Society, a political economy, is about a mechanism I will refer to as the 'value chain.' A value chain is an aggregate infrastructure of processes, best explained by example.
One instance of a value chain comes from Mankind's early days--metal. Based on what ores are readily available in an area, Man has built a variety of implements, starting with rough-hewn rock or wood, moving via the process of discovery and learning to more complex substances--iron, bronze, steel. Years and centuries pass, and the materials, knowledge, and processes that started turning out plowshares now turn out automobiles, airplanes, bridges, skyscrapers. Each step in the process, each advance made, adds just a little more value to the output of the previous step, building vastly more complex systems from the interactions of numerous smaller ones.
Politics is about the ownership and control of the value chain. Western democracies, founded on such contracts as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are based on principles that every individual owns themselves and the fruits of their labour, that they are each entitled to an equal opportunity to be responsible for themselves. Western governments are the tools, the value chain the citizens created to gain an economy of scale--to do those things collectively that are best done so. Among such things is the provision of a common defense, in short, war.
War is a challenge to or from the value chain. Just as the discovery of steel heralded a new wave of conquests against those less developed, war is the competition of value chains. Whether fought with Toledo steel swords, or composite-armour tanks, conventional and unconventional warfare are about attacks on various stages of the material value chain, by methods best suited to the attack on each link. This is 'hardwar'--an obsessive emphasis on the real control of real things, in methods, means, and end objectives.
This approach loses sight of the fact that the material value chain is not the only value chain, and I would venture to say, not the most important one. Value chains stretch back to the beginnings of civilization, by definition in fact. Behaviour is purposeful, directed, and a driving force is needed, a motivation. Maslow worked out a hierarchy of needs that do much to explain the beginnings and evolution of political economies.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Need looks like this
-- Physiological needs--survival, food, drink, health;
-- Safety needs, physical and emotional needs--clothing, shelter, protection;
-- Affection needs--family, belonging;
-- Esteem needs--self-respect, achievement, appreciation;
-- Self-fulfillment--realization and utilization of one's potential.
Man's Agrarian phase of development, and that shadowy period before, were focused on an almost purely material value chain, because just staying alive, reproduction and metabolism, took all of an individual's time and energy. Even here, however, the roots of another value chain are visible, something I will refer to as the informational value chain, a misnomer as I will point out shortly, but a necessary one for convenience of expression and understanding.
The process of survival was driving the beginnings of discovery, creating language so that such discoveries could be passed on, and education so that they could be made aggregate. Man was learning many things--how to build shelters, when to plant crops, how to mine ores and smelt metals, what plants are edible, the making of weapons, and the strategies and tactics of using them. Necessity is a Mother.
A mixed material-informational value chain existed in the Industrial period, as man had learned how to take his simple tools to make more complex tools, using them to add more and more 'value,' levels of complexity. This complexity forced specialization, and herein lay the foundations of the modern dedicated informational value chain. Obviously, this bifurcation of material and informational value chains is unnatural--in many ways, from our distant perspective, the advances made along the material value chain are purely the result of advances from the informational value chain.
While the process of the material value chain is dependent on the materials it relates to, the informational value chain has a much more (and at the same time, less) clear mechanism, which looks like this
Data --> Information --> Knowledge --> Wisdom,
where the arrows represent 'transforms or evolves into.' These stages merit some explanation.
Data becomes information through a process of filtering, an exclusion process. In mathematics, this is set theory, where the concepts of 'belonging' and representation open a can of worms. Think of it as finding the needle in the haystack by removing anything that isn't a needle; more generally, the item or items are filtered from the larger body of data. Gregory Bateson called information 'any difference that makes a difference,' and he was quite correct. There are number of 'Smith' or 'Johnson' entries in the (U.S.A.) phonebook, but they aren't all necessarily the one you want to talk to.
The next stage of the informational value chain is information being transformed into knowledge; we have no 'real' understanding of how this occurs in our brains, but it has roots in our abilities to perform analysis, generalization, abstraction, extrapolation, and utilization. These are all functions of the decision-making process.
The final stage is the evolution from knowledge to wisdom, a deeper comprehension of the concepts, systems, relationships, interactions, and integration.
