Information Warfare: Organisational Paradigm

-Ajay Singh,Research Fellow, IDSA


Information has become a vital resource in our daily lives. The need for timely and accurate information in most activities has existed for a long time, but the aspect that has changed the situation from need to availability has been the development of various facets of information technology, not the least among this being communications. Communications have made transmission of information possible literally across the globe or even into space. When we look around there is hardly any activity that does not benefit from timely and accurate information. The greater the timeliness, adequacy and accuracy of information, the greater is the efficiency of decision making, and, hence greater the effectiveness of the output. The other side of the coin is that if this information was to be interrupted somehow, the level of activity and efficiency would reduce drastically, since metaphorically, information is to the human mind in decision making what air is to the human body in breathing. In simple terms, the interruption of information is information warfare. In more detailed terms, information warfare encompasses all those activities that ensure the flow of information to oneself or one's organisation while denying such flow of information to an adversary, that is to safeguard one's information medium and degrade the adversary's information medium. The imperatives of the information age are not only felt in a broader sense in the way we conduct war, but also at a lower level, in the manner in which we organise ourselves. The information age has made it possible to communicate and coordinate with each other with the help of information technology and this has had an impact on organisations.

Historical Perspective of Organisations

The main form of organisation as has prevailed till recently has been the hierarchical form of organisation, which is exemplified by the military forces, the church and the state. Of late there has been a shift towards a networked form of organisation similar to what is prevalent in some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are occupied with various causes. If we look at history, then another two forms of organisation stand out--the tribal and market organisations, the former based on a kinship of extended families and the latter typified by the merchants and traders in the market system.1 Each form of organisation actually is representative of a set of beliefs about how a society should be organised in as optimal a manner as possible. All four types of organisations have been present since the last 5,000 years in some incarnation or another, but mostly in the incipient form early on. Over the years, each has undergone mutation to suit the times, but in terms of age, it may be stated that the tribe form was followed by hierarchical and market forms and the network form is relatively more recent.

The tribe was the first major form of organisation to emerge with its key organising principle being kinship manifested in brotherhood. This form continues to define society's basic culture even today and can be said to lay the foundation for nationalism. Some features of the tribe form of organisation are that it is largely egalitarian, with very little to differentiate between members of the tribe. A tribe also rarely has a well-defined head and herein lies a major weakness in this form of organisation since it is not geared to perform the functions of rule and administration, which are essential in large scale activities needed for furtherance of the body of individuals. Variations of the tribal form of organisation exist today in a number of countries where extended family structures tend to affect all relations including political and economic. This may be seen in complex and diverse societies such as India and China. In some other countries, a strong urge to return to the tribal form may be noted along with ethnic conflicts like in Bosnia. Some incarnations of the tribe form of organisation might be seen in the Mafia, diaspora, urban gangs, etc. The weakness of the tribe in greater management and administration, however, led to the evolution of the next form of organisation, which was the hierarchy.

In order to tackle the problems of power and administration, it became necessary to have a centre where decisions could be taken, and control and coordination of activities was possible. There is greater rationality in the hierarchy than the tribal form. The hierarchical form is well suited to activities such as building and maintaining armed forces, enforcing laws, imposing religion, and managing large tasks all of which are lacking in the tribal form. In addition to the Army, hierarchical organisations may be seen in the monarchy and the church. One of the earliest forms of hierarchical organisation was the Roman Empire. After the collapse of this empire, the church became a powerful hierarchy. Alongside, the nation-state grew out of the role played by the Armies, and soon the church and the state came into conflict, which resulted in the primacy of the state as the dominant hierarchy. In this century, in particular, there has been loosening of the state hierarchy leading to a variation of this structure in the form of liberal democracies. The development of the hierarchical form has also resulted in the rise of authoritative institutions in addition to the Army to rule the state, such as the bureaucracy, which is opposed to the egalitarian nature of the tribal society. The hierarchical form suffers from an inherent limitation in that it is not well equipped to handle flow of information due to its strict vertical structure with few horizontal channels of information flow. Besides other ramifications, this means a weakness in handling complex economic transactions of the free market, particularly when trade is conducted beyond the boundaries of the hierarchy. An example of this contradiction in the organisation and requirements of the market may be seen in the Indian case where the bureaucratic system is often unable to exploit market opportunities because of its structural mismatch. This led to the development of a new organisational form of the market.

