Information Warfare: Reshaping Traditional Perceptions

-Ajay Singh, Research Fellow,IDSA


The information revolution that gained momentum in the last decade has virtually changed our way of thinking and living. Information has always been important in human endeavour, but the upheaval that has occurred is due to development of information technologies that allow information to be collected and disseminated accurately and within a short time frame. Information has now become critical in many spheres of human activity, which in turn has two sides. One is that efficiency and effectiveness have increased and the other is that with greater dependence on information for increasing the output, vulnerability to disruption in the flow or quality of information has also increased. It is this scenario that has given rise to the idea of information warfare.

While the concept of information warfare has fast gained acceptance, the understanding of what it is, perhaps, trails far behind. Today the situation with information warfare is like the case of the elephant with five blind men feeling different parts of its body, and each arriving at a different conclusion, bearing little resemblance with reality. This state of affairs is only natural when a new and radical concept is introduced as was the case with air power in the beginning of the 20th century. There will be a time lag before students of information warfare can become genuine scholars of the subject. There are different interpretations of information warfare that highlight the diverse nature of the situation. These range from describing it as a revolution in military affairs on the one end, to people who argue that information warfare is nothing new and only represents an assortment of existing warfare techniques on the other.One approach to getting around to a definition of information warfare is to start from the bottom upwards.

For information to be used it has to be first collected, then filtered and analysed, and finally disseminated. At various stages of these processes, information has to be stored. These activities may be known as information functions. Information functions along with the systems that are employed encompass a range that may be termed as the information spectrum. Information warfare then, may be treated as war in the information spectrum. It involves all actions taken to exploit the information spectrum (information, information functions and information systems) while denying its use to the enemy. Safeguarding the spectrum for one's own use constitutes an important part in the information war. The main aim of information warfare is targeting the human mind of the enemy/adversary (military and civil) by denying, degrading, delaying, disrupting, or manipulating the flow (quantity and quality) of information to it. When the human mind is deprived of accurate and timely information, it is likely to respond in a sub-optimal manner thereby taking decisions that lead to inadequate, incorrect, or even no action at all. For ease of understanding, the human mind may be considered to be the decision making process, which is the target. In the face of the information warfare offensive, there would be a need to take defensive measures not only in order to operate with minimal effects of the offensive but also to minimise the effects that have taken place already.

The genesis of information warfare is directly linked to the rapid advances made in information technology during the last two decades or so. One of the earliest articulations of a different form of war, however, may be attributed to the Tofflerian theory of "three waves of warfare," which makes a distinction between agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial or information age societies.1 The Tofflers argued that societies make war in the same manner in which they make money, and accordingly with the proliferation of information technology, a new type of war that involved these technologies, would emerge. An interesting aspect is how it affects the accepted and traditional definitions, understanding, and patterns of conflict.

The basic definition of information warfare may be subject to some degree of differing views, but in essence information warfare is just what these two words say i.e., war where information is the enabling tool and also has the potential to lead to disabling. Where interpretations diverge is on what it encompasses and if it replaces or modifies known methods of conducting war. It may be useful to study various interpretations of what constitutes information warfare.

One school of thought suggests that information warfare does not exist as a separate technique of waging war, but that there are several distinct forms of information warfare, each laying claim to the larger concept.2 The forms of warfare that make up the larger picture mostly exist in the present day. This postulation is similar to a "systems" approach where existing elements or components are taken together and given a somewhat different direction than their original thrust. In other words, it takes away some of the mystique from general current understanding of the subject, in putting forward the idea that information is not a medium of warfare by itself, but is another tool which needs to be used to achieve the end result. The various forms of warfare that are included in information warfare are weakly related to each other through a common method of using information as a means.

