A Strategic Perspective on “Information Warfare” & “Counter-Propaganda”

On Wednesday, March 15, 2017, the Emerging Threats & Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee convened a hearing entitled “Crafting an Info Warfare & Counter-Propaganda Strategy for the Emerging Security Environment .”

I recommed watching the worthwhile conversation. Below are my prepared remarks given at the top of the hearing.

Prepared remarks by Matthew Armstrong given before the Emerging Threats & Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

Chairwoman Stefanik, Ranking Member Langevin, and distinguished members of the subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to speak on information warfare and countering propaganda.

This is an important conversation as information and informational activities create both opportunities and threats to our nation’s physical, societal, and economic security. This is a strategic problem requiring a strategic review of not just the threat but also of our constraints. We may develop good tactics, but any success from these will be undone if we fail to get the strategy right as well as properly align our efforts toward our objectives. Be confident that our adversaries are doing this realignment, and using our doctrine and public writings as their starting point.

The information domain is not a nuisance at the margins, but a central facet of international affairs. We have known this for a long time, even if we need constant reminding. A1918 report by the U.S. Army General Staff recognized that in the “strategic equation” of war there are “four factors — combat, economic, political, and psychologic — and that the last of these is coequal with the others.” Today, we refer to this as the DIME model of national power — diplomacy, information, military, economic. A July 1945 report from the State Department recognized that the “nature of present day foreign relations makes it essential for the United States to maintain informational activities abroad as an integral part of the conduct of our foreign affairs.”

Two years later, a Joint Congressional report elucidated on this point: “Europe today has again become a vast battlefield of ideologies in which words have replaced armaments as the active elements of attack and defense.”

Today, as the traditional barriers of influence and disruption are obliterated by modern communication and transportation networks, the role of information is more important than ever.

Understanding and elevating the appreciation of the informational, or psychological, effect of our words and deeds can make for more effective, more enduring, and less expensive outcomes. Every situation is unique, and sometimes you need to put two in the heart and one in the mind, but between increasingly transparent battlefields and adversaries intentionally operating below or outside of our escalation ladders, we must be more adept in this environment.

We may call this affair “information warfare,” but this is too narrow and too shallow, and it inhibits appreciating the psychological effects of actions. It also encourages the false concept of a “battle of narratives” as if there is a magic combination of nouns and verbs that will win the day.

Or, we may use more inclusive labels like political warfare or hybrid warfare, two terms with subtle yet possibly useful distinctions.

Putting aside the label, we fail to appreciate how the success of our adversaries’ propaganda supporting their agenda or targeting our activities – whether military, economic, or political – often rests on our credibility. Its effectiveness is often influenced by the degree to which people believe what we say, how much they trust what we do, and how the audience perceives the two as consistent and aligned.

Abroad, we face a situation in which our adversaries are often perceived as more credible than us as they spotlight, exploit, and sometimes outright manufacture, gaps between what we say, what we do, and our national values. Proof of this is when our adversaries are given the benefit of the doubt while our word is questioned and our actions subjected to charges of hypocrisy and aggression. This is magnified by failing to understand local information environments.

There are several challenges hindering our credibility and the ability to be effective in today’s environment.

The first is that our messages and actions are generally dis-unified. We have a competitive advantage in terms of resources, people, skills, and scale, yet our various government departments and agencies are organized in such a way that makes coordination nearly impossible.

Beyond the obvious, this includes failing to understand, coordinate, or support programs that may develop and strengthen local defenses, even inoculation, against adversarial influence. Lesser known examples include Fish & Wildlife Services helping game wardens in Africa, exchange programs, and U.S. Navy tenders helping local harbor masters and mechanics.

And then there is the damaging divide between Defense Public Affairs and other Defense information professionals, as well as the segregation of public diplomacy inside the State Department.

The lack of coordination and bureaucratic cultural divides contribute to our second challenge, which is that our response to adversarial propaganda is almost invariably reactionary. When our adversaries explain their actions to the world or make claims about us, we find ourselves scrambling to prove them wrong. This keeps us on our heels and requires us to overcome the narrative set by others. It also means limited consideration of the psychological effect of actions, which the Chinese appear to be overcoming in their recent reorganization of their Cyberspace Operations Forces.

The third challenge is the militarization of our foreign policy. In the absence of a clear strategy and organizing principles, the Department of Defense has by default taken the lead in much of our foreign policy efforts. The very term “strategic communication” reflects this role as it was borne out of a need to fill a gap left by the State Department.

But placing our military as our primary implement of foreign policy also promotes a perception that we are an insecure nation.

We have remarkably little relevant experience in combating the political warfare being waged against us today. We may imagine that the United States Information Agency and the Active Measures Working Group are guideposts, but USIA was never intended nor fit for that purpose and the Active Measures Working Group was very small and very reactionary operation. Neither is a useful model of proactive and unified defense, let alone offense.

We must change our mindset about adversarial propaganda and subversive actions, especially those carried out below or outside the military’s “phasing” construct. This starts with changing the language we use. We need to think – and speak – in terms of undermining adversarial psychological influence, which will guide us toward unified preemptive behavior and messages. We need to think – and speak – in terms of a communication environment, which will guide us toward pre-emptive interactivity that can establish, preserve, and strengthen our credibility so we set a narrative that must be displaced by our adversaries. We must think about why adversarial propaganda has traction and accept that we cannot bomb our way to success.

We must organize in a way that aligns our efforts for credible, smart preemptive action and swift, credible, trusted reactions. In addition to internal reorganizations addressing cultural divides, departments and agencies beyond Defense and State bring skills and expertise to this struggle. I am thankful that this Committee has convened this hearing, as I am thankful for past amendments from this Committee that affected the State Department, but in many ways, this discussion is happening in a vacuum. Are other committees exercising their oversight to inquire about this topic, setting priorities, and holding their respective departments and agencies accountable?

And we must understand the role of our society in our foreign policy and the permeability of our borders. In the “marketplace for loyalty” that I describe elsewhere this is a vulnerability, not just to political support of our efforts, but to what might be considered within organizational security parlance as “insider threats.” Consider Major Nidal Hasan, Jihad Jane, and other so-called “lone wolves” who were inspired, often through empathy with our adversaries, to go to extreme measures.

I will close with another quote, this one from 1963: “Someday this nation will recognize that global non-military conflict must be pursued with the same intensity and preparation as global military conflicts.”

Unfortunately, that day has yet to come but I hope this hearing is the start of setting us on the right path. Continuing to get this wrong is a threat to our national security, to our economic growth, and to our very standing as a world leader.

Thank you again for the opportunity to discuss this important topic with you in support of our foreign policy and our national security. I look forward to your questions.