Infantry and Operations in the Information Environment at the Tactical Level of War

by Capt Michael D. Scotto
Company Commander
B Co, 1st Bn, 3 Mar
@MikeScotto10

As the Marine Corps begins to focus more on operations in the infantry environment, the infantry may be left wondering where it fits in. To an infantry unit, operations in the information environment (OIE) seem like someone else’s job. The existing Joint Concept for OIE (JCOIE) is explicitly focused on, “enduring strategic outcomes,” and driving relevant actors accordingly, which seems beyond infantry action at the tactical level of war.[i] But just because there is a strategic and operational level of war in the information environment doesn’t mean there isn’t a tactical level. In the April issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, Eric Schaner proposes a definition of “military information power,” that allows an infantry unit to understand where they fit in; “military information power is the ability to exert one’s will or influence over an opponent through the generation, preservation, denial, or projection of information.”[ii] In this context, information is another lever it can use to win the fight, and the information domain another place where the infantry can maneuver. In fact, tactical-level infantry action can have a cognitive effect of the enemy that can help a Marine Corps force win the information fight and the larger battle. By deliberately focusing actions on a cognitive or information effect, the infantry can stress the enemy decision making system and thereby assist with overwhelming the enemy’s ability to operate in the information environment.

Whenever any unit acts on the battlefield, it produces information which competing forces try to collect and use to validate initial situation estimates and guide actions. MCDP 6, our command and control doctrine, states that, “command and control is essentially about information: getting it, judging its value, processing it into useful form, acting on it, sharing it with others.”[iii] When Marine Corps infantry takes action, adversaries can gather and process that information, whether they use an observation post, a drone, or signals intelligence. Adversary intelligence systems and commanders then use this raw data to create a picture of the situation and try to figure out what we are doing. If the data-points don’t make sense to the system or to a commander, they need to re-assess what’s going on and act or be overcome by a changing situation. While this seems fairly obvious and like a re-statement of Boyd’s observe-orient-decide-act loop, an understanding of the tactical information environment is critical because it allows an infantry unit to understand how to use information itself as a weapon. Conflicting or new information, which an infantry unit might deliberately introduce, can overwhelm a system working to process it, and this can lead to the tactical and operational collapse of an enemy.

The best historical example of information overload and resulting tactical and operational collapse abound is the May 1940 invasion of France. The French were unable to gain solid information on the German main-effort advance through the Ardennes and even when they should have grasped the scale of the attack, they persisted in under-estimating the threat of breakthrough at Sedan for almost two days after the penetration of their defensive line.[iv] On the tactical level, as the defenders realized the size of the German attack, false information spontaneously generated among panicked troops and resulted in the tactical-level disruption of Sedan’s defenses.[v] The French high command, dealing with facts that didn’t match their expected picture of the unfolding situation, wasn’t able to respond. They failed because they didn’t understand the situation quickly enough.[vi] Examined through the lens of the information environment, a failure in processing and reacting to information led to tactical, then operational, and ultimately strategic failure and defeat for France. But if the potential for tactical-level information disruption in 1940 remains unconvincing in an age of drones and networked sensors, there is a more recent example that helps prove the point.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, unexpected tactical information rendered the U.S. intelligence picture inaccurate for the entire campaign. On 22 March 2003, two-days after the ground attack began, Special Operations Forces in the Karbala Gap unexpectedly observed Fedayeen moving south. Nonetheless, when “their reports were received by CFSOCC and CFLCC headquarters, they were met with incredulity. No one in the coalition command understood what the irregular Iraqi forces were doing there, let alone their composition and capability.”[vii] As Marines will recognize, these unexpected forces later offered stiff resistance to Task Force Tarawa in Nasiriyah, complicating the original mission. At a higher level, however, the authors of the Army’s history of the invasion of Iraq, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, conclude that, “[the] drastic change in the enemy situation confounded the coalition’s operational-level analysis and collection systems, which struggled to fit the incoming information into preexisting tem­plates of a conventional enemy and tried vainly to maintain the sophisticated digital battle maps with company-sized and larger enemy formations.”[viii] While the coalition ultimately was successful in spite of the inaccurate intelligence picture, “[this] pattern of bottom-driven reporting from tactical units and an inaccurate and outdated enemy picture at the operational headquarters persisted for the remainder of the invasion.”[ix] This sounds much like the French experience in 1940, with the exception that the Fedayeen were not an armored corps. It does not require much imagination to think about how an inaccurate picture of a more capable peer adversary might effect a major military operation. For the infantry seeking tactical action in the information environment however, this suggests that information is a weapon to use against an enemy focused on information gathering to drive operations.

