Paper #51. Expand our Strategy Language to Compete and Wage Information Warfare

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Leadership, Strategy
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We need to reform our legacy language of coercion theory to compete in the contemporary information environment. This Paper builds on insights from three leaders to expand our thinking on effective strategy. The problem is, our current concepts of coercive compellence and coercive deterrence via punishment or denial limit our understanding and undermine our competitiveness. We need a broader perspective to compete and wage information warfare now and in the future: combined effect strategy and influence.

The three leaders whose ideas I abstract are David Spirk (former Chief Data Officer at the Pentagon), General Glen VanHerck (Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command), and Christian Brose (author of The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare).  

In a recent BreakingDefense article, David Spirk rethinks what conflict involves in “the age of exponential data.” With an eye on data and information as warfighting tools, he describes them in terms of three characteristics—those that are evolving, enduring, and expendable. Spirk argues for big changes. Data-driven warfighting requires acquiring talent to build data fluency for doctrinal change, a flexible data architecture at the edge of commercial capabilities, agile investments to strengthen government-commercial partnerships, and continuous learning about commercially available technology. The Department of Defense in particular needs all that to reform ineffective practices.

General VanHerck’s article in War on the Rocks argues for new tools to create time and information to proactively deter cyber, hypersonic, and a variety of other global threats. His call for information dominance reflects coercion theory’s “when-deterrence-fails” perspective on warfare. The article focuses on the need for forces that can integrate data and information at the speed of AI. By presenting better options when deterrence fails, we can be more proactive. Limited by the language of coercive compellence and coercive deterrence, the General’s argument stays within his lane of command.

Christian Brose’s book, The Kill Chain, is a masterful work focused on one competition—killing the enemy. He argues for systems of weapon greater in number and collectively superior in quality than our current approach. The US acquisition system and its politics produces small numbers of exquisite-technology weaponry that is hard to integrate, and vulnerable to asymmetric warfare. We need effective, resilient, and adaptive kill chains unencumbered by the slow pace of government-centric development. Brose’s approach is consistent with Spirk’s advocacy of public-private partnerships and VanHerck’s call for information dominance.

All three authors use the same language of coercion theory, which equates conflict and warfare with violence.

Democracies must take a broader perspective on strategy to promote whole-of-government and private sector collaboration. Properly restrained by democratic accountability, the idea is to wage information warfare when and where appropriate.

What’s Not Changing and What Is?

First, consider what is not changing and what is changing in our language of strategy. The way we conceptualize the basic elements has not changed. We still break strategy down into ends, ways, and means. Those are changing rapidly due to technology, but we still use these terms.

What is changing in how we use the terms is, we conflate our ends, ways, and means. This blurred approach is partly due to rapid technological change. For instance, social media is a means to an end involving many influential ways. The ends, ways, and means are difficult to separate because their interactions are instantaneous and vast.

For instance, we can infer that different actors use various platforms for different ends: profit, market share, radicalization and recruitment, election interference, social activism, and many other advantages. Authoritarians use unaccountable ways such as setting up “fake” social media accounts to instantly and persistently influence public policy in more porous democracies. Chinese party-government operatives co-opt politicians in democracies as their means. This blurred approach deliberately crosses our bureaucratic lanes of legally denoted responsibility.

One strategic example is stirring up social opposition to rare earth mineral facilities in Australia and the United States. China’s party-government intends to retain its current dominance of that market and use it to induce and coerce countries into complying with other forms of Chinese aggression. State-owned enterprises and private firms might exercise what agency they can, but the effects are relative—they compete. Compared to democracies, China combines rare earth mineral dependence with predatory loans, non-transparent business practices favoring Chinese firms, and military and paramilitary operations in disputed territory to create synergistic effects.

Meanwhile, democracies use the same when-deterrence-fails language of strategy to develop warfighting capabilities as authoritarians wage war with ways and means we don’t regard as warfare. This dynamic has not changed. Its existence is a chronic disadvantage for uninformed, misinformed, and deliberately disinformed democracies devoted to deterrence.

Our focus is understandable given the need for civilian control over the military. However, as a default strategy, our focus prevents better collaboration and ultimately, integrating competitive ends, ways, and means.

Technology produces its own integration, which can be ad hoc. Our need for sensors has increased as they have become ubiquitous, including, as Brose makes clear in his book, quantum capabilities that sense changes in gravitational fields and genetically altered plants to sense objects in the ocean. General VanHerck points out, “The United States needs more time and better options to deter conventional threats to the homeland. The key to developing these options is data.” 

Info is Ops

As democracies begin to establish ministries, departments, and commands to manage information “whatever” (warfare, operations, activities, assurance, resilience, security, assertiveness, etc.), we need a language and definitions that facilitate integration. Strategy is how we make sense of the information environment. To do that competitively, we need to recognize data and information as operational processes that shape operations.

