It is 2050, and society is divided into an archipelago of community-based alternative reality zones. The French armed forces are tasked with “securing reality” in the face of an adversary capable of modifying collective behavior on a large scale through actions of deception and subversion. This was the scenario proposed last summer to the French Ministry of the Armed Forces by a “Red Team” program that links science-fiction authors with the military. This might just seem like an amusingly imaginative exercise, but the notion of “cognitive warfare” is gaining momentum in strategic thinking. But what does this concept even mean? Does it herald a new way of warfare? Or is it just old wine — psychological or influence operations or “information warfare” — in new bottles?
There is something useful in this notion. Cognitive warfare is a multidisciplinary approach combining social sciences and new technologies to directly alter the mechanisms of understanding and decision-making in order to destabilize or paralyze an adversary. In other words, it aims to hack the heuristics of the human brain in an attempt to “win the war before the war,” echoing the strategic vision of French Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Thierry Burkhard.
Acting on the Opponent’s Brain to Win: An Old Problem
War has always involved the mind, defined by Carl von Clausewitz as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.” Similarly, Hervé Coutau-Bégarie reminds us that strategy is “a dialectic of intelligence in a conflict environment,” wherein each side tries to anticipate the reactions of the other in order to gain the advantage. Admittedly, war is more than a dialectic of will and intelligence, as organization and technologies also matter. Yet, in light of military history and strategic thought, James Giordano’s assertion that “the human brain has become the battlefield of the 21st century” is, in this sense, debatable, since action on the brain, in the strategic dialectic, has always been the structuring element.
Operations of simulation, dissimulation, or deception are as old as war itself and consist of playing on the opponent’s perceptions in order to deceive the enemy about intentions, capabilities, and strategy. In his book La Ruse et la Force, Jean-Vincent Holeindre explains, “Cunning has imposed itself in the history of strategy, not only as a tactical procedure based on dissimulation and deception, but also as an intellectual quality inspiring strategic planning and adaptation to situations of uncertainty.” In this sense, strategy is, above all, “a science of the other,” with the aim of accessing and even manipulating the brain of one’s adversary. Cognition has always mattered, as illustrated by the Ems telegram episode, in which German Chancellor Bismarck successfully baited Napoleon III into pursuing an ill-advised war. Bismarck voluntarily removed some of King Wilhelm I’s softening language when he published a telegram from the king, notably omitting the withdrawal of the German candidature to the Spanish throne, thereby provoking the ill-fated Franco-Prussian War, leading ultimately to the collapse of the Second French Empire.
Using false information to gain an advantage over one’s opponent is nothing new in the history of strategy. Churchill, for example, is said to have told Stalin, “In wartime, the truth [was] so precious that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Information operations have long been incorporated into more traditional military operations to produce effects across traditional warfighting domains. For example, the British Operation Mincemeat was a successful military deception to convince the Axis high command that the Allies would invade the Balkans and Sardinia instead of Sicily as theatrically depicted in the movie The Man Who Never Was. In 1944, while it seems that Hitler correctly guessed that the Allied troops would eventually land in Normandy, Operation Fortitude similarly aimed to convince the German 15th Army that another attack was possible in the Pas de Calais. By the same token, subversion was also central to the East-West dialectic during the Cold War.
These three observations — that war has always implied a dialectic of wills and intelligences, that strategy is “a science of the other,” and that information is a weapon that offers a strategic advantage — inform the cognitive warfare approach to strategic thinking.
Renewed Competition Amplified by Digital and Social Transformation
The new momentum for cognitive warfare acknowledges the current digital and social transformations of warfare, which increase both the magnitude of traditional information operations and the range of audiences. Targets are no longer limited to political and military decision-makers; broader populations are also susceptible to manipulation at a large scale and may be leveraged to influence national decisions. The digital revolution has exacerbated competition in the information domain, by empowering many-to-many communication and drastically increasing the flow of data. Additionally, the Information Age awards a viral premium to the spectacular at the expense of the empirical. In the words of philosopher Bruno Patino, “Truth gives way to plausibility, reflex to reflection,” fostering a balkanization of reality that in turn offers malign competitors a breeding ground for manipulation and influence. In response to this dynamic, David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla have recently argued in favor of a more comprehensive information strategy in the United States to better take into account the emergence of the noosphere, “a collective form of intelligence enabled by the digital information revolution.” According to these authors, the essence of U.S. strategy should now emphasize “weaponized narratives” as a key decisive factor to win, “in the realm of the mind.” After all, narratives are heuristics used by the brain to process and organize information so as to “make” sense of a given context and create meaning. As such, they are central to cognition.
