Iain Cruickshank, Kirk Windmueller, and Matt Benigni
This article is part of a series hosted by Maj. Iain Cruickshank, Ph.D., that explores the idea of combining cyber operations with information operations to produce effects well beyond what each capability can accomplish alone.
One dark night in a far-off country, a circling drone launches a Hellfire missile. The missile strikes its target, destroying a vehicle carrying an insurgent leader who was attempting to move from one safe house to another. At roughly the same time, a military public affairs team releases a series of messages, giving a detailed description of the successful strike and tagging several key media outlets and local social media influencers. Later, as the sun rises, the insurgent group starts posting its own messages, calling the strike “a targeted attack on innocent civilians,” while remaining silent about the death of the group’s leader.
But the insurgents’ messages fall flat and fail to generate significant online engagement or to inflame the local population. Instead, social media chatter remains focused on the insurgent leader’s death and the precision strike that killed him. The military public affairs team’s intentional pairing of kinetic and information operations, in the physical and information dimensions, has served its purpose: to deny the insurgent group the effects they typically generate when they have uncontested control of the narrative. As a result, support for the counterinsurgency effort is untarnished by the kinetic strike, and the insurgency suffers a serious setback with the loss of a key leader.
Today, militaries are integrating information and kinetic operations more than ever before, and everyone is talking about multidomain operations (MDO). Formations are learning how a well-timed information operation can amplify the effects of a kinetic strike, deny an adversary first-mover status in the information dimension, or be used to seed psychological effects in an adversarial target audience. Moreover, timely and well-planned information operations can be used to complement a broad range of military operations and, when employed routinely, can be a force multiplier in MDO. While many of the operational details of combined kinetic and information operations remain classified, their effects are often visible in open-source reporting and are largely undeniable. By looking at examples of successful operational pairings, we illustrate how lessons learned from combining kinetic and information operations are applicable to other domains, like cyberspace.
Lesson 1: If there’s no picture, it didn’t happen.
The first lesson from combining kinetic and information operations is that any strike should have an accompanying information operation to maximize effects. Information operations should be integrated into the kinetic strike plan, to include support before, during, and after the operation or, during the preparation phase, actions on the objective, and any post-mission and consequence management. The reason kinetic planners should learn to account for the information dimension in their operations is because the information dimension affects all five warfighting domains, including cyberspace. Like land, air, sea, space and cyberspace, the information dimension is its own battleground. But, unlike the five warfare domains, the information dimension has made the human dimension of warfare (e.g., the ability to directly affect human cognitive processes and behavior) accessible at a scale never seen before in human history – we can see war happening in real time from our computer screens or smart phones. Thus, because the information environment is ubiquitous, it is persistently contested, making it an essential element of operational planning in modern warfare.
There are several examples of successful information operations designed to support kinetic effects. During the War in Donbas, Russian forces used information operations on Ukrainian soldiers’ families in an effort to compel the use of digital communications among Ukrainian soldiers. Using digital communications, such as a cell phone, on the battlefield creates an electromagnetic signature that an opposing force can use for targeting purposes. Soldiers become quickly exposed to kinetic strikes that target the sources of the electromagnetic radiation created with a digital communication device.
Another example of integrated operations can be seen in this article’s opening vignette. Conducting an information operation in the wake of a kinetic strike is a way to mitigate any potential informational counterattacks by an adversary. Additionally, information operations that follow a kinetic strike can help generate a greater psychological effect on an adversary, as Russian forces also did in the Donbas by sending texts immediately following artillery strikes. Of course, there are many ways to integrate information operations with kinetic operations. However, effective engagement of the psychological and political dimensions of warfare (e.g., popular support for a conflict or combatant) requires timely and well-planed information operations that are integrated effectively.