According to this theory, there are seven forms of warfare or conflicts that involve the protection, manipulation, degradation, and denial of information. This characterisation of information warfare shows that it can be conducted against a country's military as well as its civil society. Although the basic objectives of information warfare remain the same whether it is aimed at the military or society, the methods differ to an extent. Against the military, information warfare could consist of command and control warfare (C2W), intelligence based warfare (IBW), and electronic warfare (EW), whereas against the society it could primarily consist of info-economic warfare and cyberwar. Common denominators of information warfare for the military and society would be psychological warfare and computer hacking.

Command and Control Warfare

Some of the forms of warfare that can be conducted against military forces have been in existence for decades, if not centuries in their basic incarnation. With the advent of information technology and the increasing importance of information in battle, these forms have evolved. Command and control warfare has been around practically since armed conflict began. The idea of decapitation occupied a high priority in the minds of military planners. If the opposing commander could be killed or captured, then the forces under him often failed to operate coherently and victory could be achieved. With the introduction of communications in the battlefield, however, the enemy commander could afford to remain in contact with his troops without the necessity of being physically present up on the front. Early in this century, air power neutralised this advantage as its reach increased the depth of the battlefield bringing the commander within strike range. Decapitation was once again possible but difficult, since the accuracy of offensive air power had lagged behind its potential. This situation has changed to a great deal in the last three decades with the development of precision munitions. The impact of information on command and control warfare, however, is that it has expanded the concept of C2W from largely being aimed at the commander to targeting the functioning of the entire command and control system. It may no longer be enough to decapitate a force since with the proliferation of information systems, headless troops may still be able to operate effectively in many scenarios.

It will be important, if not crucial, to determine the command and control architecture of the adversary with special regard to the flow of information. There may be three distinct possibilities here. If the system were hierachical in nature (which may be the situation in a number of cases since the military tends to be hierarchical), then this command and control system would be highly vulnerable to disruption by decapitation. On the other hand, if the command and control system is essentially non-hierarchical (for example in case of a number of non-state actors or terrorist organisations), the system would be resilient and C2W is unlikely to yield tangible results. In this case, C2W should be accorded a relatively lower priority. A non-hierarchical system is the product of the information age and relies heavily on information technology such as cellular telephones, facsimile machines, and computer networking in order to organise on networked lines. The command centres are diffused in networked organisations and hence, less vulnerable to C2W. While these two possibilities represent two ends of the scale as far as command and control systems are concerned, a third may be a hybrid design where a mix of hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures are incorporated. We are likely to see more of this kind with hierarchical structures like the military reorganising to remain viable and effective in the information age. C2W against these hybrid designs requires careful analysis to determine which part of the structure needs to be targeted since simple decapitation may have unintended consequences with the organisation reverting to a purely non-hierarchical system which, in turn, might require different capabilities to tackle. C2W, therefore, has expanded in scope as part of information warfare with its results being more effective on one side of the organisational spectrum and less on the other.

Intelligence Based Warfare

Perhaps the most visible part of information warfare as far as the military is concerned is the focus on intelligence based warfare. While the availability of intelligence data has always been crucial in war, inadequate assets for collection and dissemination of intelligence often relegated it to being treated as an adjunct to military operations. In other words, intelligence was crucial but not critical, a situation defined not by the needs of the military commander but the level of technology available. The availability of good intelligence was limited, since the raw material for intelligence that is information, was not of the desired quality. The primary concern in the past to acquire intelligence was to prevent surprise, and not as much to effect surprise. The Gulf War showed that technology had achieved the level to be able to present the battle commander with a high degree of information (or in its refined from—intelligence). The result was good situational awareness, which helped in troop deployment and cueing of weapons to their targets, alongwith an increased possibility of creation of surprise.

