Estimated Time to Read: 7 minutes
By Dan “Plato” Morabito
Abstract: America’s adversaries are waging a decades-long information war calibrated to advance their national interests at the expense of the United States while avoiding direct and decisive conflict with the US military. Key to their strategy is exploiting ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity to directly access the American people, a national center of gravity. Simultaneously, the US government is poorly organized to engage in information conflict, lacking a unified theory, definition, doctrine, and organizational structure for Information Warfare (IW). This four-part essay develops a theory of IW using first principles of information theory. It presents a novel IW definition, taxonomy, attack vectors, and theory of victory to inform how the United States thinks and competes within the information environment and concludes with recommendations for how the United States might compete in the information war through military and civilian action. This first of four essays establishes a historical basis for thinking about information warfare as a key component of conflict from the earliest recorded battles to today.
Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.– Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air
The United States is losing an Information War with its competitors.1 China and Russia have attacked the United States for decades, costing it billions of dollars, sowing division, extremism, and violence among the American people, and undermining US societal norms and democracy. Despite this national security threat, the US government remains poorly organized to employ its information instrument of power, lacking a unified theory, definition, doctrine, and organizational structure for Information Warfare (IW). This four-part essay presents a comprehensive theory of IW using first principles of information theory. It develops a novel IW definition, taxonomy, attack vectors, and theory of victory to inform how the United States thinks and competes within this latest information-dominated form of war and applies the theory to better appreciate how China conducts IW. It concludes with recommendations for how the US government might mitigate information aggression though both military and civilian action.
The Enemy Lies at Your Fingertip
Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.– Xi Jinping, Speech to the Chinese Communist Party, January 5, 2013
Military power projection as a function of information, distance, and geography has shaped the character of war from the first recorded conflicts to today.2 As warfighting technology evolves, the speed at which a combatant can traverse space and attack an adversary has increased tremendously, with each conflict and technological advancement altering the character of war.3 Given recent advances in high-speed network connectivity and information technology, geography and distance no longer protect the United States from direct and persistent information-based attacks. The global trend towards faster data transfer and information dissemination across increasingly more connected devices, the internet of things, means that adversaries now maintain a presence in American homes, delivered through their smart phones and devices.
The US military’s power comes from those it represents, which makes the attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs of the American people a national center of gravity and strategic concern. A consequence of the deluge of competing adversarial narratives, delivered by America’s enemies through the internet of things, is that many Americans cannot discern the difference between fake news and truth, leaving them misinformed, uncertain, and prone to attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs shaped by social media filtering and bias.4 Simultaneously, the American military prioritizes and remains focused on preparing for large-scale combat operations in order to deter aggression from near-peer military competitors and to decisively win if such a conflict occurs.5
China and Russia are waging a multi-decade Information War against the United States calibrated to advance their national interests while avoiding direct and decisive conflict with the West. Key to their strategy is exploiting America’s emphasis on the rights of free speech and freedom of the press which, by constitutional mandate, may not be infringed upon except under extraordinary circumstances. This makes the information environment competitive space ill-suited for Department of Defense (DoD) intervention, exposing a gap in civilian and military thinking about how to defend the nation. It also raises questions such as: what is IW; what is the role of the DoD in countering IW within the United States; and how should the United States respond to this latest information-dominated form of war?
Doctrinally and organizationally, the DoD is ill-prepared and poorly postured to counter peer competitors in the information environment, lacking even a definition for IW. Meanwhile, America’s enemies use the ubiquitous connectivity of the internet to bypass the country’s traditional military defenses while directly and maliciously sowing division and mistrust among the American people on an unprecedented scale. The US government must aggressively pursue social, legal, and organizational change to counter these enemies within the information environment. However, to do this effectively, it must understand how IW is used against the United States today as well as how it will likely be used in the future. While the US government struggles to understand and counter this form of warfare, the DoD must buy time for US democracy to adapt to this new fight by immediately implementing solutions that triage this emergent and potentially catastrophic threat. To do this, it must start by developing a comprehensive theory of IW that robustly informs how it competes within the information environment.
