WASHINGTON — To be successful in today’s information fight — what military leaders call the competition phase ahead of conflict — the U.S. military must tear down certain geographic assumptions it has built over the course of its counterterror mission, according to a top general.

After 9/11, sensors and personnel were trained to locate terrorists on a map. But given the global nature of new mediums such as space and cyberspace, the physical location of an adversary might not be the most important factor, said Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, commander of 16th Air Force.

“[When] we look at data or competition in the information environment or where a hacker exists, that physical location may not be the most critical factor in terms of how we think about threats going forward either in the cyber or the space domain,” he said Sept. 9 during a virtual presentation as part of the Billington Cybersecurity Summit.

“As we look at the adversary’s competition forces, how Russia is using private military companies to be able to disavow their activities — that’s occurring across multiple combatant commands. When we take a step back and we look at that globally, it’s a very different sight picture as to see what adversary activities are underway.”

The geographic commands the military has created as a way to command forces across the world are increasingly becoming stretched, as malign actors can simultaneously influence multiple regions through non-kinetic or information-based capabilities. In response, the U.S. military has begun reexamining its war-fighting structure.

“What I’ve noticed is that, as opposed to everything I’ve done my entire career, the biggest difference is that in the future there will be no lines on the battlefield,” Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in August, previewing a new war-fighting structure under development.

One example in the cyberspace realm that posed a thorny legal conundrum for this new paradigm was the fight against the Islamic State group. Though ISIS was physically based in Iraq and Syria, it was using servers from across the world to spread its message, recruit fighters and promote its activities. In some cases, the servers were based in nations friendly to the United States, posing a challenging debate over whether to tell those host nations if American forces were going to take down the servers to disrupt ISIS' operations.

Haugh pointed provided the example of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, explaining that while that is of interest to Indo-Pacific Command, China is using the plan to project influence beyond the region. For a command that transcends those geographic boundaries, he said, his airmen must eliminate their previous geographic bias and focus more on data.

“How do we, as one of the elements that can help assist in understanding that activity, be able to think about it not with a geographic bias, but really getting back to that core idea of which data is relevant, ensuring we’re using our authorities properly to be able to inform those decisions so that, as a nation, we can determine what’s the best approach, whether that be from a Department of Defense perspective or across our interagency or with our partners,” he said.

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

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