Clausewitz's Theory of War and Information Operations

By Darley, William M. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Clausewitz's Theory of War and Information Operations


Darley, William M., Joint Force Quarterly


The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking.... This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (1)

--Carl von Clausewitz, On War

The debate over information operations (IO) grows more confused because IO continues to be wrongly understood in its relationship to the so-called kinetic elements of military operations. Contrary to entrenched perceptions, IO is not merely a family of related skill sets or capabilities that in all cases augment "kinetic operations." Collectively, they are properly understood as a specific purpose and emphasis within an overall plan of action that under some circumstances might be the main effort. The most essential factor for employing IO is therefore the commander's intent with regard to the political objective of a given operation. Viewing IO in any other way precludes recognition of the relationship the "IO purpose" inherently has with other activities of war within the universe of political conflict, and consequently distorts thinking with regard to full incorporation and appropriate employment of all tools that might generate a desired information effect. Thus, operational planning that regards IO as mere augmentation to operations by application of five narrowly defined "pillars," currently revised and identified as operations security, psychological operations (PSYOP), deception, computer network operations, and electronic warfare, is fatally flawed.

Information operations, unlike other battlefield effects, focus on influencing perceptions or attitudes as opposed to destroying things or seizing terrain. During Operation Desert Storm, one of the most powerful IO instruments against Iraqi forces consisted of pre-announced B-52 strikes that followed leaflet drops detailing procedures for surrender, the key IO element being the B-52 itself. Similarly, the purpose for employing a weapon may be either to destroy a specific target or send threats to influence personnel targets, or both. Understood in this way, it is apparent that almost any weapon, tool, or element at the commander's disposal apart from the five pillars may have potential for achieving a specific IO objective.

Part of the difficulty in distinguishing information operations from kinetic operations has resulted from failure to understand IO within any kind of general theory on the relationship of the dynamics of war, such as between a joint direct attack munition and PSYOP. Consequently, the lack of intellectual discipline imposed by such a paradigm confuses the roles and relationships of the elements of combat operations and the circumstances in which they are appropriately applied. Application of a theory is thus essential to highlight the distinguishing qualities of IO and their relationship to kinetic operations. This article examines IO in the context of Clausewitzian theory and proposes a model that shows the role of IO across the spectrum of conflict.

A Political Instrument

The usefulness of a theory depends on how well it can explain the relationship of elements not formally understood, and predict the unknown and as yet unobserved. Clausewitz's theory of war offers surprising predictive insight into the dynamics of IO within the multidomain universe of political conflict and a clearer understanding of the dynamics that dictate the role and situational employment of elements of power to achieve IO objectives.

As a reminder, On War was an effort to develop a genuine theory of war that described both the characteristics and relationship of various dynamics within armed conflict:

Theory will have fulfilled its main task when it is used to analyze the constituent elements of war, to distinguish precisely what at first sight seems fused, to explain in full the properties of the means employed and to show their probable effects, to define clearly the nature of the ends in view. …

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