Deliberately producing data points to generate surprising or contradictory information can allow the infantry to take control of the information fight. In short, we can try to make the enemy see what we want him to see. US Army Special Operations Command proposed in 2017 at a senior leader forum that, “schemes of maneuver should include cognitive objectives resulting in relevant actor behavior.”[x] The infantry should adopt this mindset at least as low as the company level, by explicitly identifying the cognitive or informational objectives or results of actions. Keeping in mind the example of Operation Iraqi Freedom, consider what J. Michael Dahm proposed in a recent War on the Rocks article: Chinese militarization of features in the SCS is about, “information power.”[xi] He contends that rather than acting as a striking asset, on an operational level, “[the] Chinese bases’ main contribution is to facilitate substantial command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the South China Sea.”[xii] While this appears to be an intimidating move to dominate information, such a robust system is a play into the hands of a force than can disrupt thought processes, since it provides avenues for achieving a cognitive effect on the enemy. US infantry is well suited to do that.

Tactical-level infantry combat is an excellent point of entry into the information environment and the enemy decision making system. Direct combat involves subjective estimates of a situation based on information available to the enemy in contact. Infantry, already positioned at this level, can introduce or shape available information in an attempt to produce a report we want and gain an information advantage. Consider what hasty conclusions an infantry unit leader makes upon encountering dismounted heavy machineguns. He assumes there is a rifle unit providing security. He assumes he is encountering something important because a company or battalion has allocated those assets there. If the machineguns are in an unexpected place however, his mind, trained to think in patterns, will immediately begin reeling with attempting to understand a new or shifted pattern. And then he has to report this, in which case he will probably over-estimate the situation out of a sense of caution or due to the intense personal pressure of being under fire. Consider then the power of purposefully placing assets and people in places to cause that kind of cognitive dissonance and confusion. Imagine an infantry squad or platoon infiltrated far behind enemy lines. Suddenly the enemy is faced with the question of whether there are more units in his rear area. His subordinate units must now begin their own attempts to gather information through reconnaissance or re-tasking of assets. We have thus not only gained a maneuver advantage in a traditional sense and perhaps surprised the enemy, but we have generated a potentially larger information effect. By forcing the adversary to focus on new data points, we degrade the ability of the adversary to process already known information or even newer data. Suddenly he must choose where to place his information gathering assets or his information processing power, and where to defend.

As for the grunt-level view of how this should be done, the action is simple: do what infantry does best. Move quietly through difficult terrain where it is difficult to be detected. Move through types of terrain and along avenues of approach that the enemy sees as impassible or will not be monitoring. Do exactly what maneuver warfare enjoins us to do and bypass centers of resistance to sow confusion in the rear. In the littoral environment, the use of swimmers and small boats magnifies the opportunities for this kind of operation. Headquarters must be ready to task companies with, “demonstrate,” or “feint,” using the method of a raid, or the method of seizing a key piece of terrain, all to convince the enemy commander of something. But as an infantry unit does this, it must clearly identify the desired informational or cognitive effect on the enemy or any effect in the information environment will be unfocused and incidental. In spite of the fact that the infantry is primarily a physical, tactical actor, infantry units can significantly affect the information environment. The historical record is clear on this fact. The record also shows that sophisticated information gathering systems are no proof against confusion caused by the unexpected. The future fight will be fast-paced, and we will be fighting for information and attempting to target each-others large expensive platforms. An infantry can play a key role in this fight, not only by holding ground-based assets at risk but by purposefully creating thousands of tiny plots on a graph that the enemy must struggle to comprehend and react to.  Infantry can’t win the information fight, but it can help the enemy lose.


[i] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (Washington, DC: The Pentagon, 25 July 2018),11.

[ii] Eric X. Schaner, “What is military information power?” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no.4 (April 2020): 17-19.

[iii] Headquarters US Marine Corps, MCDP 6: Command and Control (Washington, DC: Headquarters US Marine Corps, 4 April 2018), 1-16.

[iv] Karl-Heniz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 198; Robert A. Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France 1940 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1990), 343.

[v] Frieser, Blitzkrieg Legend, 175-178. The specific incident is known as “The panic of Bulson,” in which French artillery and command posts begun retreating and shifting positions after sighting German Panzers west of the Meuse at 1900 on 13 May- four hours before the first Panzer crossed the river at 2300.

[vi] Doughty, The Breaking Point, 343.

[vii] Joel D. Rayburn and Frank K. Sobchak, eds., The U.S. Army in the Iraq War: Volume 1. Invasion. Insurgency. Civil War. 2003-2006 (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2019), 86

[viii] The U.S. Army in the Iraq War: Volume 1, 87.

[ix] The U.S. Army in the Iraq War: Volume 1, 87.

[x] Scott K. Thomson and Christopher E. Paul, “Paradigm Change: Operational Art and the Information Joint Function,” Joint Forces Quarterly 89, (April 2019): https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/1490645/paradigm-change-operational-art-and-the-information-joint-function/

[xi] J. Michael Dahm, “Beyond “Conventional Wisdom”: Evaluating the PLA’s South China Sea Bases in Operational Context,” War on the Rocks, March 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/beyond-conventional-wisdom-evaluating-the-plas-south-china-sea-bases-in-operational-context/

[xii] J. Michael Dahm, “Beyond “Conventional Wisdom”: Evaluating the PLA’s South China Sea Bases in Operational Context,” War on the Rocks, March 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/beyond-conventional-wisdom-evaluating-the-plas-south-china-sea-bases-in-operational-context/

Comments