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Special Information Warfare

Evolving Australian and Allied Special Operations Forces to Fight and Win in the Chaos

Promo image for AARC OP No 9 - Special Information Warfare


The contemporary conflict environment is complex, cluttered and highly connected. In an urbanised, heavily populated, informationally dense environment, regular armed forces (including the ADF) now face an enormously varied and lethal range of both state and non-state threats. As Benny Johanson notes in this paper, the explosion of electronic connectivity since the turn of the century and the resulting rise in lethality and precision available to irregular warfare actors, along with the acceleration of Great Power competition, have transformed the operating environment for Special Operations Forces (SOF). It is in the information domain, broadly understood—from narrative competition, through cognitive shaping of adversaries, to coercive statecraft that blends multiple elements of national power and, ultimately, kinetic disruption of cyber and information systems—that this transformation has been most rapid and intense.

This transformed operating environment, sometimes characterised as one of ‘grey zone’ conflict, hybrid warfare or liminal manoeuvre, has profound implications for every operator, not just for SOF. But the special operations space was one of the earliest to be affected by this transformation—in the emergence of Russia’s ‘little green men’ in Crimea, information-enabled special warfare in Iraq and Syria, and the rise of cyber-kinetic operations in Great Power competition. As in previous eras, features that first appear in the special operations space soon proliferate, requiring adaptive responses from the whole force. Thus, this paper offers lessons for all operators, not just SOF. It suggests that, far from being a stand-alone form of conflict (or a bloodless replacement for lethal kinetic warfare), information represents an adjunct manoeuvre space that must be understood, exploited and dominated alongside traditional domains such as land, air, sea, the electromagnetic spectrum and, increasingly, the space-warfare domain.

Today, Australian planners face a much more threatening yet, somehow, far less concrete environment than at any time since the 1930s. As Johanson notes, the intangibility of information warfare—its ambiguity and cognitive slipperiness—makes grey-zone operations simultaneously more important and harder to grasp. This paper offers important insights for anyone seeking to get a grip of what has happened, what it means, and how we might adapt to it, now and into the future.

David Kilcullen

August 2021

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AARC Occasional Paper No 9 Special Information Warfare (5.66 MB) 5.66 MB