Information as war: the RCN comes to grips with a new battle space

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Crowsnest - Summer 2017 / July 12, 2017

By Darlene Blakeley

“We must now go beyond considering the problem of information in war and consider information as war – a new domain in its own right which enables all other aspects of warfare.” 

These words from Commander Carl Sohn of the Directorate of Naval Information Warfare (DNIW) in Ottawa underline the stark reality that the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) success in future operations depends increasingly on the speed, security and adaptability of information warfare (IW) capabilities.

“In this new operational domain, the new function in the navy’s strategy is dependent on the mastery of the information component of combat power and our concept of IW underpins this critical function,” Cdr Sohn explains. “The RCN must use information as a weapon in itself and consider strategic communications and information operations at the heart of any war fighting effort.”

He notes that rapidly evolving technology has changed the way in which information influences military operations, and military forces must adapt accordingly if they are to remain effective in the modern operating environment. The challenge for the RCN will be how it collects, exploits, disseminates and uses information in the conduct of modern naval operations.

“This will be achieved by embracing new concepts and new technologies, and by integrating new capabilities to allow us to maneuver and fight more effectively in this emerging IW domain,” says Cdr Sohn.

What is information warfare?

IW can be defined as the provision, assured use and protection of information, processes, systems and networks, and limiting, degrading and denying that of adversaries to achieve operational advantage across the battle space. It is a warfare domain that is an all-encompassing amalgamation of warfare disciplines: communications, cyber operations, electronic warfare, information operations, intelligence, oceanography, meteorology and information management.

“It’s not really new; essentially nothing has changed…but everything has changed,” says Captain (Navy) John Tremblay, Director DNIW. “Information has always been the lifeblood of warfare. The advantage of knowing more about yourself, your environment and your adversary has always existed. What has changed is the volume of data – information – and its myriad sources, in addition to the increasing demand to act more quickly and with greater precision.”

The RCN has traditionally generated forces capable of operating in three primary areas of warfare: anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine. IW has advanced exponentially to become the predominate activity integrated with all these traditional areas of warfare.

IW has only just been developed in the RCN with the delivery of strategy and concept papers in late 2016, and DNIW has undertaken several initiatives to advance the issue. While it is still some time away from achieving a fully developed warfare area, work is under way to move ahead on the strategy to ensure IW requirements can be met now and in the future.

The RCN, along with Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, has been at the forefront of the development of maritime IW.

The RCN strategy paper outlines the navy’s vision for IW as the delivery of battle winning information superiority, the coordinated and integrated IW functional areas executed in the maritime and joint environments. This leads to the IW mission statement: develop and employ IW functional areas to enhance naval command and control in order to deliver excellence at sea.

According to Cdr Sohn, the outcomes of this strategy include building paths that are adaptable and resilient to cyber or electronic attack; enhanced intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance; enhanced war fighting; and the development of IW specialists.

Cyberspace and intelligence operations are key aspects of IW capabilities that can provide persistent surveillance of the maritime battle space. They can also provide tactical, operational and strategic knowledge of an adversary’s capabilities and intentions; enable increased weapon range, effectiveness and lethality; and integrate targeting and fire control capabilities to deliver kinetic and non-kinetic effects.

“We realize that the challenges presented by IW are representative of the advanced and complex nature of warfare in the future where our adversaries’ increased use of the information component significantly reduces our decision space and our actions become reactionary,” says Cdr Sohn. “Our IW capabilities, fused with the continued evolution of the information battle space with the potential presented by things like artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, automation and machine learning, can significantly expand our decision space and the ability to determine the intentions of our adversaries with a higher degree of certainty.”

Cdr Sohn notes that failure to understand the magnitude of the threat presented by adversaries in the information warfare domain risks the technical advantage of our modern weapon systems. “Embracing IW will allow the RCN to use information as a weapon, not simply as an enabler,” he says.

Every sailor is an information warrior

Just like every sailor in the RCN’s warships is a firefighter, every sailor is an information warrior, according to Cdr Sohn. DNIW, in conjunction with the Director Naval Personnel and Training and Naval Personnel Training Group, is implementing an occupational review to see where IW fits in certain trades. Some are obvious, such as Naval Communicators and Weapons Engineers, but others such as Maritime Surface and Sub-Surface officers and Naval Combat Systems Engineers are being considered. Professionals in the intelligence, computer information systems, cyber, information management, meteorology and oceanography domains have been combined under the leadership of DNIW.

This amalgamation, specifically the intelligence and naval communications functions, will be a first for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and demonstrates a commitment to ensure the RCN’s IW capability. This will be achieved in two stages: the development of subject matter expertise in the existing trade structure, and the definition of new training requirements. Additionally the CAF has established a new occupation, Cyber Operator, which will be open to occupation transfer and recruitment in the near future.

“That said, it is critical that everybody is aware of their responsibilities to defend and protect the information, IT and networks that are omnipresent in our day-to-day operations,” stresses Cdr Sohn. “Practising sound cyber hygiene such as frequent password changes, and following established information technology security, operational security and personal security protocols will go a long way in protecting our information. About 80 per cent of threat vulnerabilities to our systems occur as a result of poor practices or inadvertent actions with our most important systems. Obviously, making sure we do ‘what’s right’ will help ensure our ability to survive in the information environment.”

Warships in a cyber-contested environment

Building warships that take into account the threat to information technology and information systems, as well as the cyber threat, requires that the operational needs of a warship in a cyber contested environment are well understood. This implies that operators understand the criticality of the systems within the ship, as well as the threats to and vulnerabilities of those systems, in order to communicate security needs. These needs can be worked into security engineering requirements.

In addition, an understanding of the defensive cyber operations capabilities required in a ship, both for equipment and personnel, is needed in order to determine what cyber security tools are to be part of the security engineering.

“The security architecture, design and implementation must form part of the entire life cycle of the ship and be continuously improved upon in order to maintain cyber resilience,” says Cdr Sohn. “This problem is more than just an engineering problem; it requires a change in culture of how we view our systems and risks to mission success.”

Information warfare is a relatively new concept when compared to traditional warfare areas, but the pace with which the information domain is advancing is exponential.

“The RCN has become critically dependant on information; we rely on technology in nearly everything we do from administration to operations,” says Capt(N) Tremblay. “We haven’t fully come to terms with fallback options or alternatives in the event of loss of service or having to operate in denied, degraded, intermittent or limited environment. However, we are getting more efficient. Information is a battle of narratives – everything we say or do is instantaneously exposed to global scrutiny. This has the potential to influence our adversaries, their supporters and conversely, our national audience.”

As the RCN comes to grips with this new battle space one thing is clear: success in future operations depends on the speed, security and adaptability of IW capabilities.