The market form is approximately two centuries old, which is the time when the industrial revolution was taking place in Europe leading to increasing market forces. As expected, this new form was challenged by the state organisation that attempted to control the market forces. The market reciprocated and that gradually led to separation of the state and market organisations into what became the public and private sectors permitting coexistence of these competing forms. The market form did not replace the hierarchical form although the dominant position of the hierarchy was certainly questioned by the market forces. The market form does not really follow the laws of the hierarchy but instead the laws of the market as modified to fit into the existing hierarchical system in case of transitional forms. The market system is competitive and the transactions carried out in the market form represent the existing prices or exchange rates rather than templates laid down by the state. Another important attribute of the market form is that while the hierarchy essentially has single actors for each of its activities such as the Army, the market form has multiple actors that conduct the same function of trading and commerce such as business enterprises. The structure of the market form is quite different from the hierarchical one since there is greater activity in the horizontal between actors rather than the vertical, which is the stamp of a hierarchy. In a way, it may be said that the market system is an evolution of the hierarchical system, which enables commercial activities to be conducted in a more efficient and effective manner. Though the market system is more conducive to democracies that allow such an organisation to function, a major drawback of this form is that it contributes a great deal to social inequity, without providing solutions to this problem. With this backdrop, and the proliferation of information technology, there has been a rise of the information age network form of organisation.

The network form of organisation was considered an inefficient method of organising till recently, since the network demands good and dense communications to function in the absence of a clearly defined hierarchical set-up. The information revolution, which has ushered in affordable technologies such as fax, e-mail, etc., has made communication and coordination with a large number of people possible. These new communication technologies allow small groups separated by large large distances to coordinate and work with each other in a manner that is unprecedented. The main principle behind the network form of organisation is that it encourages non-conformal participation and collaboration between groups of people drawn together by a common cause or endeavour. This non-conformal collaboration may also be termed as heterarchical collaboration. The maximum impact of information technologies in shaping this new form of organisation is likely to be most apparent in the functioning of civil actors whose mission is advocacy of social causes although it is already spreading to all types of NGOs. It is in the NGOs that we might get a preliminary glimpse of the information age network. This new network is quite different from the tribal form of organisation in that it is capable of far greater penetration in terms of distance and reach on account of superior communication ability. Communications give rise to possibilities of global cooperation and coordination on various issues, whether it is a movement for maintaining the environment or abolition of nuclear weapons. The network introduces an amount of social equity through the flow of information. It is said that "God made man, Sam Colt made man equal," and information does something similar in equalising relative advantages, thereby levelling the playing field.2 As information age networks grow, their power to change the status quo and scenarios will increase, particularly at the global level, as information telescopes the traditional horizon of activity and influence. The growth of the information age network does not necessarily mean that earlier forms will be subsumed. It could be expected that the new network form would fit in along with the earlier forms, with the caveat that the growth of this new form will be more dominant in the information societies as compared to agricultural or industrial societies. Since most countries are in the transition phase from one type of society to another, we would correspondingly see a mix in the type of organisations that prevail.

Impact of Information on Organisations

At the core of the information revolution is the advance in computer technology, more specifically the microprocessor that is the brain of the computer. The microprocessor is used in different forms, in wide applications ranging from fax machines to mainframe computers. Along with the microprocessors, the other aspects of the information revolution are the changes that have taken place in the field of data storage and transmission. The latter pertains to the state of communication technologies. At one level, a simple way of looking at the changed situation in the wake of the information revolution is that the flow of information has increased manifold. This has positive and not so positive dimensions. The positive dimension is that increased information will lead to more efficient or effective decision making provided, of course, that organisational changes are incorporated to take advantages of the higher rate of information flow. On the other hand, increased information makes it that much difficult to sift or filter and use only the relevant information. This calls for more than just organisational changes, and may be classified under the requirement of specific application technologies that filter information. Needless to state, if the organisation does not cater to highly increased rates of flow of information, either due to lack of reorganisation for re-routeing the information or applying appropriate filtering, there is grave danger of information overload occurring, which may be as bad as having no information at all.

A significant dimension of the information revolution is that the increased flow of information challenges the design of many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which a number of contemporary institutions are designed. The distribution of information also diffuses power structures, in many cases to the advantage of hitherto weaker and smaller actors. When information flows in organisations, the effect is akin to a flood that knocks down man-made barriers and equalises the undulations of topography. Information does just that. It crosses boundaries and redraws them, often performing a merger action. Perhaps, it is not surprising that in the information age there is an increasing blur in traditionally clear aspects such as strategic and tactical military operations. This shift is quite recent and is essentially the result of the fact that military systems and weapons have a much wider or larger impact than earlier, making it difficult to classify them under traditionally accepted definitions of military operations. The information revolution has transformed the concept of organisation since it has expanded the spatial and temporal horizons. When communication and coordination across large distances become possible, then strict hierarchies tend to lose their meaning, since they are constructed in relative isolation (between hierarchies) of communicative capabilities.

