The Third Road Threat: Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Information Warfare (Part 4/4)

Estimated Time to Read: 8 minutes
By Dan “Plato” Morabito

Our open economies and open societies have allowed the CCP to have an undue influence on our public sphere . . . it will take recognition of this influence and a major strategic adjustment to correct this.

Anne-Marie Brady, China Wants Face and We Are Left with the Cost


A recently declassified intelligence report determined that the United States “has not sufficiently adapted to a changing geopolitical and technological environment increasingly shaped by a rising China and the growing importance of interlocking non-military transnational threats . . . [A]bsent a significant realignment of resources, the U.S. government . . . will fail to achieve the outcomes required to enable continued U.S. competition with China on the global stage for decades to come, and to protect the U.S. health and security.”1 The US is unable to compete effectively within the information environment due to a “lack of bureaucratic coherence and leadership.”2 Meanwhile, every American is vulnerable to IW as unwitting victims within the information environment.3 To reverse this trend this essay offers several recommendations.

Therefore, the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers; and the worst is to assault cities.

Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

Recommendation 1: The United States must define IW in a way that empowers a doctrinal framework for thinking, communicating, planning, and acting within the information environment while organizing to meet the threat. This essay presents a novel theory of IW constructed using first principles of information theory to create an IW taxonomy which includes the IW Trinity of access, trust, and cognition along with six IW attack vectors. This provides a solid foundation for how to think about IW while informing how the United States defends itself while pursuing its national interests within the information environment. It should be extended to create robust IW doctrine that includes the full IW taxonomy.

Recommendation 2: Establish a whole-of-government organization charged with defending the United States in the information environment. This recommendation was recently advanced by US Air Force Captain Anthony Eastin and First Lieutenant Patrick Franck in an article titled, “Restructuring Information Warfare in the United States: Shaping the Narrative of the Future.” Eastin and Franck argue for “an independent, whole-of-government organization reporting directly to the National Security Council that will be empowered and resourced to lead, synchronize, and task IW capabilities to defend and protect US interests.”4 This is a necessary update for a US military and civilian organizational structure that has shown itself unable to respond to IW attacks, particularly in light of China’s post-COVID-19 IW campaign against the United States and its allies.

Recommendation 3: Integrate Inoculation Theory into American Health and Human Services and military operations as both a force protection measure and as a passive defensive measure against foreign influence among America’s citizenry. Inoculation Theory “maintains that when individuals are exposed to weakened versions of arguments against attitudes they currently hold, they are able to build up resistance and counterarguments to future threats to those attitudes.”5 In this way, individuals are “inoculated against counter-attitudinal attacks in a manner similar to immunization.”6 The January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US capital revealed that service members are not immune to disinformation as approximately 20 percent of those charged with crimes were current or former military members.7 Done defensively, inoculation theory would expose civilians and military personnel to foreign messaging that is only mildly convincing but which shows the tactics that the enemy is using to influence public perception.8 Repeated exposure to weak arguments and claims may help achieve a healthy level of societal skepticism and antifragility within the information environment.9

Recommendation 4: Partner with industry to develop practices and technologies to “identify, disrupt, fact check, and verify disinformation campaigns.”10 Already, social media companies are building tools to detect malign influence and misinformation. The US government should explore ways to improve the accountability of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns through detection while filtering enemy efforts before they reach the American people. Further, principled journalism should be combined with disinformation detection campaigns to educate the public about such efforts.11 The US government should encourage practices that support information transparency and journalistic integrity while disincentivizing the use of sensationalism to spread disinformation, especially when it is connected to state-sponsored IW campaigns.

