The Department of Defense is reexamining its overarching strategy for operating in what it calls the information environment, according to Mark Esper, the man nominated to lead the Pentagon.

The information environment is essentially the aura surrounding all humans that includes how information is collected, interpreted and disseminated, affecting how decisions are made.

Much has changed in this space since the last strategy was published in 2016, namely an increase in global disinformation campaigns leveraging, in part, social media platforms.

In a pre-hearing questionnaire from senators before his July 16 confirmation hearing, Esper said the new strategy is “focused on the central idea that DoD must evolve from a primary focus on executing its preferred method of warfare to one that incorporates information as a foundational element of plans and operations.”

Esper also pointed to his predecessor James Mattis’ September 2017 designation of information as a new seventh joint function. Joint functions, according to DoD’s doctrine, are related capabilities and activates that are grouped together to help integrate, synchronize and direct joint operations.

“The department has continued to evolve and refine our thinking about how to plan, resource and conduct Operations in the information environment,” he wrote. “When executed correctly, DoD can achieve its mission more effectively, more affordably, and with reduced risk to our operating forces.”

As adversaries such as Russia and China have restructuring their military forces around the concept of information to encompass cyber, space, electronic warfare and information operations under singular entities, the U.S. military services have taken similar steps to consolidate these capabilities to provide a singular organization with integrated and related capabilities.

While important to integrate into military plans for conflict, adversaries have adopted these capabilities for so-called gray-zone operations that target domestic populations in the absence of a declared military conflict. These adversaries, namely Russia and China, view conflict on a continuum versus the static peace-war state the United States has traditionally taken.

As a result, the United States has struggled to develop concepts to combat disinformation campaigns and similar efforts by Russia, in particular, against domestic populaces in America and Europe.

Esper, when asked on the questionnaire the key priorities and limitations for conducting information operations against Russia in Europe, stressed the value of partnerships.

“DoD activities against Russia in the information space should focus on building the capacity of our allies and partners to recognize, counter and resist Russian disinformation and false narratives,” he wrote. “To the extent possible, our efforts should aim to expose and attribute Russian malign activities and underscore that Russia is an unreliable actor that has deliberately destabilized the security environment in support of its political objectives.”

These campaigns, and apparent lack of U.S. cohesion to combat them, has drawn the ire of Congress. In last year’s annual defense policy bill, the House Armed Service Committee tasked the Government Accountability Office to write a report on operations in the information environment.

The cyber dimension

To counter Russia’s cyber-enabled information campaigns, Esper said European Command is expanding its online counter-propaganda efforts and U.S. Cyber Command is competing with Russia below the threshold of armed conflict.

Through Cyber Command’s new operating concept, persistent engagement, it seeks to meet adversaries daily below the threshold of armed conflict daily as a means of combating their malign behavior in kind. Defend forward, a subset of the concept, posits fighting those adversaries in networks as far from the United States as possible.

When asked by senators what role DoD and Cyber Command’s cyber mission force should play in combating foreign influence operations, especially on social media, Esper emphasized defend forward.

“The Department’s 2018 Cyber Strategy embraces the concept of ‘defend forward’ by which we strive to see and understand malicious cyber actors’ behavior, help warn of imminent threats, and remain continually postured to take action against those threats — at their source — before they reach the homeland,” he said. “The Cyber National Mission Force plays a significant role in these efforts.”

The Cyber National Mission Force plans and conducts cyber operations aimed at disrupting adversaries. The group works against specific nation-state threats and aims to engage those enemies as a means of preventing cyber intrusions.

Cyber Command, for its part, has been more cautious about its role in social media.

“This is an area that when we start to think about roles and responsibilities, from our stand point, we’re looking outside our borders. That’s our focus,” Maj. Gen. (s) Timothy Haugh, commander of the Cyber National Mission Force, told reporters regarding what Cyber Command is doing to combat misinformation.

“That type of information is probably best left from a real focus from a domestic agency standpoint as we go forward. It’s an area that we want to contribute our understanding based on what we do in our defend forward operations. But not really in the social media space.”

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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