ukrainian use of drones and missiles of all kinds has received significant attention. Indeed, many analysts postulate tanks are now redundant on the modern battlefield after observing Ukrainian innovations.
So far, very little has been reported about the Ukrainian IW campaign. Thus, there is no open source reporting on any IW campaigns Ukraine has run. However, from a strategic perspective Ukraine has run a hugely effective IW campaign. This was evident from the very beginning of the Russian invasion. After being offered a helicopter to evacuate President Zelensky and his family, he very publicly responded, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride”. This went around the world, instantly gaining President Zelensky widespread respect and support from Western nations. Politicians in the West were not slow to recognise this and started making strong statements condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and promising strong actions against them.
President Zelensky subsequently held several Zoom video conference meetings with national leaders and multi-national groups such as the European Union and United Nations – all of which has served to increase support for Ukraine and apply pressure on Western leaders to offer increasing levels of military aid. Germany (in particular) has changed its positions and increased the numbers and types of equipment they are gifting Ukraine. This has been largely due to the success of the Ukrainian IW campaign in winning the support of the German population. Equally, military support and aid from the US has gradually increased in large part because of the Ukrainian IW campaign which continually emphasises the need for heavy weapons, and lots of them.
Ukraine’s release of the defenders of Snake Island is another example of highly effective IW. The well-known response is now a rallying call for Ukrainian troops and is being used by savvy Western businesses via sales of t-shirts and patches to raise funds for the defence Ukraine. The sums of money raised (a percentage of the sales) may not be large but the sale of merchandise does serve to keep Ukraine in the public’s mind.
Another strand of Ukrainian IW has been its Defence Ministry release of videos showing attacks and strikes on Russian positions and formations. This has served several purposes:
- It proves Ukraine is putting up significant resistance to the Russian invasion.
- It proves Russia is not nearly as capable as was believed before Russia invaded Ukraine.
- It provides evidence of the levels of equipment losses Russia is experiencing.
- It has rallied the Ukrainian population, and much of the rest of the world, to the cause of defending Ukraine and, possibly, defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At the tactical level, Ukrainian units have made a habit of daubing ‘Welcome to Hell’ on bridges and buildings on routes the Russians are expected to take. This has been amplified by posting video compilations of successful Ukrainian attacks on Russian elements on social media sites such as YouTube and Reddit. Given the high number of casualties (some estimates indicate more Russian deaths in Ukraine than during the whole Soviet Afghanistan campaign) this is a message whose resonance is likely to have increased as the campaign has carried on.
In the early stages of the invasion, good use of Western media allowed Ukraine to demonstrate to Western nations (and Russia) the mass mobilisation of the citizens of Kyiv. This included footage of tank and vehicle obstacles. This was another means of gaining and maintaining the support of Western nations – and especially their populations – employed by the Ukrainian government.
Overall, although unremarked by the reports of the conflict, I assess the Ukrainian IW campaign has been essential to the current success of defending the nation from the Russian invasion. It can be argued the campaign was key to persuading Western nations to respond far more strongly to the invasion than would otherwise have been the case. Equally, it is clear that Ukraine has been very successful in using IW to persuade Western governments to provide far greater levels of military aid than would have been the case otherwise. I cannot think of a better example of the effects and importance of IW.
Conversely, Russia’s IW campaign has been ineffective on the world stage and at times transparently ridiculous. By alleging a former communist nation – now led by a Jewish person whose family were victims of Nazi genocide – is now a haven of Nazis and drug dealers can be described as nothing but ridiculous. Russia’s IW campaign has been so unbelievable that it has done nothing to support the Russian forces. Certainly, it has had no effect on the Ukrainian population. Even Russia’s closest ally, China, has been tepid at best in its support of Russia. However, Russia’s IW campaign has been highly effective in rallying the Russian population in support of the invasion. So, it is possible the Russian population was the target of the IW campaign. If so, it has still been highly effective.
IW is now the dominant military doctrine of potentially adversarial nations, who believe that the perceptions of their adversaries are central to future conflict; that to win in this domain has the potential to make victory in combat significantly easier – if combat even ensues.
These nations do not recognise IW as being confined to war but consider it an essential prerequisite to set conditions in their favour. They believe that the involvement of non-military agencies and entities is not only desirable, but essential, to dominating the information environment and to restrict or prevent adversary nations conducting their own IW campaigns.
As part of this, potential adversary nations exercise restrictions on information flows and nexus – such as the internet – within their own nations to a degree not possible in the West. This allows such nations to not only control what information their populations can access, but greatly restrict the ability of their adversaries to conduct IW campaigns against their populations.
Conversely, Western practices of free speech and free press allow potential adversary nations a virtually free hand in running disinformation campaigns in Western nations.
If the Australian Defence Force is to achieve its mission, it too must begin to understand what IW is and how to practice IW in a manner consistent with our laws and values. However, this cannot be confined to Defence. Our competitors consider it essential that the whole-of-government be involved to ensure IW campaigns achieve maximum effect.
Australia too must begin to engage all governmental agencies, and possibly liaise with private entities, to conduct effective IW campaigns that promote our culture and values while simultaneously attempting to neutralise adversary efforts in the same space.
Such campaigns should promote Western values of democracy, freedom of speech and trade, international law, and respect for nations who support the same values. Conversely, Australian IW campaigns might seek to inform nations of the dangers presented by entities – whether commercial or nation states – who do not follow those behaviours and to highlight actions that are counter to their interests.
Many other nations, some which may be our future adversaries, have been conducting these campaigns for years now. They have had some successes – but not as many as they expected or would like. It is past time Australia began to more actively counter this. Australia needs to understand we are already in the competition phase and need to be conducting these operations now. Waiting until kinetic effects are being applied will be too late.