The rise of information warfare

The need for training in a credible information environment

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Robert Pratten

Covid-19 has provided a golden opportunity for adversarial influence operations to target civilian populations without any declaration of war. The pandemic has produced a divided public on a range of issues from wearing masks to vaccinations and these divisions have been exploited by disinformation and propaganda.  

While there is debate about the effectiveness of adversarial influence operations, it’s accepted that information warfare is a clear, present and growing threat. While cyber would seem to be the predominant focus for information warfare training, this article argues the need for experienced warfighters skilled not only with malware and machine guns but also with memes. Media operations, PSYOPS and information action and outreach are the new weapons for a battlespace in the mind. The new domain we must occupy and own is not only the virtual domain, it is the cognitive domain. We must continually remind each other that there is no reality, there is only perception.

So why is it that few training solutions exist that provide a realistic environment for the development of experience and expertise in information warfare?

Modern warfare: Tweets not tanks

The characteristics of modern warfare are such that there’s no declaration of war, your adversaries obfuscate their involvement and there may be no physical movement of troops or kinetic effects. Influence operations take place in the everyday; in the headspace of populations eager for conspiracies and injustices, and easily drawn to outrage.

The current generation of Generals earned their stripes the old way, in the days before social media when the internet was in its infancy. Even though there’s a recognition of the need for joint effects, full-spectrum effects, integrated action, training in the information space is seldom on par with training in conventional battlespaces: few simulated information environments are equal to the modern tank or flight simulator, for example.

The need for a high-fidelity, realistic information warfare training environment is more pressing than ever. Adversaries are already attempting to undermine democracies by weaponising freedom of expression to make our cultural strengths a weakness. Understanding deception, disinformation and information laundering is only the start. A master of information warfare will understand narrative and how stories ripple through populations, how they build and how they come to a head. In the words of transmedia storytellers, “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” - warfighters must train to get others to distribute their message and learn to recognise and counter sock puppets and digital Potemkin villages.

Failure to rehearse in a safe, closed training environment can result in embarrassment as we saw with the Canadians on their home turf and with the French in central Africa. Or worse can backfire as was the case with Israel’s smear campaign against Iran’s commander Qasem Soleimani.

Realistic information warfare training

A credible information warfare training solution provides an environment that supports the full range of information activities from target audience analysis through to media and message distribution across multiple channels. Those channels need to be realistic representations of the major and minor social media platforms, broadcast media and even integrate with physical media. Warfighters, whatever the domain, need to train as they would fight.

The training solution ought to support constructive and live simulation, allowing HICON, LOCON, EXCON, GREY CELL and RED CELL to freely supplement and work around scheduled, automated content. Indeed, a lot of time can be saved in exercise development by examining and achieving the correct balance of scripted and live content – allowing subject matter experts and other role-players to interact with the training audience as they would in real life.

The issue of building a credible information environment also comes down to design process. Optimising the cost and time of achieving just the right depth and breadth for the given training objectives is key to prevent the seemingly impossible task of trying to replicate the whole of the internet. Here, the popular open world gaming franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout offer design clues on how to build invisible edge-of-world barriers so that the training audience, when they find the world boundary do so in an acceptable way that doesn’t break scenario immersion.

Experience is everything

Simulations provide controlled environments for the rapid development of experience that would otherwise take much longer in the field. As in all endeavours, experience is everything and so it is in information warfare. The ability to deliver the right message to the right people at the right time is as much a critical skill as any precision, laser-guided bombing ability. Modern democracies and their armies need people, processes and technology to defend and shape their version of reality.

If ever there was ever a time to re-examine the resources available for training in the information space, it was now. The future belongs to those who can paint a convincing picture of what the future looks like. To do this takes experience that comes from rehearsal in a safe, realistic, simulated information environment.