The hierarchical design is structured with the concept of span of control in mind in order to manage the organisation. Till now, the span of control of a manager was limited by two things, one of which was his physical or mental ability to process information from his subordinates and control them, while the second was the state of communication technology that made it necessary to be in close proximity with the subordinates for effective control. The information revolution has changed the status quo to some extent. Advances in communications have made it largely unnecessary to be in close proximity. The higher rate of information flow means that the earlier limit on span of control on the count of inadequate communication has reduced, but the problem of processing the higher flow of information results in a situation where the span of direct control may reduce further, but the span of indirect control would expand substantively. The increased level of indirect control leads to a network based model, where there is a high degree of understanding of the role of each node and common understanding of the goals of the organisation. It is unlikely that the network type of organisation will replace the hierarchical model, but we are likely to see greater interlacing of the two and also a shift towards "star" model networks, where the centre of the star is more of a coordinator than a controller. The star model may also be understood as a "hub and spokes" model, with an emphasis on coordination at the hub.

Networked organisations rely totally on computer technology or rather computers. The design of the computer itself has contributed to the growth of the network. Although the computer has undergone tremendous change since it was first introduced, the most significant landmarks have been the shift from the bulky and huge computers that occupied space as much as a room, to miniaturisation that allowed it to be placed on desktop, to a number of computers being interconnected to form a network of computers. The first shift occurred due to advances in technology that reduced the size along with mass demand that reduced the cost, permitting proliferation of desktop systems, while the second shift to networking evolved from a military requirement for redundancy in the event of a nuclear attack. This was the birth of the Internet, as we know it today. The precursor of the Internet was specifically established (Arpanet) as a network with no central control, which could operate, with some nodes destroyed. All nodes were designed for peer to peer communication where each node would have the right to originate, pass, and receive messages. The Internet is a worldwide network of computer systems, owned by no one in particular, and represents the organisation of the future, considering the vast amount of data that is stored and accessed on the Internet, by civil as well as military agencies. The Internet is growing at an exponential rate, and it is estimated that the population of the Internet doubles every 53 days!3

Sharing of information through computer networks, especially those on the Internet, gives rise to an information environment. The use of this information by groups and organisations (even small ones) gives them a capability to be a force in many issues of international relations, a role primarily played by governments earlier. It would be useful to examine the information environment, since it represents the work place of the networked organisation, and the success or failure of these organisations depends on how they exploit the information environment. On one end of the information spectrum are data, which are correlated to lead to information, while on the other end is knowledge, which is the result of context applied to information. All organisations, including military ones, are capable of generating data. The first stage of the problem is to convert a vast amount of data to information. This is done by a set of instructions and correlation to suit the needs and objectives of the organisation. The information so generated has to be managed, which basically involves processes to archive and store information along with an information retrieval system. Although it is similar to housekeeping in nature, information management is a major task, and it means creation and maintenance of a retrievable database (could be civil or military) in the face of an ever expanding mass of information. The management of information leads to efficiency. This, however, is not the whole story, as information only tells us what is happening, not what it means. Deriving meaning from information is through the filtering templates of experience, evaluating skill, and contextualisation. This leads to knowledge and the process till now is essentially being done outside the network, based on the acquired skills of humans.

Since the organisation ultimately requires knowledge to act, management of this knowledge is necessary. Management of knowledge leads to effectiveness of the organisation. Human beings, depending on their capabilities, have been responsible for management of knowledge. In the future organisation, we may see an increase in the use of computer systems to perform the function of generating knowledge out of information and then managing it. This may be done in the form of a decision support system not very different from the ones existing today, where past situations are studied and catalogued along with successful or failed decisions, which would enhance the quality of the decision making process. Artificial intelligence technology is likely to shape this endeavour in the years to come.

The Network at Work

The concept of the information age network is still new and there is a natural tendency to apply existing templates to judge its impact. Even while doing so, it needs to be kept in mind that there are key differences in the earlier (particularly the hierarchical) and these networks. There is a shift towards achieving goals by consultation and coordination rather than strong centralised control. This coordination is possible with common perceptions, which itself is based on shared information. With that backdrop, it may be said that while hierarchies will be around for some time, the network model will continue to proliferate into more number of areas traditionally controlled hierarchically.