Oddly enough, explanation of the chain points out the problem with calling it an 'informational value chain,' just as this is not really the 'Information Age'--society at this stage is actually oriented around data, shuttling it from one point to another, bumping against the constraints of throughput, bandwidth, and interactivity. There is no large scale function, no part of the political economy providing value-add in the process. The reason for this explosive emphasis on data is obviously the computer, and all the things a computer makes possible; the reason for there being no true value-add is that while computers are very good at moving data around, and can even be used in a limited way to filter data, the rest of the value chain is totally unaddressed by the advances in technology (forays into artificial intelligence notwithstanding).
Returning to the application of this thinking to the topic of warfare, conventional warfare is concerned primarily with the material value chain. Attrition-style warfare seeks direct control of the material basics--labour, capital, and resource--while manoeuvre-style warfare focuses on control of the 'key points,' dependencies in the material value chain. Unconventional warfare seeks to overload the material value chain by various methods, whether a nuclear weapon vaporizes large pieces of it, or guerrilla warfare undermines the chain by an 'ontological judo,' using the dis-economies of scale in the value chain against the value chain itself.
For simplicities sake, but following the same line of reasoning, I define information warfare, or 'softwar' as I think of it to avoid the misnomer, as conflict based upon and/or directed at the informational value chain.
Given the preoccupation of advanced political economies with the movement of data from point-to-point, it is no surprise that most thinking about softwar revolves around 'denial of service' (DOS) attacks shutting computers and networks down. There are a number of problems with this--it is very much an artifact of hardwar thinking bleeding over into softwar, it is unsubtle, inelegant, it betrays a lack of understanding of the 'first principles' of warfare, it looks more like a 'scorched earth' policy than any high strategy, and most of all, it misses the forest by looking only at the trees.
In hardwar, the most catastrophic attack that can be made is directed at the very bottom of the value chain; this is why there is a perfectly rational fear of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Softwar is completely reversed--the farther into the value chain any attacks are made, the more leveraged they are, the less 'force' required, just as with the differences between attrition- and manoeuvre-style warfare. Clearly, a more detailed explanation of the relationship between an informational value chain and softwar is called for.
The existence of a deep informational value chain is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of an advanced civilization. This very existence is the first element available in softwar--just as steel won out over iron, having satellites beats not having them, and electronic communication beats a horse-borne messenger (figuratively).
The next stepping-stone to softwar is intelligence, in the espionage sense of the term; intel is largely a function of the collection of massive amounts of data, and then filtering that deluge. As far back as the dawn of Man, intel was a function of softwar, which comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all people such as Sun Tzu. Knowing its place in the value chain helps to explain many of the dilemmas of the intelligence community
-- The escalating need and dependence on electronic collection of data countered with the information overload disaster;
-- The inability to keep pace with the increasing load of dynamic data;
-- The problem of electronic intelligence (ELINT) missing subtleties of motive, intent, and other nuance that human intelligence (HUMINT) used to provide;
-- The inherent flaw of the intelligence process remaining unbiased--the transformation of data into information automatically calls in to play a paradigm, interpretation, judgment, prioritization; this bias is amplified and exaggerated in the process of augmentation.
Softwar attacks on the civilian value chain infrastructure actually look more like hardwar attacks. Denial of service (DOS) attacks can range across the value chain, effecting the contributory infrastructure and social contract the way terrorism does. There are common elements, obvious from the assessment that the current phase of social development is only that of a data-based society--attacks will be on the electronic transport layer we think of as communications, and the control mechanisms we generally rely on as the 'societal glue.' An important note is that DOS attacks on civilian entities can't go farther up the value chain because there is no chain there to target. Military DOS attacks are focused on many of the same elements of command and control; this leads to the conclusion that civilian attacks are likely only to be collateral consequences from military objectives. The fear that such attacks will occur is well justified--after all, the techniques used by guerrillas and terrorists worldwide already map into this new domain. Whether they work is another things altogether--much of the low end of the military informational value chain is already hardened, a by-product of the nuclear age. Satellites have always been assumed to be 'expendable,' and military command-and-control has been a target in millennia of warfare--capture of a commander in a hierarchical structure is more effective than trying to grind down troops, and while a heterarchy would better withstand attacks, no certain blow could be struck. This sort of softwar attack is survivable, correctable, and will cost a great deal in damages, but much like Pearl Harbor in World War II, it is likely to only infuriate the citizenry of the targeted political economy.
More subtle methods of DOS attacks may be effective, however. Historically, when analysis and decision-making power were seated in the same person, these were worthwhile targets; in modern times however, most politicians are totally orthogonal to the informational value chain, providing no value add themselves. The tools in place to provide such value add are, however, directly susceptible to such attack, and in many cases aren't even protected.
