Russia has become so good at information warfare that American and allied military leaders are (rightfully) starting to freak out about it.
“The Russians are really good at this. Better than us,” UK Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney said at the AUSA Conference, according to Defense One. “We saw a very clever, assiduous information campaign aimed at discrediting the campaign of the coalition . And I would argue in many of our nation’s capitals, we didn’t realize we were being played.”
As was the case during the 2016 election, Russia is sometimes better at stoking division among ordinary Americans than your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner — through the coordinated use of bot networks, fake social media profiles, and production of misleading or partisan content that gets widely shared.
Moscow has also carried out similar campaigns in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere. Its efforts at influence can shape perceptions, while also having surprising effects on the battlefield.
As Tom Ricks wrote about in his column earlier this year, Russia's military has carried out some eye-opening operations that combine information ops, cyber, and good old-fashioned targeting.
“In one tactic, soldiers receive texts telling them they are ‘surrounded and abandoned.’ Minutes later, their families receive a text stating, ‘Your son is killed in action,’ which often prompts a call or text to the soldiers. Minutes later, soldiers receive another message telling them to ‘retreat and live,’ followed by an artillery strike to the location where a large group of cellphones was detected.”
Meanwhile in Syria, Russian military operations are sometimes being conducted for the sole reason of getting photos or videos that can later be used against their enemies, according to Gedney.
U.S. Marines fire an 81mm mortar during training in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Hajin, Syria, August 4, 2018. The training is a portion of the building partner capacity mission, which aims to enhance the capabilities of Coalition partner forces fighting ISIS in northeast Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Corey Hook
“This is not a battle that can be fought by public affairs writing lines to tape,” Gedney said. “It’s got to be be operationalized down into a genuine multi-domain battle.”
To be fair, the U.S. does carry out its own information and cyber operations. But as Army Cyber Command's Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone testified earlier this year, most are being done at the tactical level.
Russia spends between $400 million and $500 million per year on foreign information efforts, while the U.S. spends about $20 million, according to a paper published by the Army War College, leaving Washington “far behind.”
It's a fact that most top leaders realize and can't really ignore. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listed information warfare among just two other capabilities where NATO “urgently” needs to modernize during an interview in January (the others were cyber and missile defense).
Put simply, Russia seems to be playing chess, while the U.S. is trying to figure out how to set up the board to play checkers.
The War College paper recommended a national counter information strategy and center, technological solutions to fight back against fake news, and the pursuit of international partnerships to go after things like Russia's “troll factories.”
Similarly, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, while Russia uses its skills to attack the foundations of democracy, the U.S. could respond with its own “tools to attack their foundations of autocracy.”
But whether the threat is taken seriously at a national level remains to be seen. The State Department's Global Engagement Center — tasked with countering Russian disinformation — doesn't have a budget, hiring authority, or, it seems, much support from The White House.
“Because near-peer states such as Russia have demonstrated how much relatively small but well-coordinated capital investments can have disproportionate effects on an adversary, it is imperative the U.S. government rise to the occasion and utilize existing, often open-source tools and methodologies to tackle this threat,” asserted a recent article in AFCEA's Signal Magazine.