1 October 2018

Fighting and Winning in the Information Age

By Edwin Chua

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present a third-place essay from Edwin Chua of the United States Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College.

Since the 1990s, the proliferation of the internet and its associated economic, social, and technological trends have had a far greater impact on our world than the industrial age of the past. These changes have led the current period of human history to be called the Information Age, similar to how the invention of the steam engine and the mechanization of human labor was the characteristic of the Industrial Age.[1] Yet, much of our world is still organized according to structures and organizations adapted to the industrial age. 

The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century brought about fundamental changes in how societies were organized and how wars were fought. Better transport networks, such as railroads and steamships, meant that capital, workers, and markets were all linked together at the national level, and the nation-state became the fundamental organizing unit of the global order.[2] To achieve maximum efficiencies, businesses were organized in hierarchical models.[3] In the industrial age, militaries were raised, trained, and equipped on the industrial model, and the ability of a country to produce both men and machinery became the key determinant of national power.[4] This is no longer the case in the Information Age, and to thrive in this new age militaries must exploit the advantages networks (of data and people) can provide by embracing open systems and nurturing their people.

American B-24 Liberator bombers under construction during World War II. (Howard R. Hollem/Wikimedia)

The widespread adoption of the internet has connected the world together and blurred the lines between domestic and international matters. Within the best and most successful businesses of today, hierarchical structures have been replaced by networks.[5] Global power has been diffused away from nation-states, with non-state actors having more influence.[6] Some optimists, such as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, posit these shifts have fundamentally changed the world we live in, and greatly reduced the risk of major wars.[7] However, other academics such as Colin Gray, Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, note that while past and current technological revolutions can bring about dramatic changes to the world around us, they have not and will not fundamentally change human nature.[8] In essence, everything has changed and nothing has changed – while past and current technological revolutions can bring about dramatic changes to the world around us, they have not and will not fundamentally change human nature. Fear, honor, and interest still drive the behavior of individuals, groups, and nation-states. Geopolitical competition continues.

Militaries are still called upon to wage war as the “continuation of politics with other means.”[9] However, while businesses and other non-state actors have quickly adapted themselves to exploit opportunities inherent in the network characteristics of the information age, nation-states and their militaries have been slow to do so. As organizations responsible for the lives of millions, some natural conservatism is understandable. Yet, just as animal species that fail to evolve eventually die out, an inability to adapt to an ever-changing environment condemns organizations to irrelevance. The lessons of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are that overwhelming advantages in numbers, equipment, and training are insufficient to guarantee victory. It is time to move away from industrial-age ideas about resources, technology, and manpower, and ask ourselves: What does it take to fight and win in the information age?

General Joseph Dunford (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

In the coming years, adversaries will increasingly operate across all domains, land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, throughout the peace to war continuum to degrade the cohesiveness of the United States and its allies and partners, attacking what U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford calls the strategic center of gravity of the United States.[10] Concurrently, adversarial information operations will exploit increasing political polarization in democracies to degrade decision-making processes. This will be exacerbated by debates over the iron triangle of budget deficits, domestic spending, and defense spending.[11] Technology proliferation will mean even low-tech adversaries such as violent extremists will be able to employ cyber-attacks and electronic warfare (EW) to disrupt the traditional strengths of modern militaries in precision strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The contested information environment means that current capabilities such as GPS-guided bombs and close air support are increasingly degraded. This will put increasing emphasis on the need for protected, closed networks that are localized, and capabilities that can operate within line-of-sight of the marine or soldier on the ground, such as tanks, unmanned ground vehicles, and miniature unmanned aerial systems. It also puts additional pressure on militaries to develop artificial intelligence and big data analytics systems that can assist in network and spectrum analysis to generate network and spectrum superiority. Overall, the demand for the rapid development of new technologies, and new doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures for the employment of these technologies, will increase.


Even as modern militaries respond to growing threats, it is important to note that war in the information age is not just warfare in the information domain. The fear over Russia’s cyber-attacks in Georgia, Ukraine, and the United States has led to an increasing emphasis on developing cyber capabilities by most countries, especially Western countries. However, this fear masks a critical element of Russia’s strategy, which is to leverage the power of networks—a key characteristic of the Information Age. In recent years, the annual Russian military budget has been about 69.2 billion U.S. dollars, compared to a combined annual NATO defense budget of 915 billion U.S. dollars.[12] Despite not possessing the resources of NATO or even the Soviet Union, Russia is able to influence multiple conflicts around the world simultaneously by working through a network of non-state actors, both in cyberspace and in the physical world. In cyberspace, the Russian Business Network (RBN), a cyber-crime organization, conducts cyber operations at the direction of the Russian government in exchange for safe haven in Russia.[13] The Russian government does not need to pay for its upkeep or training, as its criminal activities fund its operations to the tune of 150 million U.S. dollars each year.[14] Yet, when called upon, Russian Business Network hackers can use their skills, honed by cyber-crime, to hack into domestic and international targets of the Russian government.

