Information-Age Warfare and Defense of the Cognitive Domain

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The arrival of the information age has created both opportunities and challenges for the United States, its allies and our defence organisations. In the information age, warfare has changed from kinetic to non-kinetic attacks.

Adversaries deterred from engaging the U.S. in direct armed conflict are now using cyberspace and information operations to steal our intellectual property, disrupt our government, threaten our critical infrastructure and, most dangerously, challenge our democratic processes. These developments have forced America and its allies into long-term strategic competition below the level of traditional armed conflict to defend our way of life.

China and Russia have expanded that competition to include continuous, far-reaching strategic influence campaigns against the U.S. cognitive domain—the human space where mental skills develop and knowledge is acquired—to achieve the political objectives which their militaries cannot. Achieving political objectives has always been the aim of warfare. China and Russia, in particular, are attempting to do that without firing a single shot.

The introduction of new tactics changes the characteristics of warfare. The industrial age created super-elevated hard power, massed kinetics, and extremely violent characteristics. The information age has introduced mostly non-kinetic techniques to achieve strategic objectives. Cyber and information operations harnessing everyday applications like Facebook and Twitter, and the news media, are used to influence the cognitive domain in countries around the world.

These are the new weapons of war. Unfortunately, they’re not yet recognised as warfare because digital 1s and 0s can’t be seen, heard or feared like bombs or bullets. The U.S. and its allies must acknowledge the changing characteristics of warfare in the information age and move to defend against cognitive domain attacks.

In information-age warfare, state and non-state actors operate in a constant state of competition just below the level of armed conflict. That means the cognitive domain, where we think, learn and develop ideas, is open to attack. Attempts to influence this domain occur every day.

Our adversaries want to steal advanced technology and research to enhance their economies and armies, break apart NATO and the EU, and create distrust in democratic systems. The cognitive domain provides viable ways for them to meet their strategic objectives.

The information age has given state actors access to the 55% of the world’s population who use the internet—or 4.2 billion of its 7.6 billion people. In the U.S., that percentage jumps to 76%; in Australia, it’s 86%. Mobile devices are used by 5.1 billion people worldwide. A simple laptop and internet connection provide states and non-state actors with the ability to conduct influence campaigns from anywhere, at any time.

To make the information environment even more complicated, not all cyber operations are crimes. Purposefully distributing accurate information to stir discontent, for example, is a highly effective strategic manoeuvre, but not a crime or necessarily even a fabrication.

Cyberattacks are not just perpetrated by state actors trying to steal secrets, information or data. They can also include deliberate actions to influence a population over time, changing the dynamics and opinions of a nation, one screen at a time.

Reaching a political objective through the cognitive domain is easier, cheaper and more effective than using military power alone. We must see the theft of intellectual property as akin to Chinese long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft circling above Silicon Valley or London. We must move beyond the acknowledgment of the ‘little green men’ and hybrid warfare of Crimea. That was the last war.

To win the next war, we need to think of ‘little green digits’ as adversary weapons that can attack our cognitive domain and begin to formulate our responses. If we don’t change the way we think about these threats and defend against them, we risk losing the next war before we realise we’re actually fighting it.

Leaders across the U.S. and its allies, in all departments, services and organisations, must acknowledge the change in our adversaries’ strategic approach and begin whole-of-nation preparations to deal with attacks in the cognitive domain.

Government departments must defend critical infrastructure, and academia must educate the population on adversary influence operations and the purposeful manipulation and distribution of facts. Private companies need to protect intellectual property and keep America as the world’s dominant technological leader. Corporations like Google, Facebook and others must protect their customers from influence campaigns perpetrated by bots and hackers. Informed discussion and action is the only way to counter adversary actions in the cognitive domain.

Carl von Clausewitz described war as an ‘act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will’. This type of thinking was correct in the industrial age, but in the information age, violence is not always needed for one nation to bend another to its will. And that changes everything.



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