The U.S. is falling behind in the cyber war.  We need to quickly synchronize our national strategy and our cyber efforts – including expanding to Information Cyberspace Operations; only then can the U.S. dominate in the Information Domain.  This article explains the context of this fight and proposes a new type of cyberspace operation: the Information Cyberspace Operation.

Fighting from Behind

The accounts of Russian information and influence operations in the Ukraine should shock the United States military and every US citizen on how far behind the United States is in the employment of Information as an instrument of national power and implementing those effects through all levels of warfare.  Russia has demonstrated dominance in the information domain in fighting in the grey zone just below the level of outright war (doctrinally still unnamed – Asymmetric? Hybrid? )  One account follows:

In spring 2014, Russia integrated offensive cyber and UW operations in support of paramilitary separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Russia attacked state Internet infrastructure, conducted distributed denial of service attacks and executed intensive disinformation campaigns throughout the country.  On the ground it appears that Russian special forces, or Spetznaz, have demonstrated masterful unconventional warfare tactics, operating independently of conventional forces, without any insignia, advising irregular separatist militias and coordinating with cyber influence and attack operations.  Enabled by cyber operations to disconnect Ukrainian military forces from their headquarters, specially trained Russian operators moved to secure key installations and hand them over to militias. Russia’s merging of cyber operations with covert actions has clearly expanded the traditional definition of unconventional warfare. More importantly, this “ambiguous warfare” was strategically calculated to stay below a Western or NATO threshold of response.[1]

Frighteningly, there are still plenty of mid-grade and senior officers in the United States armed forces who don’t believe information is an actual domain, legitimate warfighting community or an operational function.  And yet, it is these same mid-grade and senior officers who are making operational, training, doctrine, education, manpower and resource decisions for their services and the joint force writ large. This, despite the fact that every service and joint PME institution teaches in policy 101 (not a real course) that information is one of four instruments of national power (diplomacy, military and economic – collectively referred to as DIME).

Plenty of mid-grade and senior officers in the US don’t believe information is an actual domain.

While not exclusive, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) implements our diplomatic efforts. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) implements our military strategy.  Our federal laws and regulations (domestically) and the Department of State (internationally) implement the economic levers of power. But who is responsible for information? No one and everyone. So how do we implement information at the national level in support of strategic policy? Right now – through lip service and happenstance.

Americans tend to read American military history as if the outcome were predetermined.  Many forget the seemingly “American way” is to lose the first battle – Bull Run, Kassarine Pass, Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, 9/11. We, as a nation, have been able to absorb this first loss because we fight the away game and, geographically, we possesses enough strategic depth to find protection in time and space. These factors may be an obsolete safety valve if the first salvo in the next war is cyber enabled.  Consider if the opening salvo of the next war is an attack on our critical infrastructure:

“There are 16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”

Even if not complete destruction but a demonstration that we as a nation are no longer in control of these systems, a cyber enabled information warfare opening salvo could be a war ending, crippling blow against the United States. Game Over.

Demonstrating that we are no longer in control of our critical infrastructure  – through a cyber-enabled information war – could be a  crippling blow against the United States.  Game Over.

National Cyber Strategy: The Basics

The recent release of the U.S. National Cyber Strategy reflects a growing understanding of how cyber-enabled operations support our national and strategic interests and employ the instruments of national power.  Consider that three of the four pillars in the strategy are: Promote American Prosperity (Pillar II), Preserve Peace through Strength (Pillar III) and Advance American Influence (Pillar IV)[2]   – in a cyber strategy! This is progress. 

“We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the years to come. . . based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former director of C.I.A. and now as secretary of defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use ‘soft power’ and for better integrating it with ‘hard power.” – Secretary of Defense Gates, 2007.

The subsequent release of the Department of Defense Cyber Strategy also reflects a change in the strategic thinking and understanding of cyberspace operations, highlighted by three key themes:

  • Defending forward, confronting threats before they reach U.S. networks;
  • Proactively engaging in the day-to-day great power competition in cyberspace;
  • Protecting military advantage and national prosperity;[3]

Yet, for the preeminent role the Department of State plays in advancing American values, interests and security, it is historically and anemically undermanned and under resourced.

“We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the years to come. . . based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former director of C.I.A. and now as secretary of defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use ‘soft power’ and for better integrating it with ‘hard power.” – Secretary of Defense Gates, 2007.[4]

Unfortunately the Secretary’s pleas fell on deaf ears and now, under an “America First” presidential approach to foreign policy, the Department of State may continue to suffer a decline in relevancy and resources.

Conversely, the Department of Defense is historically well resourced, possesses enough manpower (uniform and civilian) to be flexible to emerging requirements and its future bodes well under the “America First” approach to foreign policy.  While the two departments have a far better partnership than decades past, there is a greater need to harmonize the efforts and application of the instruments of national power among the two.

