How will the modern threat environment change as nations compete for hearts and minds through new information vectors?
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Cyber Security Connect’s sister brand, Defence Connect.
Almost every modern analysis of information operations cites the Sun Tzu line “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” And rightly so.
In the purest sense, the objective of all information operations is the same – to subtly nudge and influence the decisions of an enemy state, opening a means to achieve favourable political outcomes.
Very Clausewitzian. Some things never change.
Whether it is Russia’s FSB inciting chaos within enemy states through the Gerasimov Doctrine, China’s Three Warfares or the US’ exploitation of NGOs to disseminate approved information – state apparatuses are gaining security at the expense of other states. In the world of information campaigns, it would seem as though Morgenthau was right all along.
A historical analysis of such campaigns would lead analysts to think that influence is a “choose your own adventure” story, limited only to one’s imagination. It is true.
Take the anti-Hukbalahap counterinsurgency in the Philippines as an example. Military units would pretend to be vampires to scare the insurgents from withdrawing into the jungles, and also pretended to watch members of the underground – all to make them not want to fight anymore.
So what does information look like in a post-Ukraine war world?
Colonel Koichiro Takagi, former deputy chief, Defense Operations Section, 1st Operations Division, J-2, Joint Staff Japan, penned an update of China’s cognitive warfare operations in light of emerging technological changes and the war in Ukraine in War on the Rocks.
“With the development of AI, neuroscience, and digital applications like social media, senior officers and strategists in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claim that, in the future, it will be possible to influence the enemy’s brain to affect human cognition directly,” COL Takagi began.
This nexus, according to the military practitioner, is where one can achieve the “acme of skill” – to simply make an enemy not want to fight you anymore.
Warfare, according to COL Takagi’s analysis, is broader than everyday conventional warfare. Looking toward the war in Ukraine, both nations are locked in a competition to gain the support of the hearts and minds of the population – thereby gaining their consent to rule. Here, the information vector is decisive.
The Chinese PLA have looked to dominate this domain.
“A Chinese theorist describes cognitive warfare as using public opinion, psychological, and legal means to achieve victory,” COL Takagi wrote.
“The three battles consist of public opinion warfare to influence domestic and international public opinion, psychological warfare to shock and demoralise enemy soldiers and civilians, and legal warfare to gain international support through international and domestic law.”
Each of these facets builds China’s cognitive warfare strategy.
Though gone are the days where erecting threatening signs on no-mans formed an essential part of the information vector. Indeed, technological advancements have presented new threats and opportunities within the information ecosystem.
“Unmanned systems such as social media bots operating in cyberspace can manipulate public opinion, and that in the future ultra-compact unmanned systems resembling small animals could secretly enter the rooms of a president or other chief decision-maker to intimidate or kill them, thereby subduing the enemy’s will and control it,” Takagi noted.
Indeed, the moral and psychological impact of perceived technological superiority in this scenario would certainly make volunteers think twice before enlisting to fight in a war.
While Russia has been unable to dominate the battlefield, reliance on information has been crucial to mitigate the threat of the public relations disaster that naturally follows military failures and humanitarian atrocities.
While they have had some wins, it’s a two-way street.
According to COL Takagi, Ukraine’s information capabilities have proven effective in ensuring the ongoing social cohesion of Ukraine, critical for state stability and ensuring the viability of Ukraine’s war machine.
“In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remained in his capital city of Kyiv, undaunted by Russian threats. Supported by the president’s courage, the Ukrainian government was able to disseminate accurate information, maintain the unity of the Ukrainian people, gain a high level of support from the international community, and secure physical assistance from numerous countries,” he notes.
In his analysis, the invasion has also prompted China to think twice about the conduct of conventional warfare. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken the glean off of the perceived efficacy of their military technology and demonstrated that Western tech is still firmly in the driver’s seat.
China likely views information as a bypass for this discrepancy.
COL Takagi unpacks several likely scenarios.
“Another study predicts that, having seen the resistance to Russia’s invasion, China will seek to inflict a psychological blow on Taiwan and break its will to resist through the following means: obstruction of US intervention through nuclear threats, physical isolation through the encirclement of Taiwan by naval forces, and assassination of Taiwan’s political and military leaders,” he suggests may happen.