Some outside observers have assessed that the U.S. is losing the so-called war of ideas. Initially spurred on in light of the propaganda campaigns orchestrated by the Islamic State group, this can now be applied generally to the information operations and active measures that Russia allegedly applied in the 2016 presidential election.
The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has asserted the need for a "U.S. information agency on steroids to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than we're doing, [one that focuses on the] totality of the information realm in all forms to include social media."
Efforts to combat ISIS propaganda have been described as inefficient.
Similarly, the reported Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election — and the elections of other Western democracies — compounded with the official standing upof an information operations wing in the Russian military, has forced a reevaluation of information warfare within U.S. ranks.
The alleged Russian influence operation serves as somewhat of a wake-up call. While some of these activities were reportedly carried out by a combination of Russian intelligence services, military intelligence units and proxies, the U.S. military has not traditionally engaged in similar or counter activity to include knocking down or combating barrages of so-called fake news stories.
When the U.S. military talks about information warfare, in large part, it deals with ensuring the security and validity of data. The services are reorganizingthemselves to consolidate and leverage similar operations domains tying together cyberspace operations, electromagnetic spectrum operations and information operations.
Given that Russia’s recent actions trickle into the civilian sphere, Brig. Gen. (promotable) Patricia Frost, who heads the Army’s cyber directorate, which encompasses cyber, electronic warfare and information operations, said the State Department takes the lead on this during peacetime. "We have to recognize: How does that influence how we’re going to fight? From an influence standpoint, what are they doing with information? From a cybersecurity standpoint, how do we ensure our war fighters have faith in data? … We have to have confidence in our data," she told C4ISRNET following her participation in a March 22 AFCEA panel.
The U.S. military typically does not delve into the types of operations that Russia allegedly has been engaging in and ramping up on both sides of the Atlantic. This type of activity has tended to stray more into the covert realm, not the military realm. Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, commander of Fleet Cyber Command/10th Fleet, asked rhetorically during a February presentation how organizations and governments can get "their arms around" the notion that large media organizations can retweet false information, a nod to Russia.
He conceded he doesn’t have an easy answer to get at this disinformation and messaging issues other than offering an example in the counter-ISIS fight, for which the U.S. is engaged in countermessaging.
The cyber component
The head of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, Adm. Michael Rogers, recently told Congress that the cyber dimension was the key difference in Russia’s alleged influence operation during the election. The "biggest difference was cyber to gain access to and extract information," Rogers toldthe House Intelligence Committee during a March 20 hearing.
Similarly, an articlein a publication by the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center documents how members of ISIS use the internet to remotely communicate and orchestrate operations around the world, making the organization seem larger than it is in actuality.
Some in the cyber business, such as James Miller, a member of the Defense Science Board and the former undersecretary of defense for policy, believe cyber can be a tool to knock down fake news and remove host websites. Miller toldthe Senate Armed Services Committee during a March 2 hearing that having a set of rules of engagements and polices associated with taking down websites could be valuable, but he added that the U.S. should not get involved in the business of propaganda.
What (else) can the US do?
Martin Libicki a visiting professor at the Naval Academy’s Center for Cyber Security Studies, offers in an essay publishedin Strategy Studies Quarterly, an Air Force publication, that no country is better positioned to carry out information war than the U.S. He attributes this to the fact that "U.S. skills at cyberwar have no equal."
However, "figuring out how to effectively harass another country’s citizens one at a time does not seem like an urgent or important, much less permissible, U.S. national security problem to solve," he adds.
"Serious thought may be needed on how to build an information warfare authority, whether housed under one organization or achieved through intense coordination among the various communities: cyber warriors, cyber intelligence collectors, electronic warriors, psychological operators, and, in some cases, special operators."
Russia is very brittle, according to Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a fellow at the Stimson Center and former assistant secretary for political military affairs at the State Department.
"Information is omnipresent, but they’re trying to control the media," he said during recent congressional testimony. "Russian television never told the Russian people that they had troops in Ukraine. They hid the fact, so they are extremely vulnerable to a reverse information campaign from the West."
Frost said her team at the Army’s cyber directorate is in the early stages of work with the Pentagon to look at information operations in light of what Russia has allegedly done. "They’ve really turned this on its head," she said.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.