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There is only War

7 May 2019
Situational awareness
There is only War

Understanding the Need for Balance between Information and Physical Dimensions

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.[i]

In the dystopian future of the Warhammer 40,000 wargame, the forces of humanity understand that war, conflict and competition are linked. Their military machine must be used to both influence and coerce, for competition and conflict is everywhere: internal coalition bickering; posturing and positioning with allies; border skirmishes and ‘policing’ operations within the Imperium of Man; battles and campaigns with competing empires; and wars of annihilation against the Great Enemy, including the delivery of the ultimate sanction: Exterminatus – the destruction of an entire planet to remove physical threats and send a message to others. In this distant future humanity understands that war, conflict and competition is ‘...a relentless and recurring clash of wills’.[ii]

This view on war is not new. Although Clausewitz was not the first to state it, he is probably the best known.[iii] A recent blog on this forum not only highlights this point, it also outlines; correctly—that such a clash of wills is about the so-called cognitive domain—or the cognitive dimension of war.

So, if war is a clash of wills, and will is linked to cognition, then surely Information Warfare must, as some have advocated, always be primary! Before we throw the manoeuvre baby out with the bath water, let’s just pause and address some key points.

For starters, one does not ‘target’ the cognitive dimension. Nor does Information Operations/Warfare ‘...have a cognitive effect’. Now, before people get their pitch forks because I am attacking the modern-day shibboleth of information, let me highlight that manoeuvre warfare has the same problem. To understand this, it is necessary to explore what is meant by the dimensions of war, how they interact, and the confusion that exists between warfare as a label and warfare as a part of war.

Aspects of War: Domains vs Dimensions

‘Domain’ is a problematic word. It is often used interchangeably with ‘environment’ and ‘dimension’.[iv] Doctrinally, there are five domains: Land, Sea/Maritime, Air, Space and Cyber. Some suggest a sixth, social-media, while others argue cyber isn’t a domain at all. However, all domains are ‘…where the activity takes place to create effects and ultimately compel an adversary to comply with the will of the victorious’ group.[v] This suggests that there are both physical and informational aspects to each domain.

Rather than using ‘domain’ to discuss this clash of wills, a better way is to think of ‘dimensions’. This may appear to be semantics. However, the Macquarie Dictionary highlights that a ‘domain’ relates to an area under control, while a ‘dimension’ is an aspect of a whole. Therefore, domains are where warfare is applied, but dimensions are aspects of war and warfare as a whole (Figure 1).[vi]

The Dimensions of War
FIGURE 1 – The Dimensions of War

Once again, this is not new. Clausewitz’s Wonderous Trinity consists of Reason, Passion and Chance. Combined, these three ‘…dominant tendencies…’ make up war.[vii] It is not hard to see how these may have affinity with the Cognitive, Information and Physical dimensions of war. However, this is only half the story, for the power of influence rests on perception.

Influencing the Cognitive – The Vibe of the Whole

Like any trinity, balance is required for success. Unless you use extreme measures—like Warhammer’s Exterminatus—physical actions might shape some people, but not everyone. Nor can information shape the cognitive without the ‘proof’ of physical action. You can tell entire populations that you are here to help, but…

Our decision-making is driven by heuristics and perceptions. We are wired to weigh information in different ways: direct experience first; then information that is easy to recall (normally the most recent, and not necessarily the most relevant); then everything else. This helps form our Theory of Mind – or our capacity to determine the beliefs and likely intentions of others based on our own understanding.[viii]

It is not hard to believe that Iraqi Sunnis initially viewed Da’esh (Islamic State) favourably. After all, their experience was not a positive one with the Iraqi Government, and the easiest information to recall in 2014/2015 was Islamic State promising ‘…a new era of Sunni dominance’.[ix] However, their next experience—living under Da’esh rule—changed their mental model and Theory of Mind.

It is this interplay between the physical and the informational that makes shaping the cognitive dimension of war possible, as seen in Figure 2.[x]

Shaping the Cognitive Dimension of War
FIGURE 2 – Shaping the Cognitive Dimension of War

Figure 2 also highlights that success is best achieved by balancing both the physical and informational equally. Neither the information nor the physical dimension should subsume the other. This suggests something more profound: there is only war, and it is executed through a single warfare that balances different techniques.

Warfare: The Label vs The Execution

It is often said that war has an enduring nature but changing character.[xi] This changing character is referred to as warfare. Warfare is relevant to its time—influenced by politics, technology, geography and socio-economic factors. Yet the intent always remains the same: to shape the cognitive dimension, thereby compelling others to your will.

Although it is normal for us to say ‘air warfare’, ‘naval warfare’, ‘manoeuvre warfare’ and even ‘information warfare’, none of these truly represent all the technological, socio-economic and political influences of our time. One should not point to air or information warfare and say: “This is what war is today!” Instead, we should recognise the changes and, as the Fundamentals of Land Power advocates, ‘…evaluate the nature of war in an attempt to identify its character relative to a particular time and place’.[xii] Let us not confuse the use of the term ‘warfare’ as a label for grouping specific tactics and techniques for how war now looks and should be executed.

Confusing warfare with specific techniques and then placing one group of techniques as more superior than others leads to the fractured execution of war. Once again, this is not new. However, if military history and the views of its key theorists are not persuasive enough, then consider the words of the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov:

The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. …The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures – applied in coordination …All this is supplemented by military means…[xiii]

Russian non-linear warfare and Chinese Unrestricted Warfare recognise that there is only war and warfare. We must also recognise that warfare is a whole.

Warfare consists of physical and informational aspects that must work together, under one reasoned plan, to shape people’s perception. Planners must always keep in the forefront of their mind what they want the enemy, population, coalition, or the World to think. It is not about one label over another.

It is about creating complementing and reinforcing effects in both the physical and informational dimensions. Sometimes that will call for extreme physical force. Other times it will call for limited presence and massed cyber assault. At all times it is understanding that effects are ‘domain’ and ‘warfare label’ agnostic, and an effect is generated through both words and deeds. Afterall, there is only war.

[i] Games Workshop, Warhammer 40,000: Dark Imperium Enhanced Edition, 8th Enhanced ePub ed., Warhammer 40,000 (London, UK: Games Workshop Limited, 2017). 208.

[ii] Ibid., 357.

[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Indexed eBook ed. (New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1989). 75.

[iv] Chris McGuffin and Paul Mitchell, "On Domains: Cyber and the Practice of Warfare," International Journal 69, no. 3 (2014): 397n21.

[v] Ibid., 398 (quote); Martin C. Libicki, "Cyberspace is Not a Warfighting Domain," I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy 8, no. 2 (2012): 328-30 (Cyber not a domain).

[vi] This is an adaptation of the original model presented by Robert Cordray III and Marc Romanych. The adaptation expands on the definitions using the work of both UK Doctrine and David Alberts et al in describing the different dimensions. “Dimensions” is an original word by this author. See: Robert Cordray III and Marc J. Romanych, "Mapping the Information Environment," IOSphere 2005, no. Summer (2005): 7-9; Marc J. Romanych, "Applying the Domains of Conflict to Information Operations" (paper presented at the 10th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Washington DC, USA, 2005), 3-6; The Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Joint Doctrine Publication 3-00 - Campaign Execution, ed. The Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 3rd (PDF) ed., Joint Doctrine Publications (Shrivenham, Swindon, UK: Ministry of Defence, 2009). p3-5 to 3-9; David S. Alberts et al., Understanding Information Age Warfare, (Washington DC, USA: CCRP Publication Service, 2001), 10-14; Martin J. Brown Jr, "Rapid Knowledge Formation in an Information Rich Environment," in 9th Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium Coalition Transformation, ed. David S. Alberts (Demark: Command and Control Research Program, 2004), 2-4.

[vii] von Clausewitz, On War: 88.

[viii] This is covered in more detail by Dave Lyle and by this author. See: Dave Lyle, "The Cognitive Domain," in Personal Theories of Power: Exploring Strategy Through the Eyes of Emerging Leaders, ed. Nathan K. Finney, et al. (Arlington, Virgina, USA: The Bridge, 2014), 9-10; Nicholas J. Bosio, Understanding War's Theory: what military theory is, where it fits, and who influences it, ed. Australian Army Research Centre, vol. 001, Australian Army Occasional Paper - Conflict Theory and Strategy Series (Canberra, ACT, AUST: Australian Army Research Centre, 2018). 30-31.

[ix] David Zucchino, "As ISIS Is Driven From Iraq, Sunnis Remain Alienated," The New York Times, 26 Oct 2017.

[x] This figure is adapted from Alberts et al and enhanced using Cristina Archetti’s research into societal frames, as well as broader knowledge development theory. See: Alberts et al., Understanding Information Age Warfare. 11; The Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Joint Doctrine Publication 0-01 - UK Defence Doctrine, ed. The Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 5th (PDF) ed., Joint Doctrine Publications (Shrivenham, Swindon, UK: Ministry of Defence, 2014). 63-65; ———, JDP 3-00: p3-5 to 3-9; Cristina Archetti, "Narrative Wars: Understanding Terrorism in the Era of Global Interconnectedness," in Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations, ed. Alister Miskimmon, Ben O'Loughlin, and Laura Roselle (Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 2-7; ———, Understanding terrorism in the age of global media: a communication approach, Kobo ePub ed. (Houndmills, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). p3-46 to 3-49; Bosio, Understanding War's Theory, 001: 11-14.

[xi] Australian Army, LWD 1: The Fundamentals of Land Power, ed. Australian Army Research Centre, Land Warfare Doctrine (Canberra, ACT, Australia: Department of Defence, 2017). 9-13.

[xii] Ibid., 9.

[xiii] Mark Galeotti to In Moscow's Shadows, 6 July 2014, 2014,

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.