The United States is at war. It is an information operations war, but a war, nonetheless. The Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic has shone a bright light upon a clear warning contained in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The U.S. faces real enemies, China and Russia, that threaten our institutions, businesses, and the most vital element of America’s ability to meet the challenge of keeping our citizens safe – confidence in our government. As the 2017 National Security Strategy explains this threat: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
The NDS describes what the U.S. faces in its strategic environment: “China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage.” China and Russia actively engage, through their disinformation campaigns, in what amounts to information operations warfare.
The Defense Department also refers to this competition as “hybrid warfare” or “Gray Zone Warfare.” General Joseph Votel, former head of Special Operations Command, and his co-authors of Joint Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone portray gray zone warfare threats as using a variety of tools where the target is opposing societies, not armies.
Christopher Chivvis, in Understanding Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’ And What Can Be Done About It, points out that this type of warfare is “population-centric.” The Russians, for example, as Chivvis puts it, “seized upon the importance of an approach that seeks to influence the population of target countries through information operations, proxy groups, and other influence operations.”
China’s information operations do not depend on soldiers in the field, but on feeding false narratives laced with half-truths to the target audience. Take one from among its many false narratives as an example. When it became clear that China was the culprit in not sounding the alarm that a world-threatening illness was developing in Wuhan, the regime put out a story that the U.S. military was the real perpetrator.
In a recent report from The New York Times of China’s deceptive news release, journalist Steven Lee Myers writes: “China is pushing a new theory about the origins of the coronavirus: It is an American disease that might have been introduced by members of the United States Army who visited Wuhan in October.” In the same article, Myers rebuts this falsehood:
“There is not a shred of evidence to support that, but the notion received an official endorsement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose spokesman accused American officials of not coming clean about what they know about the disease.”
Evidence or not, the assertion is out there, and less sophisticated audiences who don’t necessarily hold the U.S. in high esteem will spread the nonsense.
Russia’s Disinformation Campaign
Russia is not sitting on its thumbs in the Wuhan Coronavirus information warfare arena, either. According to Reuters’ Robin Emmott: “Russian media have deployed a ‘significant disinformation campaign’ against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic, and sow distrust, according to a European Union (EU) document seen by Reuters.” Emmott quotes from the EU document: “The overarching aim of the Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries…in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”
That is the purpose of Russia’s application of information operations warfare, an essential tool in the Kremlin’s gray zone warfare tool kit.
Why should Americans be concerned when most of us are just trying to stay healthy and ensure we have enough toilet paper? Because, though scary at the moment, the Wuhan Coronavirus crisis will be over in time. Losing the information warfare battle, however, puts the U.S. at a significant disadvantage with respect to its objectives – as the NDS concludes – to “protect the security of the nation, increase U.S. influence, preserve access to markets that will improve our standard of living, and strengthen cohesion among allies and partners.” A March 2020 RAND Corp. report observed: “The U.S. has a capability gap in detecting malign or subversive information campaigns in time to respond before they influence large audiences.” That should be troubling to us all.
[The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation].