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Part 2: Winning without Fighting – Information Environment Operations and Accelerated Warfare

13 September 2019
Part 2: Winning without Fighting

Part 2 of this blog will explore how the Joint Force might win without fighting by leveraging the ideas put forward by the Chief of Army (CA) in his Accelerated Warfare (AW) statement and conducting operations in the Information Environment (IE).[1]

The CA notes the changing operating environment that is seeing the rules-based global order under pressure from evolving geopolitics, technological disruption at historic levels, and actors who are proving adept at adjusting to this accelerated context. In order to respond, the future land force must be creative, unconstrained in its thinking, and proactive in developing new strategies and concepts for the changing character of war. This will see the land force better positioned to ‘own the time’ and shape future operating environments.

In February this year the Director General Future Land Warfare, Brigadier Ian Langford, provided his views on AW. Two themes from this presentation highlight the importance of operations in the IE to AW. The first was in his framework for how we may think about the contemporary spectrum of conflict and competition, and the second is in the idea of winning without fighting.

Part 1 of this blog noted that due to the changing character of war the Joint Force is always in a state of both conflict and competition in the omnipresent IE. Previously held frameworks which are formed on the absolutes of being either at war or at peace simply do not apply in the IE. In understanding this, the Joint Force can become less constrained in its thinking about warfare.

Operations in the IE allow a force to understand, shape and influence the environment—to ‘own the time’. The successful conduct of these operations will ensure the Joint Force is better positioned to achieve the second of Brigadier Langford’s stand-out themes: winning without fighting. By getting it right during Phase 0, effectively preventing the physical manifestation of conflict in the IE, a force wins without fighting by avoiding the fight.

Winning without fighting is not a new idea. Sun Tzu stated that ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill… supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting’. However, in AW the means through which this can be achieved are more readily available to any actor with a little bit of creativity, sufficient understanding of the opportunities inherent in the IE, and a willingness to break with traditional frameworks. 

Recent examples from social media illustrate the power of the IE in accelerating outcomes and shaping the operating environment through a force’s ability to generate or influence the narrative. A recent and well-known example is ISIS and its use of the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS during the invasion of Northern Iraq—most notably defeating a superior force and conquering Mosul virtually uncontested in 2014. This tactical victory was achieved because ISIS were a threat force that adapted to the changed operating environment and understood how to harness the power of disruptive technology—in particular social media—to fight a battle in the IE before, during, and after the battles in the physical domain. 

A less well-known example is Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (OPE) in the same year. In the West, much of the post-conflict analysis on OPE focussed on the physical battle and corresponding lessons. For example RAND described it as ‘a range of strategic, operational, tactical, organizational, and technological lessons about urban combat against an irregular force’ for the US military. Operations in the IE are largely overlooked by the think-tank’s authors; only one page of the report is dedicated to cyber-warfare, specifically cyberattacks, neglecting both the power of the cyber domain as a vector for information and the ability of the greater IE to control the narrative.

In scrutinising OPE beyond the traditional—and constrained—analysis of the physical domain, the Joint Force can learn some more contemporary lessons for AW. In his book, War in 140 CharactersDavid Patrikarakos describes OPE is an example of ‘how in twenty first-century conflict you can conclusively win on the battlefield but lose the wider war’. During OPE one of the main protagonists was a sixteen-year-old civilian, Farah Baker, (for more, see Dr Russell Glenn’s Land Power Forum blog) who took no part in the physical battle but whose use of social media successfully influenced the narrative of conflict through Western media.  

While the geopolitical environment was already changing, Israel’s moral high-ground was certainly eroding prior to 2014; OPE accelerated the rate at which the West began to overtly question the actions of Israel in Gaza. This can be seen in academic studies, the popularity of hashtags such as #GazaUnderAttack, and in articles in reputable Western publications. With this, the strategic narrative of the war shifted and Israel lost what they had come to view as the third front in modern conflict, ‘the world of social networks’.[2] With this loss came more significant defeat. According to Singer and Brooking.[3] when the Israel Government ended OPE following mounting global pressure, the sentiment surrounding OPE within Israel was that the military had failed to achieve its objectives despite the Israel Defence Force (IDF) winning the physical battle.

In response, Israel adapted. The IDF was already a force that was unconstrained in its thinking and rather than focus solely on the physical battle, it took lessons from OPE and other conflicts from the third front and applied them to operations in the IE. In doing so they have been able to rebuild some credibility with the international community, although mainstream Western media and academia questioning the actions of Israel is no longer atypical and the narrative has not shifted back to the previous levels of support for Israel.  

And it is unlikely to. The geopolitical context remains precarious, and improbable actors have also learned the lessons of the power of disruptive technology. Singer and Brooking found that following OPE, the levels of social media use among Palestinian youth increased, with children as young as seven using their smartphones to capture actions that support the Palestinian narrative and harness the power of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to broadcast and reinforce their message of supposed IDF brutality to the global audience.

A 2016 study by Thomas Zeitzoff provides additional lessons for the Joint Force. Zeitzoff reviewed tweets during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence (2012) and through sentiment analysis was able to show how Twitter could be used to predict short term military action. While this predictive ability is unlikely to be of use against a threat force who is not beholden to popular opinion, it is worth considering the power of public sentiment and the ways in which it can be used against the Joint Force.

This is the operating environment in AW. An environment in which information and technology are ubiquitous and in which a hashtag can drive victory or defeat. One where a narrative can go global as a result of one image captured on a smart phone, changing the geopolitical context and further undermining an already threatened global order. One in which the unconstrained actor can win without fighting.

[1] IE is defined here as the aggregate of individuals, organisations, or systems that collect, process, or disseminate information, from the US DoD JP 1-02.

[2] In late 2012, the Israel Defence Force Chief Information Office described three fronts in modern warfare: physical, cyber and social.

[3] Peter W Singer and Emerson T Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) 197

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.