Beyond defense: a call to arms for cognitive warfare

We are bombarded on an almost daily basis with press articles, expert papers, and official statements that raise the alarm: autocratic powers like Russia, China, and Iran are not only escalating but also perfecting their disinformation campaigns. At the Summit for Democracy in Seoul on March 18, 2024, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken issued a stark warning: these hostile activities are sowing “distrust, skepticism, and instability” in democracies worldwide. But the challenge is no longer confined to disinformation, as we are witnessing the emergence of something far more insidious: a new form of warfare in which the center of gravity is human cognition.

This post delves into the evolving threat of the cognitive warfare (CogWar) advanced by autocratic regimes. It underscores the urgent need for democracies not just to fortify their resilience but, more crucially, to actively engage in this new battlespace.

The state of “unpeace”

On March 9, 2024, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared bluntly on his X account that, “The post-war epoch is gone. We are living in new times: in a pre-war epoch.” His words expressed growing concerns over Russia’s increasingly hostile stance towards European NATO countries and the looming threat of further aggressive actions on its part, mainly against the Eastern flank. But Tusk’s statement should be viewed within a broader geopolitical context marked by the resurgence of great power rivalry and the emergence of Cold War 2.0 between democracies and autocracies. Although we may be in a pre-war epoch in terms of kinetic operations, we are already at war in the cognitive domain.

During the post-WWII Cold War, concerns about the communists having mastered brainwashing through intoxicants, hypnosis, and malicious psychological persuasion-indoctrination were largely unfounded, as no such mind control techniques were discovered. Today, however, the situation has dramatically changed. With social media, virtual communities, automated software, AI, and the coming of a deeper understanding of human decision-making, the power of adverse influence operations has been amplified. As the 2017 U.S. Manual for Operations ADP 3-0 rightly observed, “All war is inherently about changing human behavior.” However, with developments in deep machine learning algorithms and generative AI, the entry barrier to manipulating reality and engineering people’s behaviors has been lowered alarmingly.

Cognitive warfare

The evolving information space has facilitated the emerging CogWar. This unconventional form of conflict aims to manipulate people’s mental processes, including perception, beliefs, emotions, and decision-making, by employing digital technologies and exploiting human cognitive flaws. Its goal is to change not just what people think but also how they think. CogWar weaponizes narratives to influence policies and destabilize societies by sowing confusion, amplifying social divisions, and undermining the trust and credibility of democratic states. CogWar is an umbrella term that encompasses various operations, such as information warfare, cyber warfare, psychological warfare, political warfare, and even lawfare, while incorporating aspects of cognitive neuroscience.

To make the concept more operational, I suggest breaking it down into two interconnected levels:

1. In the societal or strategic realm, cognitive warfare aims to disrupt societies, states, and alliances over a longer period of time.

2. In the military or tactical domain, it targets military capabilities, personnel, and operations in the relatively short term.

Adversarial actors have been engaged in strategic CogWar for some time, but they have not been seriously or directly engaged in operations at the tactical level. As a result, experts have focused more on challenges presented to the social ecosystem than the military one. This is a critical oversight, as cognitive activities against armed forces will seek to undermine troops’ combat readiness and efficiency. This can be achieved by manipulating the perception and judgment of soldiers, inducing information and noise overload, creating cognitive stress, impairing their attention, decreasing situational awareness, degrading decision-making abilities, weakening morale, compromising unit cohesion, and undermining the effectiveness of human-machine systems. Given these risks, the potential consequences of inaction are grave. It is, therefore, time for democratic governments to prioritize both societal and tactical CogWar in their national defense and security strategies and for NATO to launch collective planning for cognitive operations.

Recognizing cognitive insecurity

The alliance has gradually become aware of the threat. The NATO Strategic Concept 2022 identified Russia and China as hostile agents in the information space. Russia has been using disinformation and influence operations as part of its “political warfare” against the West, which was vividly demonstrated in its hybrid campaigns against Ukraine beginning in 2013 and later escalating with its full-scale invasion in 2022. Putin’s regime has a history of interfering in significant political events in the United States and across Europe, including the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the 2017 German Federal elections, and the 2016 U.K. Brexit referendum.

In the long term, however, China presents a more severe challenge to democratic societies. It has not only adopted a comprehensive CogWar strategy but has also pursued novel means for its execution, including substantial investments in neuroscience, AI, and the synergy between them. Two other top strategic competitors of the United States, Iran and North Korea, have also honed their cyberwarfare and disinformation capabilities and operations. Thus, democracies face rapidly advancing non-kinetic “soft-kill” warfare that does not involve direct physical harm but instead exploits human cognitive vulnerabilities, intensified by the exploitation of cyberspace. Having recognized this urgent challenge, NATO formed an expert group to study the issue and, based on their findings, will announce its Cognitive Warfare Concept in the summer of 2024.

Mind the gap: cognitive asymmetry

Core liberal democratic values create the asymmetry that plays into the hands of hostile dictatorships. In today’s world, open societies are more than ever vulnerable to the malicious weaponization of public opinion. The risk to democracies is significant as their foundational principles, such as ensuring a free press, freedom of expression, and legal protections for economic competition and businesses, make them susceptible to infiltration and exploitation.