The Little Green Men in Crimea (Sergey Ponomarev/Meduza)

Russia’s ability to leverage networks is not restricted to cyberspace. In the real world, Russia has deftly tapped into rising nationalism to establish networks of anti-government militias in Georgia and Ukraine. These militias amplified the effects of the so-called Little Green Men, allowing Russia to invade and annex territory without the investments in manpower and equipment that would traditionally be required.

This is not a call to start recruiting criminals![15] However, the military must leverage the power of networks to develop capabilities in a more cost-efficient and operationally-effective way. This is especially true in the cyber domain, where the military cannot compete with the private sector in paying for talent. Instead, a model such as Estonia’s Küberkaitse Üksus, the Cyber Defense League (CDL), could be adopted. The Cyber Defense League is a voluntary network of information technology professionals who can be mobilized as needed to defend against cyberattacks on Critical Information Infrastructure (CII) within Estonia.[16] The unit is formally integrated into the national defense system, and functions as an integral part of the Estonian Defense Forces. Other militaries could adapt the idea by establishing cyber units in the Reserves and recruiting cyber professionals into these units. These reserve cyber warriors would be able to hone their skills in dealing with cyber threats in their normal daily jobs, while familiarizing themselves with military networks during their reserve training periods. Cyber professionals defending commercial networks which are on the internet face a far greater variety of threats in far larger numbers than those who work on closed off, military networks. As such, these reservists may well be able to perform much better than active duty personnel.[17]

Beyond cyber, militaries can leverage the power of networks with professionals and companies in developing technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data analytics. They must also experiment with new ways to integrate these with existing military capabilities to support the tactical fight. Fighting in the information domain alone will not be decisive. The history of the development of airpower needs to inform the discussion about the possibilities and limitations of these new capabilities. While the optimists failed in predicting the effectiveness of strategic bombing, the pessimists failed to see how air support had fundamentally changed land and maritime warfare. In the same vein, militaries must approach these new capabilities with a clear view of how they change the character of war and warfare in the information age.


In the information age, open systems outperform closed systems. In the industrial age, economic and military advantage came from protecting trade secrets and technologies. The advantage provided by a technological edge led to the concept of offset strategies used by the military. Governments spent vast amounts of resources to develop and protect military technology. Today, research and development occurs globally, and the free exchange of information and research enables innovation to occur at a far faster pace than any government can keep up with. More importantly, new ideas, once announced to the world, can be quickly replicated by others. In the information age, then, the advantage goes not to those who can protect their secrets the best, but to those who can quickly adopt and deploy new ideas and technologies. The use of drones by insurgents in Iraq and Syria is a good example of this in action. Daesh in Iraq used existing materials to build drones of their own and deployed them in combat in 2016.[18] By January 2018, insurgents in Syria were using waves of drones in a swarm attack against Russian forces at an airbase.[19] Within the space of 1-2 years, insurgents have adopted, adapted, and advanced their use of drones despite not having an industrial or technological base. 

Extremists Use Retail Drones to Attack Russian Air Base in Syria (Aviationist)

Within the military, creating an open system will involve a fundamental rethink of both processes and people. In terms of processes, a tiered security approach for innovation should be adopted to facilitate rapid experimentation. Tactical units should be allowed to test commercially available technologies instead of being hampered by security fears; should a particular foreign technology (such as consumer drones) prove especially useful, subsequent measures can be taken to ensure that operationally-deployed drones come from secured supply chains. In terms of people and talent management, current efforts to shift away from an up-or-out system are timely but insufficient to keep up with the changing aspirations of the millennial workforce. Increasingly, people aspire to have varied job experiences, and often change jobs every few years. At the same time, companies are realizing that a more rapid turnover of people facilitates the sharing of ideas between different companies and across different sectors. To take advantage of these trends, the military should move towards an in-and-out system of talent management which values the time and expertise of people who rejoin the military from the private sector. Instead of losing time in rank and promotion opportunities, these people should be seen as having invested in developing their expertise further, and should be recognized appropriately for doing so.

Finally, to improve talent development, there is a need to review existing professional military education. Increasingly, professional education in the civilian world has augmented time spent in formal schooling with additional courses taken on a voluntary basis at the time and choosing of the professional. These courses are necessary to update the knowledge of the professional, given the rapid changes in the field of knowledge. Just as the military has used sports science to inform physical training and improve the performance of our soldiers, it should adapt best practices in education to ensure that military professionals are kept up to date with the latest developments in their field of work. The military can also leverage courses conducted at civilian schools for relevant areas such as public communications, logistics, and cyber-security, among others, to ensure that its professionals are on par with the civilian world.

The economic, social, and technological trends of the Information Age will undoubtedly have a big impact on the way that militaries fight. Yet, two things do not change: the nature of war, and the need to win. To win, militaries must move beyond the old methods of the Industrial Age. There is a need to develop capabilities in a more cost-efficient and operationally effective way. Militaries must leverage the power of networks, remain open to new ideas and continue to improve how they develop their people. Doing these three things well are critical to fighting and winning wars in the Information Age.

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