Firstly, it is necessary to explain what the US military means by information operations.
According to a training document issued by the US Army War College in October 2011, “Information Operations (IO) seek to influence the behaviour of target audiences by changing their ability to make decisions, while simultaneously defending the friendly capability to make proper decisions. This is no different from the exercise of the other forms of national power.
In this instance the means is information, but the resulting outcome is the same. While frequently referred to as “soft-power” or “non-kinetic,” IO includes the use of physical attack against adversary information systems or directly against decision makers. IO also employs technology-based activities to affect adversary information systems.
Affecting the target’s decision cycle (sometimes referred to as his “OODA-loop” (observe, orient, decide, act – loop)) is a means of influencing target behaviour. Obviously, reducing an adversary’s ability to make timely and effective decisions will degrade his exercise of initiative or his response to friendly military action.
Action must also be taken to protect friendly information and information systems from compromise or disruption, since the US military is particularly reliant on these systems to maintain situational awareness, support decision making and to command and control forces.
These protective actions are not intended to prevent the unrestricted flow of information vital to a free society, but rather to prevent a target’s manipulation or distortion of information or attacks on information systems from being effective.” [i]
This document pays special attention to cyberspace.
It is said that IO should be used to support the full spectrum of dominance, taking advantage of information technology, maintaining US strategic dominance in networked technologies, and capitalising on the global dissemination of information in near-real time to influence enemy decision-making cycles in order to achieve information superiority for the United States.
Key publications at that time included:
Joint Pub 3-13, Information Operations, 13 February 2006
Joint Pub 3-13.1, Electronic Warfare, 25 January 2007
Joint Pub 3-13.2, Psychological Operations, 07 January 2010
Joint Pub 3-13.3, Operations Security, 29 June 2006
Joint Pub 3-13.4, Military Deception, 13 July 2006
Joint Pub 3-57, Civil-Military Operations, 08 July 2008
Joint Pub 3-61, Public Affairs, 25 August 2010
The document also states that “it is vital to integrate allies and coalition partners into IO planning as early as possible so that an integrated and achievable IO strategy can be developed early in the planning process.
Integration requirements include clarification of allied and coalition partner’s IO objectives; understanding of other nations’ information operations and how they intend to conduct IO; establishment of liaison/deconfliction procedures to ensure coherence; and early identification of multinational force vulnerabilities and possible countermeasures to adversary attempts to exploit them.” That is, at the operational level, the task was to extend its influence and vision to the military authorities of other states.
And now about the structures that conduct information operations according to the Pentagon’s doctrine:
– Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The Department of State is responsible for the Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs; the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications; the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs; the Bureau of International Information Programs; and the Bureau of Public Affairs.
– The National Security Agency (it is also headed by the head of the US Cyber Command, General Paul Nakasone).
– Within the Pentagon, information operations topics are handled by the following departments: Under Secretary of Defence for Policy; Assistant Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, Communications Planning and Integration; Director of Information Technology, Department of Defence, Defence Information Systems Agency (DISA); Information Assurance Technology Analysis Centre (IATAC).
In addition a number of joint organisations and educational institutions are working on this issue:
• Joint Staff, Deputy Director for Global Operations;
• Joint Spectrum Centre of the spectrum;
• Joint Public Relations support element;
• Joint Center for Combat Operations in the field of Information Operations;
• US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM);
• US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM);
• US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM);
• Joint Forces Staff College – Information Operations Program;
• Information Operations Center for Advanced training for the US Navy Graduate School.
That is, the work of the US military obviously includes the level of support for the foreign ministry.
It is significant that in the document the word “propaganda” refers to “any form of enemy communications”, while an extensive terminology apparatus is selected for one’s own actions: strategic communications, public diplomacy; psychological operations and operations to support military information; perception management; network operations; military deception; non-governmental organisations; interdepartmental coordination; information superiority; joint intelligence training for the operational environment; information assistance; information management; influence operations; electronic warfare; disinformation; desired perception; cyberspace operations; counter-propaganda; civil-military operations; command and control, etc.
The new wording states that “information operations are the integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” [ii]
For their implementation, special personnel are selected, who are prepared and trained.
As stated on the US Army website, “psychological operations operators are adaptive thinkers who specialise in unconventional capabilities, cultural expertise, language proficiency, military deception, cyber warfare, and advanced communications techniques across all forms of media. PSYOP Soldiers operate in small, autonomous teams or with other Special Operations forces to persuade and influence local populations in support of U.S. military objectives.” [iii]
The qualification course in psychological operations takes 46 weeks. The first two weeks are devoted to introductory lectures. The second block is dedicated to military specialisation and is given 10 weeks. For the next seven weeks, they’ll learn the art of psychological operations from the very structure of special operations forces.
