Discussing the ‘Warfare’ in Information Warfare
Understanding the basic maneuvers impacting the battlefield
There is no simple answer to what happened during the 2016 Presidential Election. We know that the Russians and other foreign governments attempted to sway voters in one way or another. We don’t know to what extent they cared about the outcome of the election.
The arguments about what happened have been all over the place for the last two years. Part of the problem is that politics is hard. But part of the problem is that information warfare efforts by definition distort the information available to us. We can attempt to clear up some of the confusion and chaos by understanding a bit about warfare in general.
People have writen about war since the invention of writing, producing works such as Theucidides’ History of the Pelopenesian Wars and Ceaser’s discussion of the The Gallic Wars. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that a science of war really developed when Von Clausetwitz wrote his famous book On War.
Today, Nations around the world have developed these early works into their own studies and doctrine around how to engage in warfare. Each nation has a slightly different take on war, and there are even internal differences within nations. For example, in the United States doctrine varies in quality and purpose — whereas the US Army’s ADP 1, The Army, acts as a tedious reference manual, in contrast the Marine Corps’ MCDP 1, Warfighting, is an enjoyable read.
Ultimately, all these different doctrines boil down to the same concepts. Campaigns are composed of smaller elements, each of which is part of an effort. Elements are able to take advantage of gaps and need to overcome surfaces. Military deception depends on the opponent detecting misinformation through channels. Through using these concepts, we can make better sense of what has already happened and perhaps recognize and mitigate ongoing influence attempts.
Basics of Warfare
In warfare, an element attempting to achieve some objective is an effort. There are two sorts of efforts. Main efforts are supposed to accomplish a goal (e.g. take a bridge), whereas the supporting efforts increase the likelihood of the main effort’s success. So long as the main effort succeeds, it doesn’t matter how many supporting efforts fail.
The designation of an effort as main or supporting rests entirely on the person conducting the effort; the only party certain of the intent of an operation is the party performing it. It’s analogous to a wingman pulling a girl’s friend away so you can talk to her.
In recent movies like Infinity Wars or The Last Jedi, battles were fought by both sides lining up and charging each other (or running away) as purposeless mobs. In practice, that’s not how things work. At the very least, each side is split into multiple subordinate sections. These sections aren’t going to fight each other head on. There’s terrain and maneuver considerations, so a battle might look more like this pincer movement below.
Sitting in a balloon watching the two sides (assuming you can even distinguish between the two), this just looks groups of dots milling about. It can be hard to tell who’s moving where, much less why.
For example, lets say we want to take a contested bridge. You could just charge the bridge like in the movies and try to win with brute strength. But if you want to use tactics, you can divide your force into two efforts. The main effort would seize Bridge B and move across to flank red. The supporting effort would remain in place as a feint to make red think that you were crossing Bridge A. If the red force thinks blue’s supporting effort directly threatening Bridge A is blue’s main effort, red will get outmaneuvered.
If blue’s main effort is discovered, the supporting effort could still take on the role of the main effort and try to seize Bridge A depending how red repositions. If blue gets discovered and isn’t able to shift the main effort back to taking bridge A, we say that blue is ‘overcommitting’ to bridge B.
There are countless combinations of ways to do this. A lot of it is common sense, and it’s just a matter of organizing different strategies together.
Gaps and Surfaces
One of the main considerations that goes into determining whether to commit an element as a main effort or a support effort has to do with how effective that element can be. Gaps are areas that an element can attack or move through, surfaces are those areas where an element would be ineffective. In general, you want to your opponent to attack your surfaces and you want to attack your opponent’s gaps.
In terms of movement, if you’re on a boat, you’re not (generally) going to cut across land to get to your destination. That land mass is a surface to the boat. If there are rivers or other navigable courses going to your destination, those are gaps.
