Demystifying Operations in the Information Environment
By Joe Mroszczyk and Damon Smith
United States Army formations are struggling to conduct operations in the information environment (OIE) and are ceding the competitive advantage afforded through training and technological overmatch against peer adversaries. Technological innovations have made the world increasingly dependent on information and information systems due to the volume and type of information made available. These innovations have changed the way societies communicate and distribute information, enabling a connectedness not seen before. This connectivity has encouraged the sharing of thoughts, perceptions, and in some cases, ideologies in near-real time with global audiences. The evolution of technology has also created an expansive, complex information environment (IE) creating unique challenges for units to navigate. This is further compounded at the tactical level as US Army brigades lack the organic expertise and systems to visualize the IE and properly integrate OIE with conventional operations in the land domain.
Information is a valuable commodity in any field. In military operations, information is an element of combat power and plays a critical role, facilitating our commanders’ and our adversary’s ability to make decisions, based on what they know of the operational environment (OE) as part of the larger IE. In the IE, the advantage goes to the party that is able to collect, protect, and project information faster and more effectively than the other. Our adversaries, realizing the inability to compete with our capabilities during conventional warfare, have adapted to “hybrid warfare,” employing cost-effective information-related activities to seize and control, or deny control of information in a given area of operations. Successfully executing these activities in the physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions enables them to manipulate information to aid in achieving their strategic, operational, and tactical objectives. Adversaries have recognized the power of routine and rapid information warfare (iWAR), and US Army formations must recognize the necessity of addressing the OIE as a part of the operational framework to achieve success.
OIE are conducted to counter adversarial actions and activities in the information environment to create an operational advantage for friendly forces by integrating the application of force and the employment of information, impacting the perceptions and will of our adversaries. To accomplish this, commanders, with support from their staffs, must maintain a delicate balance of collecting, protecting, and projecting information while denying the adversary those same abilities. Due to recent organizational changes at the tactical level, these abilities have atrophied and create the following question: “Who is responsible for planning OIE and the coordination, integration, and synchronization of information-related capabilities (IRCs) within Army brigades?” This question must be answered at the brigade level to bring to bear the full complement of IRCs throughout the competition continuum with OIE.
The Military Problem Set With Operations in the Information Environment
Army senior leaders have recognized the struggle to properly integrate IO throughout the competition continuum and are appropriately evolving the conduct of IO to the term iWAR for OIE focused on the adversary. Recognition of the threat’s capabilities in the IE has driven the need for a lexicon that recognizes relative positions of advantage in the IE. iWAR enables US forces to achieve a position of relative advantage with the goal of achieving information superiority.
Information Operations (IO), or OIE, cannot be added on to an established plan or layered onto a current operation as an afterthought. Joint doctrine defines IO as “integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operations to disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries, while protecting our own.” In other words, IO enables Fires and Maneuver in the IE and provides the integrating function for OIE. IO brings to bear the capabilities such as military information support operations (MISO), military deception (MILDEC), operations security (OPSEC), public affairs (PA), electronic warfare (EW), civil affairs operations (CAO), and cyberspace operations (CO) at a specific time and space to create desired effects within the IE, hindering the adversary’s ability to make timely, prudent decisions. The staff plans, coordinates, and synchronizes the activities and execution of the various IRCs, and assesses if the desired effects are being achieved. The problem in this for tactical level units is the complexity of planning and coordinating synchronized effects, leveraging all available capabilities. The figure below provides a way to view the complexity with various information related capabilities and enablers that must be integrated with the traditional aspects of large scale combat operations.
Figure 1: OIE / iWAR, the disaggregated parts
An additional challenge for tactical units is just as with traditional lines of effort, there exists considerable lag between changes to the IE and the desired outcome or objective. To that end, OIE requires a deliberate integration into the planning process at multiple echelons in order to optimize other warfighting functions to seize the initiative in the physical domains. At the division level, IO staff should facilitate the future operations planning horizon that is handed off to the brigade prior to receipt of mission. The brigade must understand the division operations and objectives for OIE when the brigade commander and staff are developing the commander’s visualization at the start of military decision making process.
The Importance of Information Operations
“Information operations, cyber activities, space and counter-space, and ballistic missile technology have made the character of war today much more dynamic and complex.” General Joseph Dunford
As recognized by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the ubiquitous nature of the IE and changes in recent years have emboldened our adversaries to become more dynamic, conducting activities below the threshold of armed conflict. They use low-grade cyber-attacks, misinformation, and disinformation to shape the narrative in their favor, influencing perceptions in order to achieve their objectives. Contemporary adversaries’ manipulation of information has elevated the importance of iWAR within OIE in a manner not seen since the early days of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Social and mainstream media have recently reported on strategic level iWAR; to this end, significant emphasis has been placed on Russian interference in US elections. What has gained less attention are the tactical and operational level iWAR attacks on US forces and allies due to the complex nature of the environment and difficulty in assessment of the impacts.
