“Information” Battle: The Struggle Between Order and Disorder

By Colonel Brian Russell (@OIECol)

Part 4

The enemy knows the system

Shannon’s Maxim

Throughout my blog series on Information as Order I have been working toward a simple, useful, and common understanding of information to make us better warfighters. After describing the nature of information as order, I spent some time describing how information actually creates order as part of an essential element of leadership competence. In this fourth and final post in the series I am going to describe how we use information to disorder the enemy system. Whether competition or conflict, engagement with our adversaries is a struggle to keep ourselves ordered and the enemy disordered (MCDP 1 – shattered cohesion) by maximizing the incredible informational capabilities at our disposal today and well into the future. But it isn’t all about information. Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) becomes the tie that binds the informational and physical aspects of military power together in a version of combined arms for the current and future operating environment.  I know you all are curious as to how something I’ve characterized as order itself can be used to disorder the enemy system.  Let’s take a look at a couple examples before concluding with a new framing of OIE as the struggle between order and disorder.

I want to start with a nod to Major Ian Brown’s exceptional piece on Boyd and OIE. Based on my last post, I believe we agree on the importance of leadership in owning the master narrative or targeting strategy for the command – this is in fact commander’s business.  But as noted, the import of the master narrative goes beyond building resiliency in our own forces and providing something to “attract the uncommitted” or “drain away” adversary resolve. Effective narratives force adversaries, particularly repressive regimes, to compete with them by expending resources. This is a form of cost imposition in the threshold below armed conflict side of the competition continuum and I am glad the Marine Corps brought Communications Strategy into the OIE capability set. Our service has a solid reputation for projecting our image and story but synchronizing it with other capabilities to sow disorder in an adversary system is the right move forward.

Speaking of COMSTRAT, have you seen United States Cyberspace Command’s VirusTotal alerts on Twitter? The program, described in this piece by the Council on Foreign Relations, is an outcome of the 2018 DoD Cyber Strategy defend forward concept. Beyond releasing malware notices to the general public to increase cybersecurity posture, the program’s added benefit is the disorder it causes in the adversary system. Releasing a malicious cyber actor’s malware into public awareness is the cyberspace analog of deep strikes into enemy territory to destroy ammunition depots. Once malware is exposed, responsible computer network owners upgrade their information technology (IT) infrastructure so that weapon system becomes ineffective. Better than that, the adversary now has to determine how that malware was discovered to mitigate additional compromise as well as spend resources on creating new weapons. Cost imposing measures that induce friction (there’s MCDP 1 again) into the adversary system by employing two informational capabilities: COMSTRAT and cyberspace operations.

And I couldn’t agree more with Major Brown’s identification of the ultimate goal of our efforts: to induce as much friction into the adversary system as we can…break its cohesion.  We might even be able to do that with purely informational capabilities in this current example. Wouldn’t it be great to implicate a member of the adversary’s cyber operations team as the one who released the secrets to the United States? There are certainly an ever increasing level of information capabilities to be applied in today’s environment but I want to caution here that OIE is not just about information. A quick rewind to the Story of Information I introduced in my second post reminds us that “Information can never be divorced from the physical world.” And that linkage between informational and physical gives us enormous combined arms potential in today’s ever increasingly networked world.

This is why I take some exception to Major Brown’s assertion that “missiles and bullets aren’t the right weapons for creating mistrust and discord.” On a broad scale, the much cited Desert Storm leaflet drop psychological operations in concert with airstrikes on Iraqi formations were a signal to Iraqi troops that their leadership could not protect them and any claims of victory over the infidels looked less and less likely with each bombing run. In today’s “information age,” the ability to precisely engage an individual with information and a portion of the enemy system with kinetic weapons that would implicate complicity within the organization (re: insider threat, spy) for that strike is absolutely achievable.  This ability to traverse across physical and informational space to induce maximum internal friction inside the adversary’s system is a capability our combined arms force should be postured to employ effectively.

Certainly, in an era of great power competition we won’t be shooting missiles and bullets often as a means to compete with peer adversaries, but that shouldn’t limit our aperture on how to induce disorder in their systems below the threshold of conflict. Select partnering across the interagency and with our closest allies opens the combined arms arsenal to their informational and physical capabilities to compete and sow disorder through legal, financial, and diplomatic means. A fuller description of that approach needs to be saved for another forum but let me tease out two reinforcing points before moving on to summarize the information as order warfighting model. The synchronized application of informational as well as physical military power is necessary for both competition and conflict and we will only be successful in conflict if we have this figured out in competition – or to borrow from Boyd “you know when we should be doing it? Right now…you want to get on top of it.” Second, a globally dispersed, forward deployed, yet interconnected (through information no less) naval force provides an incredible platform for placement and access to compete with peer adversaries using both physical and informational aspects of military power.

This idea, in some sense, is an answer to the Commandant’s question about how to win the information battle. It’s not purely an “information” battle.  And the struggle to maintain order in our own system and sow disorder in the adversary must begin now. Military information power, as described by Eric Schaner in April’s Gazette, is a great capability in the competition arena and transitions well into conflict. In terms of how to best think about applying military information power, I’ll offer this frame: a struggle between order and disorder.  The four elements of military information power align to this construct: generate and preserve information (order) and deny and project information (disorder).  How does information relate to the other warfighting functions?  Information helps the other functions preserve order or induce disorder.  Intelligence as an example, helps reduce the commander’s uncertainty about the enemy and environment but the counter-intelligence and counter reconnaissance fights are waged to increase the enemy’s uncertainty about the situation. What is signature management?  An ordered representation of the force to the adversary that enables operational security (order) and military deception (disorder), the latter two being traditional information related capabilities that have always had informational and physical aspects. If the latest terminology on OIE, its seven functions and six capability areas leave you questioning how it’s all supposed to work in meeting our warfighting objectives, I’d offer they can all be binned into an order or disorder purpose.

I want to close with another nod, this time to the recognized father of information theory, Claude Shannon. His quote at the beginning of this post describes his maxim about the sole requirement for an effective cryptologic system: as long as the key is protected, an enemy can know everything else about your system and it will still be secure. Perhaps I am influenced a fair bit by my time here at Fort Meade but it was really an afternoon spent in the National Cryptologic Museum that gave me an initial hint about the struggle of order and disorder framework I’ve settled on. The long standing cat and mouse struggle amongst nation states to steal each other’s secrets is a fair representation of OIE for our service. Knowing an adversary well enough to influence him through informational and physical approaches to prompt him to reveal the key while protecting our own. As we consider the implementation of distributed, “stand in” forces to complicate our pacing threat’s targeting and decision cycle, we’d do well to apply every tool in our collective arsenal to best know our enemy and know thyself in the information environment and be postured to achieve operational advantage at the time and place of our choosing.

Well, this last post went a little longer than I initially intended but I found it helpful to tease out my thoughts on the relative importance of, and maybe newfound interest in, information.  Information is important because it represents order as its very nature and is responsible for the ordering of our world and how we live within it. Information has the power to create order and is an indispensable tool in a leader’s kit bag for propelling their Marines and organizations through periods of chaos. Information should interest all of us since it’s effective use is critical to our warfighting effectiveness as we struggle to protect our own order and sow disorder into our adversaries.  But information should never be divorced from the physical manifestations of military power and never left to just the information professionals. Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) is the preservation of our order and the imposition of disorder on our enemy through the balanced application of both informational and physical capabilities. What an exciting time to be a Marine.  The modern information environment and the evolution of our service will bring incredible opportunities to redesign ourselves into the 21st century combined arms force our nation needs us to be in both competition and conflict. I look forward to your discussion on this post and others in the OIE call to action.