Advantage At Sea Requires Rethinking Influence

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Editors note: This essay is the sixth in a series of eight articles, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the firstsecond, third, fourthfifth, and seventh articles. We thank Prof. Jon Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.


The U.S. Navy handicaps itself in great-power competition. “Though we are not exchanging fire with our competitors,” according to the chief of naval operations, “we are battling for influence and positional advantage.” Much of this battle is waged in information environments, and the new tri-service maritime strategy includes influence within the information domain in the very definition of “naval power.” Yet the U.S. Navy neglects part of its arsenal for influence, namely military information support operations.

China does not appear to make the same mistake. Since 2003, the People’s Liberation Army has developed a concept for Three Warfares — comprised of psychological warfare, media or public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. If well-executed, this concept could prove effective below and above the threshold for armed conflict. For instance, the United States fears that China or Russia will seize territory in a way that America and its allies are forced to accept the loss as a fait accompli. Yet a fait accompli is, in part, a function of interpretation. U.S. presence and freedom of navigation operations are also open to interpretation. China can shape these interpretations through information and influence operations that range from face-to-face communications to weaponized social media, text messages, print, radio, movies, and television.



In order to compete in information environments, the U.S. Navy should work with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard to improve naval influence operations. It won’t be easy. Neglect is longstanding, influence is hard to build (let alone wield), and the delegation of authority over these operations is complicated. Nevertheless, progress is possible.

What Are Military Information Support Operations? Clear as Mud

Military terminology about information and influence operations is “imprecise and ambiguous.” Military information support operations are one kind of information-related capabilities. These operations are intended to persuade foreign audiences that include adversaries, friends, and third parties. They use select information to influence individual or group attitudes, opinions, and ultimately behavior. During competition, military information support operations can reassure allies and partners. During crisis, they can counter an adversary’s misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and other forms of malign influence — even at sea, where “military information [can] inhibit potential adversaries from exploiting weak and vulnerable maritime governance structures.” During combat, they can degrade the enemy’s combat power (e.g., their capability and resolve), reduce collateral damage, and increase local support for friendly forces.

Military information support operations are related but distinct from two other kinds of information-related capabilities: public affairs on the one hand, and military deception on the other. Public affairs seek to inform — at least in theory — by providing accurate information to both foreign and domestic audiences. Military deception, in contrast, seeks to deliberately mislead adversaries, targeting decision-makers in order to alter their behavior using deceptive information.

Neat distinctions can get messy in practice, however. While their audiences and content may differ, these operations often disseminate information through similar channels, which can blur the lines between them. Those channels include cyberspace, inviting further confusion with cyber operations. Changing nomenclature hasn’t helped. In 2010, the Department of Defense landed on the name “military information support operations” after deciding that the term “psychological operations” was “anachronistic and misleading.” This caused confusion abroad, however, since NATO partners still used the term psychological operations. In 2017, the U.S. Army changed the name of units that conduct military information support operations back to psychological operations.

The Good, the Bad, and the Naval Influence Operations?

Whatever these operations are named, the U.S. Navy hasn’t had much of an appetite for them. Military information support operations are absent from discussion in the U.S. Navy Information Dominance Roadmap, 2013–2028, the 2020 Department of the Navy Information Superiority Vision, and the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. Tenth Fleet Strategic Plan, 2020-2025. The Navy tends to act only as a tactical medium, spreading information for the joint force. It shies away from an active role in developing and planning operational and strategic influence in information environments. Military information support operations are absent from Navy Mission Essential Task development, assessment, reporting, and certification. In the fleet, these responsibilities are designated as a collateral duty — assigned along with other aspects of information warfare — rather than primary duty billets, underscoring the lack of importance typically assigned to these operations.

