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Article – Cognitive Warfare: The Fight We’ve Got

The term cognitive warfare has entered the lexicon over the last couple of years. General David L. Goldfein (United States Air Force) remarked last year we are “transitioning from wars of attrition to wars of cognition”. Neuroscientist James Giordano has described the human brain as the battlefield of the 21st Century. Cognitive warfare represents the convergence of all that elements that have lived restlessly under the catch-all moniker of Information Warfare (IW) since the term’s emergence in the 1990s. However, military and intelligence organisations now grappling with this contentious new concept are finding cognitive warfare to be something greater than, or as Gestalt intended, different than, the sum of these parts. Cognitive warfare is IW with something added. As we begin to understand more about what has been added, awareness is growing that western military and intelligence organisations may have been caught playing the wrong game.

As Martin Libicki explained, IW burst onto the scene in the early 1990s in line with the shift from attrition-based to effects-based operations and the increasingly digitised and networked infrastructure underpinning contemporary warfare. It overarched lines of effort in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW), psychological operations (PSYOPS), and cyber operations that in general raised the need to contend for and take advantage of control of information flows. These elements overlapped but remained disparate and lacked a unified concept and unity of effort. Despite the desire for integration being an ever-present agenda item, such unity did not eventuate and the individual streams continued to evolve, driven by more-or-less separate military and intelligence communities of interest.

The various elements under the IW construct were largely pursued throughout the ensuing period as adjuncts in support of objectives defined by the traditional remit of military organisations – namely, to deliver lethal kinetic effects on the battlefield. The War on Terror provided an unconventional sandbox for the refining of IW elements; but again, little impetus emerged for their drawing together under a unified concept. Influence operations across both cyber and human terrains remained episodic and an adjunct to a kinetic main effort – even while the separation between victory on the battlefield and the capacity for enduring political successes became starker. The disconnect should have been more unnerving for Western military organisations. The capacity for an adversary to contend for battlefield victory below the threshold of conventional conflict is only one aspect of asymmetry. The disconnect raises the more fundamental question of why, if battlefield superiority was demonstrably not resulting in political success, would a conventionally inferior opponent pursue such a pathway at all? What if strategic success – the causing of a preferable behaviour change in those with which we contend – could bypass the traditional battlefield altogether?

For the nation-state adversaries of the US and its allies, the disconnect provided an opportunity to observe and to learn. While the ‘winning without fighting’ ethos is a well understood heuristic of Chinese strategic culture, as Wirtz has suggested also, Russian strategic culture has consistently excelled at imagining some of the non-intuitive and strategic level implications of technological change. Much more than mere opportunism, Russia’s unfavourable geo-strategic circumstances, combined with its deep distrust of US intentions, forced it to render strategic level gains from a weakening hand. Here-in lies the temporary advantage it gained in finding and filling the gap between IW and cognitive warfare. As Clint Watts has surmised, where IW described a war of information, the cognitive battlespace is a war for information as it is transformed into knowledge via the processes of cognition. The technologies of the networked digital age, conceived by the US and its allies as an accumulation of advantages on the conventional battlefield, and unleashed by the clamour for profit of the commercial sector, were transformed into a strategic gift for an imaginative adversary and thus presents us with the current dilemma. The convergence of IW into cognitive warfare has been forced upon us.

This gift emerged in the mid-2000s with the advent of hyper-connectivity, largely a product of the social media phenomenon and its attendant business model based on accessing the constant attention of the human brain. This phenomenon created the bridge between IW and cognitive war which has been exploited by an unscrupulous adversary. Hyper-connectivity created the opportunity to transform IW from a set of episodic activities, largely associated with operational lines-of-effort by military and intelligence practitioners in support of lethal and kinetic effects on the battlefield, into a single continuous effort to disrupt and deny the cognitive conditions in which whole societies are situated. Cognitive warfare gathers together the instruments of IW and takes us into the realm of ‘neuro-weapons’ – defined by Giordano as “anything that accesses the brain to contend against others”. When coordinated and directed at open liberal democratic societies, cognitive warfare has paid off in spades. The capacity of open societies to function – to sustain and renew the narratives upon which their superior material strength relies – gets quickly scrambled when certain cognitive processes are exposed to manipulation.

