Innovation and Adaptation

The Limits of Shadow Boxing: Creating Complex Information Environments with ION

By Christopher Lake November 16, 2021

The legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote in The Book of Five Rings, “You can only fight the way that you practice.” While this may seem like a truism, the implications are profound, especially for complex warfighting.

What Musashi is saying goes well beyond prosaic aspects like style or technique. As he expands on the subject he talks about will, intention, attitude, and urgency. Musashi was a man of his time, so his language is mystical, but what he’s really talking about is kinaesthetic learning and battle conditioning through high fidelity simulation. When he says that to practice swordsmanship like a dancer is to develop the mind of a dancer rather than a warrior, there is a definite ring of truth to this. A fighter, or an army, which practises in slow-time ritualistic fashion is really only ready to fight in the same ways.

Just as this applies to swordsmanship, boxing, and kinetic warfighting – it also applies in the information domain. Just as in all other types of competition or combat, there is no substitute for vying against a live, free-thinking, and above all a different opponent. One who thinks, acts, and reacts differently, who does not conform to our rules or norms, and who is, ideally, a good simulacrum of our most likely adversaries.

The problem is an enormous one. The information domain is of a magnitude which literally passes human understanding, and evolves so rapidly that, in some areas, generations are measured in weeks or months rather than years. Which is why we turned to Musashi when thinking about how to define it. In contemplating the essence of the problem, he presented us with a masterclass in how to define and attack impossibly complex problems.

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means,” he says. Which for us meant getting back to basics. What is essential to any combat or competition is the opponent, and when training in the information domain a coherent and convincing enemy is what is most often (though not always) missing. This is why the Information Operations Network (ION) Team has devoted so much time and effort into the creation of the ION Human Network.

Designed within the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) construct, the ION Human Network is a collection of enemy and greyzone actors connected by realistic network diastics and hidden within a cloud of hand-crafted ‘white noise’ characters. Each target character (of which we intend to create two hundred) has a detailed biography segmented into childhood, formative, education, and adulthood sections, with the emphasis being on formative and exploitable characteristics. For this we used behavioural psychology models of adverse life events and strong influences to model behaviour, risk tolerance, and other crucial aspects. And each character is linked to the other characters in their networks in such a way that centrality or periphery can be determined by uncovering and mapping the whole network.

This kind of high fidelity simulation is, to our minds, an essential part of the kind of training adversary outlined in the Future Ready Training System – one that is fluid, unpredictable, realistic, and complex.

These characters are then deployed in ION, usually as part of a small network of information actors, and a team of scripters will role play the enemy against a live training audience, assess their responses, and swing the information environment either for or against depending on the outcome of that adjudication.

This is very much a work in progress. We are currently in the early stages of training an enduring body of scripters capable of realistically representing key DATE and real world adversary nations, as well as honing, refining, and building our banks of knowledge around threat tactics in each relevant DATE or real world theatre.

This all represents a great deal of work, but it has produced early fruits. We have seen the value and impact of actually providing a sparring partner to our training audiences, and this drives us to keep working to expand the capability. There is also the incidental but far from insignificant benefit of gaining insights into our adversary’s mindsets, and consequently disseminating these understandings as we deliver training and support exercises.

It is often pointed out to me that the path we’ve chosen is the one with by far the highest labour cost, but we still believe it to be the best way. As Musashi says, the primary business here is to cut the enemy, and we firmly believe that the only way to practice this effectively is to build a realistic enemy for our training audiences to cut.



Christopher Lake

Chris Lake is a member of the Training Adversary System Support Cell (TASSC), working out of HQFORCOMD G7 on the Information Operations Network (ION). He has worked on information and language/logic problems as an investigator and analyst in the areas of security and commercial intelligence in private industry. Chris also has wide experience across journalism and the creative industries, and has served as a Maritime Warfare Officer in the RAN.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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