Building Information Operations into the DNA of our Armed Forces

This article was first published on Medium and LinkedIn on March 1st 2018.

For some time now there have been many individuals, both inside the military and in the private sector, that have been calling for a greater emphasis placed on building Information Operations capabilities into our Defence, Security and Stabilisation organisations.

Furthermore; In recent months there has been a notable growth in the number and volume of those voices calling for a greater focus on the domain of Information Operations.

These voices include some of the most senior officers in the British Armed Forces; most notably General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the General Staff in a widely covered speech at the Royal United Services Institute; and General Sir Gordon Messenger, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff in an interview with Deborah Haynes of The Times, states:

Winning the “information war” will be crucial in the next big fight. Commanders must realise that exploiting data to make decisions on the battlefield is as important as having the most powerful tanks, or more so.

It is also clear that our adversaries at all levels are increasingly adept and bold in their use of Information Operations; this is self-evident!

There will be some that respond that we already are investing in specialist Information Operations capabilities; such as the creation of the 77th Brigade which is also part of the new Information Manoeuvre Formation which brings together 77th Brigade with the ISTAR Brigade and the 2 Signals Brigades — mentioned by CGS at RUSI. There are also equivalent or at least similar specialist units within some of our NATO partners and other aligned forces, for example, Israel and Australia.

While these investments in specialised units are essential, in my opinion, the specialisation in itself is an indication of ‘laggardly’ thinking with regard to ‘Information Operations’.

I was particularly pleased to read, in the Full Times Interview Transcript, General Messenger’s answer to the question that Information Operations is not just about 77 Brigade:

“It is everyone. 77 Brigade are — I was there on Friday — they are a good organisation, they are absolutely a joint organisation. What they do is pan-environment and there is some very, very clever sometimes quirky people who are adding real value. I think what we have to do is elevate some of the principles of that into the broader DNA of defence.”

That is a key point — we need to bring the skills, competence, understanding and confidence of Information Operations into every part of the Armed Forces DNA / Doctrine from the enlisted soldier all the way through to our General Staff. Only then can we seriously contemplate gaining ‘Information Advantage’?

So how might we go about achieving this?

To begin with, we need to look to the adoption and leverage of ‘Information Operations’ in wider society and the private sector. Of course we don’t call it ‘Information Operations’ here! We call it Social Media, Digital Marketing, Influencer Marketing, Market Intelligence, Relationship Marketing, Networking, Blogging / VLogging, Photo-Sharing, Community Management, Data Intelligence, Cyber Security etc.

Quite simply; it is the tools and techniques that successful businesses have widely adopted, and the pervasive use of technology and social media throughout our daily lives. It is clear that Information Advantage is now part of our Society DNA, it is no longer just the specialist geeks or nerds.

Of course, deep expertise will always lie with specialists, and when we need to call upon these expert practitioners for specific scenarios or training and guidance, then we need to have them on hand. This approach is also true in the private sector, and we all know someone whom we go to to ask for ‘techie’ help when needed in our personal lives.

Fundamentally, we need to improve the ‘marketing’ capabilities throughout our Armed Forces, and not have it located in specialist units alone. This needs to cover the foundations of good marketing and will extend through Digital and Social Media Marketing into the domain-specific Influence and Intelligence aspects of Military Information Operations.

For those that would argue that this is not part of core military doctrine; then you should look back. Throughout military history, the influence of words, perceptions and morale was always far more effective than kinetic effects ever were.

So what does this mean for our Armed Forces and related organisations?

Well, let’s start off with an issue that was discussed at the last Social Media in the Military Conference and was also put to General Messenger.

“We allow our soldiers to use lethal weapons but generally speaking we do not allow them to use Social Media.”

The conference raised the questions of Risks and Control, and this was echoed by General Messenger also.

Yet, there are very real and easily identified risks with Weapon Systems and general behaviours within our Armed Forces. How we deal with these risks is training! We start with basic training, and we build upon that progressively, the extent of which will depend upon the particular career path. We also review these skills on a frequent basis and ensure they are current. We have sanctions in place for transgression and re-training available too.

Q.E.D.: We should have Basic and Intermediate Social Media training as part of Basic Training for all soldiers.

This training should cover awareness of all the major social media platforms and other relevant digital tools (i.e. fitness trackers); secure configuration and use covering Personal Security and potential impact on Operational Security.


We should also train on best practices such as; having an engaging and authentic profile; what content works for what purposes; how to link across social networks; what tools exist to help you use Social Media effectively and safely.

Finally we should demonstrate what intelligence can be gained through Social Media platforms and the wider Internet — if for no other reason then to demonstrate why good Digital Hygiene is important.

There must also to be a change in the attitude and awareness of our officers and leaders.

There are, as ever, trailblazers who are already championing the cause.

In the private sector, we recognise that some of the most influential effects happen through Word-of-Mouth — it is the oldest form of marketing, and the explosion of Social Media has essentially digitised Word-of-Mouth.

Word-of-Mouth manifests in many guises; formal marketing programmes seek to leverage Influencer Marketing and Content Marketing campaigns. For these to be effective, they need to be both authentic and add some value to the target audience. Otherwise, it’s just another form of advertising and will be largely ineffective — much like most of the output from Public Affairs Offices and Strategic Comms units!

Another form of Word-of-Mouth is that of Employee Advocacy — this can be extremely effective and influential. This is where our Armed Forces Personnel need to be encouraged to write and share about their work and experiences. Employee Advocacy speaks not only to our own communities of interest; family, friends, potential recruits and the wider public but it also demonstrates to the world at large, our passion, competence and commitment.

Reputation is built through repeated actions, spoken about in tales! q.v. The British Special Forces are recognised to be the best in the world — both by our adversaries and allies! Social Media can amplify and accelerate reputational influence — it can also destroy it through incompetent use.

However, our military leaders need to encourage and support those personnel that want to write about their experiences in either short form or longer articles or blogs or better still videos; we should also not try to ‘control’ these voices as that jeopardises their authenticity and subsequent influence. If we provide the right support, framework and expectations then our people will be our greatest influencers!

As an observation; in my experience, those who join our military are proud, passionate individuals, and if they voice criticisms, it is only because they wish to see improvements in the organisation they care deeply about.

Finally, we need to accelerate this process and build Information Operations into the DNA of our Armed Forces and related organisations?

When 77 Brigade was formed, it was recognised that it would take way too long to try and build the desired capabilities organically; from the outset, the plan was to bring in, via the Reserves, experienced individuals with expertise, insight and passion from the private sector.

Yet, even with this stated intent, the wider army recruitment processes have got in the way,  there needs to be a recognition and exception handling methodology that supports the innovation and change needed to build Information Operations into the DNA of our Armed Forces.

In addition to the Basic Training recommendation above, there is a huge opportunity open to our General Staff and Commanders to bring in Private Sector specialists to develop Information Operations capabilities throughout our Armed Forces. This opportunity was also recognised by General Carter in the Q&A’s that followed his lecture at RUSI.

Private Sector organisations and individuals with Information Operations skills and experience and an interest and understanding of the Defence, Security and Stabilisation arena could be hired to train, oversee and, for an interim period, manage Information Operations at Regimental or equivalent appropriate command level.

To build Information Advantage into the DNA of our Armed Forces we need to break free from the constraints of processes created for the ‘whole of the Armed Forces’ that handle the traditional, out-moded approach.

We must build in organisational agility and exception handling that recognises the needs of innovative, oftentimes quirky, and sometimes uncomfortable thinking and approaches.

What are you thoughts?