The fact that technology has made it possible to achieve situational awareness on the battlefield has altered the way in which war will be conducted in the future. Three basic elements go into situational awareness—knowledge of our own position, knowledge of the position of friendly forces, and knowledge of the enemy's position. Till recently, knowing your position and that of the friendly forces was in itself a huge task. Precision position locating technologies such as the navigation based on the Global Positioning System (GPS) has eased those problems to a large extent. Knowing the position of the enemy has also been made possible to a degree through employment of reconnaissance and surveillance technologies. The important factor, of course is, that this information (or knowledge) can now be rapidly made available through communication technology to the commanders, their staff, soldiers on the battlefield, sailors at sea, pilots in the air, and for cueing weapons for precision strike. Reconnaissance and surveillance functions are also moving towards use of sensors from spectra such as infrared, ultraviolet, olfactory, auditory, visual, seismic, etc. and fusion of data from these to formulate a comprehensive picture. A radical change that is taking place is that intelligence collection which has essentially been a bottom-up process is shifting to a top-down one with the emphasis on collection by common assets at higher levels of the force structure.

IBW is all about conducting warfare in a transparent battlefield environment. However, while increasing the transparency for oneself, an important consideration should be to decrease it for the enemy. If opposing forces achieve similar transparency of the battlefield, then what may happen essentially is that from an era where large quantities of weapons and efforts were expended to achieve the objective, we would move to selective targeting and achieve the same objective with lesser effort. By itself,this does not contribute to victory, which is the aim. The need is to create an asymmetry in the level of transparency or situational awareness in relation to the enemy. The two pillars of IBW will therefore, be situational awareness and anti-situational awareness measures. Situational awareness measures would rely on reconnaissance, surveillance, and communication technologies, and need to be considered in an absolute sense. The aim would be to clear the fog of war through de-fogging operations for one's forces. On the other hand, anti-situational measures would be aimed at the enemy's reconnaissance, surveillance, and communication technologies including actions taken to reduce the visibility of one's forces. Anti-situational measures would, in addition to the absolute sense, also be guided by the requirement to create a "relative fog". Creation of a relative fog in which the enemy knows less about you than what you know about him is likely to become critical in future as technologies for de-fogging continue to improve. Although the conceptualisation of information warfare is still at an early stage, the principle of relative fog will be an important one to consider for inclusion while articulating the principles of the information age war.

Electronic Warfare

Electronic warfare gained prominence in World War II and in the subsequent years, the techniques and equipment for EW were refined further. EW is a set of actions taken to deny the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to hostile forces while retaining the ability to use it oneself. This basically means that the endeavour is to deny, degrade, delay, or disrupt information in order to create a false picture so that incorrect action results. As the reliance on electronic systems has increased, so does the vulnerability in the event of system disruption. Although EW can be classified in many ways, for the purpose of understanding its place in relation to information warfare, offensive EW may be considered to consist of anti-sensor and anti-link (communication links from the sensor to the operator) measures. Till a few years back anti-sensor measures were virtually synonymous with anti-radar measures since radar was the only sensor employed in significant capacity. With a multitude of sensors likely to be employed in the future battlefield, this aspect of EW needs to be expanded to include all sensors in the electromagnetic spectrum. At some stage, inclusion of sensors such as those using the olfactory spectrum may have to be considered although this does not strictly fall under EW and, therefore, a redefinition of the boundary may be needed. Concurrently, some thought would be necessary on how to draw the dividing line between anti-situational awareness measures (that would also fall under defensive IBW) and offensive EW measures, or whether a division is really needed. Within anti-sensor measures, anti-radar measures will continue to occupy the lion's share for some years to come.

The other aspect of offensive EW is anti-link measures. Anti-link measures are essentially directed against communication links between the sensors and the information processing system or the information dissemination system and the shooter. Disruption of communication links is not something new. With the military system heavily dependent on fast and efficient communications for majority of its tasks, the attraction for interfering with these communications is obvious. However, the trends in this sector of information technology suggest that it will be increasingly difficult to interfere with an opponent's information links as protective measures outpace the offensive techniques available. This is true for the case when dedicated efforts are made to safeguard one's communication assets, though it needs to be kept in mind that this may not be the situation always as resource limitations dictate selective protection. Advances and the spread of encryption technologies such as Digital Encryption Standard (DES) and Public Key Encryption (PKE) are likely to figure as central elements in anti-link operations.

