WASHINGTON — Members of Congress said last week they are worried about the Department of Defense’s ability to combat information operations and disinformation campaigns.
Their consternation comes about 18 months after a watchdog agency said the Pentagon needed to improve its leadership in the area of information operations.
“I am concerned the Department leadership has been slow to adapt to the changing nature of warfare in this domain,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., the chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, said in opening remarks during an April 30 hearing. “Too often, it appears the Department’s information related capabilities are stove-piped centers of excellence with varied management and leadership structures, which makes critical coordination more difficult. Further, the Pentagon has made limited progress implementing its 2016 Operations in the Information Environment Strategy, which raises questions about the Department’s information operations leadership structure.”
The information environment is broadly thought to include military information support operations, military deception, cyber operations, electromagnetic warfare, operations security, and information operations.
In October 2019, the Government Accountability Office delivered a report, one mandated by the House Armed Services Committee, titled “Information Operations: DOD Should Improve Leadership and Integration Efforts,” but the contents are classified. However, according to testimony provided to the committee by Joseph Kirschbaum, director of the Defense Capabilities and Management Team at the Government Accountability Office, which summarized GAO’s findings, the agency recommended DoD take several steps to improve leadership and integration of information operations including a posture review of information operations. While the department rejected that recommendation, Congress enshrined it in law in the fiscal year 2020 annual defense policy bill.
Kirschbaum’s testimony, which details much of GAO’s findings from 2019 and beyond, showed that while DoD has integrated some information related capabilities into operations, challenges related remain. For example, many of the information operations responsibilities were delegated to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism. But that office is small and bogged down with its own responsibilities to oversee information operations as well.
Langevin said lawmakers have tried to push DoD to prioritize this area of warfare. In the fiscal year 2020 annual defense policy bill, Congress created the principal information operations adviser, but many on Capitol Hill and outside experts are worried the position isn’t materializing as intended.
“Unfortunately, this position was layered below the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, contrary to congressional intent. This position was not created as another bureaucratic layer, but as an agile single role with the mandate to guide each Service’s efforts,” the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, wrote in opening comments.
Last year, DoD identified the undersecretary of defense for policy – considered by many to be the number three official at the Pentagon – as the principal information operations adviser. However, concerns linger that that position has too many responsibilities as well to dedicate the time needed to information operations and that the Pentagon may need to create a new deputy position dedicated to this area.
“Focusing on information operations will be important to see what level of resources and level of attention it gets, assuming it’s at that right level, assuming they’re able to assign a deputy with the right focus and then follow through with the right structural procedural impetus in order to make sure the momentum continues,” Kirschbaum, told the committee.
Kirschbaum pointed to the principal cyber adviser role, which has a deputy and the deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy to lean on for support. Creating a top adviser on information operations and capabilities could help unify the strategies and concepts between the various efforts in the DoD and the services, Kirschbaum has said.
Other experts noted the Defense Department’s organization is not equipped to deal with non-physical threats.
“DoD culture is oriented towards defense against physical threats: planes, missiles and the like,” Herb Lin, senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told the committee. “But DoD was never designed to defend against non-physical threats. Joint doctrine does not even acknowledge the possibility the U.S. armed forces could be target of adversary psychological operations.”
The GAO also noted that lack of common terms or definitions within the department creates schisms to realizing the full benefit of information operations and similar capabilities.
“DOD does not have a complete list of information-related capabilities because, according to DOD officials, any capability could be used in a way that meets the current definition,” Kirschbaum’s testimony summarizing GAO’s finding said. “Consequently, it could be challenging for combatant commanders to utilize IO as the principal mechanism to integrate, synchronize, employ, and adapt all information-related capabilities in the information environment to accomplish operational objectives against adversaries and potential adversaries, as required by DOD’s IO policy directive.”
Former top officials have also noted that more needs to be done to realize synergies between similar capabilities in the information environment. Thomas Wingfield, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy in the Trump administration, said March 4 during U.S. Cyber Command’s legal conference, that more needs to be done to align cyberspace and emerging operations within the larger information environment.
“If cyber as a domain is in its adolescence, then information is surely in its infancy,” he said.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.