We assert the same variety and criticality likely holds true for cyber operations. A cyber operation, like the hack of a computer containing e-mails or personal documents, can produce a major psychological impact when those same documents are leaked and spread as part of an information operation. Thus, by having an information plan incorporated into a cyber operation, the cyber operation can create a greater effect on an adversary and may even impact an entire population. As with kinetic strikes, having an information plan as part of a cyber operation can accentuate and enhance the overall effects of that operation.
Lesson 2: There’s a method to the social media madness.
The second major lesson drawn from the combination of kinetic and information operations is that successful information operations use the social media space. Over the past 15 years, the way the average person ingests information has changed drastically – we’ve gone from flipping through the pages of a daily newspaper with our breakfast coffee to scrolling through social media on our phones as we wait to pick up a coffee ordered in advance with the Starbucks app. Moreover, the utility and user base of any social media platform is never static. Take, for example, the latest migration of Twitter users to Meta’s Threads as the latest instance of a population and network shift that will result in changes to how many people use social media. In short, information moves faster and reaches more people than ever before. Well over half of the world (and this figure is growing all the time) uses social media as a critical information source, and the result is that social media has become the primary means of spreading information and misinformation to the modern public. Social media provides any user a window through which they can observe a conflict, learn about it, and develop opinions on it, making the human dimension of warfare – such as population beliefs and social connections – accessible at scale, with ease, and for a low cost. As such, any information plan needs to address the medium, because social media Will (almost without exception) have an impact on any information operation.
To use social media successfully, however, it’s important to understand that it is a contested space, and it is not a values or emotion-neutral conduit. On any social media platform, tensions flare, LOLs and likes accumulate, and nearly every social media user has posted something they regret and been sucked into a thread defending an opinion or attacking one. At their most basic level, social media platforms monetize user engagement by using algorithms to present the most engaging content for a specific user’s historical profile. Increased engagement drives better understanding of the user and allows for precise and targeted advertising. To successfully accomplish this goal at scale, social media platforms also use algorithms to promote engagement from users, and prioritize sensational, emotionally triggering content to stimulate more engagement. Social media users are prone to cognitive biases, especially Anchoring Bias, which refers to the human tendency to place greater emphasis on initial observations. These two characteristics define a competition for early user engagement that drove the rise of ‘social media influencers’ as a cottage industry and turned “influencer” into a recognized career field.
We assert that a similar competition will define who ultimately drives public perception within cyberspace. Any information operation is thus in a race to gain a critical mass of engagement so that its message can gain viral effects and defeat any adversary messaging. A recent example of this was the airport hack by the Russian hacking group Killnet. While the actual hack of airport sites was ultimately unsuccessful (i.e., they only knocked out some public-facing websites at some U.S. airports for a few hours), the group was quickly able to leverage social media to spread news about their hack. That information operation garnered international media coverage and seemed to have an outsized psychological impact on the U.S. population. Thus, controlling the information space in social media can have powerful impacts on a cyber operation – to include turning an operational failure into a strategic success.
The third lesson in combining informational and kinetic effects in warfare is that an information operation cannot rely on the persuasiveness or morality (it’s relative, after all) of its message. Rather, an information operation may need to prioritize the speed of the message over its content – at least initially – to compete successfully for attention on social media. Most importantly, messaging needs to stimulate activity among social media users to leverage a platform’s content promotion algorithms and thus make it more likely that a message will reach a critical mass of engagement. The basic tenets – speed, interaction, and placement – of an information operation’s messaging and the requirement that the content reaches a critical mass of engagement should be thought of both offensively and defensively.
In the scenario given at the beginning of this article, the joint task force went on the defensive and was able to preempt the emotional triggers needed to drive the adversary’s misinformation operation through a multidomain operation that delivered information effects in a timely manner. The pre-positioned messaging prevented the adversary from generating enough angst among its target population and failed to trigger the platform’s algorithmically emphasized content. Before the insurgents had time to respond to the kinetic strike, the joint task force provided a plausible explanation which essentially ‘vaccinated’ the target population against the insurgents’ emotional triggers. From an offensive perspective, information operations may be used to seed social media with emotionally triggering content connected to the effects of a kinetic strike or the brutality of an adversary’s actions somewhere on the battlefield. The main point is that offensive operations likely require an emotional trigger; defensive operations seek to preempt that emotional trigger; and both are characterized by an anchoring bias-driven race for the attention of a target online population.
