‘The fifth dimension of war’
In the 30 years since the first Gulf War, the nature of war has radically transformed. The conflicts in Somalia (1993), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001—present) and Iraq (2003—201 1) laid bare the limits of conventional military force. In each of these conflicts, the overwhelming advantage in firepower enjoyed by the US and its allies failed to subdue their adversaries, who took the fight to the information domain and triumphed. As a result, information moved from the periphery to the centre of military strategy.
Policy development on information as a strategic asset began with the collapse of the Soviet Union.12 In 1992, planners at the Joint Chiefs of Staff produced DOD Directive TS3600.1 ‘Information Warfare’, a policy on the use of information as a war-fighting tool. The secretary of defense at the time, Les Aspin, defined information warfare as
the actions taken to preserve the integrity of one’s own information systems from exploitation, corruption or destruction, whilst at the same time exploiting, corrupting, or destroying an adversary’s information systems and, in the process, achieving an information advantage in the application of force.
(Department of Defense 1994, 244)
From its outset, information warfare’s focus on the corruption and destruction of adversary systems established disinformation as a perennial, shadow presence in all discussions about information operations.13 That is to say, information operations are, by nature, disinformation operations.
In early 1993 Arquilla and Ronfeldt endorsed the new centrality of information when they proposed that ‘Warfare is no longer primarily a function of who puts the most capital, labor and technology on the battlefield, but of who has the best information about the battlefield. What distinguishes the victors is their grasp of information’ (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1993, 141—142). Two years later, General Ronald Fogelman of the US Air Force formally identified information as ‘the fifth dimension of war’ while acknowledging that ‘Dominating this information spectrum is going to be critical to military success in the future’ (Fogelman 1995).
Just how critical was driven home during Operation Allied Force, the 1999 air force mission to halt Serb ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. NATO recognised that without boots on the ground and the information they could supply, it needed a convincing explanation for why it was bombing targets in the Balkans. To furnish this it organised
dedicated IO [information operations] cells ... at the command and joint task force levels, tasked to integrate — and employ — such diverse tools as civil affairs, electronic warfare, intelligence, and public information in an effort to control and dominate the ‘information battle space’.
(Pounder 2000, 58)
Yet their efforts were undermined by the Pentagons refusal to release ‘specific information on friendly force troop movements, tactical deployments, and dispositions’ because they ‘could jeopardize operations and endanger lives’ (Pounder 2000, 66).
In the absence of information from the battlefront, NATO Public Affairs promoted its cause by launching an aggressive ‘media saturation strategy’ through which it controlled the news cycle by permanently occupying it (Combelles Siegel 2002, 191):
[O]ur credo at NATO was just to be on the air the whole time, crowd out the opposition, give every interview, do every briefing. . . . We occupied the whole day with our information. And the more we did, the less the media put on talking heads and others who could nullify our briefings.
(Shea 2002, 167-168)14
Thus, NATO’s (dis)information crowded out the enemy’s.
Yet despite the omnipresence of its spokesmen, NATO lost the information war. The Serbs controlled the ground, where they gathered and promoted, through their antagonists’ own media channels, information tailored to advance their narrative of innocent victimhood. Their information campaign was a masterwork of strategic disinformation. The commander of allied forces in Southern Europe conceded that
the enemy was much better at this than we were . . . and far more nimble. The enemy deliberately and criminally killed innocents by the thousands, but no one saw it. . . .
We accidentally killed innocents, sometimes by the dozens, and the world watched on the evening news.
(Pounder 2000, 58)
NATO’s defeat in the information domain was not just due to a lack of news and images from the field. It was also attributable to its own organisational shortcomings, its failure to track how the weaponisation of information required adaptations in its own internal systems to optimise information effects. The conventional military’s existing organisational structures produced ‘a detailed institutional division of labor’ between public affairs (PA) and information operations (IO) personnel. This underpinned the ‘firewall’ that notionally existed between information provision and influence operations: ‘PA officers and IO officers receive separate educations and training, they follow diverging career paths, they work for specialized sub-organizations, they think in contrasting mindsets and philosophies of war, and they do not read the same publications and doctrines’ (Kid 2007, 115). NATO’s efforts ‘to integrate public information into IO planning . . . came to naught’ because military public affairs (PA) officers were reluctant to involve themselves in an information operations campaign (Pounder
2000, 60). They believed that putting public information at the service of information operations would damage the reputation for trustworthiness on which PA operations depended.1’ As a result, the military’s own organisational systems militated against ‘the implementation of IO initiatives based on public information’ (Pounder 2000, 60). The deputy director of the USAF’s Public Affairs Center of Excellence believed that this fine distinction between public information and information effects was an ethical luxury that militaries could no longer afford: ‘Everyone — commanders, IO specialists, and public affairs officers — needs to understand public information is a battlespace that must be contested and controlled like any other’ (Pounder 2000, 60). To exercise one’s scruples and vacate the field was to surrender it to the enemy.