It is worth noting that conflictuality itself has also deeply evolved. Chinese strategists have long focused on information or psychological warfare and now see cognitive warfare as “the ultimate domain of military confrontation between major powers”. Similarly, the so-called New Generation Warfare, a term coined by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, emphasizes gray-zone activities that blur the lines within the peace-crisis-war continuum until those categories are simply no longer meaningfully distinct. Henceforth, Day Zero is every day, as highlighted by the new triptych competition-dispute-confrontation, which is at the heart of the strategic vision of the French chief of the Defense Staff. In that light, competition is a form of war “before the war,” wherein strategic intimidation, cyber operations, and narrative warfare play a major role. The January 2021 Strategic Update of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces also presents information manipulation as a key element of the hybrid strategies implemented by our adversaries, which can lead to a form of subversion for the purpose of influence, paralysis, or confusion. Echoing this, on the occasion of the presentation of the military doctrine of computerized influence control in Paris on October 20, 2021, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly affirmed that false, manipulated, or subverted narrative is a weapon that, if used wisely, allows a competitor to win without fighting.
In sum, the fight against weaponized narratives and cognitive aggressions has become more essential than ever in the face of a renewed strategic competition amplified by the digital revolution. It requires a broader approach, cognitive warfare, combining social sciences and new technologies across all domains, to operate simultaneously at the level of information, narratives, and the human brain.
Cognitive Warfare Through the Exploitation of Competing Brain Functions
Cognition refers to the mechanisms governing reasoning, emotions, and sensory experiences that allow us to understand the world, form an internal representation of it, and ultimately act in it. It is therefore a major element of the decision-making process, during which our brain brings into competition different functions: Our intuitive heuristics, which can be mobilized quickly, but are susceptible to biases, and our logical strategies, which are slower and more costly in terms of energy. This is what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 (heuristics) and System 2 (reasoning) in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. While the Nobel Prize winner has recently admitted some mistakes, his theory remains helpful and valuable in describing decisionaking. For Kahneman, it requires arbitration between these competing functions, which may involve the inhibition of our intuitions in order not to fall prey to our biases. Olivier Houdé describes this mechanism of inhibition and executive control of our brain as System 3 — the mechanism that allows for vicariance in the circuits of intelligence, conceived of as “an ability to adapt between attention and inhibition.”
Conflictuality in the cognitive domain aims at strategically exploiting these competing functions and the cognitive biases that limit rationality of different actors, in order to provoke distortions of representations, alter decision-making, and thus cause suboptimal strategic maneuvers. The desired effects are not limited to the control of information but extend to the control of the executive and arbitration function of the brain itself. In this sense, the framework goes beyond the field of information warfare: Acting on information is only acting on the data that feeds cognition, whereas cognitive warfare seeks to act on the process of cognition itself. The objective is to act not only on what individuals think, but also on the way they think, thus conditioning the way they act.
In a recent study carried out with the support of the French armed forces and NATO, the French Graduate School of Cognitics (École Nationale Supérieure de Cognitique) offers insight into the determinants of cognitive warfare. Combining hard sciences and social sciences, it emphasizes neuroscience as key to move forward in this line of effort. According to Bernard Claverie and François du Cluzel, cognitive warfare should enhance the synergies between offensive cyber warfare, information warfare, and psychological operation, and it can be conceptualized as:
“[T]he art of using technologies to alter the cognition of human targets, most often without their knowledge and without the knowledge of those who would be in charge of avoiding, minimizing or controlling the desired effects, or whose possible control would be outdated or too late.”
However, the approach is not only technological: It meets the new requirements of the Human Autonomy Teaming , which should make it possible to take advantage of the precision and speed of digital technologies (AI, Big Data analytics, etc.) while increasing tenfold the agility and creativity of human intelligence.
Towards Command Structures Adapted to the Cognitive Dimension of Conflict
Cognitive warfare is essentially, but not exclusively, concerned with command and control of operations to enable decision superiority. To achieve this, it is possible to identify three lines of effort.
The first concerns the need to guard against our own individual and collective cognitive dysfunctions. This requires the knowledge and identification, as far as possible, of the cognitive biases that precondition our mental patterns. According to the French philosopher Jean d’Ormesson’s beautiful formula, “To think is first to think against oneself.” As the late Robert Jervis also explained, “Decision-makers tend to fit incoming information into their existing theories and images.” Misunderstanding the ideas or values of the adversary, the presumption that he will see us as we see ourselves, and more generally the contempt for otherness, are all powerful contributors to instability in conflictual relations. Beyond individuals, bureaucracies are also vulnerable to what the psychologist Irving Janis called “Groupthink,” particularly when a group’s members are similar in background and when the group is insulated from outside opinions. Groupthink leads to ignoring alternatives, dehumanizing other groups, and ultimately to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” Education and training are therefore crucial to hedge against our own individual and collective “cognitive bugs,” requiring a permanent questioning and cross-examination of ourselves, buttressed by a social and psychological approach to conflictuality.
