Learning From Russia’s Information Offensives
“The day has come when we all acknowledge that words, cameras, photographs, the internet, and information in general have become another branch of weaponry, another branch of the armed forces.”
That’s how Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu characterized the global information environment—and his country’s military role in it—in 2015. Two years later, he acknowledged Russia had created “information operations” troops. The information war, of course, has long been a feature of Moscow’s relationship with its adversaries in the West. The Cold War was very much a war of ideas, with the U.S. and Russia attempting to convince others of the virtues of their respective political-economic systems.
The U.S. ultimately “won” the Cold War, but its military largely ignored the role that information operations played in this victory. By contrast, Russia has invested heavily in information operations, especially over the past decade. While the state-sponsored RT television network and attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election are the most recognized Russian information operations efforts, Moscow has also invested heavily in Russian military information operations capabilities, to much less fanfare.
Offensive or Defensive
DoD defines information operations as “the integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” Information operations can be offensive—to influence the thinking and attack the information networks of adversaries—or defensive—to defend one’s own information networks and protect against malign foreign influence.
The information environment, as described by military doctrine, consists of the physical, informational and cognitive dimensions. The physical dimension includes “command and control systems, key decision makers and supporting infrastructure that enable individuals and organizations to create effects”; the informational dimension “encompasses where and how information is collected, processed, stored, disseminated and protected”; and the cognitive dimension includes “the minds of those who transmit, receive, and respond to or act on information.”
In its five-day war with Georgia in 2008, Russian information operations capability was limited and rudimentary. While Russia had some success at the operational level—it successfully crippled Georgian command-and-control systems—it largely failed at the strategic level. Russia attempted to blame Georgia for instigating the conflict, but many attributed Georgia’s incursion into South Ossetia as a legitimate pre-emptive use of force. Likewise, the Russians made some tactical blunders.
Russia learned from this experience and invested heavily in information operations capabilities over the next six years, culminating with its nearly flawless annexation of Crimea in 2014, in which information operations played a major role.
Spreading ‘Fake News’
Russia employs information operations during shaping operations throughout the region. One common technique is using “troll factories” to create and spread “fake news” that supports Russian narratives. In the Baltics, a common theme is discrediting government officials. Other times, the troll factories selectively push stories that support Russian objectives. They have, for example, highlighted crimes committed by refugees to exacerbate European political divisions, amplified issues that inflame Russian-speaking minorities and disseminated stories about crimes committed by NATO Enhanced Forward Presence soldiers.
If we overlay the U.S. Army’s operational phasing construct on Russia’s recent military actions, we can clearly see the role information operations has played. In Ukraine, during Phase I (deter) and Phase II (seize initiative), Russia created enough misinformation surrounding “little green men” to prevent action from Western nations. Nations that were unwilling to support Ukraine could seize on this misinformation as justification not to get involved. Russia is likely to conduct similar misinformation campaigns before conducting military operations in the Baltics or elsewhere.
During Phase III (dominate), Russia seeks to maintain an information monopoly. In Crimea, it succeeded by targeting telecommunications infrastructure to control information. Likewise, in the Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where the conflict with Russian-backed separatists is ongoing, Russia dominates the information environment as the region is largely Russian-speaking and Russia controls the Russian-language TV, radio and news outlets.
At the tactical level, Russia conducts what Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at Japan’s Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, describes as “pinpoint propaganda.” By using electronic warfare and cyber capabilities to support its information operations campaign, Russia targets Ukrainian forces deployed to the combat region with text messages designed to undermine unit cohesion and troop morale. These messages are even synchronized with artillery strikes to increase their effectiveness, making clear that Russia views information operations as part of combined-arms operations and not as an afterthought.
U.S. Efforts Lack Focus
The most recent National Security Strategy acknowledges this threat: “America’s competitors,” it says, “weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies.” At the same time, it recognizes that U.S. efforts to counter adversaries’ information operations “have been tepid and fragmented,” have “lacked a sustained focus,” and “have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.”
Clearly, there is a deficiency to correct. Here’s where to start:
PROFESSIONAL MILITARY EDUCATION. Outside special forces, psychological operations, civil affairs and public affairs career fields, almost no time is dedicated to teaching information operations. But every soldier in the Army will do his or her job in the information environment, and more needs to be done to enhance information operations capabilities across the range of the Army’s career fields.
FORCE DESIGN. Following his experience as the chief of information operations for the 4th Infantry Division during its deployment to Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, Lt. Col. Matthew Sheiffer noted that information operations functions are dispersed throughout the division staff, which makes synchronizing information operations difficult: psychological operations and civil affairs under the operations staff (G-3), electronic warfare and cyberspace operations reporting to the chief of staff, public affairs reporting to the commander, other information-related capabilities under the signal staff (G-6), and counterintelligence under the intelligence staff (G-2). While restructuring the staff might not be prudent, commanders must recognize this challenge and emphasize the need to have a synchronized information operations plan.
TRAINING AND SIMULATION. While U.S. military training and simulations increasingly focus on high-intensity conflict against a near-peer adversary, these scenarios tend to ignore or undervalue the role of information operations. To be sure, it is difficult to simulate many information operations effects in training or simulation, but that should not be the justification for ignoring them. Even when included in training, it is difficult to simulate in a meaningful way. For example, a U.S. infantryman getting a text message at a combat training center stating “Your battalion commander has retreated. Take care of yourself” is not going to have the impact it would in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Emphasis must be given on how to provide meaningful training that replicates, to the greatest degree possible, the realistic effects of real-world information operations.
WE CAN BE OUR OWN WORST ENEMY. Arguably the most well-known recent cases of American actions causing damage in the information environment were photos of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the video of U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters that were posted to websites in 2012. These are information operations failures that had real impact, almost certainly driving some fence-sitters into active support or outright joining the enemy. In a conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, the impacts could be even more catastrophic. Soldiers must realize that even something as relatively mundane as getting into a bar fight in Lithuania will be seized on by the Russians and propagated by their troll factories to influence host-nation locals to oppose the presence of Western troops.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. To mitigate disasters like Abu Ghraib, it might be prudent to consider information operations when crafting rules of engagement. For example, forbidding soldiers from taking photos or videos with enemy personnel might reduce the temptation to act in a manner that might be not only immoral or illegal, but also damaging to U.S. information operations efforts. Soldiers must understand that a kinetic engagement is only one type of engagement.
TECHNOLOGY. The Army, with the help of the defense industry and Silicon Valley, must continue to develop and refine electronic warfare and cyber capabilities used to conduct information operations. Many of the solutions may not be hardware solutions; for example, social media sites could do more to prevent adversaries from using their platform to spread misinformation and manipulate the public.