Commentary

Battling COVID-19, is DoD prepared for an onslaught of disinfo and propaganda from foreign competitors?

Long before the new coronavirus claimed its first victim within American borders, the Chinese propaganda machine was gearing up. China already started to deflect blame for its role in the virus outbreak, take credit as the global leader in defeating it, and – to its own people – posited the virus created by the U.S. military.

That narrative so concerned Pentagon officials that they held a press briefing Thursday to talk about how disinformation spread by countries like Russia and China is counterproductive to the global effort to fight the pandemic

The Chinese allegation about the U.S. military creating coronavirus "was just patently false and frankly unhelpful,” Chad Sbargia, the deputy assistant defense secretary for China, told reporters, according to Military Times Pentagon bureau chief Meghann Myers.

As the virus’ effects compound, a full court coronavirus propaganda war is about to unfold. Is the Department of Defense postured to fight such a war?

The answer appears to be ‘no.’ For two decades and counting, the DoD approach to attack information related problems remains driven by definition and doctrine. This is not a critique of the individuals and organizations executing them, rather recognizance a new approach is needed. Until DoD shifts its paradigm for information, it will continue to lag behind not only China, but also Russia and extremist groups with a more systems level approach to national information strategy.

To explain, DoD invests considerable manpower and financial resources in defining information by the most pressing problem versus challenge spectrum. Information Operations begot Information Warfare, as non-kinetic shaping became paramount. Electronic Warfare viewed infrastructure as king, especially domestic communications to/from adversary leadership. Psychological Operations was an acknowledgement that enemy narratives can impact likelihood of aggression. The cyber domain emerged from a belief the digital space should be envisioned as a technical collective. This became more confusing once the term ‘Influence Activities’ introduced. Rarely — if ever — did conversations occur on how these functions complimentary and/or intersecting as part of a DoD information capability universe.

Perhaps most problematic is that all of said terms are attached to specific authorities and organizations…and these organizations expected to operate in similar spaces and to similar audiences. Behind the scenes and to execute due diligence, Congress and these same organizations field/answer requests for information on programs and activities, both knowing there an array of sister efforts across DoD and beyond. It’s no wonder a proper DoD strategic communication strategy, a deliberate system of influence, remains an uphill battle. (More on this below.)

This problem becomes long term once doctrine codified to justify a specific term and program. And per above, there are numerous — occasionally and unintentionally conflicting — DoD doctrines specifying niche information definitions and authorities. Being niche, it inhibits agreement on an assessment approach. As a secondary effect, doctrine also establishes education criteria for a respective organization and its function. How can DoD expect to man, train and equip a national information-centric force in lessons forged from niche and multiple doctrine…when each organization follows a different guideline? Moreover, those trained under prior definitions and doctrines now find themselves incompatible with current perspectives.

​As a case study and in the early 2000s, the U.S. Army established and branched off Psychological Operations as a force with supporting doctrine. The force would reside under an Information Operations umbrella. This decision was based on a perceived need to broaden/integrate a then limited Psychological Operations messaging capability with other information platforms.

An Army Information Operations professional was and remains trained to integrate the “traditional” five pillars of Army-centric Information Operations (Electronic Warfare, Military Deception, Operations Security, Psychological Operations and Computer Network Operations). Still, most outside of this niche view Army Information Operations as a messaging and influence versus integrating function. Second, the Army Information professional is logically rarely a subject matter expert in all of the pillars of Information Operations s/he was tasked with integrating. In essence, the integration approach produces a very good staff officer, but one mainly capable of gently applying pillars in annexes (i.e. Operational Orders and/or Concepts of Operations at the tactical level). As a result, these officers can fall short in capably predicting actual behavioral change in the information environment.

Looking inward and under the umbrella, even the more focused Army Psychological Operations professional is limited by doctrine and supporting education. They learn basic marketing principles nested around themes and lines of persuasion, but instruction doesn’t overly highlight the human dimension, cognitive/cultural reasoning, and/or measuring influence over time. Many of the criticisms of Psychological Operations can be traced to this divide. The current and future influence battle requires a true grasp of social science theory and its application to explain findings, methodological design prowess to marry survey and focus group programs to, also how to create assessment approaches backed by data structured and intended to speak to each other. Contract vehicles employed to address the current and future fight are not the panacea, written by officers not specifically trained in above gaps.

