Information Operations in a Multi-Domain Operations Battlespace

Emphasizing information operations in multi-domain operations elevates multi-domain ops and integrated warfare.

Estimated time to read: 7 minutes

By Donald “Tommy” Thomas Aretz II

Information Operations (IO) is not a new concept when waging war. However, gains in technology combined with an increasingly connected world have changed the warfighting environment. Thus, US military minds are now having to take a fresh look at how IO and Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) are connected in a 21st century battlespace. This article will introduce two main concepts. The first is information as the seventh joint warfighting function, of which IO is a major component. The second is MDO, which is a focus area of the Chief of Staff for the US Air Force. This article will also look at initial ideas as to how these two warfighting concepts are integral to the future of warfare. While the new information function addresses the entirety of “information,” this article specifically addresses aspects that relate to IO.

While the impact of information has always been the same, it has not been until the last couple years where the acknowledgement of that impact has become a significant factor in the media, politics, and US military affairs. Perhaps the most widely known instance is the Russian information warfare interference during the last US presidential election. To properly protect and defend the US from its adversaries and competitors, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Information as the seventh joint warfighting function. The Information function is a mechanism that enables the US military to deliberately integrate the application of Information to influence relevant actors, and focuses on the pervasive nature of information within war. US military minds have realized they can no longer ignore the effects of information on our national security.

Information Operations is a subset of the Information function that focuses on the employment of military capabilities to change adversary behavior. Two key elements to understand IO are the Information Environment (IE), and Information Related Capabilities (IRCs). The IE is “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.” IRCs are “the tools, techniques, or activities that affect any of the three dimensions of the information environment,” and are not limited to traditional employments like radio broadcasts or leaflets. An IRC is any capability used to affect behavior through the full range of military operations. A deliberate strike, signature management, social media, and effects through cyberspace are all examples of potential IRCs. Information Operations do not own any IRCs, but rather uses them in integrated planning with other capabilities. With the release of the Information function, IO and its doctrine are being re-examined to incorporate the effects of information on military operations.

Another area the US military is trying to understand is Multi-Domain Operations, also known as Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) in the US Army. Through advances in Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) for both the US military and potential adversaries, military leaders realize the need to integrate operations faster and smarter, provide more options to commanders, and to maintain decision advantage. While MDO — the ability to transition and generate effects in all domains in a synchronized  manner — is not a new concept, the success of future conflicts will critically depend on advanced multi-domain operations (AMDO). The difference between the two levels of MDO is that AMDO brings together multiple dilemmas in all domains simultaneously at a tempo our adversary cannot match.


AOC operations floor, where the integrated execution of AMDO and IO would take place.

Looking at the definitions and concepts of IO and MDO, both are intrinsically linked. The Information Environment (IE) permeates all domains, and the application of IO in the IE affects all domains. In previous conflicts, integrated operations focused primarily on the application of lethal fires to achieve commander objectives. Airpower, in support of Joint Task Force objectives, was used to remove an adversary’s Integrated Air Defense System, provide close air support, or cause deep strikes on command-and-control posts or supply lines, while achieving air superiority. All operations, on both land and air, were integrated from a concept, but tasked and commanded-and-controlled separately. These types of operations were still considered MDO, but they did not reach the level that advanced MDO is working towards. The theories of advanced MDO are still being written, but those theories realize that plans and operations for advanced MDO must be interconnected from the strategic to tactical level of warfare, and that lethal and non-lethal operations must be equally “baked” in at all levels.

As MDO grows, non-lethal fires such as space control, electronic warfare, and cyberspace provide capabilities and effects that will be integral to the evolution of US warfare. However, the inclusion of IO as an integrator of joint fires, both lethal and non-lethal, to affect adversary behavior, is also essential. As the utilization of MDO theories in warfighting evolves, think of an operation that has a cyber fire executing at the same time as an air strike in conjunction with a ground force engagement. Then, add in the ability and situational awareness to adjust those ground forces, air strike, and cyber fires on a given notice. The combination of synchronized simultaneous multiple domain fires within the operational environment, and with the ability to command and control them allows you to reach the current definition of advanced MDO.

However, I posit that without considering the IE, the current definition of advanced MDO is still lacking the ability to maintain the speed and agility required to maintain the decision advantage over an adversary unless you consider the human element. Combine the previous scenario with capabilities that target the human dimension of the IE, using various dissemination mediums through the deliberate application of IO to change behavior. These tactics might include Military Deception (MILDEC), Signature Management, Military Information Support Operations (MISO), and other influence operations. In that same battlespace, you now can achieve tactical-level direct effects that can cause second and third order effects over the entire battlefield. A single airstrike or cyber fire, with proper analysis of the IE, can potentially cause adversary forces to miscalculate the strength and location of friendly forces, lose the will to fight, surrender in an engagement, and even capitulate the entire conflict. Through deliberate planning, this combination of all lethal and non-lethal capabilities, with the inclusion of IRCs, as well as the ability to adapt fires in any given moment throughout all domains is the actual advanced MDO the Air Force is working towards. This complete version of advanced MDO will allow the US military to achieve and maintain decision advantage over an adversary.

The previous paragraph is a broad brush in the theory of advanced integrated warfare. However, it takes significant resources and dedication to turn theory into reality. Just as the resources dedicated to developing traditional capabilities and targets require deliberate efforts, the use of IO and behavior modification takes a complete systems analysis of an adversary. This systems analysis contains everything from an individual who may control the firing of a Surface-to-Air Missile battery, key military leaders at the strategic level, group or organization analysis, and the entire C4ISR system that links it all together. This system-level analysis can reveal key points that, when exploited, yield compounded effects on a battlefield. This is a dedicated effort that blends intelligence with information operations and can take months. Therefore, integration must occur in the early phases of war planning, before a conflict even begins.

Achieving advanced MDO is not an easy feat. The US military needs a fundamental shift in the way it views and resources warfare. Adversary advances in the weaponization of the cyberspace domain, weaponization of the electromagnetic spectrum, and advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems make maintaining air superiority through traditional methods (such as Air-Domain-focused operations) untenable due to a high cost and risk to mission and forces. The time required to develop plans that integrate cyberspace capabilities and IRCs can take years. To mitigate adversary technological advances, additional resources must be allocated to MISO, MILDEC, and other IRCs. The investment in IO and the study of the IE with the same resources applied to it as traditional operations can yield force multipliers that allow the US to gain air superiority in a highly contested environment, at a timing that is conducive to its operational objectives. As the concept of war continues to change throughout the 21st century, the US military must adapt IO and MDO doctrine, capabilities, and methods to maintain a military advantage over our adversaries.

Tommy Aretz has over 10 years of Information Operations experience and integrating non-kinetic/non-lethal capabilities into operations. He holds a BS in Behavioral Sciences from the US Air Force Academy and a MS in Organizational Leadership from Mount St. Joseph University. He is currently stationed at Langley AFB working on Headquarters Air Combat Command staff in the Cyber and Non-Kinetic Operations Division as Deputy Branch Chief for Non-Kinetic Capabilities.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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