The Department of Defense Strategy for OIE states, “Information operations are an important component of military operations and in all phases of an operation or campaign, including shaping activities in steady state.” Adversaries understand the importance of information as a force multiplier to overcome shortcomings in conventional capabilities and its ability to shape the environment to their benefit. Peer adversaries are able to operationalize information faster due to fewer limitations and a disregard for truthfulness and moral or legal considerations. This, coupled with adversaries’ ability to use social media platforms, positions friendly forces at a considerable disadvantage in the IE.
Our adversaries use iWAR, along with irregular and conventional activities, to create “stand-off” during competition. By distributing false narratives via social and traditional media, and employing low-level cyber-attacks to confuse and divert attention from their true intentions, they reduce the Army’s ability to recognize, decide, and react to their actions. During conflict, adversaries use elements of iWAR, such as EW, Cyber, and counter-space to achieve a position of relative advantage in the IE and separate maneuver formations over time, space, and function; limiting our ability to mass and sustain combat power to conduct coordinated operations.
The Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) has prioritized iWAR and as the Army’s global scout has observed threats and friendly forces in the IE. Brigades are experiencing the effects of adversarial messaging and its ability to influence populations and partner forces in real time, potentially creating a negative perception, fostering distrust and apprehension. These threats include things like social media mimicry, where threats mimic US military personnel and online content IOT falsify and disseminate messages. Adding to an already difficult environment due to policy constraints, brigades are void of the concerted means at the tactical level, to counter this messaging and create an environment that allows freedom of movement for friendly forces. It is imperative that brigades understand the implications of adversarial iWAR and take the necessary precautions to harden themselves and improve their overall defensive OIE through proactive training and plans.
If a unit leader appears to be undermining their mission through negative activities on social media, partners and the unit must be alert to the possibility of mimicry and report the event. Threats like this may require swift reporting and action to prevent lasting negative effects on the mission. AWG has developed a Tactical Pocket Reference (TPR) to support recognition of common threats and timely reporting for tactical units to leverage for training. The TPR includes a 9-line reporting format for iWAR events that a Soldier or unit identifies along with recommended actions. A Soldier who identifies a potential protest or mis/dis-information on Social media, or through a news outlet should be enabled to report the activity and potential impacts to friendly operations through a common lexicon.
On today’s modern battlefield, commanders and their units are besieged from a variety of threat systems, both lethal and nonlethal. The job of the staff is to plan for and defend against these threats to enable successful operations. There is a considerable understanding of how to address lethal effects, however, nonlethal effects created from adversarial iWAR remain a challenge. There is an urgent need for the ability to identify and counter these activities at the brigade level, in order to ensure freedom of movement.
Analysis conducted in 2016 for the Army’s IO proponent suggests an IO officer at the Brigade level as the S7 should be a career pinnacle for the IO officer and critical to OIE. For various reasons, organizational changes have removed Function Area 30 (FA30) IO officers from brigades, positioning the nearest IO practitioner to coordinate, synchronize, and integrate non-lethal effects at the division and corps levels, away from the tactical point of need. Division and Corps representatives may not be familiar with the specific nuances of the IE where brigades are assigned. Without an IO officer, units are less effective integrating OIE in the planning process early enough to create desired effects, and thus capitalize on the operational advantages generated.
In order to keep pace with our adversary’s actions in the IE, it is incumbent on commanders at echelons brigade and below, to designate and ensure the training of individuals who are able to plan and coordinate OIE. In the absence of the IO officer at the brigades, the likely choice to coordinate nonlethal effects to enable OIE and support achieving objectives is the Fire Support Officer (FSO). The FSO is the staff officer responsible for planning, preparing, executing, and assessing all aspects of fire support, to include nonlethal fires. A practical solution at brigades and battalions is for the assistant FSO to focus on non-lethal effects planning and coordination in support of lethal and non-lethal integration by the FSO.
