Information Warfare

Why the Pentagon needs to fully embrace influence operations

WASHINGTON — With adversaries working non-stop to inject disinformation into the public discourse, the United States must embrace influence operations as an integral part of modern warfare, a top Department of Defense official said today.

In order to counter these actions and compete with state and non-state actors, influence operations cannot be “just a niche capability,” Ezra Cohen, the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict, said during a virtual presentation Oct. 2. He speaking at an NDIA conference.

Cohen explained that DoD published an amendment to the National Defense Strategy in 2019 that focused on irregular warfare, how the department conducts such operations and what can be learned from 19 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. It provides objectives for the entire joint force to apply irregular warfare capabilities to counter nation states below the threshold of conflict.

Of note, one of the five core themes of the document is that the department must emphasize operations in the information environment.

“Our adversaries embrace the anonymity of social media platforms and the viral nature of information flow as they employ information statecraft as an integral element of their approach to competition.” Cohen said. “They poison public discourse, undermine democratic processes, turn citizens against each other and deflect blame for their malign activities.”

Cohen emphasized that DoD can’t do this alone, it must require a joint effort between other government agencies that “integrates technical capabilities and institutional knowledge across civilian agencies, foreign partners and other entities.”

In recent years, Pentagon leaders have tried to reorganize under some form of information warfare within the military. This has happened as adversaries have done the same – organized similar capabilities under one entity for greater synergy – and been effective at reaching their goals.

The U.S. government has also taken the approach that one of the best ways to thwart these efforts in the information sphere is to call them out when possible.

Cohen said DoD needs new information operations technology that will more quickly identify and isolate disinformation while amplifying fact based narratives all at the speed of the information environment.

DoD has been looking at a few artificial intelligence based approaches to do this, which include a tool to conduct psychological operations in near-real time.

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