For tanks, forests are generally surfaces. Forests are not impenetrable to tanks — German tanks managed to speed through the Ardennes at the beginning World War II to take the French by surprise. However, for infantry, those forests are gaps. The forests conceal their movement and infantry don’t need large roads. However, open terrain with obstacles like barbed wire or walls is a surface to infantry because they have to move out in the open and are vulnerable.
Part of warfare is turning surfaces into gaps like the Germans did in the Ardennes. People can get really creative to do so. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis had large sand barriers protecting their border with Egypt. The Egyptians brought in hoses and blasted holes in the barriers, allowing the Egyptian army to quickly breach Israel’s defenses.
One way to mitigate surfaces is through combined arms. The concept of combined arms uses different types of units to complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses to turn surfaces into gaps. For instance, during the world wars, armies would saturate an area with artillery fire prior to an attack, making the enemy soldiers take to their trenches which in turn allowed that side’s forces to advance across the no-mans land without taking heavy casualties from enemy small arms fire. As technology has advanced, this integration allows infantry on the ground to amplify their firepower by requesting drone reconnaissance, getting helicopter support, or calling in airstrikes.
Deception is another aspect of warfare that has been an implicit part of this discussion so far. Deception only works if the party intended to be deceived is able to see the deception. A way to think of it is like a magic trick. When a magician is on stage, he’s trying to get the audience to look at anything but whatever the trick is that he’s doing. If you know what the trick is, you can watch him doing it and see through the illusion. If you don’t and you miss the passing of the coin or whatever the action of the trick was, then it can be hard to figure out what really happened.
Deception can take many forms. For instance, in World War I navies wanted to prevent opponents from easily determining the direction of their ships. They used dazzle camouflage, essentially painting various patterns on a ship, to break up the silhouette of their vessels. Back when ship guns had to be targeted manually, it potentially would decrease the probability that enemy rounds would land on the ship. This worked so long as the observer was targeting the ship through visual observation (I don’t know how well it worked though).
Using the right channel is important. You can create a bunch of fake radio traffic to make it look like you’re moving or attacking, but if no one’s listening to your radio signals it’s a wasted effort. That being said, a lot of times there’s unknowns as far as what the opponent’s looking for, so you try to hit a broad spectrum of channels. For instance, prior to the D-Day invasions the Allies went all out with inflatable tanks, fake radio transmissions, and dummy paratroopers — between all the different channels, something worked.
Looking at the Warfare in Information Warfare
Before delving into strategies in information warfare, it’s important to remember that just because someone uses information to mislead others doesn’t mean they have labels for what they’re doing. There are plenty of recent examples of people unsystematically utilizing misinformation for their own gain. When Elizabeth Holmes mislead investors at Theranos, Bernie Madoff created a massive Ponzi Scheme, Korea Aerospace Industries failed to disclose payments to Michael Cohen, or Enron cooked their books to appear profitable, they mislead people into acting in specific manners. Their efforts do not appear to be weaponized in the methodological way that nation states approach warfare. Still, by codifying their actions, it might help understand what happened even if the actors in these cases did not recognize what they were doing.
We know the Russians tried to interfere in the 2016 Presidential Election, but we don’t know what parts of the information campaign were main efforts or supporting efforts. We do know that the information campaign took place across multiple channels over many years. Looking at the information elements individually, there have been both computational propaganda (using automated bots) and more traditional efforts.
The computational propaganda included Facebook ads and Twitter bots both before and after the election. The computational campaign also involved a wave of comments on the FCC supporting the repeal of net neutrality.
The Russians also utilized non-computational methods. They released emails from the DNC. They used Russian government-sponsored news organizations like RT and Sputnik to spread state approved propaganda. They influenced commercial entities like the National Rifle Association. They even reached out to the American population through American news outlets, such as Putin’s New York Times Op-Ed back in 2013. Diplomatically, the Russians were using their influence over North Korea as part of these efforts as well.
