The United States Needs an Information Warfare Command: A Historical Examination
Recently, the House and Senate have been evaluating Defense Department plans to set up a new Space Force. However, without any fanfare, a more important structural reorganization might be underway. The mission statement of U.S. Army Cyber Command now reads that it “integrates and conducts full-spectrum cyberspace operations, electronic warfare, and information operations, ensuring freedom of action for friendly forces in and through the cyber domain and the information environment, while denying the same to our adversaries.” Influenced to some degree by the integrated information warfare conducted by America’s potential adversaries, there seems to be a growing realization in the command about the unity of all operations in the electromagnetic spectrum — that is, the realm of digital and electronic communications systems and the information conveyed through them.
At its core, information warfare is about gathering, providing, and denying information in order to improve one’s own decision-making while damaging the enemy’s. Historically, this has been accomplished through various means of communication, psychological operations, media manipulation and disinformation campaigns, and, eventually, electronic warfare and cyberspace operations. Unifying those capabilities has always been a challenge, however, especially the technical and informational elements. The first U.S. Army field manual dealing holistically with information operations did not appear until 1996.
The Army should learn from its own history and restructure Cyber Command into Information Warfare Command. This change would encourage decision-makers to think of information warfare in the holistic sense that has long eluded the service and the nation. For decades, the United States has engaged in information operations but lacked a unified understanding of the concept that is sorely needed to respond effectively to today’s adversaries.
A Long History: U.S. Information Warfare in World War II
The battle over information has been a part of warfare from its beginning. Advances in communication through the electromagnetic spectrum have further expanded the tools and possibilities in the field, with cyberspace just the latest addition. Otto von Bismarck was able to incite the French into a highly unfavorable declaration of war against Prussia in 1870 just by manipulating the reported text of one telegram. In 1905, a Russian fleet commander engaged in a lengthy battle to gather and deny signals intelligence as he steamed towards Vladivostok. He refused an opportunity to jam reports of the location of his ships being transmitted to the Japanese high command, instead dooming them to destruction at Tsushima.
However, for American forces there has always been uncertainty about exactly what tasks comprise information warfare, who executes them, and how they should be organized and synchronized. In World War II, “propaganda” was still an acceptable term and a necessary undertaking. President Franklin Roosevelt realized early on that his nation had to be able to trumpet not only its lofty principles, but also its capacity to wage war. To that end, he established the Office of War Information to coordinate the American propaganda machine. But the new office had lots of competition. The Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, had psychological warfare functions connected to military operations overseas and answered directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the time, psychological warfare was “defined as comprising the use of propaganda against an enemy, together with such operational measures as the effective use of propaganda may require.” Each theater commander had his own propaganda and psychological warfare programs. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe had a very active psychological operations cell — its Ops(B) section did a masterful job designing and executing Operation Fortitude, the deception plan surrounding the D-Day invasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was actively engaged in crafting messaging for his theater. Still, the Office of Information Warfare did provide some unity to America’s information efforts, which might have been untidy but were very robust.
Subordinate commanders also participated. In 1944, in a prescient consolidation that foreshadowed what most of America’s main adversaries do with information warfare today — but is anathema to U.S. civilian authorities — the 12th Army Group combined its publicity and psychological warfare elements under the same commander. Responsibilities included public relations, press censorship, and mobile radio broadcasting, in addition to normal publicity and psychological operations. This structure greatly facilitated synchronizing messaging in the 12th Army Group’s area of responsibility in Northwest Europe.
The Army Air Forces were very active in using leaflets and radio transmissions to take advantage of the effects of strategic bombing. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s 21st Bomber Command executed a successful leaflet campaign to incite mass evacuations of Japanese cities that they were firebombing, eventually motivating over eight million civilians to flee to the countryside, which caused significant economic disruptions of and widespread refugee problems. The effort was similar to the leaflet campaigns the U.S. Air Force undertook more recently in Kosovo and Iraq.
The Army Air Forces were also energetic in the field of electronic warfare. Radio jamming became widespread during World War I, but it was the advent of radar that really galvanized the field. During World War II, it is estimated that American innovations to jam and confuse enemy detection systems saved 600 heavy bombers belonging to U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe and 200 B-29 Superfortresses attacking Japan. Chaff and jamming also allowed aircraft to fly at lower altitudes where they could bomb more accurately. Jamming, spoofing, and intercepting enemy radio transmissions were common, often executed by special signals intelligence units. Enemy electronic emissions provided a wealth of intelligence and the cracking of German and Japanese codes contributed greatly to winning the war. Electronic warfare facilitated the gathering and denying of information to improve Allied decision-making while damaging that of the Axis.