Moreover, it is necessary to emancipate ourselves from the utopian ideal of a perfect understanding of the battlefield made possible by technology alone. Indeed, technological means do not always dissipate the fog of war. On the contrary, the larger availability of data can create a “fog of more” and add complexity to the detriment of military efficiency if we do not succeed in mastering the flow of information. Moreover, biases can also be found in the algorithms or databases used to make the future predictable. It may result to a form of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, it is the quality of the organization that must prevail over technological solutions in the practice of information, as Jon R. Lindsay explains. For the military, an essential quality of command and control lies precisely in the balanced integration between the human and the system in order to retain clarity amidst the complexity of warfare. To paraphrase the French author Bruno Patino, philosophical lights must not be extinguished in favor of digital signals.
The second line of effort concerns defense against permanent informational aggression and the opportunistic exploitation of our cognitive biases by an adversary, which can constrain or distort our decision-making process and paralyze us. Our major competitors have understood the vulnerabilities of our societies, to which our armies belong. During his hearing before Congress in April 2021, the American researcher Herbert Lin highlighted three challenges. The first concerns the limited rationality of actors. Our taste for contradictory and sensational narratives, or “cognitive treats,” as well as our propensity for systematic doubt divert our attention and impede our judgment. The second is linked to our societies: The “free marketplace of ideas” also comes with nefarious alternative facts and fake news in a post-truth world exacerbated by technologies. It is all the more problematic that a competitor can exploit at his advantage the porosity between institutional and foreign informational borders to deliberately spread malicious narratives. These three challenges concern both the society and the military. Therefore, cognitive warfare requires a global, multidomain and whole-of-government approach, promoting better integration between cyber and information domains to defend one of our most important assets — information. At the strictly military level, our command-and-control architectures must remain resilient enough to take advantage of new technologies while limiting the automation conundrum and cognitive dissonances as much as possible.
Offensive warfare in the cognitive domain constitutes the third axis of effort, even if it raises ethical questions that should not be evaded. Herbert Lin remarked with amusement during his hearing that the ethical constraints imposed by the Department of Defense had led to the paradox that, “It is easier to get permission to kill terrorists than it is to lie to them.” The conduct of true offensive cognitive warfare should not be free from careful ethical consideration, but it must also be strategically coherent. One of the challenges of cognitive warfare is therefore to rehabilitate cunning and surprise in strategy by first obscuring the adversary’s cognition. Consequently, the organization of command-and-control structures will have to evolve to promote better integration of effects in all domains, including cyber and information. As an example, the creation of the multidomain task forces by the U.S. Army is worth noting, since they include an I2CEWS (Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Space) battalion alongside the Air Defense and Strategic Fires ones.
Towards a New Warfighting Domain?
Cognitive warfare is not a revolution. It consists of influencing the opponent’s decision making, creating confusion, and ultimately paralyzing his action in order to win. Similarly, this is not a silver bullet to achieve strategic advantage by itself, as evidenced by Russia’s underperformance in Ukraine in this matter. Yet, it is more than just old wine in new bottles and aims at meshing together information warfare, offensive cyber operations, and psychological operations. It recognizes both technological breakthroughs and the renewal of strategic competition, emphasizing intimidation, influence, and manipulation to coerce the adversary even “before the war.” Does this mean that it is necessary to create a new warfighting domain? Not necessarily. The main effort should rather consist in better integrating cognitive warfare into land, sea, air, spacem and cyber operations as recently argued by Koichiro Takagi. Stated otherwise, allies should indeed continue to explore the subject further, but considering it more effectively into the current joint all-domain framework.
Cognitive warfare has benefited from a qualitative change in the magnitude of effects available and can now simultaneously target multiple audiences to create strategic effects upon an adversary. This is a challenge that must now be addressed more effectively. To do so, the French Defense Innovation Agency recently launched a project called MYRIADE to explore new technologies related to cognitive warfare. At the strategic level, a whole-of-government effort is necessary to secure decision-making and attain a sufficient level of collective “cognitive security,” which implies the need for a better educated and prepared population, capable of defending themselves from weaponized narratives and other cognitive attacks. At the military level, to “win the war before the war,” we need to defend against cognitive aggression and be ready to fight back by allowing ourselves to act on the opponent’s brain in turn. More specifically, command and control must be better adapted to the cognitive dimension of multidomain warfare, harmoniously combining human judgment and digital technologies to be able to surprise without being surprised.
David Pappalardo (@DavPappa) is a French air force and space officer currently serving as an air attaché at the French Embassy in Washington. As a Mirage F1 and then multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen.” He is credited with 2,300 flight hours and 134 war missions in the Sahel, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Levant. He graduated from the French Air Force Academy and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the French air force, the Ministère Des Armées, or the French government.