It remains an item of curiosity how American and allied military and strategic culture, imbued as it is with the insights of John Boyd and many others, has been slow to recognise the shift in orientation. Boyd’s OODA loop may be one of the most bastardised concepts in modern military strategy, but its central insights are absolutely prescient for the age of cognitive warfare. The loop’s second “O” – Orientation – subsumes each of its other points. Getting orientation wrong, no matter how well an actor can Observe, how quickly they can Decide, and how concisely they can Act, can nonetheless mean the actor is caught playing the wrong game. It centrality is made patently clear for anyone who actually reads Boyd, or any of a number of good biographies of his work. It is imperative that this strategic culture understands the way in which its own orientation has been turned against it.

As digitised and networked warfare has matured and evolved over the last 25 years into its contemporary iteration of Multi-Domain Battle (MDB), it has pursued better observation through superior ISR, better decision-making through big data and machine learning, and better action through the constant advance of military-technical capabilities. Its orientation, however, has remained the same. As Albert Palazzo has iterated, MDB remains oriented toward a military problem solvable by lethal kinetic means in which political success is considered as a follow-on phase and to which influence operations across cyber and human terrain remain adjunct lines of effort. What is becoming clearer is that the age of cognitive warfare is highlighting the joints and fissures in this basic construct to an unprecedented extent. General Michael Hayden has made this point in his 2018 book, The Assault on Intelligence.

Cognitive warfare presents us with an orientation problem. Adversary actors have strategised to avoid a confrontation with US and allied forces at their strongest point – namely, in high intensity conventional warfare. They have pursued gains in various domains that remain under the threshold of inducing a conventional military response. While US and allied forces have mused over ways to bolster below-the-threshold capabilities, the adversary has been busy changing the rules of the meta-contest. By denying, disrupting, and countering the narratives that underpin US and allied legitimacy, and by stifling our capacity to regenerate the preferred narrative via sophisticated and targeted disinformation operations, the adversary has changed the context within which force and the threat of force is situated. In other words, the diplomatic power of the traditional force-in-being of allied militaries to influence the behaviour of others is being diminished. Furthermore, the actual deployment of lethal kinetic capabilities will be subject to a similar reorientation where and when they occur. Simply put, lethal kinetic capability, as the traditional remit of military organisations, has undergone a reorientation at the hands of an adversary enabled by the hyper-connected digital age to manipulate its context to an unprecedented extent.

Cognitive war is not the fight most professional military practitioners wanted. A little discussed aspect is the extent to which our military and strategic culture perceives it as a deeply dishonourable fight. A cultural bias – if not a genuine cognitive blind spot – is at work and has slowed our response. But national security, before it is about winning kinetic battles and before it is centred on the profession of arms, is at its core about ensuring that people are safe to live their lives: it is about keeping the peace and protecting the population from harmful interference. This includes the harm that disrupts our capacity to conduct our collective social, economic, and political lives on our own terms.


About the Authors:

Dr Emily Bienvenue is a Senior Analyst in the Defence Science and Technology Group’s, Joint and Operations Analysis Division. Her research interests include trust as a strategic resource, the changing nature of warfare, and competition below the threshold of conflict.

The views expressed here are her own and do not represent the official view of the Australian Defence Department.

Zac Rogers is a senior researcher at the Centre for United States and Asia Policy Studies and PhD candidate at the College of Business, Government, and Law, Flinders University of South Australia.

Sian Troath is a PhD candidate at Flinders University, and a combined Flinders University-DST Group research associate working on Modelling Complex Warfighting (MCW) Strategic Response (SR) 4 – Modelling Complex Human Systems. Her areas of expertise are international relations theory, trust theory, Australian foreign policy, Australia-Indonesia relations, and Anglo-American relations.

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