Instead of treating data or information in support of operations (“supporting”) or supported by operations (“supported”), we need to embrace data, information, intelligence, and knowledge as an operating cycle. Leading will be more collaborative, with centralized command but requiring distributed control and decentralized operations. Operational design and information design should be the same process if we are to make sense of, and shape, the infop environment:

This process of sense-making to shape the environment involves three interrelated processes: (1) placing data into context—which creates information; (2) attributing meaning to that information—which creates intelligence; and (3)  gaining acceptance of the information—which creates knowledge.

All of that is contested, and can go in reverse. Actors manipulate the contexts and meanings of data and information, and some seek to destroy knowledge. An integrated strategy must recognize this process of understanding. This process is not simply data-driven or information-centric. The battles over context and meaning in narrative warfare can “drive” or “center” our understanding as actors shape that, and ultimately, our behavior.

Offense v Defense: too Narrow

For authoritarians, all-domain operations tend to be all-effects operations all the time, not just when-deterrence-fails.  Moreover, China is developing nuclear and long-range strike capabilities and asymmetric, intelligent machines with less expensive and networked sensors. If we simply apply our when-deterrence-fails strategy to AI, nth G, and quantum computing, we still lose the war being waged upon us since at least the mid-1990’s. That’s when the Russian Federation began attacking US government, then civilian, computer systems. It also predates the “US China trade war.” China began its nefarious practices well before, for instance, former President Trump highlighted what was going on and took reciprocal action.

We are fixated on offense and defense, as if those ways and means still accounted for the most relevant ends. They often don’t because the concepts are too vague for the information environment. In a world that includes many other ways many more actors can influence behavior, there are more complex balances to take into account.Democratic politics, of course, favors immediate needs and wants, but we can do better by speaking a broader, more precise language of strategy.

In the combined effect strategy and influence (CESI) framework, the competition for advantage includes more effects. Instead of coercive compellence and coercive deterrence, CESI frames eight distinct, combinable effects. One of those is defense, but instead of “offense,” its polar opposite effect is “coercion.”  Coercion theory and popular strategy does not have this definitional precision. We are particularly sloppy in defining “security” or talking about “stability” which also has many contexts (data into information) and meanings (information into intelligence). As outlined in previous papers, I define the eight effects in terms of three dimensions of strategy: causative-preventive, cooperative-confrontatonal, and psychological-physical: 

Coercion (Cr): causative, confrontational, and physical

Defense (Df): preventive, confrontational, and physical

Compellence (Cp): causative, confrontational, and psychological

Deterrence (Dt): preventive, confrontational, and psychological

Inducement (I): causative, cooperative, and physical

Security (S): preventive, cooperative, and physical

Persuasion (P): causative, cooperative, and psychological

Dissuasion (Ds): preventive, cooperative, and psychological

Effective Options

As information, all eight effects have polar opposite and partial opposite meanings. These definitions create more alternatives than coercion theory. We need more alternatives to discuss options and make more effective decisions. Granted, the most effective decisions are not the easiest as issues become politicized.

However, a relatively simple way to think about strategic alternatives is in terms of three basic strategy dimensions. No matter how complex the sensors and sense-making, there are combinations of preventive and causative, psychological and physical, and cooperative and confrontational effects. Yes, cooperation is competitive, too, but is based on mutually accepted rules, not authoritarian or non-transparent behavior. 

For instance, an active defense might also coerce—coercive defense of people, facilities, or data. Defense also can persuade, as a diplomat negotiating a dispute. Defense can deter as a porcupine, or induce terms as an insurance policy does against fear of unsustainable loss. We know all this, but we still limit warfare to brute force and “peacetime” strategy to coercion. 

If n = the number of discrete effects and x = the number of effects in a combined effect, there are Σn-x possible combinations: 28. Those consist of seven double combinations of the eight effects, six triples, quadruples, five pentacles, three sextuples, two septuples, and one octuple.

If these interactions seem too hard, realize that AI can identify the combinations while we struggle with three or four and must contextualize them. 

What to Do

  1. We need to use influence cycles that subsume kill chains. To compete effectively in various contexts, we must add other forms of influence besides coercive compellence and coercive deterrence. Our desired effects must be combinable to create and present dilemmas for our opponents.

  2. We must recognize that confrontation and cooperation are competitive. Confrontation is a broad term that subsumes conflict by including non-violent strategies that democracies don’t recognize as warfare. Cooperation is legitimate competition based on rules of behavior that authoritarian regimes routinely break and ignore or simply claim to follow. A spectrum of competition with confrontation and cooperation at either end promotes WOG-plus collaboration more than a spectrum of conflict. 

  3. We should consider the 28 combined effects in combined effect strategy, a basic playbook of options for WoG-plus competition against authoritarians’ civil-military fusion.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Brig Gen USAF ret.

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