Organisations based on networks such as informal groups or NGOs are likely to succeed as these exploit information resources well. This aspect may already be seen in the relative importance being given to NGOs in the hitherto sacred arena of inter-state relations. Track II efforts, which pertain to a host of activities conducted outside the government for the state are increasing and we may see organisations involved in Track II diplomacy realign themselves along networked designs that permit greater interaction with other Track II organisations. This brings other issues to light such as the efficacy of organisations that comprise representatives of the state hierarchies such as the United Nations, and other coalitions and alliances. If the influence of networked organisations outside of the state's formal apparatus grows, then even institutions like the UN might seem less effective in the future. Perhaps, the relative influence of the campaign to ban landmines as compared to the UN's efforts on this front may be a pointer for the times to come. Also as coalitions and alliances usually contain a strong and dominant partner, information age imperatives such as the equalising nature of information may modify their worth somewhat.4

Areas where networks are likely to have a major impact are in the functioning of non-state actors engaged in anti-state activities. War has undergone a transformation, especially so in the last few years, with an increasing shift to the threats to state security being from terrorism, organised crime, and narcotics. These activities have the potential to destabilise the state, and it is interesting to note that in all these activities, the network form of organisation prevails to a significant degree. This dimension of information warfare that is conducted against society is also known as netwar in consideration of the presence of networks amongst the war wagers. The network functions quite effectively as members of the network do not require close control and most of the information they need is openly available through newspapers or public communication systems. Netwar covers the range of conflicts other than high and medium intensity conflicts that are fought between militaries, and, therefore, it is necessary to note that the bulk of tomorrow's conflicts that fall below this line are likely to be fought along networked lines. This has important implications for the military that is required to ensure the security of the state.

Reorganisation of the Military

The military is organised along hierarchical lines that have much do with the method of fighting wars as issues of command and control are involved. One thing is also clear, and that is while the main threat to state security might be from non-state actors, the military has to be prepared to fight wars outside the netwar envelope, which consist of high and medium intensity conflicts. The military will, therefore, have to be organised to cater to all levels of conflict and this means a degree of restructuring and reorganisation. If the netwar case is to be considered first, then it may be pointed out that the hierarchical design of the present military structures does not match up to the effectiveness of the network in an information environment. Non-state actors enjoy the advantages of information and one place where this adversely affects the hierarchical military is that the enemy is diffused without a clear-cut definable structure that can be engaged. The effect of neutralising one or two nodes is hardly felt in the networked organisation. On the other hand, the military is highly visible and its effectiveness is dependent on the survival of the hierarchy, which can be targetted by the non-state actors. It is not surprising that the military (and other security forces) have difficulty in engaging in netwar operations such as low intensity conflicts when they are confronted with networked organisations.5 Perhaps, the answer lies in reorganisation closer to networked lines and keeping the hierarchy to a minimum. Such a design may be termed as "hybrid network design," and may be fulfilled by special forces that are trained and organised for netwar.

In its employment in high and medium intensity conflicts, the military is unlikely to retain its effectiveness if it adopts the networked design totally. A kind of hybrid design may be contemplated here too, but the level of networking required may be much lower, and limited to the dictates of the requisite information flow. The military for its traditional role may be organised in what may be termed as "hybrid hierarchical design," since the bulk of its effort will require an efficient and effective hierarchical command and control system. Changes, however, may be perceived in the decision and action processes, since a top down approach may be more effective where broad directions flow down and thereafter centralised monitoring is carried out along with decentralised execution. This will require lower level formations in the military to be organised along the lines of composite force structures. A significant difference from the present may be in terms of flow of tactical intelligence information that would primarily be top to bottom. This is due to the fact that most of the tactical information gathered by electronic systems would be available at the top itself rather than the other way, as it is now. Another important factor that would need to be kept in mind is that the information flow architecture should be designed in such a manner that the critical information should not flow along hierarchical lines since this is vulnerable to disruption. Instead, the critical information should be networked while the hierarchical lines carry the minimum non-critical information.



1. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar, (Santa Monica: RAND, 1996), p. 25.

2. Col. G.I. Wilson and Maj. Frank Bunkers, "Uncorking the Information Genie," OS-Pro List November 95 Monthly Topic,

3. Lt. R. Garigue, "Information Warfare-Developing a Conceptual Framework," http://www.cse,

4. David H. Patton, "Information Warfare-Towards a Better Understanding," Author's home page, (1995).

5. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, "Cyberwar is Coming," Comparative Strategy, vol. 12, p. 152.