In light of great power competition, DOD reevaluating irregular warfare and info ops

Ukrainian Special Operations Forces soldiers pull security after deboarding a U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk assigned to 12th Combat Aviation Brigade during exercise Combined Resolve XVI with U.S. Special Operations Command Europe members assigned to 10th Special Forces Group Dec. 07, 2021, in Hohenfels, Germany. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Kirsti Brooksby)

As the Department of Defense is still transitioning from over two decades of counterinsurgency operations and doctrine to now challenging nation-states, it is examining what irregular warfare and information operations look like against these sophisticated actors.

“What we’re struggling with right now [is] how do we evolve irregular warfare and our understanding thereof for great power competition, for challenging Beijing and Moscow, maybe differently than we were in the global wars on terror over the last couple of years,” Richard Tilley, director of the Office of Irregular Warfare and Competition, whose office is also tasked with force design updates, said during the NDIA SO/LIC Symposium Nov. 18. “We’re in a period of transition where we’re trying to figure out what is irregular warfare in this new era.”

Tilley said that the lessons from the counterinsurgency era are still valuable as the DOD continues to contend with violent extremist organizations and proxy fights will persist into the future, noting that the conflict in Ukraine is providing a “crash course” for a population to resist an invader or occupier.

“We’re going to face the problem that we have in Ukraine probably again and probably several other times over the coming decades. We need to figure out how to play in this information environment, how to influence populations, how to determine what a population’s will to resist is and how to do that,” he said.

Ukraine is also demonstrating that DOD must evolve its understanding of irregular warfare, Tilley said, especially as it applies to understanding a population’s will to resist and succeed.

For instance, the conventional wisdom was that Ukraine would fall very quickly to Russia, he said, noting “we’re trying to figure out why did we get that so wrong,” along with a long recent list of mea culpas. Those include the Iraqis not repelling ISIS from the city of Mosul and the swift defeat of the Afghan army by the Taliban.

“We don’t have a good track record of trying to identify this will to resist in these proxy and surrogate and ally populations,” Tilley said. “But I think what we can hopefully do in the information space is trying to figure out better metrics and better analyses that allow us to understand that better.”

DOD is good at quantitative analysis such as the number of forces or assets, but not at qualitative analysis.

The private sector could be a good place to turn for that given its long history with commercial marketing campaigns.

“You look at marketing, that is qualitative analysis. What makes people drink Coke, what makes people drink Pepsi and how do you market to those individuals? I think the private sector has used the information domain through marketing to the Nth degree because that’s how you make money. That’s how you’re profitable,” he said.

“I think we, as the department and in the national security enterprise, need to be able to pull some of those lessons and try to figure out, how do you quantify and assess within the IC that local population’s will to resist because, quite frankly, proxy warfare is not going anywhere and whether it’s Europe or whether it’s the Pacific, it’s going be back and we need to have a better understanding of how our partners and allies are going to fight, are going to resist because if we keep missing, next time we may not be as fortunate where the Russians weren’t probably as capable as we thought they were and the Ukrainians were a little bit more resilient than we thought we were and they didn’t get overrun,” Tilley added.

Deterrence and ‘active deterrence’

When it comes to developing a future force, Tilley said DOD is looking at creating a joint force that can deter conflict in what officials call the competition phase that exists below the threshold of war. But deterrence and winning are not necessarily synonymous.

“The point is not necessarily to win the war against these adversaries — the point is to deter that war. We have to really think about how are we using the information environment to message and to influence that adversary so they don’t take actions that we don’t want them to do, so we don’t have to get ourselves into it into a war,” he said. “You get through a whole bunch of ways that aren’t warfighting. You do demonstrations, you do exercises, you do reveal and conceal, you do deception. You do all these different things, but we don’t have a good conceptualization of how those things all nest together.”

Nestled beneath one of the DOD’s top pillars of its National Defense Strategy, integrated deterrence, is a new concept being gamed out for the information force: active deterrence.

“As we look at potential near-peer conflict, that phase between competition and conflict right now is called crisis, and that brings into your mind this idea of ‘Oh no, something just happened, what do we do about it?’ We coined a term that is a phase now that we call active deterrence. Now think of this as a military subset of integrated deterrence,” said Thomas Browning, deputy chief technology officer for mission capabilities in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.  

Behind this concept — which he said is still “mostly in the wargame room right now” — is how DOD can use capabilities such as cyber, electronic warfare, deception, perception management and other information-type capabilities together to change the adversary’s calculus for going to war.

He recognized that active deterrence is a bit of an oxymoron because it’s done after deterrence fails.

“It’s really this idea of how could we put those non-kinetic capabilities together in a way that has a meaningful effect on the adversary, meaningful effect on both their intent and ability to execute conflict,” Browning said.

His office has been conducting a series of exercises called Eloquent Omen that is gaming the concept out.

It is “pulling those threads of how do I take these capabilities and not just prove out that cyber tools could work, not prove that EW could work, but this integration of an information campaign where the cyber is accentuating the EW is accentuating the messaging that I’m trying to bring across,” Browning said. “We’re trying to think through those potential, and I’ll call them plays or capabilities, where we’re taking cyber and EW and making those actual integrated capabilities much in the way you would do with kinetic operations and I don’t think that’s the norm today.”

One key lesson he said they’ve learned from these exercises is that proper and early signaling to adversaries matters.

“A lot of the EW and cyber moves that we made, the adversary didn’t have context for understanding what they were seeing or why they were seeing and it walked us into this understanding that I’ve really got to start messaging early,” Browning said. “I’ve got to start developing understanding in their mind, literally, of how to understand me so as you start developing those non-kinetic tools previous to conflict when you don’t necessarily have the authorities to execute though. There’s the time to actually build that story through messaging and through [information operations] so that as they see the effects, you get the intended response out of the adversary.”