In general, it includes special forces, rangers, special operations aviation, psychological operations units, and civil affairs units. Its main tasks are direct action, special intelligence, counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, defence in foreign countries (in this case, Ukraine is suitable), psychological operations and civil affairs. [iv]
The fourth phase of training takes three weeks and is called the “Black Knight”. These are practical exercises that are close to the real situation, that is, military exercises where students are infiltrated and must successfully complete their tasks in a hostile environment.
And another 24 weeks are spent on language courses – in fact, a full master’s program.
If in the zone of active hostilities such specialists are engaged in active propaganda, blackmail, intimidation of the enemy through the distribution of leaflets, messages on social networks and notifications through loudspeakers, in places the Special Operations Command has functional divisions. The Army has a Fourth and Eighth Psychological Operations Groups, the Air Force has the 193rd Special Operations Wing (Middletown, PA), and the Marine Corps has an Information Operations Centre. There is also the US Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, which is based at Fort Bragg. The Navy has a structure located in Norfolk.
The 160th separate special purpose aviation (amphibious) regiment called “Night Stalkers” is directly related to the implementation of special missions with an emphasis on psychological operations. [v]
Of particular interest is the civil affairs unit, which is called “Warrior Diplomats” and has the motto “Secure the victory”.
As indicated, civil affairs operators are versatile, innovative and well-trained soldiers who operate in small autonomous teams among the local population, even in hostile or unrecognised territory.
Trained in foreign languages, cultural knowledge, and negotiation techniques, civil affairs soldiers typically operate in civilian clothes in more than 80 different countries around the world, creating networks of official and unofficial leaders and carrying out important missions in diplomatic or politically sensitive areas. Training for this position takes 48 weeks, that is, two more than for ordinary special operations fighters. [vi]
Information and psychological operations include not only planting disinformation, blackmail and intimidation, but also creating an attractive image of the United States, as well as drawing other states into a permanent zone of influence.
For example, one of the publications of a specialised military magazine called “Total immersion. Language, Culture, and the Colombian Military” presents the experience of two specialists in psychological operations in Colombia. For example, it describes not only the specifics of living on a military base and local cuisine, but also how Sergeant Roberson, in the form of a clown, entertained local children by showing them all sorts of tricks, which delighted them to the delight of mothers. [vii]
It’s possible to find publications about how the United States lures neutral states, such as India, to its side through joint exercises. [viii]
If we focus on work in the combat zone, then the Pentagon’s information and psychological operations are associated with the use of both new and old, proven methods.
In October 2019, Lieutenant General Francis M. Beaudette stated that “through the Syria efforts, we’ve gotten a lot more sets and reps. I’ve been accused of calling leaflets and loudspeakers audio and trash littering, but they do have a time and place,” he added. “Syria is a great example. When the fibre was cut and the cell towers were down, people are hungry for information. So guess what was working there? Leaflets.” [ix]
It should be noted that the main video content for psychological operations in Syria was prepared at the US military base in Qatar.
Nevertheless, the main emphasis in psychological operations of the US special forces is now placed on social networks. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “among the many things we need to think about as we look at violent extremism into the future, their ability to leverage technology, cyber capabilities, information operations … is one of the things we need to anticipate and be out in front of.” <…> The military ‘has had some success in cyberspace <…> we’ve done the same thing to deny them freedom of movement in cyberspace’.” [x]
It was noted that the Special Operations Command is developing new capabilities “that allow us to evaluate the social media space, evaluate the cyber domain, see trend analysis, where opinion is moving, and then how to potentially influence that environment with our own products.” [xi]
In May 2019, a significant expansion of the number of non-commissioned officers for psychological operations to 300 people was announced at Fort Bragg. The press release noted that “a recent review found that the current PSYOP rank authorisations were inadequate to account for soldiers with extensive training and education in influence theory, human dynamics, psychology, sociology, language, culture and politics.
PSYOP noncommissioned officers are expected to operate successfully in austere environments and have a primary mission to persuade local populations to support US military forces. They are expected to interact with U.S. ambassadors, senior country team members, and host-nation officials on a daily basis, the release states.” [xii]
And in May 2020, the Head of the US Special Operations Command, General Richard Clark, said that victory in the battles of the future may depend not so much on soldiers who break down doors, but on technically savvy operators trained for cyber and information battles.
“But we also need coders. We also need leaders who can apply [artificial intelligence]. … It may no longer be that the most important person on the mission is actually the Special Forces operator who is kicking down the door, but it could be the cyber operator that the special operations team actually has to get to the environment and make sure that he or she can work his or her cyber tools into the fight.
