Information Warfare · Russia

It’s information warfare not cyber warfare and that’s an important distinction.

Brett Williams, Maj Gen USAF (Ret)

I continue to be frustrated by commentators who label the Russian activity to influence the election as a cyber attack. It was, in fact, information warfare and it was conducted in the same way the Russians conducted information warfare well before everyone was connected on social media.

It is important to make this distinction to ensure that we are getting to the root cause of the problem and not conflating information warfare with cyber warfare, a term I am not fond of by the way. (War is war, the fact that we can exercise the elements of national power in and through cyber space does not constitute a new definition of war.)

This issue becomes particularly significant when you look at some of the statements made this week by members of congress who appeared to be less concerned with Russian capability to attack critical infrastructure and more concerned with their ability to “hack” the election process.

Both issues are important and need to be addressed, but it is important to identify the attack mechanism in order to employ the appropriate countermeasures. Looking to DoD, Cyber Command or NSA to counter what the Russians did during the election is the wrong approach. We need to acknowledge that the Russians simply leveraged the domain of cyberspace to conduct information operations more effectively than they could before cyberspace was a thing. No government agency is going to stop the Russians from compromising email accounts, posting on social media, trolling at scale or any other activities designed to sway the thinking of the (gullible?) American public.

We have to acknowledge that a very large proportion of our citizenry would never read an article like the one I have linked here from Foreign Policy. On the other hand, I would hope that our national security leadership would be thinking about other options than looking to Cyber Command for a magic solution to keep the Russians from influencing our next election or those of our friends and allies. On the other hand, Cyber Command in coordination with DHS, the intel community, law enforcement, the private sector, should be after a way to keep the Russians and others from attacking critical infrastructure.

It seems that Finland has figured it out. It is about our message, not countering the Russian propaganda. And we have a huge advantage over Finland in that we do not have a large ethnic Russian speaking population much less an 830 mile border with Russia! That said, we have a population that is increasingly reliant on social media and other sources for their “news.” We are not going to wean people off of those sources, so the question is how can we conduct information operations inside our own country to tell the narrative of the United States.

We have struggled to be successful with social media in the war on terrorism, but we should understand enough about our own country and its values to tell a persuasive story. Understanding the difference between a cyber attack and an information campaign is fundamental to getting focused on the problem and potential solutions in the correct way.