Information Warfare: A Historical Approach

Information warfare is thought to be a product of what, broadly speaking, is considered the ”information” era. However, if we correctly understand what information war is, we can see that it stretches back to the dawn of organized conflict itself.

Dorothy Denning defines information warfare (IW) as “operations that target or exploit information resources.” Information resources consist of containers (information media that contain forms of data), transporters (objects and communication systems that transport information from one location to another), sensors (humans and machines that extract information objects and the environment), recorders (objects that place information in containers), and processors (people and objects that manipulate information). Information resources are important because they have value to people, and thus can be disabled, destroyed, or manipulated to accomplish operational and strategic goals. Hence, it matters little if you destroy a command and control center with a computer network operation or simply blow it to smithereens with a terminally guided submunition. The effect is largely identical.

Using this definition, information warfare becomes less exotic and part of the general toolbox of the commander. Military deception–one element of IW–has been crucial to the success of many large operations. Operation Bagration, the Soviet destruction of the Wehrmarcht’s Army Group Center, was only successful after a massive campaign of maskirovka designed to hoodwink the German military planners trying to forecast their attack. The deception campaigns that preceded the Normandy invasion and the German invasion of Russia are also well-known to military historians. Although military writers often reach back to Sun Tzu to look at Chinese information warfare theory, some of the biggest influences on current People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is actually the Chinese Civil War. The Beiping-Tianjin campaign, for example, is an example of the seamless employment of psychological operations alongside large-scale maneuver and attrition warfare and looms large in the PLA’s institutional memory.

Military deception also has been extensively utilized in antiquity by the Mongols and the various armies that contested China to not only delay recognition of the point of the blow but also to fool the foe into exaggerating the size of one’s force. Genghis Khan, in this sense, was an IW pioneer.

Khan was widely known for leading hordes of savage horsemen across Russia and into Europe. While not totally unfounded, the Mongols’ image of total, barbaric domination was greatly enhanced by Khan’s use of PSYOP, deception, OPSEC, and targeting his adversaries’ decision-making process. “Agents of influence” were sent in advance of his armies to do face-to-face PSYOP, telling of brutality and large numbers in the Mongol army. Khan also used deception to create the illusion of invincible numbers by using rapid troop maneuver, making his army look larger than it really was. He had a network of horsemen called “arrow riders” to communicate quickly with his commanders, and he targeted enemy messengers to prevent enemy commanders from communicating with each other.

Actual employment of IW capabilities in modern war will not differ much from the means described here–the capabilities in question will change, but the methods of degrading the opponent’s information, attempting to bait them into the wrong decisions, targeting their C3I, practicing proper operations security, protecting one’s own information, and trying to undermine enemy morale are basic and recurring elements of IW throughout history. One can also consider Khan’s “arrow riders” as an ancient attempt at increasing “power to the edge.”

One caution, however. Information warfare has never been decisive in and of itself–it’s always increased the strategic effectiveness of one’s own forces and decreased the effectiveness of the enemy. Strategic information warfare–even in the Gulf Wars, which featured the wholesale destruction of enemy C3I–did not decide the campaign. Rather, ground and air forces operating as part of the AirLand Battle paradigm utilized capabilities, tactics, and operational plans honed in many rotations at the National Training Center (NTC) against the most fearsome Soviet imitation forces the military could provide. Although future wars will certainly raise the importance of IW as more and more enemy information assets and systems can be targeted, history suggests that a “cyber Pearl Harbor” will not in itself be decisive.


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