The Postwar Era: Conceptual Confusion
After World War II, without any unifying American concept of information operations or warfare, the relevant Army functions and organizations went in many different directions. The military also encountered semantic confusion regarding various terms and their implications. The elements of information warfare were permitted to fragment and atrophy. The only exception to this trend was during the 1980s, when the focus on defeating the Soviets with AirLand Battle motivated a renewed emphasis on the realm of information. A unifying, but short-lived, comprehensive definition of information operations incorporating all relevant functions had reemerged in doctrinal publications by 2008, but later iterations once again became vaguer.
For a time during the Cold War, what one would call “information operations” was included in the linked concepts of “propaganda” and” “psychological warfare.” But because the former term was seen more as something the “evil” Communists did, it disappeared from the lexicon after the 1960s. Electronic warfare remained a major concern for air defense artillery and signal units and received significant coverage in the AirLand Battle doctrinal manuals of the 1980s, as did psychological operations. Of course, military intelligence continued to focus heavily on all forms of electronic information systems. Public affairs officers appeared at all levels. Psychological operations became more centralized and more neglected. In general, these capabilities have declined precipitously after every war, even after hard lessons were learned in the effort to rebuild them for conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
Eventually, Gen. Carl Stiner, second commander of the newly organized U.S. Special Operations Command, convinced the secretary of defense to designate Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs as special operations forces under the control of his command in the early 1990s. This shift was also related to the separation of those military specialties from the Foreign Area Officer category, which had provided their cultural foundation for so many years. The transfer actually went against the recommendations of a 1985 Defense Department master plan for psychological operations, which warned that subordinating them under special operations would make it harder to see that psychological operations were relevant in times of peace, crisis, and war alike. According to the document, the shift would contribute to a lack of understanding among military officers and senior civilians about the broad uses and capabilities of psychological operations.
In hindsight, these concerns were warranted. The shift in authority pigeonholed psychological operations into a narrow organizational area focused on the military and warfighting. This made it harder for the United States to engage in information warfare, especially as compared to adversaries who tightly integrate their psychological operations with their broader public affairs efforts. For these rivals, every release of information, true or false, is shaped and manipulated to serve a defined purpose in a carefully coordinated campaign. The United States has often been caught off-guard by adroit information campaigns. “Fake news” is nothing new, though the considerable expansion of means of communicating it is. But information warfare is not always fought with falsehoods. One of the primary tenets of Gen. David Petraeus’ guidance for his forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan was, “Be first with the truth.”
To be clear, the U.S. military should not move to a system in which all official communication is in service of the state’s security goals. However, all messaging should still be coordinated, and truthful information coming out of transparent public affairs efforts can sometimes be “weaponized” to support broader messaging campaigns.
Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm launched widespread speculation about a new “revolution in military affairs” and the advent of warfare in the Information Age. All the elements of contemporary information warfare were present. A team of U.S. intelligence operatives slipped several virus-laden computer chips into a French-made computer printer that was smuggled into Baghdad. The printer was eventually delivered to a command bunker of the Iraqi air defense network, where the viruses helped degrade command and control of the whole system, which was also targeted by anti-radiation missiles and intensive electronic warfare. The 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) handled propaganda broadcasts and leaflet campaigns for U.S. Central Command. There were some problems with psychological operations being centralized in Special Operations Command, however, as elements of the group supplied to European Command were limited in scope and efficiency by Turkey’s unwillingness to allow operations from its territory. There were also problems coordinating messaging for the home front. Both civilian and military leaders were particularly displeased with Peter Arnett’s CNN broadcasts from Iraq — coalition planners went so far as to indict him as a conduit for Iraqi disinformation. Images of the “Highway of Death” in newspapers and on television screens played a key role in President George H.W. Bush’s decision to end combat after only 100 hours.
