Academic journal article Parameters

Using Information in Contemporary War

Academic journal article Parameters

Using Information in Contemporary War

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has sophisticated propaganda capabilities and expertise that can be turned against it. The United States should draw upon its expertise in political communication and psychological operations as well as adapt Russian precepts of operational shock and reflexive control to complement traditional military approaches.


The requirements for defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have many facets: a coherent policy, a confluent political strategy, traditional military and kinetic operations, and effective information warfare (TW) strategies. Despite their dominant role in ISIL's playbook, IW strategies are too often ignored. The group has used information warfare to expand its battlespace beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq to every television set on the planet--reaching anyone with Internet access. (1) American IW response must be as aggressive and strategic as kinetic military operations.

Congress recognized the need to broaden military authority to counter ISIL messaging after US Special Operations Command commander General Joseph L. Votel argued the Department of Defense required more authority to counter recruitment and reduce the flow of foreign fighters. (2) This article, therefore, focuses on communication strategies and tactics the US military might employ in close coordination with kinetic operations as well as political and diplomatic efforts. We first examine the broader precepts governing information warfare, then apply them to define potential options for defeating ISIL.

Fundamental Assumptions about Winning the War

What steps will achieve battlefield dominance against ISIL in information warfare? One key lies in aligning a counter-ISIL narrative with our military objectives and the political goals of regional allies, which requires defining assumptions about US intentions. (3) First, battlefield victories--including victory in the information environment--are vital. Second, taking sides in the long-standing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites or making US policy the issue in the conflict should be voided. Third, the prominent public role Muslims should take in articulating a counter-narrative that discredits and delegitimizes the religious and political dogma of ISIL should be recognized. Public demonstrations denouncing ISIL require words and deeds to contribute significantly to success: Western countries should provide behind-the-scenes leadership and support, but Muslims must lead.

The United States must clearly define the stakes, narratives, themes, and messengers, requiring careful target audience analysis (TAA) for language and content. (4) No single narrative or messenger fits every strategy. Components must be consistent, coordinated, and tailored to each target audience. Communication strategies must respect current political and military realities. Iraqi Sunnis comprehend ISIL brutality; however, they will not risk their lives to destroy ISIL to restore the status quo ante of Shiite repression.

A winning IW strategy requires fresh approaches. Western commercial advertising methods do not work for politics or for changing behavior in military conflict zones. Consumers represent groups who have already decided to purchase. Brand advertising seeks to increase the hit rate of customers in a target group. A successful commercial ad campaign may change the minds of 10 percent of customers. But as Steve Tatham points out, a "10-percent change in the behavior of an insurgent group or hostile community is highly unlikely to be game changing in the context of the wider conflict." (5) The United States should not confuse political communication with commercial advertising. Branding and commercial advertising are the kiss of death for information warfare.

Strategic Considerations for Information Warfare

We define communication as words, deeds, images, or symbols that shape public opinion and attitudes to change behavior in order to achieve specific effects or end-states. …

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