Russia Can Use Information Operations to Interfere With US Military

  • The war in Ukraine has vividly demonstrated the shortcomings of Russia’s military.
  • The war has shown that Russia’s armed forces likely aren’t much of a match for the US military.
  • But Russian information operations could still affect US forces, a US government watchdog says.

The war in Ukraine has laid bare the shortcomings of the Russian military. Once perceived as a conventional near-peer threat, the Russian military now appears to be more of a paper tiger.

In more than a year of combat in Ukraine, Russia is estimated to have lost roughly 200,000 troops killed or wounded and thousands of heavy weapon systems, according to Western intelligence assessments.

After such heavy losses, Russia may not still pose a conventional challenge to the US military, but it still has unconventional tools it can bring to bear. While Russia can’t match the US military’s hardware, it has other ways to keep it from working.

Information warfare vs. F-35

Air Force F-35 F35 maintainers Hill Air Force Base

US air force crew chiefs work on an F35A at Hill Air Force Base in Utah in July 2019.

US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw

Right now, the US military is the world’s most technologically advanced force. Near-peer adversaries, such as China and Russia, know that and have sought ways to counter their more powerful adversary. The information domain offers them some interesting options to do that.

In September, the US Government Accountability Office published a report on the opportunities and threats the Department of Defense faces in the information domain.

As the world becomes more digitized, private information is becoming more accessible. Individuals, organizations, and countries now have the data and tools to target “the beliefs, emotions, and experiences” of people in order to shape the information environment to their advantage, according to the GAO report.

Through information warfare, US adversaries can “adversely affect military business functions and missions in ways that offset” the technological advantages that the US has developed through decades of innovation and investment, the report says.

The GAO report uses the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, to show how the information domain can affect military operations in a very tangible way.

F-35 information operations

A juxtaposition of industrial-age capabilities and information-age vulnerabilities.

GAO analysis of US Defense Department information; US Air Force/Airman 1st Class D. Bevan

Rather than having to focus on the technical and technological characteristics of the F-35, an adversary can now try to exploit the human infrastructure around the jet to undermine its effectiveness — for example, by seeking out vulnerabilities through a crew chief’s Instagram account or the poor cybersecurity habits of a contractor who works on the F-35 program.

Using an otherwise innocuous post on the crew chief’s Instagram, Chinese or Russian analysts could calculate the location of the aircraft carrier or air base hosting the F-35. Similarly, by compromising the contractor’s networks, Chinese or Russian hackers could figure out what issues the F-35 needs to have worked on — or even insert malware that could affect the jet.

The ideal time to employ such methods would be before or at the start of a military operation in order to create maximum confusion. Doing so could mean that Chinese or Russian intelligence services could not only to influence individual service members but also the performance of specific weapons.

The GAO report concludes that the Pentagon must keep finding ways “to protect information, systems, and minds” and invest in the security of their information and cyber domains, among others.

Not just Russia

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10.

Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via Getty Images

Russian activity in recent years has earned Moscow a reputation for using the information domain to counter the US’s advantages, but it’s not just Russia.

For years, China has been using cyber espionage to map out the US population, especially members of the intelligence and military communities.

In 2012, Chinese cyber operators hacked the Office of Personnel Management, stealing millions of classified personnel records for people who had applied for security clearances, including former, current, and future intelligence officers and troops working in sensitive jobs.

Through other cyber-espionage operations, China has stolen the travel, financial, medical, and even DNA information of hundreds of millions of Americans.

Iran and North Korea have also demonstrated the capability and intent to be players in the information domain and have employed malicious cyber campaigns and influence activities against the US military and its interests.

The US military might be the most powerful in the world, but adversaries could still find an advantage in the information domain.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

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