The digital information sphere is becoming the main military battleground. Great Power competition is shifting more and more in intensity and scale into the digital world. The reasons for this are manyfold.
The pace of technological innovation, increase in computing power and unprecedented interconnection are making information warfare a lucrative and effective alternative to tanks, drones and planes for the world’s largest powers. To find a definition of information warfare that most people agree is nearly impossible, however the US Army Field Manual seems to be the most useful.
“The integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting our own.”
An offensive application is the creation of chaos, distrust and anger in the population of one’s target. The key issue is that if you have a civil rebellion or partisan conflict in your own territory you will spend your recourses time and money to fight them and not use those same resources to attack or defend against your foreign enemies attacks. Disinformation naturally plays a crucial part. Using bots and AI allows relatively small countries to still have an outsized effect on much larger opponents population.
In defensive information warfare tactics a state actor would for example discredit dissidents or critiques without a trace to itself as the originator. Only when the originator of these campaigns becomes known, do we understand that states are waging shadow wars against civil society. The prolonged and systematic media attacks and subsequent murder of Journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia is such a case. Equally, surveilling, tracing and jailing journalists in one’s country are a popular way to use information warfare defensively. Turkey, Russia, China and many African dictorships make increasingly wide use of surveillance technology to take out critique and opposition voices.
The United States is no stranger to information warfare. US Intelligence agencies and military think tanks are credited for having, so to say, written the hand book on modern information warfare. Its application in foreign policy is never as visible as say Chinas or Russia’s information warfare practices. Edward Snowden’s revelation of mass surveillance and mass hacking of Angela Markel’s and other allied leaders phones, was such a rare expose of US information warfare capabilities.
The use of modern communication technology to create an alternative reality with its own ideology, rules and authorities is visible in the Tea party and the subsequent melting together of Trumpism and the Tea Party movement. This phenomenon has been amplified by interference and attacks from Russia, Iran and China, but is at its core American. US citizens like Steve Bannon or Roger Stone built elaborate and disguised fake account ecosystems to manipulate reality, defend Trump and to discredit his democratic opponents.
Unsurprisingly, China plays an outside role in the information warfare space. The combination of the world’s soon largest economy and the world's most repressive one party dictatorship creates the capabilities and the intentions to wage information warfare on a global scale. China's People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the source of the infamous “Naikon” group that is responsible for dizzyingly successful infiltration hacks of most of China's neighbour countries.
Naikon managed to hack its way up from lone government individuals and computers in far off agencies in South East Asia and gain access to highly valuable data about its neighbours. The gained information about military capabilities; commercial secrets; secret diplomatic communication and compromising information about government officials offers incredible offensive potential for the Chinese military. The Chinese hijacked third-party government servers and communication infrastructure to infiltrate other governments via diplomatic cables. If this was an overt, direct attack by China, it would be likely seen as an act of war. Given the possible deniability of information warfare campaigns, China will likely not suffer much of a consequence of these and similar hacks, even if they are revealed.
Defensive information warfare for China is an especially important domain. Controlling the flow of discontent about the Chinese Communist Party is a precondition for its survival. The number of people that China directly or indirectly employees to police its own digital communication is anywhere from hundreds of thousands of people to millions and this 50-Cent army is equally used to drown out international critique of the Communist Party. These new digital armies are increasingly mechanised and automatised, just as in any conventional arms race. China is responsible for creating 450 million known fake social media bot accounts only a few years ago.
Similarly, Russia seems to have concluded that the best way to fight an adversary that is military superior is through asymmetric information warfare. Putin and Xi have reached an understanding that the lowest-risk actions against the European Union and the US are in cyberspace. Their cooperation isn’t found in a public document, but these two authoritarian regimes have similar objectives and a common enemy. All of this makes sense as hostile actions in the information space are below the threshold that requires military counter action. As such the St. Petersburg research agency or Fancy Bear2.0 and all its Chinese counterparts will continue to attack our sense of reality; our information systems; our values and our freedoms unless we can build up credible deterrence against them.