The US has a problem on her hands, and the emerging answers fail to address the real problem. While military strategists concoct new approaches to overcome bristling defensive postures in adversarial states, the defense establishment is failing to address the cyber-cultural offensive already underway.
Approximate reading time: 14 minutes
By Donald Seablom and Nicholas Helms
Human beings, and the organizations into which they coalesce, often exhibit a glaring fault that can have far reaching ramifications. When faced with a difficult question, humans often replace the query with a simpler question, one they can answer. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman outlines this principle in his seminal work, Thinking, Fast and Slow. When this substitution phenomenon occurs, large organizations and even states can draw the wrong conclusions from a supposed solution to a problem at hand—and subsequent policy might not address the problem at all. The US has a problem on her hands, and the emerging answers fail to address the real problem. In short, military-specific solutions to overcome emerging defensive efforts of America’s adversaries do not address the cultural attacks that are underway in the cyber realm.
Recent events indicate that Russia is at war with the US, or at least at war with the US on Russia’s terms. Unfortunately, Russia’s war-like efforts do not seem to be driving relevant counters from the US writ large as the actions fall far below the threshold of war in US terms. Nor does the US seem to recognize that she is indeed at war, albeit in a form that she does not understand fully nor know how to counter. It is at this critical juncture that the US military has gone awry with a substitution and replaced a comprehensive counter campaign with a rather limited proposal of Multi-Domain Operations. Instead of seeking to understand the entire threat in holistic terms, the DOD replaced the problem with a simpler one; rather than engaging in a compressive campaign that relies on all instruments of power (IOP), the US prefers to look at the issue as one that the military establishment can answer. Moreover, from this perspective, US efforts seem to be relegated to military-only type operations such as forced entry or IADs take-down. Unless senior level US strategists are already executing an extensive, coordinated, behind the scenes Multi-IIOP campaign against its top adversaries, it seems that Russia has stolen a march on America. Even worse, Russia makes minimal attempts to hide its new approach to war. To get in the fight, and counter this threat, the entire US, government and civilian entities inclusive, must adopt and implement holistic and far-reaching measures. This article provides a broad interpretation of how countering evolutions in the conduct of war-like operations have put the American society at risk, highlights evidence of the influence operations themselves, and warns that unless the US adjusts its outlook, the future is bleak. Ultimately, we call for public discourse on this sensitive topic.
For purposes of this article, military-type operations are those lines of effort that seek to achieve military objectives. Historically, the US military has sought to influence foreign powers through the traditional domains of land, sea, and air. The relatively recent opening of space offered a new domain through which to integrate and enhance military power. Then, of course, the explosion of the Internet provided a new man-made domain which offered the defense establishment an opportunity to both network its warfighting efforts for command and control purposes, and the hopeful option of denying that capability to others. Traditionally, services tended to focus on their respective domains, and cross-domain solutions were developed to influence one domain via another in asymmetric fashion. History is replete with examples that demonstrate the value of being able to shape a domain by relying on new technology in another. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of such a campaign occurred during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. The German U-boat efforts were devastating the Allied lifeline across the North Atlantic. The ultimate solution did not come in the same underwater or surface domains occupied by the U-boats. Instead, a variety of technological efforts converged to present a solution from the air with a heavy reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum. Long-range B-24s, equipped with the latest radar and armed with new munitions, effectively closed the last safe enclave in the central North Atlantic where the U-boats operated with impunity. That convergence of technology, applied across a domain, effectively won the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allies were able to evolve their capabilities to secure an advantage over another domain. Generally speaking, since World War II, the US military got very good at military operations in every traditional domain and can hold any state at military risk.
The enemy, having a vote after all, adjusted. The idea of anti-access/area denial (or A2AD, a long-standing idea of simply defending a state’s homeland and thus sovereignty through defensive mechanisms) germinated into capable hardware that threatened the US military’s ability to get to the fight. Moreover, those systems are relatively cheap. That threat drove a US counter-response, and considerable effort has been dedicated to figuring out how to fight and survive in those contested environments. Systems designed to survive in an A2AD environment, for example fifth-generation fighter aircraft, are prohibitively expensive. These countering approaches have encouraged growth of new buzzwords in the DOD’s lexicon, the latest with the most institutional momentum being Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and Multi-Domain Battle (MDB).
