Commentary

An information operations branch designed for the 21st century

The U.S. military should focus on building a better and better resourced information operations (IO) branch that incorporates the open-source intelligence (OSINT) exploitation. This capability is critical to ensuring the U.S. military can create and exploit an information advantage within the operational environment.

Before this can happen, IO needs to be treated as a non-accessions branch similar to that of civil affairs. As of this writing, there is no IO branch, but hopefully, this will change. IO is a functional area, meaning mostly mid-career officers from other branches make up its ranks through the Voluntary Transfer Incentive Program, and relatively limited enlisted support for IO-specific tasks. With the expansive information available, the lack of resourcing makes it challenging to develop troops with a fundamental understanding of the nuances of the information environment.

There should be a fully resourced IO branch — both for active duty and reserve — dedicated to grooming officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted personnel who have a comprehensive understanding of how to shape the information environment. IO troops are hampered by the lack of support structure, and it is contingent on the respective units to recruit and train them. This branch would not just develop troops, but also become an advocate for incorporating IO.

I am not suggesting a merger of other branches (such as civil affairs and psychological operations) as was suggested in the past; that would do IO a disservice as the ability to collect information and intelligence over the internet has grown leaps and bounds just over the past couple of years. The military needs troops specifically trained to achieve information dominance within the operational environment.

IO is an ambiguous field which is still developing. Most people know IO as a messaging apparatus, but public affairs — typically — creates messages, and even talking points. Some people believe IO is an influence agent, but that is the role of psychological operations. Per doctrine, an IO’s primary responsibility is to integrate the employment of information-related capabilities with the goal to shape the cognitive realm of a target audience. In theory, IO forward-support teams are coordination advisers. From a more practical standpoint, a forward support team also engages in social media information collection, known as social media observations.

The current IO mission is an important one, but given the prominence of the information, environment, the IO purview should be expanded to include OSINT. The DoD defines OSINT as “Relevant information derived from the systematic collection, processing, and analysis of publicly available information in response to known or anticipated intelligence requirements.” In other words, OSINT exploitation is the collection of information from publicly available sources; vetted, and turned into actionable intelligence to be used at a latter date. At the writing of this article, OSINT falls largely on the shoulders of an overburdened military intelligence branch (an information-related capability), but IO may also be suited for this capability.

Information collection — a big part of the OSINT framework — is something everyone typically does within the IO community. A simple internet search is a form of information gathering. OSINT practitioners would likely be more precise, however — using the dark web or the internet with a combination of Boolean operators (”and,” “or” and “not”). This type of collection technique can provide an abundance of information (raw intelligence) which is an intricate part of the OSINT framework.

This information can be used to answer a number of questions, and be further exploited to create actionable intelligence.

An important part of OSINT is what is known as social media intelligence or SOCMINT. Surprisingly, military publications barely touch on the critical field of SOCMINT exploitation (SOCMINT is not formally defined by the DoD). As the old saying goes, “Loose lips sink ships,” but in the digital age, we could also say today, “Loose tweets sink ships.”

Using a combination of SOCMINT and mere social media observations (publicly available information on social media), an OSINT practitioner can gauge the level of engagement of an issue by looking at the “likes,” “retweets” or comments on social media platforms through the use of “sock puppets” (fake accounts). In addition, by way of imagery analysis on social media, an OSINT practitioner can determine the location of a target, and associates. While this is more of an art than a science, OSINT is an exceedingly valuable tool which the IO community should embrace.

OSINT is used to varying degrees across the military. The U.S. military has no OSINT additional skill identifier or military occupation specialty. OSINT exploitation typically falls on the shoulders of the overburdened military intelligence community. Some units simply prescribe OSINT as an additional duty relegated as one of the lowest on the priority list. Special Forces uses OSINT, but can lack troops that have the training to understanding the core concepts of OSINT collection vs simply information collection (the legalities matter).

IO troops can assist in filling this capability gap. IO troops should already be well versed in the information environment. In practice, some IO forward-support teams produce social media observations, and have a tangible understanding of the information realm; with some slight tweaks, this information can be exploited, vetted and disseminated, turning it into real-time actionable intelligence that can be used to a unit’s advantage. This process would need to take place in real time as the information environment is ever-changing. A properly resourced IO non-accessions branch can advocate for recruitment of trained personnel, and also can advocate for OSINT exploitation teams or cells capability of meeting the needs of the U.S. military.

However, the U.S. military needs to create an IO non-accessions branch to ensure the continued development of these trained information and OSINT experts. If not, the information environment may remain the U.S. military’s Achilles’ heel.

Maj. Matthew Fecteau is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an information operations officer with the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. He can be reached at matthew.fecteau@gmail.com.

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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