Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum on Information Warfare submitted by Professor Lawrence Freedman

  Has the information revolution transformed the nature of international power? Finance, trade, transportation and energy supply all depend upon smooth and uninterrupted information flows. In strategic thinking dependence soon becomes a vulnerability and then by extension a potential target. In the 1970s action by OPEC suddenly made western states aware of their dependence on external oil supplies, and for a while "energy security" was a major concern.

  Now the same translation from dependence to target has been made with information. The right combination of ID and password can open up private domains to exploration and manipulation. Viruses can destroy vital systems in a surprise attack or more insidiously by boring their way through the system's memory. Small campaigns of information warfare are becoming quite commonplace—whether this be the mischievous individual trying to alter exam marks or bank accounts, the extortionist demanding large sums from companies by threatening to cripple essential software. Microsoft itself was recently targeted - in part to demonstrate the danger of relying on a hegemonic supplier, whose standard systems are well understood and share known vulnerabilities. Tobacco companies suffer regular electronic attacks. The Pentagon's computers appear to be under almost continual, though largely unsuccessful, bombardment from hackers who see it as a special challenge. All this has led to anxieties that new opportunities are opening up for hostile states or terrorists. According to the National Defense Panel, in its November report, "information warfare threats to the United States may present the greatest challenge in preparing for the security environment of 2010-2020."

  "Information warfare" might involve disabling air defence systems, sending missiles off-course, leaving local commanders in the dark and senior commanders confused by interfering with software or causing catastrophic hardware malfunctions. Beyond that it is possible to imagine attempts to cause a collapse of the banking system or the loss of air traffic control or power transmission. Television images might be distorted to make an enemy leader appear ridiculous; misleading signals could be sent to top executives or even generals; false orders might be delivered to key units; black propaganda might be spread about one section of society to another.

  There are possibilities here that any responsible government must take seriously. But it is dangerous to let imaginations run riot in this area. Though such tactics could play a supportive role in certain conflicts, it is difficult to see how they could be decisive by themselves.

  Vulnerabilities in the information sphere are quite unique, different in kind to those connected with territory, minerals or wealth. In war it is natural to target the enemy's supplies of food, fuel, equipment and ammunition as they are moved forward to the front. But information is becoming the ultimate renewable resource, and while its collection can be impeded and its movement frustrated, acquiring, storing and communicating information are all getting progressively easier. In fact many of the headaches connected with managing the information revolution stem from its ubiquity and often superfluity. What is useful and reliable has to be retrieved from what is irrelevant or inaccurate; information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom.

  Moreover, those who think that controlling information is vital to national security may be exaggerating the ability of anyone to dominate the flow of information. Military-relevant information can be obtained through the civilian sphere and can be shared by friend and foe. The immediate dissemination of news of a high intelligence value by CNN and the BBC has come to be taken for granted. Radios, mobile phones and personal computers have become portable and widely available. As many as 70 million people now use the Internet. The Pentagon itself now relies on commercial telecommunication for 95 per cent of its information traffic. Commanders can find it quicker and as reliable to turn to news channels than wait for information to pass - and be filtered - through a military hierarchy.

  Commercial launches exceeded governmental launches of satellites in 1996 for the first time. At the end of last year the world's first civilian spy satellite was launched by a Colorado company atop a Russian rocket. It is claimed to offer military quality resolution. At times of peace there appear to be few restrictions on the images that can be acquired and marketed by this company, though the US government has retained the right to screen foreign customers. It is not difficult to imagine how any export prohibitions could be circumvented. If American satellite images come with too many restrictions then it is possible to turn to France, Russia and India. Commercial receivers for the NAVSTAR global positioning system now far exceed military receivers, and while their accuracy is not as great it is still good.

  The consequences of this were noticed in a wargame organised by the US Army last September. The enemy was able to use commercially available communication and navigational satellites, and developed an impressive communications network using cellular phones—which could not be jammed.

  Clever plans to target an enemy's information systems will always be subject to basic uncertainties surrounding their effectiveness. Have the right systems been targeted? How dependent is the enemy upon them, for it may be possible to switch easily from one system to another? Might interference become apparent before the critical moment and any damage rectified? A number of companies are now developing systems that provide warning if an information system is under attack. Is it possible to become the victim of a double bluff, as with spies being turned to send back misleading reports to their masters? As with espionage and psychological warfare operations in the past, information warfare operations will be seen as potentially valuable supplements to a campaign, but not something upon which total reliance can be placed.

  Even if a successful strategic information campaign could be designed and mounted, the victim might not respond in kind. As with other "non-lethal" weapons there is no guarantee that retaliation will be of equivalent "non-lethality." Furthermore, faced with the task of disabling a critical facility, clever and subtle forms of electronic warfare may well seem unnecessarily risky when compared with something cruder, simpler and probably more violent. Why be a hacker when you can use a bomb?

  In fact, the most profound strategic effects of the information revolution have come about almost by accident—a consequence of globalisation and technological development. Even before the internet, new forms of communication were giving rise to new forms of subversive action. Thus audio tapes were employed during the 1978 overthrow of the Shah of Iran, videotapes in the mid-1980s Philippine Revolution, and Fax machines in the campaign against General Noriega in the late 1970s. More recently when the Mexican government moved against the Zapatistas, the rebelsused laptops to issue commands and the internet to publicise allegations of government atrocities to gain support from international organisations. Authoritarian regimes are now struggling with attempts to enforce bans on satellite receivers and controls over the internet. Most importantly of all, it was the inability of communist governments to stop people picking up from their radios and televisions compelling images of a freer and more prosperous way of life that undermined their control and led to the end of the cold war. These all demonstrate the difficulty facing any government when it comes to denying people the sort of information they want.

  The most important strategic consequence of the information revolution may be less in providing novel forms of warfare, but in continuing to make life difficult for authoritarian regimes who wish to keep their societies closed.

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Prepared 10 September 1998