The technological euphoria that afflicted many military analysts after the Persian Gulf War also affected the Army. The Gulf War was seen as the first war of the information age. The 1993 Field Manual 100-5, Operations, replaced AirLand Battle with a new doctrine that assumed “near perfect, near real-time intelligence systems, sufficient lethality with precision strike systems, and massing of lethal effects,” along with “the use of overwhelming force as a way of achieving victory with minimum cost to friendly forces.” While the flaws in the new field manual would not be apparent until a decade later, the perception of a new era of warfare also motivated the adoption of Field Manual 100-6, Information Operations, in 1996. This was the Army’s first attempt to address information warfare holistically and in doctrine, and, as first editions of field manuals often are, remains the most comprehensive service treatment of the subject.
Unlike the current Field Manual 3-13 on the same topic, the 1996 manual attempted to grapple directly with the execution of all components of information warfare, which it defined as,
Actions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, information-based processes, information systems and computer-based networks while defending one’s own information, information-based processes, information systems and computer-based networks.
There were three related operational components: command and control warfare, civil affairs, and public affairs. The most complex was command and control warfare, which attacked and defended using electronic warfare, psychological operations, operational security, and deception components, all undergirded by relevant intelligence and robust information systems. Civil affairs was primarily concerned with relationships between military forces, civil authorities, and people in the area of operations, including non-governmental and private voluntary organizations. Public affairs was focused on working with the media. Cyber capabilities were part of all three and there was a whole chapter describing various information systems and capabilities. But crucially, the manual recognized that public affairs was an important component of information warfare and therefore coordinated with other elements like psychological operations, much as America’s potential adversaries do today. After years of stovepiping and semantic confusion, Field Manual 100-6 finally gave the Army a unified and comprehensive vision of all the components of information warfare.
Back to the Future: Army Cyber Command and Information Warfare
I wish I had been aware of Field Manual 100-6 in 2011. Knowing the work I had done with Field Manueal 3-24, Counterinsurgency, for Petraeus, my West Point classmate, Gen. Keith Alexander, another classmate and head of the National Security Agency, asked me to help develop a unifying cyber operations manual for U.S. Cyber Command, which he also led. The effort eventually failed, primarily because everyone looked at the project and the subject as brand new, with no existing precedents upon which to build. Field Manual 100-6 would have been a good model to start with, since it represented a similar effort to wrestle with doctrine for the information realm.
Looking at the U.S. Army Cyber Command mission today, it appears to be heading back toward the all-encompassing vision of information warfare from Field Manual 100-6, which appeared in its clearest expression for a short time in Field Manual 3-0 and Joint Publication 3-13 in 2008. That document defined information operations as,
The integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decisionmaking while protecting our own.
At that time, however, there was no single organization with overall responsibility for that line of effort. U.S. Army Cyber Command now seems ready to fill that role. Perhaps it should instead be called the U.S. Army Information or Information Warfare Command. It should be noted that the operational definitions of cyber operations and electronic warfare have converged and are now very similar, with both discussing attack, protection, and system support.
There are many obvious challenges. The Army’s electronic warfare capabilities, omnipresent in my air defense artillery career in the 1970s and 1980s, have atrophied. It is revealing that, in order to conduct electronic warfare against enemy IEDs in Iraq, the Army had to bring in hundreds of specialists from the Navy. The elements of U.S. information warfare are even more scattered now than they were after World War II. Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs have been the domain of U.S. Special Operations Command since Stiner obtained them in the 1990s — these areas have since declined in overall capability and awareness. Attitudes and policies about cyber capabilities tend to discourage or discount their many links to other aspects of information warfare and the very name of the command contributes to that. More broadly, the whole idea of American information warfare suffers from a lack of a controlling national policy and structure.
We live in an era in which potential adversaries will try to keep their competitive challenges below the combat threshold, but they nonetheless engage in constant information warfare that has domestic impacts the United States every day. Countering these efforts is a mission the Army and other services must engage in diligently, robustly, and consistently, constantly adjusting their targeting strategies to deal with the level and type of threat offered by competitors or adversaries.
This appears to be a time of opportunity for U.S. Army Cyber Command to reestablish Army dominance in information warfare. In my opinion, that will require a change in name, a new doctrine, and regained control of relevant organizations. Joint and national reforms will also eventually be necessary. But in light of the Army’s historical failures and successes in the area of information warfare, an aggressive and innovative response from Army Cyber Command is a good start.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article erroneously referred to psychological operations being centralized in U.S. Southern Command, rather than in U.S. Special Operations Command.
Conrad C. Crane is the chief of historical services for the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center of the U.S. Army War College, and the author of Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War. He is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks.