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Institute for National

StrategicStudies

 


WHAT IS INFORMATION WARFARE?

MARTIN LIBICKI

Chapter 1

Is There An Elephant?

In the fall of 1994, I was privileged to observe an Information Warfare game sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Red, a middle-sized, middle-income nation with a sophisticated electronics industry, had developed an elaborate five-year plan that culminated in an attack on a neighboring country. Blue -- the United States -- was the neighbor's ally and got wind of Red's plan. The two sides began an extended period of preparation during which each conducted peacetime information warfare and contemplated wartime information warfare. Players on each side retreated to game rooms to decide on moves.

Upon returning from the game rooms, each side presented its strategy. Two troubling tendencies emerged: First, because of the difficulty each side had in determining how the other side's information system was wired, for most of the operations proposed (for example, Blue considered taking down Red's banking system) no one could prove which actions might or might not be successful, or even what "success" in this context meant. Second, conflict was the sound of two hands clapping, but not clapping on each other. Blue saw information warfare as legions of hackers searching out the vulnerabilities of Red's computer systems, which might be exploited by hordes of viruses, worms, logic bombs, or Trojan horses. Red saw information warfare as psychological manipulation through media. Such were the visions in place even before wartime variations on information warfare came into the discussion. Battle was never joined, even by accident.

This game illustrated a fundamental difficulty in coming to terms with information warfare, deciding on its nature. Is it a new art? the newest version of some time-honored features of warfare? Is it a new medium of conflict that issues from the burgeoning global information infrastructure or one to which information technologies have contributed but which originates in the wetware of the human brain? Is it a unified covey of operations, or a random assemblage of fowl perched on a single power line?

Information warfare is a hot topic at the Pentagon and unavoidable in contemplating the future of warfare. It is linked to the Revolution in Military Affairs, which has assumed almost totemic importance in the conceptual superstructure of national defense. Recent tomes such as the Tofflers' War and Anti- War Note 1 have made it an article of faith that information technologies are transforming second-wave (industrial) societies into third-wave (information- based) ones. War must follow, which offers considerable comfort to those who see the United States as having supremacy in handling information while its former supremacy in the industrial arts seems to be diminishing.

Coming to grips with information warfare, however, is like the effort of the blind men to discover the nature of the elephant: the one who touched its leg called it a tree, another who touched its tail called it a rope, and so on. Manifestations of information warfare are similarly perceived. Although some parts of the whole are closely related in form and function (e.g., electronic warfare and command-and-control warfare), taken together all the respectably held definitions of the elephant suggest there is little that is not information warfare.

Is a good definition possible? Does having one matter? Perhaps there is no elephant, only trees and ropes that aspire to become one. Clarifying the issues is more than academic quibbling. First, as the metaphor suggests, sloppy thinking promotes false synecdoche. One aspect of information warfare, perhaps championed by a single constituency, assumes the role of the entire concept, thus becoming grossly inflated in importance. Second, too broad a definition makes it impossible to discover any common conceptual thread other than the obvious (that information warfare involves information and warfare), where a tighter definition might reveal one. Third, the slippery inference derived from loose aggregation points to the conclusion that the United States can and must seek the dominance in information warfare it currently enjoys in air warfare, as if these arenas were comparable.

Thomas Rona, an early proponent of information warfare, offered the following definition:

The strategic, operation, and tactical level competitions across the spectrum of peace, crisis, crisis escalation, conflict, war, war termination, and reconstitution/restoration, waged between competitors, adversaries or enemies using information means to achieve their objectives.

This definition is broad, too broad: one way or another, it subsumes most human activity. In a related view, information war exists to ensure that one's own picture of a conflict is more correct than that held by the other side. This perspective is useful but incomplete. All viewpoints are incorrect, because data cannot be incorporated without a conceptual structure to hang them on. Yet even the best structures are abstractions of a complex world. Whether the structures are biased in important and harmful or trivial and harmless ways is what matters.

The Joint Staff has faced great difficulty in assigning precise responsibilities even for military forms of information warfare (nonmilitary forms, for instance, include the defense of national financial systems against hackers). Command-and-control warfare (C2W) is assigned to J-3 (the operations directorate) within the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Designing command-and-control systems for security and protection is as clearly the province of J-6 (the C4 directorate). Note 2 Forms of information warfare that involve establishing and maintaining systems of battlefield intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance naturally fall under J-2 (the intelligence directorate). Finally, because most of the interesting issues of information warfare presume that the information architecture of the future will be different from that of the present, information architecture would be associated with long-term planning, which sits in J-5 (the strategic policy and plans directorate).

This essay attempts to sort out definitions of information warfare. Note 3 The first part reviews seven plausibly distinct forms of information warfare, each identified by one or another expert as a defining example of information warfare. Each is examined by asking what does it do, in what sense is it war, what does it owe to silicon technologies, and how well can the United States, compared with others, wage it? Although information warfare is often regarded as new, some forms of it are newer than others. Some have been enabled by and others altered by information technology, while still others have only marginally been affected by it.

The second part of this essay searches for underlying themes. Do the forms of information warfare cohere well enough so that as a whole they can be assigned to information warriors in the sense that naval warfare is assigned to the Navy? To what extent are traditional concepts, such as "dominance," applicable to information warfare? Are there underlying principles, grasping and, ultimately, mastery of which may provide a conceptual framework for effective prosecution of information warfare? Indeed, is information warfare truly warfare?

A caveat: Those who search for an ideal definition should look elsewhere. The typology used here is intended to subdivide a large field into tractable parts -- information warfare may better be considered a mosaic of forms, rather than one particular form.

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