The Brigade commander must own this problem. The key is for brigades to ensure someone is trained and designated as their primary duty to plan and coordinate OIE to achieve the CDR’s vision. The IO officer or IO qualified designee is the primary staff officer trained to understand the IE and how to use it to support operations while working with the intelligence staff to determine how the adversary will use it. The IO designee also understands the information-related capabilities (IRCs), their functions, and is best trained to synchronize their employment in support of the commander’s objectives. This combination should be used to create desired effects at specific times and locations to provide an operational advantage over our adversaries with the following considerations:
1. Brigade commanders must designate someone to take ownership for the conduct of IO to effectively coordinate, integrate, and synchronize information-related capabilities to create desired effects to support operations.
2. Brigade Commanders should provide guidance to their XO, PAO, S2, S3, and FSO to ensure characteristics of the IE, including social media and key information nodes, are part of planning and operations through coordination with Division G39s.
3. Brigades should include objectives and supporting tasks in their plans focused on the IE and adversary decision-making rather than simple destruction of forces.
4. Understanding the IE as part of the OE will better enable supporting the higher echelon’s objectives, recognizing that ultimately, large scale combat operations are aimed to support political objectives and decision making.
5. Leveraging EW, Cyber, Space, and IRCs, including external supporting assets to request effects influencing decisions in conjunction with traditional maneuver planning and operations will enable greater success overall.
6. Units, down to the Soldier level, must recognize that they are constantly in contact in the IE and under constant observation at all times (including ‘off-duty’). Mis/dis-information efforts without trained and ready Soldiers able to detect/report them can undermine a unit’s mission and readiness more than a combat injury or illness.
Integrating OIE at the tactical level can be leveraged to extend the reach of a brigade’s ability to effect an adversary. While traditional lethal fires in support of a division or brigade may be limited by the physics of terrain, OIE enables effects on the adversary’s rear echelon and support area. Leveraging the FSO to integrate nonlethal and lethal fires allows targeting to extend beyond physical terrain to create multiple dilemmas for the adversary in all domains through well planned and coordinated IO.
There are various means to improve unit readiness for OIE with training opportunities for designated noncommissioned officers and officers to become IO practitioners. 1st Information Operations Command provides the Army Information Operations Planner’s Course (AIOPC) to train unit personnel identified as IO planners, defining their role and how to plan integrate, coordinate, synchronize and assess IO. 1st IO Command offers a host of other IO and Information-related capabilities classes as well. Additionally, the Combined Arms Center offers the Tactical IO Planners Course (TIOPC), which prepares individuals to conduct tactical IO planning.
Supporting Information Operation Forces
There are a number of organizations, from both the active and reserve components, capable of augmenting units and providing tailor-made support to commanders and their staffs.
1st Information Operation Command
1st Information Operations (IO) Command is a major subordinate command of the US Army Intelligence and Security Command, under operational control of US Army Cyber Command, capable of providing IO reach back, IO and cyberspace operations planning, synchronization, and assessment support, through deployable teams, to Army and other military forces. In addition to 1st IO Command, the Theater Information Operations Groups (TIOGs) provide IO planning, synchronization, and assessment support to Army echelons from theater and Army Service Component Commands (ASCC), down to brigades, by forming and deploying IO field support teams (FSTs) to requesting commands. The TIOGs maintain regional focuses to provide the supported commands with additional regional expertise and capabilities to plan IO within the area of operation. Despite their regional focus, the TIOGs are capable of deploying teams and provide IO support to commands outside of its focus area.
Brigade commanders need to own OIE for their formation and provide guidance to their staffs to achieve their desired outcome. Recognition of the problem with integration must drive training at home station. Information provides commanders the ability to shape the OE by successfully linking our deeds with our message to influence the perceptions and behaviors of our enemies, adversaries, and other audiences, enabling lethality at the tactical level. To accomplish this, brigades must understand the benefits that OIE provide to achieve information superiority. Commanders must designate someone to identify and assess adversarial activities in the IE in all aspects of planning and operations and be able to accurately articulate this information to the team. In addition, the individual must understand and be able to coordinate, synchronize, and integrate information-related capabilities to create nonlethal effects that ultimately support the commander’s objectives.
Major Joe Mroszczyk is the Asymmetric Warfare Group Information Warfare Lead and Special Technical Operations Chief. Joe is a former Field Artilleryman with Tactical IO training and experience at the battalion task force level in Afghanistan. Following battery command in 2012, Joe transitioned to become a Functional Area 40, Space Operations Officer who has served at the Army Service Component Command and Joint service level headquarters in the Pentagon.
Mr. Damon Smith is the Asymmetric Warfare Group IO consultant with training in the various information related-capabilities and experience supporting Combatant Commands, Service Cyber Components, and Special Operation Forces. Prior to becoming an IO planner, Damon served in the U.S. Army and retired after 21 years.