The Navy’s disregard for influence operations stands in contrast to their apparent success during World War II. In August 1942, Capt. Ellis Zacharias established a secret psychological warfare branch within Naval Intelligence, code named OP-16-W. His book, Secret Missions: The Story of an Intelligence Officer, describes how this small band of sailors influenced the German, Italian, and Japanese navies to Allied advantage. They did so despite internal resistance within the U.S. Navy, especially in the Pacific theater. Zacharias’ radio broadcasts didn’t singlehandedly defeat Japan. Nevertheless, according to archivist David Pfeiffer, this influence operation “was probably the most successful venture into psychological warfare during World War II for the United States and undoubtedly played a noteworthy role in preparing the Japanese psyche for the inevitable surrender.”

More recently, in the context of the modern joint force, information and influence operations were conducted against the Islamic State through “Operation Glowing Symphony.” Reporting on this cyber-enabled operation highlights the challenges involved with interagency coordination. But it also illustrates how these operations can incorporate real-time evaluation of target audiences and help commanders fight in information environments. U.S. Cyber Command — including the Navy’s component, Fleet Cyber Command/Tenth Fleet — and the NSA reportedly use a similar approach to contest election interference.

Of course, influence operations can fail. Winning friends and influencing people is hard. It’s hard for governments, including that of the People’s Republic of China, and for the U.S. military. Measuring the effectiveness of these operations can be difficult. They can also backfire. In 2017, for example, an American commander in Afghanistan apologized for a “highly offensive” leaflet that contained an image of the Taliban flag, which included a Quranic verse, along with a dog. The Taliban exploited this blunder to their advantage.

Even when influence operations work as intended, the approval process can be complicated. Combatant commanders can delegate their approval authority. But delegation is often withheld when the capabilities are unfamiliar, which can cause these capabilities to atrophy further and make even small operations hard to start. Getting the State Department to concur can also be a hard sell.

Difficulty alone doesn’t explain the Navy’s disinterest, however. The Navy takes pride in doing many missions that are difficult and doing them well. Other factors are at work. During World War II, Zacharias’ critics argued that the Navy fought with ships — not words. In truth, it did both. But now, as then, the U.S. military favors kinetic over non-kinetic operations. Navy thinking is biased towards tools that go “boom,” even as it claims to contend with competition below the level of armed conflict.

Technical bias is another contributing factor. What the Navy means by “information warfare” is unclear. What is clear is that the Navy’s emphasis on battlespace awareness, command and control, and integrated fires is almost exclusively technical (i.e., hardware, software, and data). There is little consideration of human factors. As Herb Lin argues, “the technical dimensions of combatting adversarial influence operations are important, but the United States neglects the issue of content at its peril.” As with kinetic bias, technical bias may give naval commanders a dangerously myopic perspective on their information environments.

In addition, the Navy may discount influence operations because of an Army bias. These operations target people. Most people live on land. So, it’s not surprising that most of the capabilities are in the Army. That said, “about 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast.” This includes more than a billion people in the Indo-Pacific at a time when the tri-service maritime strategy aims to expand influence “across the world’s oceans, littorals, and coastal areas ashore.” Naval deployments also depend on foreign ports, and they’re often afloat near populated places where the Army doesn’t have boots on the ground. More important, target audiences aren’t all the same. Merchant mariners, maritime logistics operators, fishing communities, and naval militia are unique audiences with special significance for the Navy, Marines Corps, and Coast Guard.

China isn’t waiting for the U.S. Navy to adapt. In September 2020, Facebook and Instagram removed more than 150 fake accounts, pages, and groups associated with the Chinese government that focused on “naval activity in the South China Sea, including US Navy ships.” Given its maritime theme, this Chinese campaign was dubbed “Operation Naval Gazing.” Elsewhere, media messaging promotes China’s claim to the “Nine Dash Line,” and the Chinese military has claimed, repeatedly, to have “expelled” U.S. Navy ships that “trespassed into China’s territorial waters” in the South China Sea. The influence of naval force is vulnerable to influence operations.

