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Airpower after Ukraine

August 30, 2022

Information warfare in the air littoral: Talking with the world

By Zachary Kallenborn

In the early days of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Kyiv put out calls over Facebook for civilians to donate their drones or sign up to join drone units. Informal donation pages were set up, too, along with online efforts to bring civilian drones into the country. Russian volunteers caught on and tried to emulate the practice, although their attempts were less successful than the Ukrainians’ efforts. Nevertheless, the donation of drones supports both actors in generating and sustaining concentrated military power (or mass in military parlance)—a significant factor in the contest over the air littoral, the airspace between ground forces and high-altitude fighters and bombers.

The importance of mass in the air littoral

The systems that are employed to contest the air littoral—drones, loitering munitions, and low-flying missiles—are often cheap and disposable. Swarming attacks of numerous drones, loitering munitions, and missiles can overwhelm target defenses, but with high attrition rates. If stocks run out and cannot be replenished, the air littoral cannot be used for guiding artillery strikes or gathering and sharing propaganda. Global public-facing information warfare operations can encourage the building of mass, hinder adversary attempts to build mass, and reduce strategic effects of air littoral competition.

The role of information operations in generating mass

Information operations may encourage (or hinder) support from allies in generating mass. The United States provided Ukraine with hundreds of Switchblade loitering munitions. Though American national interest was certainly an influential factor, Ukraine’s success in garnering international sympathy for its unexpected combat prowess and capacity to fight the Russian army also played a big role. The Ukrainians have used memes of “Saint Javelin” and farmers towing away Russian tanks to crowdsource military and humanitarian donations. Lithuania provides the clearest example: the nation crowdfunded five million euros to buy Ukraine a new Bayraktar TB2 drone. Then Turkey gave the TB2 to Ukraine for free, suggesting the funds be used for humanitarian support. Ukraine also generated mass through an unconventional source: civilians. Although not an information operation itself, civilian engagement may support a larger narrative about how all of Ukrainian society is deeply committed to the war effort.

Of course, since early 2014, Russia has also launched its own information operations, often centered on weapons and defenses for contesting the air littoral. Russia continues to push disinformation regarding a fake Ukrainian chemical and biological weapons program to justify the invasion and discourage sympathy and support for Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense has even accused Ukraine of conducting a “drone chemical attack” against Russian forces. In addition, Russia has conducted information operations seemingly designed to degrade Ukraine’s ability to generate mass in the air littoral. For example, Russia claims to have fielded a new anti-drone laser, but the United States has pushed back on the report, with a Department of Defense official saying that he had not seen “anything to corroborate reports of lasers being used” in Ukraine. Although it is possible that the United States might have just not found the evidence, disinformation about fielding a fancy new countermeasure could be intended to discourage Western drone resupply and induce greater caution on Ukrainian drone deployments.

In addition, cyber warfare—another important aspect of information warfare more broadly—can help generate mass while attempting to disrupt the other side’s ability to do the same. For example, the hacking collective Anonymous, furious with Russian actions in Ukraine, claims to have hacked drone manufacturers, capturing various documents on planning and tactics (exactly how useful these documents are remains unclear). Such information could be used to design better countermeasures or improve Ukrainian systems. Alternatively, cyber espionage and attacks could be used to identify potential vulnerabilities—cyber, physical, or electronic—to sabotage supply chains, targeting critical part manufacturers when Russia has few (or no) alternative producers. More broadly, this example illustrates the importance adversaries place on the use of information operations to generate and sustain mass in the air littoral, and the growing importance of physical, electronic, and cyberattacks to interdict air-littoral weapon systems.

Information environment in the air littoral

An open question is how to best counter such efforts. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen significant use of Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks, which could be leveled against websites hosting drone recruitment messages, or local Internet providers. Alternatively, an adversary could, say, hack into the Facebook account hosting the message, or set up a fake effort to divert some of the drones. Taking down an entire channel would be difficult and would most likely produce only limited effects—the longest Facebook outage in history lasted 14 hours. Nevertheless, the open-source nature of social media websites could allow an adversary to collect useful intelligence. If an adversary knows the manufacturer and model of the drones being provided, they can also know operating parameters, potential vulnerabilities, and which countermeasures are most effective. They could also target supply chains, perhaps through information attacks.

A civilian’s drone-captured footage of Russian troop movements has little impact if the civilian cannot share the footage with those individuals capable of attacking the troops, emplacing obstacles to inhibit movement, avoiding the troops, or otherwise reacting to troop movements. Likewise, the civilian almost certainly will not know which unit to call. That means the military would require the capacity to find the video on the Internet, provide an alternative means for the civilian to upload the video, and relay the video to the appropriate units.

Of course, delays in information sharing can still have meaningful effects. A Ukrainian drone captured footage of a Russian soldier appearing to shoot a civilian who surrendered. If the operator had to wait weeks or months to share the video, the opportunity for it to have an impact could have been lost: states might have already decided whether to provide or withhold support. The video might go viral, stuck on the front page of world newspapers, but the conflict may be too far along for it to make a difference. Even more modest delays—days or just hours—might prevent action on particularly time-sensitive information. Direct attacks on popular information-sharing channels (Telegram, Twitter, Facebook) might have limited effects if a prolonged outage forces a sharing group to migrate to a new channel. However, because global companies with major information-technology capabilities operate those channels, extended outages are unlikely.

Preparing to wage information warfare in the air littoral

The information environment is compressing the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare, especially in the air littoral. Tactical victories and errors can go viral, spreading from Wellington to Timbuktu. Winning the information warfare contest can mean that the victor receives more missiles, intelligence information, and humanitarian support. Losing can result in cyberattacks from anarchic nonstate actors, and adversaries empowered with outside support. The United States and allied forces need to be prepared: they should hold wargames and exercises to explore how information operations interact with the air littoral; explore ways to use civilian engagement to support air-littoral stocks; ensure that information awareness is baked deeply into military organizations; and strengthen mechanisms for interagency collaboration on information operations. Today, an act of violence can echo throughout the world.

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Zachary Kallenborn is a Policy Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, a Research Affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), an officially proclaimed US Army “Mad Scientist,” and national security consultant.

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Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (March 18, 2022) Cryptologic Technician 3rd Class Lily Santos, from Dover, New Hampshire, analyzes signals in the combat information center of Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76). Higgins is assigned to Commander, Task Force (CTF) 71/Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the Navy’s largest forward-deployed DESRON and the U.S. 7th Fleet’s principal surface force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthur Rosen)