Recommendation 5: Develop a strategic, multi-lateral cooperation and information sharing arrangement with allies specifically focused on countering IW misinformation efforts. The United States is not the only victim of misinformation perpetuated on behalf of foreign governments. China targets its neighbors, such as China’s 2018 aggressive IW campaign against the Filipino people when the CCP used a network of social media accounts to attract over 133,000 followers.12 These social media accounts generated millions of digital interactions aimed at influencing the Philippine presidential election while using misinformation to degrade perceptions of US naval operations in the region. The United States must partner with its allies and friends to ensure they have access to timely intelligence when their governments are targeted by authoritarian governments using misinformation. Most significant here is the pooling of intelligence capabilities to detect coordinated misinformation efforts across multiple countries. Today, this is constrained due to classification issues; however, the United States must find a more effective way to communicate and coordinate responses with its friends to counter misinformation attacks. This is potentially the most immediate and significant way the US military can counter IW while directly protecting the American people: by informing and educating potential victims as to how and why they are being targeted by foreign actors for IW manipulation. To counter China specifically, the United States should develop a strategic Asian-Pacific-focused, multi-lateral cooperation and information-sharing partnership with China’s neighbors.13


These events were not the products of ineluctable forces outside the boundaries of human choice; they were the results of decisions and actions by people who had opportunities to choose and act otherwise.

D. H. Fischer, Washington’s Crossing

Profound Danger

The CCP proved the profound danger it presents to itself and the world in its deliberate weaponization of information in response to the Wuhan COVID-19 outbreak.14 The same “you die, I live” worldview continues to use IW to pursue information advantage in social media, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and automation, space, oceanic engineering, biotechnology, advanced pharmaceuticals, and next-generation energy and power generation. China continues to use IW to directly support its national interests at the expense of the United States while damaging and discrediting its global competitors.15

The lessons from the Battle of Megiddo are as applicable today as they were 3,500 years ago. The focus and capacity of America’s instruments of power stand divided between competing with China militarily and economically. These are the two roads on which the United States expects China’s approach. The IW fight is America’s third road and it leads deep into the nation, directly to the hearts and minds of its citizens – the US government’s center of gravity. The United States must orient itself to counter how its adversaries are choosing to fight: Information Warfare. We ignore it at our peril.

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

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] US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “The China Deep Dive,” 8.

[2] James Micciche, “U.S. Below War Threshold Options Against China,”Divergent Opinions, September 21, 2020, accessed December 15, 2020,

[3] Scott Padgett and Stefan Banach, “Winning the Real War: Designing Virtual Armies,” Small Wars Journal, April 9, 2019, accessed January 22, 2021,

[4] Anthony Eastin and Patrick Franck, “Restructuring Information Warfare in the United States: Shaping the Future Narrative,” Air and Space Power Journal 34, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 34, accessed January 31, 2021,

[5] Kitsch et al., “Inoculation Theory,” 1.

[6] John A. Banas and Gregory Miller, “Inducing Resistance to Conspiracy Theory Propaganda: Testing Inoculation and Metainoculation Strategies,” Human Communication Research 39, no. 2 (April 2013): 184-207, accessed December 13, 2020,

[7] Tom Dreisbach and Meg Anderson, “Nearly 1 in 5 Defendants in Capitol Riot Cases Served in the Military,” National Public Radio, January 21, 2021, accessed February 4, 2021,

[8] Peter Singer and Eric Johnson, “The Need To Inoculate Military Service Members Against Information Threats: The Case For Digital Literacy Training For The Force,” War on the Rocks, February 1, 2021, accessed February 4, 2021,

[9] Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012), 36-38.

[10] Vera Zakem, “The Future of Malign Influence Campaigns,” in Global Futures Report: Alternative Futures of Geopolitical Competition in a Post-COVID-19 World, ed. Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, Strategic Foresight and Futures Branch, June 2020, 29, accessed February 8, 2021,

[11] Renee Diresta, Carly Miller, Vanessa Molter, John Pomfret, and Glenn Tiffert, “Telling China’s Story: The Chinese Communist Party’s Campaign to Shape Global Narratives” (Report, Stanford Internet Observatory, Stanford, CA, July 2020), 28-29, accessed August 26, 2020,

[12] Gregory Winger, “China’s Disinformation Campaign in the Philippines,” The Diplomat, October 6, 2020, accessed December 16, 2020,

[13] William Freer, “Assessing How Countries Can Compete with Chinese Hybrid Tactics Below the Threshold of Armed Conflict,” Divergent Opinions, September 28, 2020, accessed December 14, 2020,

[14] US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “The China Deep Dive,” 3.

[15] US Office of the Secretary of State, Policy Planning Staff, The Elements of the China Challenge, 13, 33.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply