Next week, members of government, industry and academia will gather in Atlanta for the latest iteration of an ongoing conference series aimed at bringing professionals together to tackle difficult challenges within the information environment.
Phoenix Challenge, which kicks off June 20 at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, is sponsored by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy — who the Department of Defense appointed as the statutorily mandated principal information operations adviser — and the Office of Information Operations under the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
The conference seeks to provide a forum for information professionals to get together, discuss and devise solutions through working groups.
As the information environment becomes significantly more important with adversaries seeking to use subterfuge and influence from halfway across the globe to achieve their objectives and influence local populations, Phoenix Challenge has sought to gather experts from across the community to devise solutions and policies to combat malicious activity.
“We see that the competition in the information environment is acute, our threats are increasing and even more sophisticated in this space,” Austin Branch, professor of practice at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence & Security and Technology (ARLIS), told DefenseScoop.
ARLIS supports the conference by providing expertise, content and follow-up with applied research.
There is a prevailing narrative that the U.S. is losing the information fight, as adversaries have invested heavily in these tactics while America was busy combating technologically inferior and more parochial counterterrorism threats in the Middle East.
“What we failed at, I think, as a society is we’ve let this space on autopilot and our adversaries have seized upon that and have made some significant inroads in terms of infrastructure, in terms of quality of production, in terms of analysis of vulnerabilities, in terms of output of effort,” Andrew Whiskeyman, who formerly worked in the J39 directorate at U.S. Central Command and now is affiliated with ARLIS, told DefenseScoop. “But Russia and China saw it differently and saw what the power of it was … and we’ve abdicated that space.”
Now, significantly more attention and investment is being paid to the information environment by the Department of Defense — with updated doctrine and strategies from the services — and Phoenix Challenge seeks to be a place where this community can gather to discuss and solve problems.
Rising from the ashes
The Phoenix Challenge series originally began in the early 2000s and was hosted by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, who at the time, was the primary adviser for information operations.
However, the conference took a multiyear hiatus following the GSA conference scandal in the early 2010s.
The GSA scandal created barriers for hosting conferences and around the same time, DOD shifted policy oversight for information operations and the like, placing a burden on a smaller staff, which did not possess the capacity to carry on Phoenix Challenge given more pressing issues.
As a result, the conference went dormant.
But a few years ago, Central Command realized there was a gap within the field of information and it lacked a common place to bring in the broader community. They hosted their own event and eventually, in discussions with others, the idea to resurrect Phoenix Challenge was born.
It started small during the Covid pandemic with virtual options and has since grown to include in-person events and working groups that produce real outcomes.
“This sort of gathering has been missing for at least a decade. The fact that it’s back together again and moving out with more rigor and a bigger tent than it had the last time in its previous iteration, is all good news,” Whiskeyman said.
Thus far, officials have explained that the conference has helped to influence policy and drive solutions.
“These events have helped us better shape policy and strategy within the information environment by providing a forum for the Office of Information Operations Policy to socialize unclassified tasks prescribed by statutory requirements and various National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs),” Todd Breasseale, principal director for the Pentagon’s Office of Information Operations Policy and former deputy assistant to the secretary for public affairs, told DefenseScoop.
“Information Operations are inherently cross-cutting, touching upon almost every mission area of the department. Phoenix Challenge convenes experts and thought leaders to assist in developing solutions for extraordinarily complex issues. It’s been a powerful mechanism to ensure we as a department, take into consideration input from other entities for a more holistic approach. But to be sure, best practices are just that: they are what work the best. They’re as beneficial for our allies and partners as they are for us,” he said.
Not your typical conference
People explained that Phoenix Challenge is not like the typical conference in which attendees socialize, exchange business cards and listen to speeches. Rather, there are specific outcomes from working groups that are expected to be produced in order to advance policy.
“Phoenix Challenge is not just another conference to get people together to talk about things. It is a conference with working groups and an agenda with report-outs back up to the Secretary of Defense with projects and agenda items that are being done and being advanced,” John Bicknell, vice president of the Information Professionals Association (IPA) — an apolitical, nonprofit organization that seeks to bring like minded professionals in this space together to develop technological solutions to the information sphere — told DefenseScoop. “It’s a like an ongoing dialogue and working groups that are designed to advance projects and technological initiatives that align on the information and the cognitive security problem for our friends and allies.”
IPA helps with the conference along with ARLIS and government sponsors.
One of the big differentiators from Phoenix Challenge to other forums, Bicknell said, is the Pentagon has expectations that the event will be advancing projects in order to engage more productively and appropriately with the national security information problem.
The working groups and outcomes aim to help the department inform changes to doctrine, policy and even funding cycles.
“All of those things start to now be informed by the corpus of work that’s going on within Phoenix Challenge,” Whiskeyman said. “I realized that the new framework has only been in place for this working through this past year. But that’s the big picture mark of where we’re trying to go with putting this together to be able to provide that sort of analysis for senior leaders.”
The DOD has already seen results and the working groups have helped advance policy by providing a place for the community to gather.
“These events have helped us advance the mission in the information space by providing a venue that brings together stakeholders and thought leaders for discourse on ongoing and emerging issues and to set a common azimuth to recommend courses of action or areas for further research and investment to our and our allied and partnered leadership,” Breasseale said. “The participants, working group leads, speakers, and panelists span from across U.S. government agencies, the various Under Secretaries of Defense, the services, DoD components, international allies and partners, leaders in relevant industry, and academia beyond federally funded research and development centers and university affiliated research centers.”
Each conference has a specific theme and builds upon the last.
“You got to have continuity between these events, otherwise, they just turned out to be … conferences [and] that doesn’t meet our objectives,” ARLIS’ Branch said.
The most recent event, co-hosted with the DOD and the U.K. Ministry of Defense, took place in London in February and had a strong focus on allied partnerships. It also included participation from a raft of international partners.
“There was a lot of bilateral engagements, but having a multilateral kind of a venue like that really generated a ton of collaboration and relationships that are necessary to getting some of this work,” Branch said.
While there were two days of plenary sessions in London — which were important given it was the first time they did an international event and got to hear from several speakers — one of the lessons was they needed more time for working groups.
“What we realized was the working groups need more time than just a day because of the complexity of some of the challenges that they’re facing,” Whiskeyman said.
Breasseale said they intend to build on the momentum from London.
“In Atlanta, we’re looking for tangible and as importantly — actionable outputs from each of our six working groups we’ll assemble there: Sensitive Activities; Inputs to the R&D Roadmap for OIE Technologies; Implementing Effective Technological Solutions to Emerging OIE Threats; Assessments; an Implementation Plan Framework for the upcoming Strategy for OIE; and Resilience to Adversary Disinformation,” he said. OIE is an acronym that refers to operations in the information environment.
The conference in Atlanta will have a bit more of a narrow focus, one main area being engaging the academic community.
Whiskeyman said the intent in Atlanta is to move forward with some recommendations in support of NDAA priorities.
“I think what you will see is, over the course of the next six months, you’ll be able to trace outcomes from Atlanta deliberately into where that work helps support policy position or a resource recommendation or some sort of operational approach to a given challenge of how we go after that as a nation or a group of nations, in terms of a collective response or a collective way of presenting … a cohesive narrative,” he said.
Going forward, Whiskeyman noted that what comes out of the working groups will determine the effort’s fruitfulness.
“It’s the work that has to go on in the working groups and beyond of really showing that return on investment,” he said. “Those coming to Atlanta have been forewarned — ‘Have a good time, it’s Atlanta, that’s great, get together, but it is meant that there are outcomes from this.’ Even if the outcome is, ‘Hey we don’t know something, we need to do more research,’ that’s fine. But the fact that we put the rigor in to be able to be at that point, is good thing.”