Information at War

DAVID BETZ – When Information goes to war, the results might not be as unprecedented as one might think. 


In my interview with Joseph Nye, we discussed the differences between soft and hard power, as well as the contexts in which these powers are exercised. How can we classify or categorize “weaponized information technology,” and in what contexts is it most effective?

It is most effective as a weapon in contingencies wherein there is a physical weapon aimed at someone. For instance, information is most effective when a nation can use it to establish their enemy’s position, to obscure its own position, to target a threat or an enemy system, and to prevent the enemy from doing the same in return. Otherwise, a pure information attack is not likely to have the same immediate effect as a traditional weapon would. Information does not cause damage on its own.

In the broader sense of damage — that is to say, of the ability to cause pain or destroy value — the more that one puts value on the things that are digital, information-based, and ineffable in some respects, the more these things can be threatened. One can argue that information assumes, in this case, some sort of weapon-effect. For instance, if one state was able to decisively corrupt the national pensions data of another state, that would be of considerable harm because there is a great deal of wealth in that data.

The problem with soft power is that it is very difficult to weaponize it, and it is not terribly productive to talk about weapon-effects when discussing soft power. I do agree with Professor Nye on the point that the most interesting aspects of the exercise of power in the information age have a lot more to do with soft power — with subversion, infiltration, or persuasion — in terms of conquest, both physical or virtual.

How can information technology be used in the “soft power arena?”

Information technology radically changes the nature of the workings of the public sphere. The environment twenty years ago was defined by a situation in which just a handful of people in governments around the world had the resources to communicate globally to large numbers of people. Those individuals and groups had an enormous amount of power, in terms of information dissemination, as a result. That is why, two decades ago, the editor of The New York Times or a news anchor on television would have been a terribly important person. This is not to say that they are not still important, but they are certainly not the “be all and end all” that they once were. The potential for information to flow in a much more horizontal way, in a much more accessible way, is now so great that in many instances people are not subject to the agenda-setting power of editors so much as they once were.

There has been a good amount of research on the way in which this development has enabled insurgents to get around editors, to put their message on a global forum. But this is a much broader phenomenon, and I would suggest that everything from the Occupy movements, to Anonymous or the Alter-Globalization network, are essentially novel social movements which are significantly empowered by the way in which human society has been wired.

Can the information technologies driving modern military capabilities, especially in the United States and the West, change classic conceptions of deterrence theory, that is, will a wealth in knowledge prove more dangerous for a potential attacker — especially a nontraditional foe like Al Qaeda — than a wealth in weapons?

It is hard to say at the moment. Deterrence is a separate and vastly complex field. But with regards to one part of this question, the thing that concerns me, and which gets less attention than it should, is that in the process of trying to make life difficult for insurgents and terrorists, it is has also become very difficult for normal citizens to be anonymous. The ability of not just state powers but also corporate entities — Google being the exemplar — to generate very specific behavioral data on individuals on the basis of vast number crunching of numeral databases, is a very significant step in human society. There has not been a situation in the recent past wherein it is so difficult to hide, and wherein it is so easy to be profiled.

The ability to wage war over the internet could potentially break down the barriers even further between civilian and military spheres. Keeping the idea of net-neutrality in mind, do governments’ abilities to launch and defend against network-based attacks raise the danger of a more restricted web platform? 

There is no doubt that the distinctions between military and civilian spheres are significantly blurred. That is not, however, a phenomenon that is exclusive to the web; it is one that has been building for many years, and there is no reason why that trend would not continue.

In 1993 John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt stated, “The information revolution implies the rise of cyberwar…the side that knows more, that can disperse the fog of war yet enshroud an adversary in it, will enjoy decisive advantages.” Could the ability to wage effective cyberwar upset the current strategic or tactical balance?

It has always been possible for a smaller state to overpower a larger one, even though, as Napoleon noted, “God favors the larger battalions” statistically. I do not think that cyberwar — cyber in the military sense, in the weaponized informational sense — is going to change the balance and distribution of power in the global system. It is much more likely that cyber has the effect of making strong states stronger, and weak states weaker.

Cyber is, in military terms, going to become another part of the total combined arms package. Some countries will figure out how to do this, and some will not, just as some countries have figured out how to integrate indirect fire with direct fire and can conduct warfare in accordance with the modern system, while others cannot. When there is a conflict wherein there is a mismatch of those types, the country that does not manage the modern system winds up getting walloped. Cyber is not going to change that dynamic, but is rather going to accelerate it.

Where informational power might be different is with respect to non-state actors, but for states it is not a game-changer.

Modern insurgencies present an ephemeral and largely faceless enemy: a very broad threat. How can insurgencies wage informational warfare? 

One possibility is that the sheer connectivity of advanced societies can be used against them by opponents who aim to have disruptive effects upon the system, by attacking communication nodes or gas-transfer facilities. Again, though, this too is not new. Looking at the interwar period, strategists like J.F.C Fuller and Liddell Hart also spoke about aerial warfare in these terms. They had a very acute sense of the fragility of modern society, and felt that in a major war, if there was large-scale aerial bombing, society would essentially fall apart, a victim of its own complexity. In actuality, this result never really came to pass. Modern industrial societies had a high degree of redundancy, and it turned out that it was possible to bomb the hell out of them, and they would keep ticking over. Just because something similar was the case in the past does not mean that it will remain the same with regard to cyberwar. But it might suggest that there is a certain degree of hype and hyperbole about the inherent and acute vulnerability of modern society to cyber-attacks.

More importantly — coming back to the softer social side of this issue — the problem with increasing connectivity in the security sense is that it becomes extremely difficult for multicultural welfare societies to maintain societal cohesion. There are today societies composed of disaggregated communities that have greater ideational affinities than they local ones, which creates the potential for bad effects on social cohesion. Increasingly, in western Europe, as the situation with regard to unintegrated Muslim minorities — which have become a great concern over the last decade, and are likely to remain so — continues to interact with the declining economic situation, these communities’ relationships with western European nations can begin to corrode.

The real problems today have a lot less to do with warfare in the traditional sense of man and machine fighting each other, than they do with what is happening in society more broadly, and its ability to maintain cohesiveness, peaceableness, neighborliness, and productivity. 


DAVID BETZ is a Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He is head of the Insurgency Research Group at KCL, and heads a two-year US Defense Department Minerva-funded project on “Strategy and the Network Society.” He is also a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and has advised or worked with the UK Ministry of Defense and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters on strategic issues, counterinsurgency and stabilization doctrine, cyberspace and cyber strategy.


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