Information Warfare Theory
The aggressor is always peace-loving (as Napoleon Bonaparte claimed to be); he would prefer to take over a country unopposed.– Carl von Clausewitz, On War
Information has been a vital component of warfare since the earliest recorded battles. In the 1469 BC Battle of Megiddo, critical information as to the disposition of the Egyptian army was woefully absent for the Hyksos King of Kadesh who led a revolt of Palestinian and Syrian tribes against Thutmose III, the Egyptian pharaoh.6
Anticipating an Egyptian attack on the stronghold city of Megiddo, the Hyksos King assessed that the large Egyptian army would likely approach using one of two larger roads to the east and west of the city, and divided their forces accordingly to intercept them. Using information gained from his scouts and discerning that the rebel leaders expected him to approach by these two broad roads, Thutmose instead chose a third, narrow road that led to the south of the city.7 The pharaoh’s advisors begged him not to use this road, as it was only thirty-feet wide in places, with heights on either side that would invite an enemy ambush. Had the rebel army chosen to acknowledge their vulnerability and position themselves defensively on this third road, they would have had a tremendous advantage. They might have defeated the Egyptian army or forced them to withdraw. Too late, and with their army divided and focused to the east and west, the rebels, “realized that their enemy had done the thing they had not calculated on and had surprised them.”8The pharaoh’s early information advantage, along with the rebel army’s failure to acknowledge the third-road threat, allowed the Egyptians to establish a positional advantage relative to large portions of the rebel army that were caught outside their city and cut off from reinforcements.
It also enabled a cognitive advantage, that of surprise, over both the occupants of the city and the divided army outside. The Egyptians soon used their positional advantage, gained through their information advantage, to overwhelmingly defeat the divided army, afterward laying siege to the city and capturing it.9 When news of the crushing defeat of the rebel army reached the remaining Mesopotamian cities that had not yet joined the rebellion, they were deterred from joining the Hyksos King. They instead voluntarily sent tribute to Thutmose as evidence that they did not want war, a demonstration of how actions in the information environment reverberate throughout other domains to influence attitudes and behaviors. Having forged its reputation as a military power at the Battle of Megiddo, Egypt established itself as the regional hegemon for the next two decades.10 This, the first recorded battle of history, illustrates how the interplay of information across all domains contributes to decisive effects at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Furthermore, it reveals the power of information as a substantial contributor towards establishing advantages across other instruments of power.
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel B. Morabito is an Air Force cyberspace operations officer and recent graduate of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Lieutenant Colonel Morabito has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from Baylor University and holds masters degrees in Leadership and Information Technology, Cyberspace Operations, and Military Operational Art and Science from Duquesne University, the Air Force Institute of Technology, and the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a graduate of the USAF Air Command and Staff College Joint All Domain Strategist concentration. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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 United States Government.
1. A crucial point must be made regarding the term “information war.” The nature of war does not change; therefore, the term describes war that is uniquely characterized by the use of information to achieve its ends. This is in contrast to the term “information warfare” which remains undefined in US doctrine and is the focus of this essay.
2. Jeffrey M. Reilly, Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air Force Research Institute, 2012), 21-23.
3. James J. Schneider, Theoretical Paper No. 4, Vulcan’s Anvil: The American Civil War and the Emergence of Operational Art (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 1995), 10-11.
4. Sara Kitsch, Sky Cooley, Robert Hinck, and Asya Cooley, “Quick Look: Inoculation Theory,”The Media Ecology and Strategic Analysis Group, November 2020, accessed December 16, 2020, https://nsiteam.com/social/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Quick-Look_Inoculation-Theory_FINAL.pdf.
5. Donald Trump, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, 2017), 25, accessed October 14, 2020, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.
6. Richard Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 5.
7. Eric H. Cline, The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 18-19.
8. Harold Hayden Nelson, The Battle of Megiddo (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1913), 38.
9. Nelson, The Battle of Megiddo, 22-38.
10. Dupuy and Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, 6.