MDO is offered as a solution to the A2AD environment by which military efforts are synchronized across multiple domains to achieve military objectives. For example, perhaps a naval electronic warfare platform can jam an air defense radar for a brief period of time, just long enough for a USAF strike asset to destroy a troubling target within the confines of a near-peer aggressor state. Seemingly, involving more capabilities across more domains will offer military planners more options to get to the fight, overwhelm the enemy’s defensive measures, and coerce senior leaders. Options to employ multi-domain solutions are endless, but with every new layer added to a military operation, planners will likely find new sources of Clausewitz’s fog and friction. Ultimately, with enough analysis, assets, and planning, MDO might very well overcome the challenges associated with A2AD.
However, to focus on A2AD, or finding the ability to operate in contested environment, is to fall far short of what must be done to maintain a continuous advantage on the global scale. To be sure, those capabilities must be developed to some extent lest the US military becomes completely irrelevant overseas. Yet those capabilities only address a portion of the problem, and as difficult as the problem may appear to military planners, A2AD is the easy portion. At most, A2AD solutions, if executed flawlessly, only address a tactical problem, i.e., getting to the fight. The hard part of the problem is the war that is already ongoing, the war that is undermining US society. Russia is already firmly committed to an offensive that the US is barely beginning to comprehend. In that vein, talk of future war is somewhat comical; the future is now and the fight with Russia is already on.
Russia’s current offensive, specifically against America, preys on the human domain. Much like A2AD, the approach has been practiced by leading powers for hundreds of years. The British Empire experience is instructive. The British mastered the ability to analyze the society inhabiting economically or geographically desirable regions and identified key fissures that, when inflamed, weakened the society itself and opened the door for foreign dominance. Heart-wrenching as Western Imperialism was, the idea “divide and conquer” tended to work from the standpoint of exercising control over foreign peoples. Historically, a foreign power actually needed to physically deploy officers or operatives into a foreign land to identify pre-existing rifts in society for exploitation. Then came a strategic effort to elevate the social status of one power over another, put one group in power, or grant economic favors to one. Then the foreign power had but to wait. Eventually, people felt slighted, lashed out, tore the society apart, and left it weakened for foreign exploitation. The mechanisms for inciting this phenomenon evolved considerably with the development of the Internet. Today, foreign populations are ripe for exploitation from afar, with no actual contact with, or physical presence in, the targeted state. The freedom of information sharing enabled by the Internet has a downside, and the enemy is exploiting it for his own strategic ends. So, while military strategists concoct new approaches to overcome the bristling defensive posture in adversarial states, the defense establishment is failing to address the cyber-cultural offensive already underway.
A common way to discuss this problem is offered by current military practitioners and identifies types of state or military actions as games. The idea, they say, is to change the game on the adversary; play a game that they are unaccustomed to, or do not know how to play. The common vernacular might offer, “country A is playing checkers, while country B is playing chess” implying the chances of success are much greater for the player who embraces the more complicated venue. In that sense, the “sucker” finds himself playing the simple, outdated form of warfare and watches helplessly as the dominant adversary sets forth under different rule sets. Unfortunately, the “games” that the defense establishment seek to play instead of traditional military action tend to just look like more complicated military action. To that end, they fail to influence what should be the end factor in every MDO, the human. The US and Russia are indeed playing different games: the US took the bait for MDO, and Russia pivoted to influence operations against the US society through the delivery vector of the Internet. As an aside, in some ways, one might argue that President Trump might be using his Twitter feed to influence international relations. To that point, we would advocate for a more comprehensive and planned effort in that domain. Unfortunately, in many ways, the US society, at large, is the ultimate sucker. Democratic values that America has clung to dearly since the birth of the Republic are under attack.
Multiple streams of evidence demonstrate that this is indeed happening. First, easily accessible are leading national security expert citations of examples. Somewhat more obscure, but certainly available, are Russian source documents written by the leading advocates of this tactic. The ideas postulated in those works are clear; the path to influence America lies in information operations. Finally, casual observers would have to take rather evasive steps to remain free and clear of the assault on truth ongoing in their own social media bubbles.
From the American national security expert perspective, evidence that Russia is attempting to influence American society through the exacerbation of already festering fissures is abundant. For length purposes, we offer just two poignant examples. The recently departed National Security Advisor, Lt Gen McMaster, cited incontrovertible evidence that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential election. Whether or not that specific effort was successful is debated by many. It is also beside the point. The fact remains that Russia did attempt to do so and will likely continue to do so in the future. Comparatively speaking, relative to the cost of advancing the capabilities of traditional military platforms, the cost of a cyber offensive could be much lower, and at this juncture, there does not seem to be any coherent way to counter the assault. NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers expressed an even grimmer outlook; not only is Russia clearly engaged and seeking influence within the US political process and society at large, the NSA has not been granted any authorizations to counter the cyber activities. In Roger’s defense, he has called for extended authorities. For the time being, Russia is cleared to continue with its assault with little to no fear of retaliation from the US. This needs to change.
These accusations are not limited to American conjecture. Far from it. Russians themselves present the darkest evidence. Mr. Timothy Thomas, in employ at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, culled talking points about contemporary warfare from 45 Russian articles and academic pieces. The report is staggering, for it illuminates how Russian strategists seek to destroy an adversary by focusing on control of information and destruction of truth. The following excerpts are drawn from the 2016 article; time and again, the authors key in on fomenting dissent and exacerbating tensions through information operations. To begin, none less than the Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov offers the following advice: “attain political goals [by] exerting information-psychological pressure, actively supporting a domestic opposition and using insurgency or subversive methods; principal means are ‘color revolutions,’ which are effectively coup d’états organized from the outside and based on technologies that manipulate a population’s protest potential.” Similarly, Col (ret) Chekinov and Lt Gen (ret) Bogdanov advise that “setting up an opposition and fomenting ethnic strife weakens the external position of a state by ruining its international relations through political, economic, legal, information, and other means.” Those two authors also recognize that, “without information security a state can lose its political sovereignty, economic independence, and role as a world leader.” Ergo, “information influence…is now capable of strategic missions.” They continue by encouragement to “give an aggressor a negative public image” declaring that “[New Generation War] should be dominated by information…” and promote information war as the “start point of every action in a ‘new type of warfare (a hybrid war),’ in which broad use is made of the mass media and computer networks (blogs, social sites, etc.).” President of the Academy of Military Science, General of the Army Gareev advocates for indirect actions as well: “The indirect actions are tied to political, economic, and psychological influences on the enemy and to methods of feeding him disinformation and destroying him from within.” In sum, Russia recognizes that the quest for traditional military parity is a fool’s errand; new solutions favor disinformation.
Finally, regarding evidence, it is hardly difficult to identify logical manifestations of these efforts. A quick glance through the windows mass media offers us reveals of American society a people angry, upset, marginalized, reactionary, polarized, and lashing out at others in uncharacteristic ways. Examples can be found with coverage of child sex trafficking, Charlottesville, NFL racial debates, and Parkland school shooting, and even admittance from a former troll farm employee. Russian actors do not create these tensions, but they do intensify them. Influenced by Russian bots, a rapid media competition, and the circus of politics, polarized groups of Americans feed the 24-hour news cycle frenzy and impede efforts to move forward together as a society. This is not to say that American societal interactions have been rosy from the beginning. Rather, they have been marked by sores and fissures as surely as any others have. But the fact remains, a prime source of the exacerbations of our own internal problems are coming from abroad.
The characterization of the ongoing fight makes it clear the substitution of MDO as a viable solution does not address the root problem: America is already at war. To be fair, the root problem is extremely troubling, and will require much more than purely military application to remedy. But confining the problem to military-only lines of effort can hardly have meaningful long-term success, and the DOD can take steps to begin addressing the problem at hand. Every day that goes by offers Russia more opportunities to deliver disinformation and negatively influence US domestic and foreign policy. But how can the US military actually engage? How can the US military address the disinformation campaign against US society? Should military cyber organizations be granted authorities to take retaliatory action outside of declared war via the Internet? How would the military expose disinformation campaigns? How might it team with the State Department and use funds to combat the threat? To what extent is the American public okay with US military operations across the Internet that it relies on for daily use? What might US Cyber Command’s efforts look like if Rogers’ pleas for authorities are granted? How can the military ensure its actions don’t conflict with rights granted by the 1st and 4th amendments? If America is willing to continue absorbing the blows that land daily, the situation will continue to deteriorate. The time for public discourse on this prickly topic is now.
In closing, we, the authors, openly admit that we are susceptible to our own substitution error even after grandstanding through this narrative. Russia is loud and noisy, with an overt signature. China, on the other hand, is much quieter and can trace this practice from 500 BCE’s Sun Tzu to 1999’s Unrestricted Warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. Comparatively speaking, China has the economic capacity, the demographic demands, the technological wherewithal, a closed society to manipulate, and a willingness to play the long game. That said, China is probably an even bigger threat in this arena. Stay tuned.
Donald Seablom is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force. He is currently the Deputy Director of the Department of Airpower at Air Command and Staff College. A Cyber Operations Officer, he has worked at the squadron and group level with extensive time in the Special Tactics environment, working in a variety of support functions, to include squadron commander.
Nicholas Helms is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force. He is an Air Force test pilot with background experience in fighters and RPAs. In his last assignment he was an Academic Advisor and Instructor at the Air Command and Staff College. In his next assignment he will serve as Director of Operations at the 452 Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base.
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 U.S. Government