Each of these channels is a method of reaching to certain people with specific messages. Some, like the release of the DNC emails or the efforts in North Korea eventually reach the entire population. Others, like the Facebook ads, are only seem by specific people based on purposefully chosen demographic data points. Researching these channels as a third party, it is much easier to identify the broad reaching attempts than the narrow reaching ones.
As we identify channels of information efforts, we need to pick apart the main efforts from the supporting efforts. These efforts can change over time as the Russians identify and reevaluate gaps and surfaces. After all, once a botnet is identified, even if it was a main effort they can shift it into a supporting effort to distract from their main objective.
Again, we do not know whether the Russian interference in the 2016 election was a main effort or a supporting effort. Most news organizations have discussed the operations as though they were a main effort, although there’s arguments that the interference was actually a supporting effort in a larger active measures campaign.
The extent of Russian influence over President Trump is an effort that is poorly understood, although hopefully the Mueller investigation will shed light on the issue. The dialogue should not be a binary option between either Trump colluded with the Russians vs the Russians did not interfere in the election. The Russians tried to change the voters’ perceptions of the world, and the question remains how the perceptions changed regardless of whether or not the Trump Campaign was aware. The focus on collusion prevents an approach to the broader problem.
Beyond the 2016 election, there are other efforts that are poorly understood at this point. Russia has been trying to break up America’s alliances including NATO. It looks like they were involved in trying to break up parts of the European Union through Brexit. They are involved in a proxy war fighting against the West in the Middle East in the Syrian Civil War. Short of knowing that Russia is involved in these current events, we simply don’t know their strategy.
Information Gaps and Surfaces
Like with ground warfare, identifying gaps and surfaces can help to identify the purpose of information efforts. However, they can change depending on both environmental factors and the method of attacking them. A previously unidentified flaw in a security system can turn that system into a gap for easy exploitation. A new software patch can turn a gap into a surface.
One of the main factors that determines whether or not a specific population is a surface or a gap to a campaign is their receptiveness to the campaign. It can be hard to identify the preferences of a population — there is a reason advertising agencies make money. It is difficult to get voters to change their minds, much less to act on their changed beliefs.
Having data on a population can help with understanding population preferences. While it may seem that acquiring the beliefs of all members of a population is hard, it turns out that a lot of the people’s beliefs have been leaked in data breaches. Our personal data has been potentially compromised through poor data security, be it at Facebook, Equifax, Dominos, or any of the countless data breaches in the last decade. With this data, understanding and exploiting population preferences becomes a gap.
Moving forward, the compromised data presents a potential problem. While some data changes over time, most of it doesn’t. The books you read, the papers you wrote, the emails you sent, the movies you watched and the posts you ‘like’d won’t change over time. You might read more books and ‘like’ new posts, but whatever was revealed about you through these data breaches is about things you already did.
Geographical areas that we do not understand also form a gap. When free information is limited in a region, be it due to authoritarian governments like in China or North Korea, or from war like in the Middle East, Africa, or Afghanistan, it is easy to shift the narrative. For instance, since it looks as though the Russians have been using North Korea as part of their active measures since at least 2013, the Russians were able to use North Korea to manipulate fears in the United States at will.
As we continue to identify information warfare efforts, we must also attempt to understand if they are supporting efforts or main efforts. If we spend all our time chasing supporting efforts, we miss the main effort. Since we have not identified the main effort, we do not know how much of a threat these information operations pose.
Just as in warfare an artillery barrage can serve to cause enemy soldiers to abandon their positions and hide in trenches prior to an assault, an information warfare assault across Facebook or Twitter can prime a main effort. It’s not just the Russians that try to manipulate perceptions. Politicians and corporations do it all the time, although they’re somewhat bounded by ethical norms and the rule of law regarding methodology and privacy.
Above all, the information warfare we are dealing with should not be so complicated that we remain paralyzed two years after recognizing it is happening. However, so long as we continue to look at world events as random and disconnected, it will be hard to make sense of what happened.