Psychological Warfare

Psychological warfare has traditionally been considered as mass propaganda that was conducted in an absolutist sense—defeat of the enemy troops through demoralisation or breaking the national will of the civil population. The means for conducting psychological warfare have been newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, and distribution of leaflets. These did not allow for anything other than addressing the targets en masse. While it was successful, the absolute nature of its aim and wide addressing did not really lend to effectiveness. The state of information technology (even today) allows effective psychological warfare to be conducted, and in a far more subtle manner. Prominent amongst these technologies is satellite television. While cable television itself has led to the "CNN factor" which can work against governments, or for them, depending upon the issues involved, the emerging Direct-to-Home (DTH) television broadcasting is likely to alter the manner of conducting the information war. DTH will allow far greater number of channels permitting customisation of news, both for the broadcaster and the viewer. This is already available through the Internet where a user can request customised news to be delivered to his desktop computer. Customisation of news has an important connotation for practitioners of psychological warfare. Discussion groups on the Internet either through chat sessions, electronic conferences, e-mail exchanges have permitted specialised targeting of minds. Psychological warfare no longer needs to be conducted as openly since it is not being addressed en masse and also the aim is less absolutist since the society more than military forces are involved. In the information age, gradual morphing of minds (and those minds that matter) is likely to yield better results than the Nazi style of propaganda.

Computer Hacking

Computer hacking as part of information warfare has evolved from a stage where hacking or breaking into computer networks was the pastime of computer hobbyists to a more serious plane where information stored or passing through computer networks is interfered with for a specific purpose. Although computer hacking could be carried out against military or civil computers, these activities largely fall under C2W when conducted against the military, according to some analysts.3 However, it must be considered that not all attacks are directed against the military's command and control system. A large number of computer networks that are involved in routine tasks of administration could easily be the target of hacking, as also databases stored on computer networks that are not directly related to command and control systems. In fact, the GAO Executive Report-B-266140 that dealt with computer security, clearly brought out in its principal findings that the US Department of Defense critically depends on information technology with over 2.1 million computers for a wide variety of tasks (including ones not linked to C2). The Defense Information Systems Agency has estimated that in 1995, these computers may have been attacked 250,000 times and only about 1 in 150 attacks were actually detected and reported! Despite these alarming statistics, the real action (and threat) is in the civil field, where concepts of computer security are much lower or even non-existent. At least in theory, computer hackers possess the capability to affect society if they begin creating havoc through altering or destroying information stored on networks. These computer hackers could act individually or on behalf of non-state actors, or even sponsored by a state. The fact that unlike conventional armed conflict, this form of warfare could be conducted at any time without physical proximity or destruction may even lead to a reassessment of the definition of war with attendant legal implications.

Info-Economic Warfare

Closely linked to this form is info-economic warfare, which is one state's assault on another's economy through information or trade of information. Perhaps with time and better comprehension, there might be realignment and reconciliation between computer hacking, info-economic warfare, and C2W. Cyberwar as defined under this taxonomy refers to a highly futuristic scenario bordering on fantasy where info-warriors enter into battle under simulated conditions before doing so physically. This relies more on virtual reality and indeed may not become reality for some time.

The taxonomy of information warfare dealing with the subject as different forms of warfare (most existing) is weighed in favour of a military interpretation of the subject as may be seen from the relative importance of the military dimension in the forms of warfare. Other interpretations of information warfare tend to swing the civilian way, which is understandable considering the backgrounds of the respective authors. A RAND publication attempts to draw the difference between military and civil dimensions by giving the military side of information warfare the nomenclature of cyberwar and the societal side as netwar.4 The use of similar terms as cyberwar to explain different subjects, of course, is not entirely helpful for the uninitiated. In this interpretation, cyberwar contains all military action in information warfare, while netwar refers to a paradigm change in the pattern of conflict in civil society, where greater use of information technology allows conflict to be waged by networked organisations.In netwar, state forces are considered to be relatively weakened by their preference for hierarchical structures when confronted by non-state actors who organise themselves on networked lines.