Fix Naval Influence Operations: Build on the Marines

Despite the multiple biases at work, the U.S. military — and with it, the Navy — may be approaching an inflection point regarding influence operations. The Marine Corps started to reinvigorate its organic military information support operations in 2009 after the Army Reserve was unable to satisfy requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2017, Marine Expeditionary Force informational groups were created with capabilities for military information support operations. In 2018, psychological operations became a primary occupational specialty for enlisted Marines.

The Marines aren’t alone. Congress clarified Cyber Command’s authority to conduct clandestine operations below the threshold of armed conflict in 2018, exempt from statutory constraints on covert action. Borrowing from its framework for cyber operations, Congress likewise affirmed the military’s role in information operations “in response to malicious influence activities” through Section 1631 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.

Consistent with Congressional intent, and the Marine Commandant’s guidance to integrate Marine expeditionary forces with Navy fleets, the Marine Corps can help fill gaps in naval influence operations. To do so, however, the Navy should be an active partner and carry its own weight in information environments. It can start small and iterate to learn. We suggest three different approaches that we call compete today, compete better, and compete best.

Compete Today

In order to compete today, the Navy would leverage nascent capabilities in the Marine Corps. In particular, the Pacific Fleet would improve its talent pool for influence operations by making military information support operations a primary responsibility for assigned fleet personnel. Their work would include target audience analysis in the Indo-Pacific, combined with competitive analysis of the People’s Liberation Army influence operations that relate to maritime security (yes, learn from China). Fleet planners and Marine forces could then develop better content and delivery options. For a start, content could be distributed using Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard platforms while on patrol; Fleet Cyber Command’s capabilities that support the Pacific Fleet and Indo-Pacific Command; and Indo-Pacific Command’s wedge of Special Operations Command’s Joint Military Information Support Operations WebOps Center.

This approach has several advantages over the status quo. Staffing military information support operations in the fleet will help normalize, mature, and demystify these operations at low cost. The experience and knowledge gained stands to improve situational awareness, Fleet requirements, delegation of authorities, and risk calculations. This approach also helps validate notions such as “integrated American Naval Power” and “integrated all domain naval forces.”

On the downside, these are minor improvements. They are likely insufficient to address the full scope of Chinese influence operations. Requisite intelligence on audiences and adversaries may be lacking as well. Insufficient intelligence raises the risk of doing more harm than good.

Compete Better

In order to compete better, the steps above would be augmented with additional intelligence support and critical analysis of naval influence operations around the world. The Navy would also work with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard to develop a fleet integration model for these operations, including education and training.

One advantage of this approach is that its global scope aligns with global competition. However, even the modest resources required would come at the expense of other priorities at a time when U.S. defense budgets are strained. While tri-service and joint, this approach also suffers from focusing almost exclusively on the military.

Compete Best

To compete best, improvements to naval influence operations would be coupled with a whole-of-government approach. This is, admittedly, a daunting prospect. In the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic model of U.S. national power, ownership of the “informational” category is hotly contested. Nevertheless, coordination between the Department of Defense and the State Department is not only necessary but also advantageous for military information support operations and public diplomacy alike. Increasing naval competency with this capability stands to increase coordination across U.S. government agencies at work in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with allies and partners in the region.

Whatever approach the Navy takes, influence operations aren’t without risk. They warrant careful experimentation, learning, and practice. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy is risk-tolerant, however, encouraging “calculated risk-taking ” rather than “overly risk-adverse thinking that impedes change.” Accepting risky physical operations while shunning non-kinetic options like information and influence operations makes little sense and could be counterproductive. Working with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, the Navy can — and should — learn to leverage the full range of tools available in the global competition for influence.



Cmdr. Erika De La Parra Gehlen, J.D., is a student in the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI) Gravely program at the U.S. Naval War College. She is an active-duty judge advocate in the U.S. Navy and, most recently, the legal advisor to Special Operations Command, Pacific. Her expertise in national security law ranges from counter-terrorism to information operations. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Whittier College School of Law.

Frank L. Smith III is a professor and director of the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute.

The views expressed in this essay do not represent the official position(s) of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 2nd Class Eric Coffer)