An essay on Information Operations


Maintaining public support and will is a critical component, in many cases the critical component, to successful military operations. Commanders can claim victory but it is the public who will determine if and when victory is achieved.

Crotts, 2006, p. 11

In the last twenty years, there have been significant developments in the nature of warfare. Since the development of the internet and the rise of asymmetric warfare, the battlespace has extended further into the information domain than most nations had anticipated. The concept and idea of Information Operations (IO) is not new; it is the umbrella term of the older paradigms of Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), Deception, Operations Security (OPSEC) and Electronic Warfare (EW) with the developing category of Computer Network Operations (CNO); there is a growing acceptance that Civil Military Operations (CIMIC), Public Affairs (PA) and Public Diplomacy (PD) fall within the IO stream.

With origins pre-dating World War I, the role and importance of Information Operations has grown with each major conflict. World War II proved the importance of PSYOPS, OPSEC and Deception and the conflict in Vietnam proved the importance that domestic perception and the media play in a government’s ability to effectively carry out military action against a foreign entity; and subsequently, how much influence the human population that surrounds the enemy has on his ability to conduct war.

This essay will analyse the future of Information Operations over the next ten years through discussing the drivers, trends and key events that have shaped IO. The essay will look at the events since the 2001 September 11 attacks against the United States, and how Information Operations has developed in twelve years of conflict, both civilian and military, throughout the world. The development of IO, implications and lessons learnt during this period are the key drivers in the future and the pathway IO will take over the next ten years.

After the events of 9/11, the United States launched the ‘War on Terror’ against international terrorism, using the events of 9/11 to increase public support. Domestic public opinion is what supports a country participating in war, as it directly impacts a variety of social issues such as economic and national debt, and the loss of life that is inherent to war (Wall, 2010, p. 292). The domestic public affairs campaign was successful enough to support the US government in spending upwards of four trillion dollars in its ‘War on Terror’, driving the country into significant debt, nearly resulting in the default on loans in 2011 (Lynch , 2011) (Trotta, 2011).

While the US Government and State Department policy forbids devoting resources to commit psychological operations against domestic audiences, the Smith Mundt Act of 2012 states that product developed for foreign audiences can legally be played to domestic audiences. A former PSYOP Commander, Larry Dietz, stated in an interview in 2003 that PSYOPS becomes problematic because ‘when you have Internet access … sitting in America, I can log on any URL in the world, and unless there is some sort of technological way to filter out U.S. domains from accessing the U.S. State Department, which I do not believe there is, it gets to be a real problem’ (Wall, 2010, p. 293). A similar view is held by Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the former deputy directory of plans for CJTF Iraq, in that ‘tactical and operational deception are proper and legal on the battlefield … in a worldwide media environment how do you prevent that deception from spilling out from the battlefield and inadvertently deceiving the American people?’ (Crotts, 2006, p. 15). Highlighting that in the heavily interconnected globalised environment, PSYOPS packages that are delivered at the tactical level in Afghanistan can be viewed by the domestic audience as quickly as it is viewed by the foreign target.

The enhanced speed of information flow due to the internet means that any event or issue can ‘go public well before enough information is available for a proper assessment’ (Crotts, 2006, p. 12). While commanders have increasingly used ‘embeds’ to reduce OPSEC vulnerabilities, It is the ‘free-lance reporter, or the man on the street, capable of transmitting instantaneous images of on-going operations, who poses the biggest threat’ (Crotts, 2006, p. 15). This places commanders in a reactive posture struggling to ‘counter perceptions and maintain public support, based on the fragmented operational snapshot provided by the media’ (Crotts, 2006, p. 11).

The domestic and foreign public perception of operations is ‘as important as influencing the adversary through deception or propaganda’ (Crotts, 2006, p. 15), and there is a growing trend in the ‘blending of the public affairs role to inform and the PSYOP role to influence behaviour’. With PSYOPs not only targeting the ‘enemy’s population and C2 mechanism’, but it now also includes ‘friendly and neutral nations’ which delves into the domain of Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy (Crotts, 2006, p. 14).

From its original air date in 1996, the Al Jazeera news network operating out of Qatar has filled a gap in the international broadcast of news from the Middle-East and it has seen significant growth in global coverage. With a journalistic view of reporting an informative assessment of both sides of the story, it quickly garnered attention post-9/11 by airing footage and statements from Osama Bin Laden and by being one of the few news outlets to broadcast the initial war in Afghanistan. Through these broadcasts, western populations had access to a different view of the war in comparison to domestic media. In previous conflicts the exposure and portrayal of a conflict was primarily a function of domestic media; until now. This access to a different view of the story changed the way in which governments have been able to maintain information dominance and perception management over civilian populations.

On the 12 of November 2003, the Kabul office of Al Jazeera was destroyed in an air strike by the US military, with the US government claiming it was being used by Al Qaeda (Freedman & Thussu, 2003, p. 92). Furthermore, the US government applied diplomatic pressure on the government of Qatar to ‘reign in’ the activities of Al Jazeera, publicising a US double standard to the world; supporting freedom of the press in the Arab world until it was in the US best interest to supress it (Freedman & Thussu, 2003, p. 92). In 2004 the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, claimed that after the invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera was ‘inciting Arab audience to violence against American troops’ (Rugh, 2009, p. 2). This was followed up by then Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld accusing Al Jazeera of ‘Vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable reporting’ (Rugh, 2009, p. 2); highlighting the role the media has on civilian audiences and the information operations challenge. The American fight against Al Jazeera was reversed by Karen Hughes, Undersecretary of State in 2005 when it was evidence that a boycott of Al Jazeera was damaging American public diplomacy. The impact Al Jazeera has on the global audience is evident by a statement by Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State on the 2nd March 2012 that ‘Al Jazeera has been the leader in that they are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective … we are in an information war and we are losing that war’ (Bauder, 2011) (Lubin, 2011) (Radia, 2011).

When the United States conducted the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it utilised the viewership of the media to deceive the Iraqi army. By broadcasting the broad strategic details of the initial military attack on CNN, the Iraqi army deployed its forces accordingly, only to be out-manoeuvred and defeated in the process (Wall, 2010, p. 291). While military deception isn’t new, the effective use of a globally broadcasting media to significantly influence the enemy demonstrates the importance of the highly-connected, globalised media paradigm that has developed exponentially since the mid 1990s. The US military further utilised this advantage by embedding journalists throughout its deployed forces in order to maximise the media coverage of a successful military campaign in the ‘war on terror’. This media saturation can also be harmful to perception management.

In 2004, the torture, abuse and maltreatment of Iraqi’s at the Abu Ghraib prison were reported by the media. While the iconic photos were viewed by the world, within the US it raised questions over how much independent evidence the mainstream media required before it could challenge official government definitions (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006, p. 468); with the photo’s further challenging ‘America’s social identity as a morally upright nation’ (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006, p. 470). Abu Ghraib was initially framed as torture with credible sources, it was quickly downgraded to abuse and neglect before fading as event-driven reporting was replaced by government managed investigations, reports and hearings (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006, p. 474).

The quality of media coverage and public affairs on Abu Ghraib was sufficient to ‘damage America’s global reputation, raising questions over high-level legal and policy transgressions and damming the cultural self-understanding of Americans’ (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006, p. 472). While the media were able to initially undermine the US military through considerable evidence and persuade the population, the media was ‘unable to construct a coherent challenge to the administrations claims about its policies on torturing detainees’. While the photos may have driven the story ‘the White House communication staff ultimately wrote the captions’ (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2006, p. 482).

In 2010, the video from an Apache gunship attack against Iraqi’s, including two Reuter’s news employees and children, was obtained and released by Wikileaks which raised questions over potential breaches in the Geneva Convention and Rules of Engagement. The video was not collected by the enemy, it was leaked by Pfc. Bradley Manning, a US Army Intelligence Analyst; and then distributed by a non-state actor whose goal is transparency and accountability. This incident highlighted the growing trend in the push for transparency, and a rise in non-state actors influencing public perception and opinion.

The war in Afghanistan has pushed the importance of a unified message between the strategic, operational and tactical level. The Taliban does not restrict their information operations to the operational and tactical level in the way that the International Stabilisation Assistance Force (ISAF) does, the Taliban also don’t regard PA separate from information activities. Unlike ISAF Doctrine, the Taliban do no separate ‘informing’ from ‘influencing’ and all actions are aimed at influencing domestic and international audiences through the media (Nissen, 2007, p. 9). Furthermore, the ISAF conducts its kinetic operations supported by IO, whereas the Taliban conduct its IO supported by kinetic operations (Nissen, 2007, p. 10). This fundamental difference in the focus on ‘soft power’ as opposed to ‘hard power’, along with the synchronisation of PA and PSYOPS, has the Taliban conducting Information Operations more effectively than the ISAF (Nissen, 2007, p. 12). The force who can win the support of the local populous has the advantage, making the local population the centre of gravity for both forces (International Institute for Strategic Studies,’2007, p. 4). This trend forces a shift in the importance of perception and public support against the conventional wisdom on the importance of firepower in winning a war.

The separation of the strategic and tactical messages of the ISAF is clear, when the strategic message is about winning ‘hearts and minds’ and it is not reflected on the ground (Croft, 2010). In the space of months, the ISAF lost a significant amount of public support internationally and within Afghanistan, through the burning of the Quran (Nissenbaum, 2012), the murder of innocent civilians in an unprovoked attack (BBC, 2012) (Nadem & Haroon, 2012), and the desecration of dead Taliban soldiers by US military personnel (Harooni, 2012). The ISAF has also been under pressure because of social networking sites with Australian personnel posting racist remarks about Afghanistan locals (BBC, 2011). The lack of consistency between the IO theme at the strategic level with what is actually occurring on the ground allows the Taliban to emphasis their own IO campaign through ISAFs own actions.

The policies within NATO have developed to implement the concept of ‘Strategic Communications’ to ensure a coherent IO implementation at the beginning of the planning process, and that it is driven down to the tactical level. Strategic Communications are defined as “the coordinated and appropriate use of NATO communications activities and capabilities – Public Diplomacy, Military Public Affairs, Information Operations and Psychological Operations, as appropriate – in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO’s aims” (Reding, Weed, & Ghez, 2010). This development highlights the trend that Public Affairs and Diplomacy are synonymous with Information Operations and need to be synchronised in order to achieve the desired outcome. With the growth of the internet and the dependence on technology, it has opened up a whole new paradigm and vector for military operations. With an overreliance on communication systems for command and control, a lack of both offensive and defensive measures has created challenges for numerous governments and defence forces.

In the Georgia-Russia crisis that escalated as the South Ossetia War in 2008, there was predominant use by the Russian military in computer network operations against Georgian government and news web sites and systems in an attempt to disable communications, media and the distribution of information within the country (Korns & Kastenberg, 2009). At the time the internet connectivity of Georgia was through both Russia and Turkey, allowing Russia to disable its half of the connectivity. With the Foreign Ministry’s systems down, Georgia resorted to uploading press dispatches to a public blog hosted by Google in order to circumvent the attacks (Swaine, 2008). While the attacks were predominantly against government web sites and financial institutions, it was effective in reducing the Georgian government’s ability to disseminate information, giving the Russian’s information dominance on the ground early in the war.

Anonymous, one of Time magazines most influential people of 2012, is a decentralised non-state actor that has flexed its capability and skill in recent years through infiltrating, disabling and releasing information from both civilian and government organisations around the globe. On the rise of the Arab Spring in late 2010, Anonymous aided the protests in Tunisia through Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on government websites – taking them offline, and by providing Tunisians with the information and Tor anonymising software to bypass the government’s internet censorship. Similar events occurred in the Egyptian revolution where Anonymous only conducted DDoS attacks against government websites, forcing all major web sites offline until Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power. Further action was taken in Syria, with the Defence Ministry website hacked and replaced with images of the pre-Ba’athist flag – a symbol of the pro-democracy movement – and a message supporting the uprising and asking for members of the Syrian army to protect protesters. Anonymous further defaced a number of pro-regime websites and the Syrian Central Bank (Anonymous, 2012).