Conducting successful information operations, both locally and regionally, will be ‘critical to the US’ ability to be able to be successful in future fights,’ Clarke said.” [xiii]
In fact, at the same time, the Joint Military Information Support Operations Web/Ops Center was launched.
Clark added that “as we look at the ability to influence and shape in this environment, we are going to [need] artificial intelligence and machine learning tools specifically for information ops that hit a very broad portfolio. We are going to have to understand how the adversary is thinking, how the population is thinking and work in these spaces … to make sure that the U.S. message and our allies and partner’s message is being heard and its resonating.”
Of course, cyberspace provides an opportunity to influence the most remote corners of the world. And among the relevant regions in the United States is Ukraine.
It is significant that as early as February 18, 2022, that is, before the start of the special operation in Ukraine, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies from Washington pointed out a package of measures that the United States should take, and among them information operations on the topic of Russia and Ukraine. [xiv]
After the start of the operation, the Ukrainian side was openly advised on how to use the tactics of military deception. “Through a mix of non-kinetic efforts that degrade missile guidance alongside the use of decoys, denial, and deception, Ukraine can start to decrease Russia’s ability to target effectively, a phenomenon known as virtual attrition in military theory.” [xv]
Although the real exhaustion occurred on the Ukrainian side, this activity of American expert authors shows the degree of involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. The head of the Cyber Command, Paul Nakasone, officially confirmed that their military took part in all types of cyber operations aimed at Russia’s infrastructure. The Ukrainian side was also involved as additional resources.
In addition to the US military, the CIA has a long experience in conducting informational-psychological operations. There, the psychological operations headquarters had different names – it was run by the Deputy Directorate of Planning, the Directorate of Operations, or the National Secret Service. It is now called the Directorate of Operations and it has the following departments:
– Operational officers: Fully focused on “covertly identifying, evaluating, developing, recruiting, and working with individuals with access to vital foreign intelligence.”
– Intelligence officers “monitor and facilitate the collection, evaluation, classification and dissemination of foreign intelligence information obtained from secret sources.” They ensure that “foreign intelligence gathered by secret sources is up-to-date, timely, and meets the highest foreign policy and national security needs”.
– Staff operational officers are based at the CIA headquarters in Washington, DC, and “plan, direct, and support intelligence-gathering operations, counterintelligence activities, and covert action programs”.
– Special skills officers consist of a diverse group of “information resource, language, paramilitary operations, program and plan officers; by purpose – many of whom are certified as Core Collectors”. They conduct and/or directly support CIA operations using their own language, media, technical skills, and/or military experience.
There is no doubt that such specialists are also located at the US Embassy in Moscow.
Finally, we need to pay attention to the process of developing special initiatives and methods of conducting information wars. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA constantly has in its arsenal a number of programs that directly relate to information and psychological operations.
For example, DARPA researcher Robert Finkelstein devoted several years of research to military memetics, which took place from 2006 to 2009, but they were published only in 2011. His presentation contains 155 slides and a detailed description of them. [xvi]
The recommendations of memetic warfare practices were passed on to the CIA, the Psychological Operations Command, the Naval Network Warfare Command, the Air Force Psychological Operations Command, the Defence Intelligence Agency, all civil affairs agencies and similar services involved in training military personnel.
Millions of dollars have been spent on such research. Or take the DARPA project called “Social Media in Strategic Communications” aimed to:
1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation;
2. Recognise persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities;
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.
This was to be achieved through technical solutions such as:
– Visual Thinking Algorithms for Visualisation of Social Media Memes, Topics, and Communities;
– Clustering Memes in Social Media;
– From Task to Visualisation: Application of a Design Methodology to Meme Visualisation;
– Two-stage Classification for Tracking Memes in Microblogs;
– Competing Memes Propagation on Networks: A Network Science Perspective. [xvii]
IARPA, a specialised agency in the field of intelligence technologies, also develops manipulation methods and advanced analytics. For example, the Integrated Cognitive Neuroscience Architecture for Understanding Sensemaking (ICARUS) program aims to understand how people manage meaning formation in different settings and how bias affects computational models. [xviii]
In general, DARPA and IARPA are constantly honing their skills in conducting information wars, delving into neuroscience and cognitive impact techniques. [xix]
So the development and spread of social networks and new communication technologies goes side by side with military technologies of influence. You can even say that some applications are designed to manipulate their users.
It is necessary to add an important fact that retired military personnel in the United States join the cadres of various corporations, consulting agencies, private firms, educational institutions, non-governmental organisations and analytical centres. Therefore, knowledge on conducting information and psychological operations is actively applied in the civil sphere at the international level.
[xix] For more information, see Savin L. V. Centaur arrows. Cyberwar American-style. Moscow: Kislorod, 2020.