Cyber-Enabled Strategic Information

Classically, we bin cyberspace operations into three categories:

  • DODIN (Department of Defense Information Network Defense) Operations (formerly “Network Operations”)
  • DCO (Defensive Cyberspace Operations)
  • OCO (Offensive Cyberspace Operations)

But if the United States wants to dominate in the information domain then U.S. Cyber Command, in coordination with Department of State and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), ought to expand its operational capability to include ICO (Information Cyberspace Operations).  The mission of ICO would be to support theater strategic level information operations implemented through a Theater DOS/DOD Information Campaign Plan.  This campaign plan would be approved annually by Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense and implemented by United States Special Operations Command (global synchronizer) with direct support from Cyber Command.

The mission of Information Cyberspace Operations (ICO) should be to support strategic level information operations implemented through a Theater DOS/DOD Information Campaign Plan approved annually by the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense and implemented by SOCOM through U.S. Cyber Command.

This approach to complementary strategic information efforts already moderately exists in the United States’ approach to Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program, for example, where:

  • The Department of State (DOS) leads the first prong by diplomatically protesting foreign laws, regulations, or other claims of coastal States that are inconsistent with international law (called “excessive maritime claims”) and
  • The Department of Defense (DOD) leads a second prong that complements DOS protests by conducting operational challenges against excessive maritime claims.[5]

Therefore, U.S. Cyber Command’s Information Cyberspace Operations arm would merely be the second prong to Department of State’s theater information themes and messages in support of all four goals of the State-USAID Joint Strategic Goal Framework.[6]

While the Department of State should seek to maintain trust and diplomatic relations with other nations, the Department of Defense, through Special Operations Command, could employ cyber-enabled information warfare approaches such as: extensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns, military information support operations, incite cultural and social antagonists versus our adversaries, respond and refute adversarial information campaigns, compete in social media spaces, challenge adversarial economic initiatives in the information space, among other unconventional or irregular warfare core activities.

Every Combatant Command already has a senior DOS representative as an advisor to the Commanding General that can provide oversight of these programs and activities that support the Theater DOS/DOD Information Campaign Plan.  Further, the DOS representative can facilitate frequent direct communication and coordination with embassy teams where operations may be employed.  The advantage to aligning the Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) to strategic information themes and messages is:

  1. TSOCs possess the ability and training to perform military information support operations
  2. SOF are already focused on operational preparation of the environment and
  3. quite frankly, as a joint force, SOF are the most creative and flexible force, unbounded by inflexible, hierarchical chains of command and they could actually be effective and compete in this space.

The proposal is not without challenges. I suspect most of the resistance will come from the cold war warriors and grey hairs of my generation that still believe cyber is about email.

The Way Forward

So let me be clear, this is not a proposal for the Department of State to militarize information and diplomacy.  But rather a recommendation and impetus for a discussion on how to better synchronize our national efforts to harmonize and synergize our cyber-enabled efforts so that we can dominate in the information domain. Clearly, at the strategic level we are not dominating nor are we resourced, trained or organized to dominate in the information domain in the future. With Secretary Pompeo currently leading the Department of State, this might be a unique moment in time to consider and experiment how DOD can support the Department of State’s goals, themes and messages by operationalizing information in direct support of Department of State’s mission to lead “America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance by advancing the interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity.”[7]

[1]
P. Duggan, “Strategic Application of Special Warfare in Cyberspace,” Special Warfare, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, no. January-March 2015, p. 25, 2015 [Online]. Available: http://www.soc.mil/swcs/SWmag/archive/SW2801/28-1_JAN_MAR_2015_vWeb.pdf
[2]
“National Cyber Strategy of the United States,” Whitehouse.gov, Sep-2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/National-Cyber-Strategy.pdf. [Accessed: 07-Oct-2018]
[3]
“Fact Sheet: 2018 DoD Cyber Strategy and Cyber Posture Review Sharpening our Competitive Edge in Cyberspace,” U.S. Department of Defense, Sep-2018. [Online]. Available: https://media.defense.gov/2018/Sep/18/2002041659/-1/-1/1/Factsheet_for_Strategy_and_CPR_FINAL.pdf
[4]
T. Shanker, “Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for U.S. Diplomacy,” New York Times, 27-Nov-2007. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/washington/27gates.html. [Accessed: 07-Oct-2018]
[5]
“Department of Defense Report to Congress Annual Freedom of Navigation Report Fiscal Year 2017,” U.S. Department of Defense, Dec-2017. [Online]. Available: https://policy.defense.gov/Portals/11/FY17%20DOD%20FON%20Report.pdf?ver=2018-01-19-163418-053. [Accessed: 07-Oct-2018]
[6]
“JOINT STRATEGIC PLAN FY 2018 – 2022 U.S. Department of State U.S. Agency for International Development,” U.S. Department of State, Feb-2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277156.pdf. [Accessed: 07-Oct-2018]
[7]
“About the US Department of State,” U.S. Department of State, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.state.gov/aboutstate. [Accessed: 07-Oct-2018]

John F. Griffin is an original member and featured writer for CyberDominance.com.  He is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer who is fascinated with information and cyberspace as warfighting domains.  A design thinker who believes leadership is the lens that informs human behavior yet admires complex adaptive systems.  Academically, a liberal arts background aspiring to be a polymath but might simply be suffering from ADD and monkeybrain.

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