Friday, October 7, 2022
The Institute for the Study of War and the IBM Center for The Business of Government have launched a three-event series, “Addressing the New Era of Deterrence and Warfare: Visualizing the Information Domain.” This post reflects the second roundtable discussion held in Brussels in September with a focus on Russia.

Blog Co-Authors:  Kim Kagan, founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War; Fred Kagan, senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at American Enterprise Institute; Brian Babcock-Lumish, director of the General David H. Petraeus Center for Emerging Leaders at the Institute for the Study of War.

The second event in the three-part series convened global leaders from the military, government, academia, and technology sectors to consider how to visualize the information domain, drawing on the context of competing information operations between Russia and the West.

The second event in the series addressed these questions:

  • How can we best conceptualize and visualize the interwoven information operations the Russians conducted before the February 24 invasion?
  • How can we best visualize the interactions between those information operations and the counter-information operations conducted by the US and its allies?
  • How can we best visualize the interactions between both sets of information operations and the Russian provocations on the ground and then the Russian mobilizations?
  • How did the information environment change once war began?
  • What are the greatest needs of the West in confronting Russian information operations and other near-peer competitors?
  • What are the lessons learned from the answers to the above questions, and what is the best way to visualize information operations alongside other domains of warfare to support effective and efficient decision-making?

Building on the May roundtable in Washington DC, the September Brussels discussion considered a modification to the core definition of the information domain:

  • The information domain is the sum of the wills and decision capabilities of each actor, where the will is the composite of convictions, perceptions, and influences that drive toward action.

This modification to the definition partly stems from an understanding of Soviet, and now Russian, efforts to use what is known as “reflexive control”:

In making his decision the adversary uses information about the area of conflict, about his own troops and ours, about their ability to fight, etc. We can influence his channels of information and send messages, which shift the flow of information in a way favorable for us. The adversary uses the most contemporary method of optimization and finds the optimal decision. However, it will not be a true optimum, but a decision predetermined by us. In order to make our own effective decision, we should know how to deduce the adversary’s decision based on information he believes is true. The unit modeling the adversary serves the purpose of simulating his decisions under different conditions and choosing the most effective informational influence. —Vladimir Lefebvre, Soviet theorist, quoted in Clifford Reid, “Reflexive Control In Soviet Military Planning,” Soviet Strategic Deception, Ed. Brian Dailey and Patrick Parker, Lexington Books, 1987, P.294.

The roundtable’s discussion of reflexive control centered around two questions:

  • How do you know if your adversary is trying to control you reflexively?
  • If you see a reflexive control campaign underway, how do you identify all the parts and see, figuratively and literally, how they fit together to deduce the objective of the campaign?

One helpful metaphor in the conversation centered around the weather. In the context of reflexive control, what could an adversary do to convince you to bring your umbrella with you every day with no rain, so that you eventually stop bothering to bring your umbrella and are then stuck without one when it actually does rain. The weather metaphor also helped to frame the discussion of tactical predictions versus strategic forecasts, and using the difference between weather and climate to understand short-term information operations versus long-term narrative construction.

The weather metaphor also stimulated a discussion about data feeds necessary to visualize information operations. What analogs to historical temperature, wind, barometric pressure, and precipitation measurements exist in the information domain? The group did not reach consensus about data feeds, but agreed that identifying them will be an important step toward visualizing the information domain and operations. Implicit in the discussion of data feeds was also the question of the unit of analysis for a visualization of the information domain: should this be a narrative, an idea, or something else? While the group did not reach consensus on the topic, there was agreement that timely decision making hinges on visualizing components of available data, recognizing that data in the information domain is not as discrete as in the weather metaphor. And like weather and climate, visualization of the information domain will require different lenses to zoom in on specific areas of interest, or to zoom out for a wider perspective.

In assessing the relative success or failure of Russian versus Western information operations and their respective understandings of the challenges therein, there was not group consensus. Some participants believed that the Soviets and now Russians have a more developed doctrine on information operations, while others cautioned against portraying Russia as a ten-foot giant far ahead of the West in this sphere. Some participants believed that NATO is not very effective at the grand strategic level in the information domain, while others had more confidence in the West’s ability to confront the Russians informationally.

In grappling with how to visualize the information domain, another line of discussion centered on which of the current domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyber – offer useful analogies to the information domain. One suggestion spoke of information operations as similar to air superiority – information superiority can exist at a specific time and place, but not globally or for an enduring period of time. Another participant put forward the idea that Russian leaders thinks in terms of control of terrain on the ground, and that the land domain still holds relevance as a metaphor for the information domain.

The fundamental question of whether information constitutes a sixth domain of warfare continued to generate vigorous discussion. An alternative view posited that information is the environment within which the other domains operate, but that elevating its importance should place it in the same category as the current five domains. As a counterpoint offered against this alternative view: the Russians have defined information as the decisive domain, so the West needs to understand the issue’s framing – and that the Russians might be closer to understanding and acting on the phenomenon than the NATO alliance.

Another metaphor offered for the information domain was that of fluid dynamics. Just as the ocean has variable temperature, pressure, salinity, or viscosity, so too does the information domain have different properties at different times and places. It is impossible to measure all data simultaneously, but the right sensors can help to understand the properties of the information domain at a given point. There was some disagreement on this point, with the counter assertion being that fluid dynamics within physics is less complicated and more easily measured than the information domain.

The discussion of the interplay between Russian and NATO information operations focused on competing objectives. The Russians seek to persuade a global audience to question democracy as a viable form of government. Russian information operations succeed when Americans or other Western populations cannot agree on the same set of facts around the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There was some caution offered that the February invasion of Ukraine represented President Putin’s decision to abandon his long-running reflexive control campaign. Past efforts -- to convince the West that there is no such thing as Ukraine; that Ukraine is hopelessly corrupt and run by neo-Nazis; that Crimea is Russian territory; that Russia has a natural right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space -- all were set aside in order to pursue a rapid seizure of Ukraine and execute a decapitation strategy to overthrow the elected government and replace it with a regime in Kyiv friendly to Moscow.

One participant offered that there both sides fall into a trap by mirroring the other. Putin, for example, mistakenly believes that President Biden makes all actual decisions not just for the United States, but for all of NATO, just as Moscow did for the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Another suggested that shaping the world view of an adversary is an aspect of reflexive control, and that the Russians took a set of actions across the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) spheres to create a series of effects that set conditions for the initial period of war. Another participant offered a degree of caution, however, in giving the Russians too much credit. For example, the Russians are not adept at separating information operations in different theaters, such as when they ran operations in Syria without an understanding of how that information might bleed over into other theaters with negative unintended consequences.

The afternoon portion of the roundtable engaged with the visualization mock-up offered in the first roundtable in Washington, DC, but with an eye toward thinking through its relevance to the Russian case, rather than in the abstract. As an example, the Russians waged an information operation against Ukraine early in the COVID-19 pandemic, asserting that the Ukrainian government was flying back infected citizens from China. This false assertion created friction in the Ukrainian government, sucking up bandwidth and preventing the Ukrainians from focusing on other priorities, instead devoting effort to respond to this falsehood.

The challenge for the roundtable was reaching a conclusion about what factors can help to best visualize activities in the information domain.  The object of an information campaign has difficulty realizing that one is going on, much less formulating an effective response. Understanding who controls the narrative will be essential to graphically depicting the interplay of competing information operations in the information domain.

Using the case of the competing information operations between Russia and NATO was helpful to determining key factors for visualizing the information domain, but much work remains to determine data inputs needed for a visualization, much less for the interplay between adversarial information campaigns. This project will continue by shifting the perspective to the Indo-Pacific and consider the case of China to help advance understanding in the coming months.