In the space of a few years, Anonymous developed from a small-time collective of hackers to an organisation that was pursuing human rights and anti-censorship across the globe. A non-state actor, through the use of technology and information dominance was able to conduct IO campaigns and assist three separate uprisings against governments and ensure the passage of information and news despite government enforced censorship.

In response, the US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) was established in 2011 to provide the Department of Defence a significant capability in protecting its computing and communications infrastructure and to conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations. While it deals primarily with military infrastructure and activities, it can support the Department of Homeland Security’s US-CERT in the protection of civilian infrastructure; specifically Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP). In January of 2010, the Australian government established the Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC), a division within the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), in order to ‘mitigate the cyber threat to Australia’s national security’ (Department of Defence, 2012). Numerous other state-funded agencies within foreign nations have developed the capability to defend and conduct activities within the digital spectrum, including North and South Korea, China, Russia, Israel, Britain, France, India and Pakistan. However, the developing trend is the number of non-state actors who are similarly prepared and equipped.

Iran’s nuclear program has always been politically controversial, however when the Siemens PLC’s at several of its Nuclear facilities began to fail, and the cause was discovered to be a high sophisticated malware known as w32.stuxnet, there has been significant speculation over the origins of the code; specifically nation-states. Two-thirds of infected machines were located in Iran and it targeted at specific Siemens PLCs, it was obvious that the virus was written for a specific purpose (Kasperky Lab, 2010), and it was later discovered the exact target was the centrifuge structure at the Natanz nuclear enrichment lab (Peterson, 2012). Research by Ralph Langner speculated that the malware originated from Israel but was co-developed by the United States (Langer, 2011); and on the 1st Jun 2012, it was ‘confirmed’ that Stuxnet was co-developed by the United States and Israel to disable the Natanz facility (Anderson, 2012) (Sanger, 2012).

Stuxnet is evidence of a greater push in Computer Network Operations as an extension of the political and military agenda of Nations. It also highlights a concerning policy issue that surrounds CNO – at what stage are attacks against non-military infrastructure illegal? And what constitutes an act of aggression that justifies a military response? (Wilson, 2007, p. 16) As an example of the increase in aggressive information gathering through digital means, Lockheed Martin’s systems were penetrated in 2011 and large numbers of documents relating to military projects and weapon systems were at risk of compromise (Schwartz, 2011) – a growing trend that civilian organisations are targets within the IO realm of CNO. With incursions there is always speculation as to their origin, however due to the nature of the methods it can be impossible to determine the source of the threat, making it difficult to establish a coordinated response.

The nature of warfare has changed significantly in the last twenty years, with a significant growth in asymmetric war and the challenges it presents. When interventions and war are conducted they rely on the civilian populous of the target country, that populous becomes the centre of gravity for both belligerents. This presents a shift away from kinetic effects or ‘hard power’ to ‘soft power’ or Information Operations. As the trends and examples in the past twelve years have highlighted, the majority of military forces and governments are slowly developing the doctrine and understanding to harness IO to achieve the desired results; or in fact to prevent the enhancement of the enemies IO campaign through errors in judgement and poor perception management. Through ‘Strategic Communications’, NATO is developing the policy to ensure IO is conducted effectively across the strategic, operational and tactical levels.

Perception management goes hand-in-hand with Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. While some military commanders have claimed that Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy are not part of IO (Darley, 2005), the growing trend suggests that they are in fact synonymous with and an integral part of the overall IO campaign. The success of IO is reliant on the success of Public Affairs, and in a time when the media and journalists have greater access to information, sources and events; the global presence of the media will continue to significantly shape the perception and opinion of foreign and domestic audiences.

With the globalised environment, there is growth in the organisation and effect non-state actors are having on politics and governments. Whether it is Al-Qaeda or Anonymous, the decentralised operations of these organisations prefer a computer network operations and public affairs approach to their activities because it is cheap, effective and easier to coordinate than kinetic effects. Furthermore the increased development of military cyber security organisations across all developed nations will see the hardening of critical infrastructure and an increase in cyber strategy, policy development and offensive actions or cyber espionage in the digital spectrum. Not only will the next ten years of IO display a significant shift away from kinetic effects to effective ‘soft power’ in asymmetric war, the media will play an even greater role than it already does in perception management and public diplomacy.

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