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The Next Generation of Security: Prioritizing Information Warfare Defense

Civilian involvement in 5th generation security is the topic of this guest contribution to HSToday’s Narrative and National Security.

Historical paradigm shifts in warfare and security were characterized by U.S. security analysts in the 1980s as transitions between epochs or “generations”. The generations of warfare punctuated by these shifts have been described in several ways. In the “gradient” framework, the generations are characterized as sitting along a common dimension of what could be described as a “targeting resolution of violence,” with 0th generation warfare representing the lowest possible resolution of targeting, such as the whole-of-society warfare that occurs between colonies of ants, and 2nd generation warfare representing the introduction of coordinated, focused attacks. In others, technology and the developing tactics and organizational changes they trigger may be the defining feature of any particular generation. Of all of the frameworks, the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) model proposed by Chad Kohalyk and Daniel Abbott in the book, The Handbook of 5GW, may be the most stable:

1st Generation Warfare is characterized by prioritizing the transition between decision and action. Most of the history of organized warfare has this prioritization; from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz and Von Moltke there is a persistent focus on how to project the decisions of an adversary and to use those projections effectively.

2nd Generation Warfare is characterized by prioritizing the gap between orientation and decision. With the introduction of reliable, long-range communications systems, a new focus is applied on orientation – on how to use incoming information to rapidly develop situational awareness and make decisions on how to focus efforts.

3rd Generation Warfare is characterized by prioritizing the disruption of orientation. The development of operational frameworks which emphasize the ability to reorient in the face of uncertainty is first formalized under the “Auftragstaktik” or mission-type tactics of the Prussians in the 19th Century but becomes a more universal priority with the introduction of reliable and mass-produced transports and mobile armament. With these technological developments came unprecedented fluidity in the battlespace. A key example of this prioritization on disruption of the adversary’s orientation is the Blitzkrieg – never allowing the adversary a proper opportunity to reorient.

4th Generation Warfare is characterized by prioritizing the gap between observation and orientation. With this new prioritization, state actors begin to leverage ideology and resources in order to drive others to take actions that have effects on the orientation of their adversaries. This prioritization brings us into the “great peace” of our time, in which nation-states begin to outsource violence to both smaller state actors and, more importantly, non-state actors whose combatants are interpreted as criminals, insurgents, and terrorists rather than warfighters. In addition, the targeting of violence begins to shift from those which would take actions on the battlefield to those which best disrupt the orientations of civilians and leaders prior to or separate from any peer-adversary conflict. 4th Generation Warfare thus represents the introduction of international and geopolitical conflict to the homeland outside the context of invasion, requiring new organizations to supplement and complement traditional law enforcement in the maintenance of homeland security.

The use of prioritizations within the OODA loop as a basis for characterizing generations of warfare allowed for a clean definition and projection of the 5th generation of warfare: the prioritization of the disruption of observation itself, such as through the strategic use of mis-, dis-, and mal-information. The ability to manipulate perception not only allows for a corrupting of the entire decision-making process of an adversary and its leaders, but also of its people – it allows for the creation of new non-state actors to manipulate into causing discord or even kinetic conflict. In Abbott’s own phrasing:

“The ability to shape the perception – and therefore the opinions – of a target audience is far more important than the ability to deliver kinetic energy, and will determine the ultimate victor in tomorrow’s wars.”

The perception of reality held by civilians may be the most important threat surface of our time, just as ports had been in previous epochs. If this is the case, then the ability to reduce the impact of narrative influence campaigns on domestic target audiences will play an equally important role in determining the victors of tomorrow’s wars.

This poisoning of perception falls under the purview of narrative warfare, social engineering through the weaponization of cultural and personal narratives, and its counter under the purview of cognitive security, the practices and methodologies intended to defend against manipulations and disruptions to cognition and sensemaking. While cognitive security is a relatively new field of study, the prevention of disruptions to cognition and sensemaking has a long history and the kinds of disruption that are making civilians particularly prone to narrative warfare and the solutions to those kinds of disruptions have already been generalized.

Wherever we look throughout human history, rapid changes to the volume, structural complexity (e.g., interconnected and prerequisite information), or rate of production and transmission of information, we see organizations develop methods to externalize, delegate, compress, or otherwise better manage information flows. For example, by 200 A.D., the Roman army had developed many information handling and management specializations in order to cope with the influx of intelligence arriving at provincial centers from its burgeoning and volatile frontiers, allowing for the storage, indexing, and even coreference of what may have been hundreds of thousands of records, maps, and reports. Organizations, military or otherwise, develop methods to deal with information flows or they suffer. After every war the United States has engaged in within the 19th and 20th centuries has come multiple publications regarding the handling of information flows and the need for changes to intelligence and the use of information within proposed or extant security infrastructure. The need for organizations to rise to the challenge of rapid changes to information volume, speed, and complexity is not new. What is new is that these challenges have historically been posed to generals, leaders, and organizations, not individuals. The average citizen is now being given information and knowledge management problems that would make history’s greatest generals, leaders, and scholars shudder.

If we want security in the face of 5th generation warfare, we need to start prioritizing defense with consideration for where 5th generation warfare prioritizes attacks. We need better sensemaking tools in the hands of civilians as much as we need them in the hands of intelligence analysts. These tools do not necessarily have to come in the form of software, they could instead come in the form of education – for example, simply informing civilians of the patterns of narrative influence may help them stay alert and spot threats that would have otherwise gone unnoticed (this has certainly been of help in helping build cognitive security in intelligence analysts). It is time we reckon with the notion that simply attempting to protect civilians from politically inconvenient information may not be a battle worth winning, and instead recognize that intelligence isn’t just for governments anymore – that it’s time to invest in 5th generation security by investing in and educating our citizens.

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R.J. Cordes
Author R.J. Cordes is co-founder of COGSEC.org and Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic. Recently he co-authored the Narrative Campaign Field Guide, intended to help design narrative influence campaigns, increase their efficacy, and reduce their cost, development time, and potential for negative externalities in their deployment - as well as to help citizens recognize patterns of narrative influence “in the field”. He is currently co-organizing a research initiative, “Narrative Information Management”, which is collecting and producing literature that helps to unify frameworks within narrative design, intelligence analysis, science and scholarship, pedagogy, knowledge management, and sensemaking under a common domain.

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