An interpretation of information warfare that almost wholly treats it as a new product of the information age deals with the subject on a socio-economic basis. This is far removed from the militaristic understanding of information warfare as comprising of seven different forms. In the socio-economic taxonomy, the general definition on information warfare gives way to three classes of information warfare.5 These are then defined individually depending on the scale or level of operation. Class I information warfare deals with attack on individual privacy and identity. This draws its origin from the extent of computerisation of our society, in which there is so much information about a person on networks that an electronic identity can be formulated with little effort. Hackers can exploit this electronic identity, which consists of personal and sometimes private information. The danger of altering or erasing personal information on computer networks is not that removed from reality and holds potential for abuse and blackmail. However, by itself, Class I information warfare is not that lucrative unless the hacker has a definite purpose behind waging this type of war. Of course, as with the subsequent socio-economic classification as well, there will remain a doubt if it can be called a war as is generally understood or the traditional understanding of war will have to be modified. Class II information warfare is corporate information warfare, where the thrust is to conduct industrial and economic espionage against business. This idea exploits the competitiveness of business corporations through the strengths and vulnerabilities of their computer systems.

The third type of information warfare under this taxonomy is Class III information warfare that consists of organised attacks against or between nation-states. Although Class III information warfare envisages employment of information armies to systematically decimate an information age society, it should be kept in mind that such warfare can be waged at lower scales as well. If Class I and II information warfare techniques are combined with Class III, then the result may be very effective against a country that relies heavily on computer networks. The socio-economic interpretation of information warfare tends to suggest that conventional military forces are redundant in their present incarnation. This perhaps, is some years from realisation as the aspect to consider is whether information warfare (based on Class I, II, and III) will replace other forms of warfare as we know them or not. It does not seem likely in the near future.

The demarcation of information warfare into three classes is reminiscent of division of operations (particularly military) into strategic, operational, and tactical. This has also been attempted and here information warfare at the operational and tactical levels largely interests the military, while strategic information warfare affects national economic security and national military strategy. Strategic information warfare is seen as the outcome of the post-Cold War international political scenario and the information revolution that have taken place almost simultaneously.6 However, an approach of applying templates of the strategic, operational, and tactical level of war may not adequately address the changing boundaries of information warfare, as it may be difficult to classify a single hacker's attack into a bank account with some clarity under these headings.

In the drive to understand information warfare and defining it , an important factor to consider is where it fits into the scale of conflict that we are used to. Global war has long been synonymous with large-scale operations over continents involving armies or even nuclear war. If information revolution has transformed the world into a global village, then one might need to ruminate over the thought whether information warfare conducted at the inter-state level constitutes a global war since in the age of economic interdependence, attacks on one might have a domino effect beyond the intended victim. Perhaps, the classification of war into regular, irregular war, etc. itself needs to be given a fresh thought as these may now be considered outdated products of industrial age conflict. On the other hand, in the coming years, it is difficult to see information warfare being the sole method of warfare and , therefore, some co-existence would take place. The very notion of society protecting the individual has been altered with the information revolution since it is simple to bypass the society and strike directly at the individual, in a similar manner as air power bypassed forces to strike at the society, which till then was protected by the surface forces. The underlying issue is that the information revolution has given birth to the genie of information warfare, which besides other things,shows all signs of making us change the way we think about war, peace , and security.



1. See Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1993).

2. Martin C. Libicki, What is Information Warfare?, (Washington DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1996), p. x.

3. Ibid., p. 50.

4. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar, (Santa Monica: RAND, 1996), p. 3.

5. See Winn Schwartau, Information Warfare, (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1996).

6. Roger C. Molander, Andrew S. Riddle, and Peter A. Wilson, Strategic Information Warfare—A New Face of War, (Santa Monica: RAND, 1996),p. 2.