By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
Last month I introduced readers to the concept of Information Operations (IO). Back when I was still serving in the military the doctrine for IO was still in development. I had embraced the concept as an operational commander, but I became a real student of the phenomenon after I retired and the world witnessed the Arab Spring.
Of course, that event preceded the emergence of ISIL and the war in Ukraine, which I believe have marked the eruption of full-scale information and cyber warfare. The latter could be considered the domain of geeks, techno-wizards and pencil-necks for the time being, but in the information war that is raging everybody is being bombarded everyday with salvoes from both sides. Over the next couple for articles I intend to unpack the concept of war in the information domain.
To comprehend IO it is useful to understand the so-called Information Hierarchy, also known as the DIKW pyramid. The hierarchy begins with data at the bottom of the pyramid, with information at the next level, knowledge above that, and topped off with wisdom (see diagram above). Like other doctrine that emanates from sound, sophisticated theory generated from a few enlightened intellects in the military but fails to take hold with the great unwashed, reams have been written on the significance of this model and the four components. I believe it is best understood by comparing the DIKW to what is known as the Johnson Criteria that are used to describe the ability of observers to perform visual tasks using image intensifier technology: detection, recognition, and identification.
In the physical domain, detection means being able to separate a target from the background noise to ascertain its presence. With greater resolution an observer can recognize what the target is, but more yet is required to identify whether the target is friend or foe. In this example, let’s say the target is a tank. Very little granularity is required to detect the presence of any tank-like object. Greater resolution is required to enable the observer to recognize the object as a tank, not just an automobile or truck. The observer requires even more detail about the object to identify it as either an M1 Abrams or Russian T-90 tank. At that point the observer requires even more information to decide what to do about the object, but a different sort of information such as rules of engagement, opening fire policies or the like.
On operations a unit or formation collects a massive amount of data on their environment in terms of terrain, weather, infrastructure, people and activities. This data requires processing to separate what is operationally relevant from the background ambient noise. Analysts will contextualize data, juxtaposing and comparing it with data from other sources, known as data fusion, in order to recognize its relevance vis-à-vis military operations. Hence data is transformed into information, and with further contextualizing in terms of intent and purpose — what the enemy might want to do and why — the information becomes useful knowledge to friendly forces. The Collins dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, understanding, common sense and insight.” In the military, such “wise” decision-making requires thoroughly contextualized and holistic information to enable commanders to prosecute the enemy in accordance with their higher commander’s intent and for the desired effect, which is the essence of so-called military intelligence.
I believe there was a distinct lack of understanding of the difference between information and intelligence. That is borne out, in my opinion, in the use of the term “actionable intelligence” because I was brought up in the military to believe that all “intelligence” is “actionable,” that being the discriminating factor between information and intelligence. Intelligence is intuitive knowledge, information that has been collected, collated, and analyzed to assign relevance to the current operation before it is disseminated for subsequent actions.
This information hierarchy is reflected in the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) process that we were taught in the bad ole days of the Cold War. It was a highly structured process that was well suited for the regimented mechanized and armoured forces of the Soviet Union that we were squared off against. Given a mission, the staff would consider the enemy’s doctrine and intentions in the context of the area of operations. Starting with a map that was annotated as Go, Slow-go and No-go areas for mechanized vehicles, staff would lay a template of the enemy’s deployment doctrine and norms depicting groupings, formations, vehicles and weapon systems, distances, and ranges and fit them to the terrain to depict pictorially the likely courses of action for the enemy to manoeuvre their forces on the ground. Targets that could appear on the battlefield were identified in advance. Those that had the potential of seriously degrading the enemy’s capabilities were designated High Value Targets and those that could be decisive in the friendly force’s mission were designated High Payoff Targets (HPTs) and formed the basis of the commander’s Priority Intelligence Requirements, or PIRs.
The planning staff would then create an Information Collection Plan, or ICP, and assign surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (STAR) assets to cover the avenues of approach and mobility corridors identified in the templating process. As a young officer in training our instructors would correct us for wrongly referring to ICPs as Intelligence Collection Plans, although I see increased use of the term today. Notwithstanding, these plans apportion STAR assets to collect data and information that is referred to as “indictors” to build the intelligence picture. When I was the Task Force Commander in Kandahar in 2002 one of my mantras was “Intelligence that is not actionable is not intelligence, it’s news.”
Back in the 20th century, when the world was gripped with a potential industrial war of fire and manoeuvre, the IPB as a rote process was highly useful and intelligence was understood to be actionable. In this day and age of fourth generation warfare, the IPB process is by necessity far less mechanical and much, much more cerebral. Due to the clandestine nature of warfare, the mobility of the antagonists and the abundance of vulnerable potential targets, it is much, much harder for security forces to generate the intelligence required to acquire and engage high value targets, such as the masterminds behind terrorist attacks or bomb-makers, but virtually impossible to interdict the designated perpetrators once they are vectoring in to attack their intended victims. In this kind of war HPTs, individual targets that might be the linchpins of defeating terrorist movements, arguably do not even exist.
Today, information is indeed a weapon, and the misinformation and disinformation promulgated and passed on by our adversaries and their allies pose a real and present danger to us. At the same time, however, I submit that in this Information Age we are in greater danger from the harmful information generated by our own government, harmful information in terms of images and narratives conveyed by our military operations abroad, the reactions of bigots and belligerents at home in reaction to the perceived threat, and the propaganda generated by self-serving politicians hoping to capitalize on the fears and apprehensions of mainstream Canadians that actually fuel our enemies’ antagonism towards us.
More on that in upcoming columns. As per usual, I eagerly solicit your comments on my column, and offer a copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government of Canada’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans to readers whose comments fuel discussion in upcoming issues.