Assume for example that an Adversary planned a conflict and wanted to impair the decision-making abilities of a powerful, advanced ally of their target. Are attacks on orbiting satellites that provide data on their region even possible, let alone cost effective? Unlikely. A little leverage brought to bear, however, can answer that problem. Imagine this chain of events
-- A set of video cameras are placed so that they collect data, the license plates of vehicles going into the 'hostile' intelligence agency;
-- Data is continually collected and processed;
-- The license plates are checked for in a variety of databases to provide the name and any other data on the owner and likely driver;
-- The driver's credit and personal data is pulled, as well as any other information that can be checked from the ever-growing number of databases;
-- Based on the data derived, a structural map of the organization is developed, founded on such things as salary levels, education level, specialty, et al;
-- Certain functions are targeted, such as analysis sections or skill bases, such as knowledge of the Adversary's region or language;
-- Just prior to hostilities, such individuals are targeted for either subversion or elimination.
This sort of DOS attack is directly targeted at the deeper levels on the informational value chain--those with knowledge or wisdom about the region and Adversary. It has many benefits besides being cheap, direct, and leveraged; it leaves the political players 'in the game,' but without any way to makes sense of the overwhelming levels of data generated prior to or during a conflict. Because of the common mechanism of reliance by the military on politicians to set objectives, any coherent military response by the targeted country is also hamstrung. It takes no great sophistication to carry out exactly this sort of attack, but the impact, particularly the transformation of the political structure into one of 'value subtracted,' is considerable. Recovery from such an attack is a matter of luck in making all the right choices in the time period it takes to rebuild the lost functionality, an unknown period, but far longer than rebooting a computer and reinstalling software as after a DOS hardwar attack.
A true softwar attack is one of covert perversion, best thought of in terms of a military adage--war is deception. People make decisions based on their cognitive environment, their infosphere; control of the data comprising such an environment allows a certain amount of control over those in it. The drawback of course is that the better the information of the opponent about their infosphere, the closer the deception must be to the reality provided by the environment. Very much a situation of Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO), this sort of attack is about the use of lies and mis/disinformation to produce very real results. It can be very direct, and successful when so--surrendering when you only think you are surrounded but aren't, inflatable tanks and airplane skeletons to misdirect thinking regarding the time and place of an attack, or an impossible-to-implement missile defense system that leads a believing opponent to spend itself into collapse. Such attacks will become more prevalent and subtle when direct control of data channels is possible; the double-edged sword of the media can be grasped more directly than was CNN by the West during the Gulf War, and to much better effect, but care must be taken to avoid the sapping of will that occurred during the Viet Nam conflict.
Viet Nam, besides teaching a host of lessons in conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, hardwar, and softwar, was also a masterful piece of the 'high end' of softwar--'wetwar,' the battle for will and mindshare.
Wetwar, derived from the concept of 'wetware,' the hardware/software of the human mind, is war conducted entirely through subtle, mainly non-violent means, to control the deepest end of the informational value chain--an insidious form of propaganda directed at will, support, and perception of data. Viet Nam is a case study of intentional and unintentional wetwar, with brainwashing, confessions by POWs, media bias in the data --> information link, GIs televised coming home in body bags, Hanoi Jane, winning yet losing the Tet offensive, bombing campaigns that drove neutral civilians to join the alternative and hostile infrastructure set up and controlled by the wily opponent, et al. This form of warfare is the pinnacle of skill, where your opponent defeats himself, and then writes you a bank draft and says he was sorry.
Information warfare, whatever its form--hardwar, softwar, or wetwar--is simple and complex, subtle and obvious, a product of an advanced civilization yet oddly echoed in ancient Sun Tzu, part of the past and a still-unrealized future. It can no more be dismissed than any other form of war; not to prepare for it is the act of a fool, yet it is difficult to prepare for. Focusing on one small area, such as DOS attacks, leads to errors just as the idea of attrition and air superiority did in Viet Nam--control of one part of an infrastructure or value chain is like trying to control a puppet with only one string. Understanding information warfare is very much a search for an understanding of conflict and progress, Aquinas' concept of a return to the first principles. You can go so far down the path, only to find yourself back at the very beginning.
"In battle there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. The direct and indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle--you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?" -- Sun Tzu