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Event Recap February 23, 2021

Event recap | Information warfare: An all-domain military and civil deception, from today to 2030

By Inkoo Kang

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes: “all warfare is based on deception.” As the world becomes more connected, our threats are increasingly merging at the intersection of military, economic, social, and diplomatic efforts. Now with advanced communications, satellite, and computing technologies, deception and information warfare (IW) are starting to bleed out of purely military operations. On February 3, director of the GeoTech Center, Dr David Bray, contributed to a panel discussion at a Virtual Expeditionary Warfare Conference that examined this phenomenon. The panel was hosted by the National Defense Industry Association’s (NDIA) Expeditionary Warfare Division and was moderated by GeoTech fellow and Vice Chair of NDIA’s Information Warfare subdivision, Mr. Richard J. Cordes. The other panelists included Mr. Alex Ruiz of Phaedrus LLC, an advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and Ms. Dana Hudson, Chair of NDIA’s Division on Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC). 

Gray zone and information warfare

The event began with a discussion on how IW is evolving. Dr Bray noted  that weaponized misinformation is not new. What has changed, however, is the ability to amplify and swiftly spread misinformation on a wide scale. Today, more than half of the world’s population has access to the internet; not only do those 3.6 billion people have influence, there are now even bots that can pose as humans, adding further layers of complexity to IW. Acknowledging that the internet is also optimized for engagement,  Dr Bray forecasted that all future conflicts will involve misinformation operations in which each side seeks to control its adversary’s “perceptions of reality”. This, Dr Bray noted, could result in the emergence of a new “Cognitive Cold War,” where states compete to build weapons designed to mislead foreign publics. Modern military theory and practice has already begun to form around these changes, both in terms of IW campaigns and defense. Key examples include: Systems Warfare Theory, concepts built on Gerasimov Doctrine, and Cognitive Security.

Destabilization and polarization

Ms Hudson continued the discussion by highlighting how political polarization could exacerbate the dangers of IW. She outlined how one tactic for future adversaries may be to get Americans to mistakenly perceive other Americans as the true enemy. Such attempts have already occurred. Russian interference efforts in 2016 were prime examples. While those attempts occurred in peace time, Ms Hudson predicted misinformation would be even more devastating during war. It will thus be imperative to create the social mechanisms to counter foreign interference attempts. Mr Ruiz added that such necessities warrant a rethinking of our institutions as technology is accelerating faster toward interconnectivity than our institutions are.

Civil deception impacts on expeditionary warfare

The discussion then shifted to forecasting how expeditionary operations may change with new IW tactics. Dr. Bray wondered if “any future general or admiral [will] have the confidence that their plans won’t be taken out of context the moment they try to execute them.” It was a provocative question as there are now private companies that can launch cheap, high-quality satellites capable of mapping the world at 25cm resolution. Dr. Bray wondered whether or not adversaries would become capable of flooding US airwaves with disinformation in attempts to portray valid military operations as war crimes. Mr. Cordes noted that such tactics are already common; he cited Rand Waltzman’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017, which described an incident where the corpses of terrorists were rearranged so that it looked as if they had been praying rather than fighting. Dr. Bray warned such deceptions could drastically hinder operational effectiveness. He recalled that during his time in Afghanistan, “90 percent of Afghanis thought the United States was there to extract Afghanistan’s heroin and opium,” undermining trust and cooperation with locals.

The future impacts of AI

Having analyzed the past and present states of IW, Mr. Cordes then shifted the discussion to discussing how future technologies may make combating IW even harder. Citing Admiral Sawyer, he noted that future wars will largely be “unscripted.” Mr. Ruiz continued to argue kinetic conflicts will probably decrease and shift toward the cyber realm. Thus, the tactical and operational advantages will rest with the side that can faster identify and respond to threats. Mr. Ruiz called this phenomenon a potential information arms race. However, he also warned of its potential downsides as service members may begin to look to AI decision-making systems like the Greeks did to oracles–infallible sages rather than battlefield tools.

A way to mitigate such dangers, the panel argued, was to enhance human-data partnerships and promote interoperability. Mr. Ruiz argued that the defense industry should prioritize promising technologies that could help integrate data systems into battlefields. Ms. Hudson then added institutions need to help accelerate this push. She suggested that the public sector communicate with industry so that the civil, military, and commercial sectors can all push toward the same goals.

Whole-of-industry, whole-of-nation, whole-of-society

This led the panel to discuss other core themes of the day: whole of nation approaches and interdisciplinarity. Mr. Cordes argued that change will not happen through one entity or institution but rather through a national effort or whole-of-nation approach. He cited General John Allen who argued in an earlier session that a strong national identity will be required to stay competitive in the future. Dr. Bray concurred and suggested expanding the pool of contributors under a “whole-of-society” approach. He believed it would be important to engage our own public to see how actors who heretofore have been excluded from national security operations can contribute.

Dr. Bray also argued that military doctrine must change; he suggested that not only should officers’ promotions be tied to their abilities to ensure their warfighters be fit to fight, they should also be required to ensure their battlefield data is fit to fight. That way, not only would strong officers be competent leaders, they would also be incentivized to reach out to the commercial sector and strengthen their ties to tech industries. He also stressed that with IW, states may do everything right kinetically but lose overall wars if they do not secure the information realm. Thus, Dr. Bray also suggested the DoD work with organizations like NDIA to design ‘red team’ scenarios with IW.

Ms. Hudson then added to the discussion by noting Congress must also play a role in this effort. She argued for funds specifically dedicated to next-generation capabilities and wished for the creation of a “program of record” to prioritize those capabilities. She even stressed that Russia and China have already institutionalized such programs. Mr. Ruiz further added to the discussion by reiterating the need to adopt new doctrines. While he pointed out the United States cannot abandon legacy platforms, he cited the Solarwinds hacking attack as an example where cyber attacks will attack all aspects of our society and thus must be addressed as such.

In the final minutes of the event, each panelist reemphasized how critical it will be to counter misinformation on future battlefields. Ms. Hudson began by citing Congress’ need to prioritize processes that will enable the US to have anti-IW systems. Mr. Ruiz followed stating the necessity for military institutions to further utilize “white card” techniques – one of many exercises techniques designed to train servicemen in simulated, degraded information environments. Finally, Dr. Bray concluded the panel by summarizing the scope of future IW risks. He argued that not only will IW entail false misleading militaries, adversaries will attempt to confuse US citizens on what they themselves will be doing. To counter such measures, Dr. Bray stated that he would like to see the creation of satellite networks that may be able to, in real-time, disprove attempts at misinformation. 


IW will be one of the most fundamental pillars of future conflicts. As kinetic ‘hot wars’ increasingly shift toward ‘gray zone’ and cyber wars, it will be increasingly more important to create institutions to counter potential adversaries. Neither the civilian nor military sectors will be able to counter future challenges alone. Threats will continue to merge among civil and military lines, and it will be up to leaders to create the mechanisms to address and ultimately prevail in this evolving battlespace. 

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.

Related Experts: David Bray, Richard J. Cordes, and Alex Ruiz

Image: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash