By: Lauren Elkins
Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes
War is an inherently human endeavor. As such, the nature of war has and will remain rooted in the human desires of gain, safety, and reputation, achieved in modern civilization as an extension of policy. The objective of war continues to remain the same: to reach and influence the minds of the adversary population and key decision-makers to impose will. While the objective remains the same, advancements in society and technology have led to dramatic changes in the character of war. Through these advancements, war has progressively moved from physical to virtual domains, expanding the battlespace. This expansion allows state and non-state actors to bypass military forces to directly reach adversary populations – the human domain – through virtual (space, cyberspace) means. Direct access to the human domain in 21st century warfare blurs the lines between civilian and military targets, shifting the application of force from physical to virtual, in order to impose perceptions upon an adversary to achieve an unseen victory. The United States (US) must accept the human domain as a warfighting domain and maneuver to affect change in adversary populations, compel desired behaviors from their governing authorities, and prevent potential conflict.
In the 19th century, opposing military forces met in the land and maritime domains to defeat the other in battle and claim the spoils of victory. Battles were mainly fought away from the civilian population, limiting direct access to the people unless their army and navy were defeated, which allowed the adversary to plunder and pillage the local area. The premier technology available during the Napoleonic Wars included muskets and cannons, and opposing military forces fought each other in direct conflict. The expansion of the battlespace to the air domain in the 20th century made it possible to bypass the increasingly lethal weapons of adversary land and sea forces to reach adversary populations. World War I demonstrated that bomber aircraft could directly punish these populations. According to Douhet, breaking the “morale” of the civilian population would dictate victory through the imposition of the aggressor’s will. Although widely deemed ineffective, his theory is one of the first to link the importance of influencing a population to victory on the battlefield. While increases in lethality and the expansion of the battlespace into the air domain changed the character of war, there were still clear lines of demarcation between war and peace, decisive victories, and a distinction between military forces and the civilian population.
Nuclear weapons further expanded the battlespace with the ability to destroy human civilization from anywhere on the globe. This not only allowed the complete bypass of adversary conventional forces, but also created a new pathway to achieve political ends by directly threating civilian populations. As a result, Schelling noted a shift in warfare from wars of violence to the threat of violence promised by the use of nuclear weapons. The sheer lethal, destructive potential of nuclear weapons on adversary populations and cities moved beyond serving a military purpose. It created a psychological effect among the populations that knew they were held at risk.
From the end of the 20th into the 21st century, the line between military operations and daily civilian activities started to blur as they increasingly came to rely on the space and cyberspace domains. Thus, creating new possibilities for reaching nonmilitary personnel in warfare. The 1990 Gulf War highlighted the effectiveness of precision navigation and strike as enabled by space assets. Now, the space domain enables combined arms integration across land, sea, and air. Working in concert with space, the cyberspace domain exponentially increases global connectivity and global reach. The current battlespace is so globally connected that civilian populations are held at risk and the lines between civilian and military activity are ceasing to exist. War is increasingly taking on a different form and shifting from physical to virtual as the way to achieve victory.
Virtual violence – aggressive actions in the virtual domains – is altering the Clausewitzian understanding of what violence and force is in warfare. Thomas Rid argues that a “real act of war is always potentially or actually lethal,” in Clausewitz’s terms. According to Rid, virtual violence is not “real” because it is not physical. However, Schelling would counter that violence encompasses both physical violence and also the threat of violence. Though seemingly innocuous, there is always an underlying threat of physical violence within virtual violence. Russia’s unsophisticated cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 completely paralyzed Estonia’s computer infrastructure, affecting military, economic and governmental activities. Had Russia invaded during that cyber-attack they could have shown the world how virtual and physical domains could work synergistically to impose will on both military and civilian populations. As virtual violence increases, the civil-military divide continues to erode and the area between war and peace continues to blur.
The consequence of this blurring between military and civilian populations is the emergence of the gray zone between war and peace. The 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia most largely affected their economic and governmental institutions. The increasing use of the virtual domains in daily civilian life created the opportunity for virtual violence to be introduced onto civilian populations during periods of peace. Russian General Valery Gerasimov describes this change by saying “long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals.” The adversary he describes is not just the military force, but it is the whole of the adversary population. Douhet’s theory of effective civilian population punishment is becoming a reality, albeit through virtual means not airpower. Combat and operational goals are no longer achieved decisively through physical violence alone. They are achieved by shaping perceptions through virtual violence.
The definition of victory is also changing as virtual violence becomes more dominant than physical violence. The Gerasimov doctrine describes war as a clash of competing perceptions of reality. Simpson states that war “is a competition to impose meaning on people.” Both of these thoughts summarize that war, while still a clash of wills, is now a competition of perceptions rather than just military force. Russia’s theory of reflexive control is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” Specially prepared information can be shared through virtual domains that bypass military forces to reach an adversary population and decision-makers. As such, 21st-century warfare seeks to virtually impose perceptions as opposed to the physically imposed will of the past. Victory is no longer achievable in decisive, physical conflict. Unseen victory, achieved in the human domain, is the new victory. This paradigm shift in warfare is a novel implementation of Sun Tzu’s principle where the acme of skill is to defeat the adversary without ever physically fighting. This is the future of war: the imposition of perceptions to achieve unseen victory.
The challenge then becomes the recognition of an “unseen victory” across multiple domains. Understanding the importance of targeting decision-making (DM) and compelling the desired behavior is the solution. Russia exercises this tactic through its social media targeting of European and US populations. The United States is more reticent to target populations due to potential misunderstandings, blowback and a lack of prioritization of behavior-based targeting. DoD psychological operations lost most of its support in 2011 after allegations of use against American citizens surfaced. If the DoD intends to change behavior and affect DM, targeting on an operational and strategic level is required by military officers who are trained to fight this type of warfare.
US Air Force Information Operations Officers (IO’s) have the requisite background and training to contest the cognitive space and compel desired behaviors. All officers must have a psychology-related undergraduate or master’s degrees for career field consideration. The initial IO corps trained at the US Army Psychological Operations Qualification Course and completed several other related trainings such as operations security, signature management, and operational military deception. The integral trainings piece together the requisite understanding of how to operate within the human domain. Each course strives to affect perceived information and ultimately affect DM and behavior. The US Air Force and DoD has an opportunity to capitalize on the unique and critical skills of Information Operations Officer. If they are properly integrated into all staffs, planning teams, and government agencies, the US can better navigate through great power competition with Russia and China.
The human domain is the sixth warfighting domain, and it will be the most decisive domain in future warfare. However, it is still not a sanctioned domain by the DoD. The domains, as we know them, are no longer mutually exclusive. Actions taken in each of the traditional domains are ultimately accomplished to affect a behavior change. Further, if a nation can defeat its adversary through the imposition of its will without the use of physical force, then physical means of warfighting stands to become obsolete. They will be useful only as a deterrent to physical violence. The dependence of both civilian and military populations on the virtual domains will continue to increase, perpetuating the blurring of war and peace. Russia’s reflexive control theory and their use of cyber against Estonia has demonstrated their prioritization of the human domain. Psychological operators today can enable victories. However, the DoD’s prioritization of human domain is lacking. The control of information, imposition of perceptions, and deep understanding of psychological effects is critical to strategic competition. The United States is training a cadre of officers to control perceived information to ultimately affect DM and behavior. Information Operations officers are uniquely suited for operations in this critical domain. The entry of virtual engagement, fluid communications, and grey zone operations has demonstrated the requirement for the human domain. What is needed now is the DoD’s decision to recognize and prioritize it moving forward.
Disclaimer: 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.
Lauren Elkins is a USAF Information Operations Officer with over twelve years of behavioral science and information operations experience. She started her career in the Air Force Research Laboratory, spent two tours in Special Operations operating at the tactical and operational levels in multiple AORs, and served at Headquarters Air Force before attending Air Command and Staff College. She is currently serving as the Director of Operations for the 390 Cyberspace Operations Squadron.
Featured Image: https://www.virtualorganization.net/2018/05/