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
commonplacewhether 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
phoneswhich 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
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 accidenta
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.