Fixing the US Response in the Information Environment

The US is vulnerable to the effects of the information environment, and must adapt by developing a comprehensive information strategy. Just as the US would never cede the ground or air domains to past adversaries, we cannot afford to cede the information environment to hostile actors today.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

By Nicole M. McCammon and Andrew L. Caulk

The 21st century is entirely different than any other time in history due to the instantaneous and permeating nature of communication. This new environment provides a platform for global terrorism ideologies and state-sponsored disinformation. Democratic governments and militaries, on the other hand, lag far behind in articulating their own ideals and countering propaganda. This deficit represents a strategic gap in the application of the informational element of national power. This deficit also undercuts American power projection and deterrence by undermining the very reality that nations and their citizens perceive to be true.

Our military, with its history of overwhelming battlefield successes, has become our nation’s most comfortable instrument of national power. While our military prowess is unquestionable, the socio-political outcomes of our military engagements have been less than anticipated. We know now that we cannot fight an ideology into submission. While DAESH/ISIS has retreated, we know terrorist organizations and violent extremists will only bide their time until the next opportunity. Therefore, we must make the transition to fighting with the full range of instruments of national power. First, though, we must rebuild the capabilities we have let atrophy, conceptualize how to use them, and understand what ultimate objectives we are attempting to accomplish.

Today’s information environment (IE) has leveled the playing field. Powerful countries and dissident groups alike can engage in operations that shape perceptions and change behavior. As the potential impact of these operations grows, the US is left ever more vulnerable by not having a clear and comprehensive information strategy. Today, we are conducting kinetic battles in a non-kinetic war — the US must change strategies to adapt to the current environment. Just as we would never give up the ground or air domains to our past adversaries, we cannot afford to cede the information environment to hostile actors today.

Our objective in this article is to foster a discussion about what it takes to engage effectively in the information environment. We propose the following three concepts:

  1. Recognize that the information environment gap exists and it’s a threat.
  2. Create organizational and operational concepts and frameworks that integrate information engagement into all operations.
  3. Employ critical analysis and rapid iteration to continually advance this topic and refine associated capabilities.

Currently, our information capabilities are spread across various government agencies and operate without a unifying, whole-of-government informational strategy. The Department of Defense (DoD) has Information Operations (IO) and Public Affairs (PA). The Department of State (DoS) has diplomacy, public affairs, and public diplomacy. The White House and other politicians also engage in public diplomacy and public affairs. Unfortunately, all of these organizations sometimes send different messages to the same audiences. This problem is not specific to any political administration and has been an issue for more than a decade. Operating in this manner is not only ineffective, it negatively impacts our desired outcomes and long-term reputation.

The question is: How do we fix these issues?

Command and Control of the Information Environment
The first step to reducing “information fratricide” is to improve communication within the DoD. An integrated command and control structure for the information environment would keep everyone in the DoD on the same page. This concept has been floated by Headquarters Air Force as the “C2IE,” or Command and Control of the Information Environment. The C2IE would provide the framework for a unified and immediate response to actions in the information environment. It would allow functions like IO and PA to respond with the 24-hour news cycle instead of waiting days or weeks for approval on a message – by which time the audience would have moved on, solidifying the disinformation.

Some members in the field may be thinking, what about the Information Operations Working Group (IOWG)? The IOWG was commissioned with this intent in mind, but from the point of view of these authors it has been lacking an essential piece: unity with regular operations. Separating this group into its own entity caused it to create its own planning cycle. Members in the IOWG can be unified but fail to get the kinetic side on board, leaving their efforts fruitless.

A new information analyzation framework cannot be separate from standard operations planning. Instead of creating a separate working group (like the IOWG), leaders should come up with the kinetic and non-kinetic strategies at the same time. War is influence, so using an influence objective would allow planners to choose from a range of resources – kinetic or non-kinetic. This might mean we use information to force adversaries to do or not do something instead of using a kinetic solution. Conversely, kinetic solutions can sometimes solve problems in the informational environment. For example, in 2015 the US military used a kinetic solution on a target identified through social media in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Unified Common Operating Picture
In order to have a C2IE, we also need to have an information environment common operating picture, or IE COP. Having a regular COP (not just a weekly Commander’s update briefing thrown together last minute) can provide proper warning, identify vulnerabilities, and allow Combatant Commands to better target kinetic and non-kinetic operations. Assigning a group of Information Operations and Public Affairs officers to brief the commander once a week won’t give the necessary depth. Today’s standard news clips, atmospherics, and command social media account “likes” don’t quite meet the intent. These groups need to be integrated with members from all US actors in the information environment.

In an ideal world, these processes and structures would combine to create effects. For example, countering Russian disinformation in Syria using a coordinated and synchronized intelligence processing to show, using imagery, exactly how the Russians are lying. Certain imagery could then be declassified to prove, in this case, Russian dissembling. Doing so would allow CENTCOM and the State Department to counter propaganda and establish a positive reputation as both a defense and offense in the information environment. This would be no simple task. An effort such as this would require pre-coordination between multiple Combatant Commands, the State Department, and possibly politicians to coordinate what actions should be taken. It would also need a clear and rapid process to declassify material to use specifically for clear operational objectives. This is, of course, not without risk but could be of great reward in both the long and short term.

Rapid Employment of IE Capabilities
A C2IE and IE COP alone won’t make a difference. To be effective, there needs to be direct and expedient message coordination to quickly respond to actions in the IE. Commanders need to advocate for interagency communication within Combatant Command regions. If the DoS and DoD have large roles in the same region, as they often do, both need to agree on a communication strategy. Additionally, Public Affairs and Information Operations teams need to work together in the IE. While both have slightly different roles, strengths, and responsibilities, most of their work overlaps significantly. These two capabilities must be at the table together and fully synchronized in their engagement using the same COP.

This synchronized capability comes in the form of distributed joint information engagement. One spokesperson, agency, or commander cannot provide the level of engagement necessary to break through the noise level in the IE. Every day there are actions that are shifting perceptions, leaving our audience to form opinions against our narrative. Everyone engaged in the IE on every interagency team must know the overall objectives and their operational guidelines. This requires a clear strategy to be established.

Any IE strategy must provide a common understanding of objectives and appropriate delegation of information engagement authority to achieve those objectives. A unifying communication strategy would align the messaging of governmental agencies, commands, and subordinate units. The IE is inherently risky and favors asymmetrical warfare, and any strategy we create must assume a significant level of risk. We have to assume someone will say or do something wrong. Instead of simply hoping that doesn’t happen, we should already have plans in place to mitigate the fallout of such an event. An IE strategy must also rapidly iterate and evolve; the information environment is extremely dynamic and requires adaptability to engage effectively. Finally, an IE strategy cannot simply define what we say about what we do. Instead, it must guide our actions to align with our stated objectives. Actions speak louder than words, but both must be consistent to be effective.

With a responsive information command and control structure, a real-time IE common operating picture, and a unifying communication strategy to guide responses, the US might finally have a team fully engaged in the information fight. Today’s information environment requires the US to reconsider the application of their informational power and establish a flexible, responsive, and integrated IE capability to achieve national interests. To accomplish this goal, senior leaders must breakdown institutional barriers between kinetic/non-kinetic and IO/PA, deconflict messaging between government agencies, streamline IE authorities, and establish IE strategies that incorporate both words and actions. The information environment is not going away any time soon, and the US has to put a dog in the fight and do it effectively. If we don’t learn to harness this capability, it will continue to hurt our operations abroad and our foundation at home.

Captain Nicole M. McCammon is part of the first group of Air Force Officers to earn the Information Operations Officers Specialty Code. She has worked in the European, African, and Middle Eastern theaters on information operations. She currently serves as an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) instructor and Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies at the University of Washington. She holds a degree in Psychology from Oregon State University and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington. She can be contacted at Nicole.McCammon@us.af.mil.

Captain Andrew L. Caulk is the Chief of Public Affairs, 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. He has 9 years of experience in Public Affairs, serving in multiple overseas assignments overseas, including a 2015 deployment as the Air Forces Central Command deputy director of public affairs. He holds a degree in Humanities from the US Air Force Academy and a Masters in Strategic Communication from George Mason University. He can be contacted at Andrew.Caulk.1@us.af.mil.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.

5 thoughts on “Fixing the US Response in the Information Environment

  • July 9, 2018 at 10:02 am
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    Great article. It would likely surprise most citizens that this type of system does not already exist, without of course the politicians’ involvement. Politicians do not agree on anything. This does raise the question of how can you establish or agree on the truth, or the consistent message? Can that process be done quickly by a committee, or is it decided by a central figure? The greatest challenge would be to get politicians to agree.

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  • July 11, 2018 at 11:09 am
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    This article is a thoughtful reminder of the difficulties we face as a nation in dealing with potential operations in the information/influence environment. I have read a number of such articles, and written a few myself, pointing out shortfalls and offering suggestions for possible change. Most of the suggested changes are doable but, at the end of the day, I’m left asking “who cares”? That may sound defeatist, but it’s really not. Until a Service, Department, Agency or congressional group takes a genuine interest in improving our ability to operate effectively in the information/influence environment and makes a commitment to change, there’s no driving force to seek the necessary funding, organizational and structural changes, and oversight authority to make it all happen.

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    • July 12, 2018 at 4:14 pm
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      Robert, I agree with you. I think we’re seeing national leaders begin to understand the danger of not having protective mechanisms in the information environment. I hope this drives action that reinvests in something similar to the U.S. Information Agency that existed throughout the Cold War and had a fair amount of success.

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      • July 14, 2018 at 11:16 am
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        Andrew, your point about the USIA is well taken. It’s successful outreach to foreign populations and internal enthusiasm were widely noted, particularly by the State Department, which absorbed it ostensibly to energize the State staff. Unfortunately, the reverse became the norm and flame that was USIA was dispersed and eventually extinguished. Perhaps we can look the to emergence of the new Futures Command to put some energy behind the understanding and practice of human influence, at least within the military. Bringing the rest of government on board (Ahh, but who sits at the head of the table?) could follow if the military has its act together.

  • July 12, 2018 at 10:12 am
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    Overall, I really enjoyed this post. Perhaps with the AF’s multi-domain C2 initiative we will see some of your ideas come to fruition – particularly in the air operation centers.

    As for the finer details of the article, I wanted to make a comment on your statement that reads:

    “Additionally, Public Affairs and Information Operations teams need to work together in the IE. While both have slightly different roles, strengths, and responsibilities, most of their work overlaps significantly.”

    Undoubtedly, PA and IO are similar — they are the DoD’s primary means for operating in the information environment. However, PA and IO are as similar as an F-16 is to a C-5. Both aircraft maneuver in airspace and must work to de-conflict and avoid collision while maintaining entirely different functions to a commander. In one case, precision strike, etc…the other, global mobility.

    The same can be said of PA and IO. Both capabilities maneuver in the information environment and must de-conflict to avoid information fratricide while providing the commander with separate capabilities. In one case, communicating the commander’s narrative…the other, altering adversary decision-making.

    Overall, I really appreciated the post and look forward to any thoughts one might have. Thank you for your thoughts.

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