As with the previous lesson, having a fast and engaging information plan as part of cyber operation can have far reaching effects on that cyber operation. In the Killnet example, the hackers’ information operations were able to create engagement on social media before officials were able to respond, which allowed them to control the narrative and create doubt in the minds of the U.S. populace for weeks afterward. Being first to control engagement in the information space, especially on social media, can have far-reaching impacts on the success of a cyber operation.
Lesson 4: The tipping point
The final lesson for integrating kinetic and information operations is centered around the target audience. From the experiences of the authors, information operations work best when they are focused on relatively small, identity-focused, and active online population segments. The idea of using small but active groups to cause a viral spread of something is not new; in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, the idea of appealing to relatively small groups of specific people is highlighted as one of the central ways to make something go viral. Furthermore, the tactic is not new to state-sponsored disinformation spreaders either. Russian state-sponsored information operations targeted specific online communities in the 2016 U.S. election to spread disinformation and sow general distrust in the electoral process. It is also likely that the content mechanisms used by social media platforms relies on the same targeted messaging virality strategy – if your content is stimulating to a given population, then the platform’s algorithm will probably show it to a broader population. The approach tricks users into thinking that there is ‘consensus’ on the topic, reinforcing confirmation bias. The main point is that successful information operations should appeal to highly active, identity-focused groups – especially on social media – rather than trying to create a generic message that appeals to a larger population.
Cyberspace offers distinct opportunities to enable the kind of population segmentation that makes information operations successful. For example, the methods employed in targeted advertising are particularly effective. Modern advertising breaks a population down into distinct segments, based on individual characteristics or behaviors, to find influenceable groups and gearing the message to those populations are a hallmark of targeted advertising and a good set of techniques to stimulate activity among social media users. The use of cyber operations could be fruitful to helping better target the right segments of a populace for successful information operations.
Dominance in future warfare
As the wider military and security communities grapple with the potential of using information operations in conjunction with cyber operations as well as the dangers of our adversaries combining cyber and information operations, we believe it is beneficial to inform those discussions with experiences from combining kinetic and information operations. The use of information operations comes with many challenges, and those challenges become compounded when they are combined with other types of operations. However, combining non-lethal effects and kinetic operations also presents some distinct advantages and contributes to integrated deterrence. In particular, as we consider future conflict concepts, like system of systems warfare, multidomain operations, and Project Convergence, combining cyber and information operations presents some distinct opportunities to disintegrate enemy systems by directly attacking the cognitive underpinnings of any system. Looking to the future, a combined triad of information, kinetic, and cyber operations may be necessary for dominance in the future operating environment. By combining the capabilities from these domains, global commanders will have formidable campaign options to effectively deter both peer and hybrid threats.
Maj. Iain Cruickshank is an Operations Research/Systems Analysis Officer at the Army Cyber Institute. He has previous assignments at the 101st Airborne Division, throughout the Cyber Force, and at Army Futures Command.
Kirk Windmueller is a retired Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. He was a former Army Research Fellow at the RAND Arroyo Center and an analyst & technologist for JSOC, and he currently works as a Senior Manager at QinetiQ, an engineering company focused on defense and intelligence capabilities.
Col. Matthew Benigni is the Chief Data Officer at Army Futures Command and previously served as the Chief Data Scientist for the Joint Special Operations Command. He holds a doctorate in Societal Computing from the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science and focuses his research on online extremism and propaganda.
Main image: U.S. Marines of Military Information Support Operations (MISO), set up a loudspeaker on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va, March 18, 2018. (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jerrod Moore)