Moreover, DoD Public Affairs doctrine (which crosses services) can limit its officials to perceive their role in influence as but to inform [following media queries], a concept derived from western mass media norms. While these individuals very effective in this capacity, this perspective unintentionally doesn’t consider the vast audience beyond those it directly touches.

These issues became apparent in the past struggles of the Strategic Communications Road Map. How can DoD successfully communicate in a strategic fashion with: a) Public Affairs in on one direction, b) Information and Psychological Operations in another, and finally c) Key Leader Engagements (executed by DOD Senior leaders and State Department diplomatic frameworks) on a third? None were truly accountable to each other, ordered to strategize for combined effect, or tasked to consider a horizon beyond individual doctrine and authorities.

In 2005, U.S. Central Command attempted a solution. It established a joint Strategic Communications Directorate for its Chief of Staff. Echoing above, its purpose blended with U.S. Central Command’s Public Affairs, with both functions sometimes confused on role. Information Operations ultimately assumed a separate path, and is now grouped with other DoD Combatant Commands’ information capabilities in hopes of a unified approach emerging. Sadly, another missed opportunity to ask needed questions as to what a bigger DoD information and influence picture should look like.

As the new kid on the information block, U.S. Cyber Command faces its own identity crisis. What is Cyber or Cyberspace? Is it technical, virtual, electromagnetic, and/or influence? When Computer Network Operations was co-joined with Information Operations, there was an attempt to find answers…but this resulted in more questions. To explain, a once created Cyber Warfare Cell’s Concept of Operations was nested under Military Influence Support and Web Operations, while simultaneously bedfellows to Special Technical Operations, Electronic Warfare, and Military Deception platforms. There were lots of capability present, but also a highest barrier in determining lanes of intersection. In 2020, U.S. Cyber Command arguably perceives itself as the shepherd for DoD influence activities, but some outside the organization perceive an emphasis more on technical aspects (e.g. networks and sensors).

As stated above, the goal of this piece is not to critique, rather offer an opinion as to why an integrated information function remains elusive for DoD. More importantly, propose a solution — a more systems approached enacted by competitors and adversaries – to get there.

The default next steps would be an integrating information function to span DoD, one ultimately part of a wider U.S. government information system initiative. The latter is an effort the Global Engagement Center is tasked in executing. But this initiative may not meet its mark unless its goal beyond to collect and direct toward forming a system of information capability. Existing doctrine and authorities do not need to be rewritten, rather re-purposed to empower specific entities to maximize effort in their current and respective lanes. There is also no reason the Global Engagement Center should not remain the place to do this. This isn’t about ownership rather mindset.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle and opportunity for DoD lies in assessment. DoD must deliberately move toward a system wide, scientific based assessment practice for information approaches. Assessment philosophy drives the education of professionals who create and execute them. To effective, technical and messaging goals should not be considered without long hard looks at what they are hoping to accomplish…and a valid and semi-uniform practice of capturing them. Thankfully, there is a focused and critical DoD initiative underway, an assessment cell specifically aimed at tackling information problems through uniform data and social science best practice.

Finally, leadership across DoD must be part of this discussion. For 20 years they’ve been on the receiving end of information related briefs, their roles limited to selection of available courses of action. This unknowingly produced aforementioned, unintentionally incompatible information agencies, doctrine and authority. Leadership roles were to select pathways to address a problem versus becoming part of the solution. Our peer competitors seize upon this leadership-to-action gap, with their tactics and strategies deliberately operating in the timing seams. We must act in concert, as a system, to overcome.

Colonel Matthew Coughlin, USMC, serves as the Director- Cyber Planning element for USSOCOM

Paul Lieber, PhD., serves as a Chief Scientist supporting multiple DOD agencies

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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