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Defending Against Information Warfare


Published March 24, 2022

Cyber-enabled information warfare has become a new norm for America. The US Department of Defense cannot take on these threats alone, but there is something it can do. The Department of Defense should make a point of defending its service members and their families, recognizing that such efforts may provide a model for other parts of society to follow in its footsteps.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it important for the Department of Defense to defend its service members from information warfare?
  2. What might happen if we do not mount a response to cyber-enabled information warfare?

Additional resources:

  • Read Herb Lin’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technology, and Information Systems, “Technology and Information Warfare: The Competition for Influence and the Department of Defense.” Available here.
  • Listen to “How Secure Is US Cybersecurity?,” an episode of the Matters of Policy and Politics podcast with Herb Lin. Available here.
  • Read “The Art of Peace,” by Herb Lin. Available here.


View Transcript

Traditionally there has been a clear distinction between peace and war. But that is no longer the case. While the United States is, thankfully, not in a shooting war with Russia or China, we are not exactly at peace either. Our adversaries are actively engaging in cyber-enabled information warfare. And, as it stands, the Department of Defense is poorly equipped to deal with these attacks.

Cyber-enabled information warfare is a competitive and hostile activity against the United States. But, under the laws of war and the United Nations Charter it is not warfare. It is perhaps better characterized as adversarial psychological manipulation.

For example, about 20 percent of Facebook postings in 2020 and early 2021 relating to QAnon originated outside the United States, with China and Russia playing leading roles in this activity. During 2020, posts originating in Russia accounted for 44 percent, while in early 2021, posts originating in China accounted for 58 percent of such posts.

Our information warfare adversaries have weaponized our constitutional protections, our minds, and our technologies against us. Cyber-enabled information warfare has the potential to destroy reason and reality as the basis for societal discourse and to replace them with rage and fantasy.

The activities even threaten members of the armed forces who may be influenced by this misinformation.  For example, based on misinformation, some may be more likely to violate their oaths to “defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

The Department of Defense cannot defend the United States against information warfare by itself. The threat requires not just a government-wide response but a society-wide response, and DOD—as broad as its responsibilities are—cannot orchestrate either one. Nevertheless, DOD is well positioned to address the cyber-enabled information warfare threat for at least one important segment of the U.S. populace: the U.S. armed forces and their families.

Currently, DOD doctrine does not explicitly acknowledge the possibility that the U.S. military could be the target of adversarial psychological operations to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behavior of our military forces. That has to change.

To protect service members and their families, DOD should first acknowledge in its doctrine the vulnerabilities of its personnel to information warfare operations and the importance of protecting its personnel against such operations.

Second, DOD should augment its basic training and professional military education requirements to include instruction on what their oaths mean.  What does it mean to “support and defend the Constitution?” How does one identify a foreign or domestic enemy? These should be conducted at least at the same intensity as the instruction that uniformed DOD personnel receive regarding compliance with the laws of armed conflict

Third, the DOD should support civics education for both the members of the armed forces, their families, and also for the broader public.  

DOD is not in a position to lead a society-wide defense against to the information warfare threat. But it can and should take point in defending its service members and their families, recognizing that such efforts may well provide a model for other parts of society to follow in its footsteps.