Chinese apps, such as the very popular TikTok, are Trojan horses that can be destructively used for societal CogWar. The massive amounts of personal and biometric data collected by this software could be utilized for highly individualized and, therefore, highly persuasive cognitive operations. And with the rise of commercial neurotech devices, neurodata will become an even more acute dual-use asset. This might be the case with products such as Flowtime, a biosensing neurofeedback headset manufactured by the Chinese Entertech company and used by many Americans for meditation. Furthermore, some experts have warned that even commonplace devices such as headphones and earbuds could soon track user brain activity, mining for data. Processed by AI, this neurodata will enable, in the future, unprecedented means of shaping individual minds. At the same time, Western-made apps and products of this kind are either banned or strictly controlled in autocratic states.

These regimes exercise complete control and censorship over their infospheres, granting them a high degree of “cognitive immunity.” Their digital ecosystems are largely disconnected from the rest of the global Internet, which is best exemplified by the Chinese “Golden Shield Project,” a tight national filtering system known as the “Great Firewall of China.” In autocracies, any dissent or questioning of official narratives is met with prosecution, while “disinformation,” meaning, in fact, “telling the truth,” is punished under their draconian laws. In China, spreading through any media what the government considers to be fake news is synonymous with disturbing public order and is punishable with imprisonment. And in Russia, criticism of the war in Ukraine is considered to be discrediting the Russian armed forces, which, as a criminal offense, can cost the critic up to 15 years in prison along with the confiscation of their property.

Moving to the tactical domain, legal and regulatory constraints in the military sometimes backfire severely. The paradigm of force protection is prioritized at times at the expense of combat effectiveness. For example, in Afghanistan, some U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were so heavily protected when departing from their barracks that they scared the locals, whose “hearts and minds” they were supposed to be winning, thus making the mission less credible. This is not the best plan for a societal CogWar. And today, paradoxically, it is easier to authorize a kinetic attack on a human target than to conduct a psychological operation against them. In 2016, during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS operatives in Iraq and Syria, a brigadier general or lower could authorize a strike on jihadist fighters kinetically, while an information operation needed the approval of a major general or higher. Moreover, non-kinetic activities on the Internet or social networks required the highest level of authorization from the Pentagon. This absurd situation led to the view that “it is easier to get permission to kill terrorists than it is to lie to them.” All too often, democracies dangerously constrain themselves at the cost of creating an unfavorable imbalance of forces.

The West should go on the offensive

Cognitive warfare poses the kind of ethical dilemmas that Thomas Rid bluntly summed up as follows: “It is impossible to excel at disinformation and at democracy at the same time.” CogWar, then, presents a considerable challenge to the Western democratic nations’ moral and legal interpretations of war and their right to self-defense. Policymakers and experts assume that democracies should only advance defensive cognitive capabilities because an offensive posture would be ethically dubious and impermissible. The central premise here is that CogWar targets civilian populations, while under international humanitarian law, non-combatants must be exempt from direct hostilities. Therefore, NATO does not consider information manipulation an acceptable means of action. However, I believe that the dilemma of either adhering to ethical principles or ensuring security and military advantage in the cognitive domain should begin to be addressed in favor of the latter. As the threat of large-scale cognitive attacks grows, democratic states must reconsider their ethical, legal, and political stance on offensive CogWar tactics and strategies in both the civilian and military realms.

China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have long used cognitive violence against their citizens. Why, then, would attempts to prosecute a “reverse CogWar” to re-indoctrinate their populations and weaken the Orwellian regimes be ethically problematic? The goal would not be to spread lies but to communicate the truth. CogWar, especially of this kind, would not cause direct harm to civilians.

While China and Russia have mastered CogWar techniques and are preparing to interfere in, among other things, the upcoming 2024 U.S. presidential and EU parliamentary elections, the West cannot afford to be merely reactive. We are under attack, so relying on defensive and preventive measures alone is not an acme of sound strategic thinking but rather a sign of strategic atrophy. Overall, the challenge of CogWar can be an opportunity to, as David Pappalardo puts it, “rehabilitate cunning and surprise in strategy by first obscuring the adversary’s cognition.” Indeed.

A way forward

We badly need a paradigm shift. Only by taking an active role can the West alter the dynamics of CogWar in its favor and strive for cognitive dominance. Below are some initial recommendations for further action, starting with defensive and moving towards more offensive measures: Legislators must urgently regulate social media platforms, apps, and neurodevices to protect users’ data and enable governments to anticipate and prevent cognitive attacks. These measures should not, however, focus on individual companies, as the U.S. TikTok bill does, but aim to regulate the entire market, including all apps, neuro products, and services critical for societal cognitive security; Cognitive force protection courses should be incorporated into professional military education curricula, and cognitive resilience building should become a standard element of training programs; After adopting its Cognitive Warfare Concept this year, NATO should reconsider its assumptions about developing and using offensive cognitive countermeasures; NATO must officially recognize cognition as the sixth domain of military operation and build it into its multi-domain operations framework and capabilities; NATO countries should establish special organizations within law enforcement and military structures to enhance close allied cooperation in the cognitive domain. These units would monitor threats, anticipate attacks, and prepare appropriate responses, thus enabling dedicated communication and collaboration; The first active cognitive measures might micro-target culpable individuals in adversary states, such as military commanders, security agency officials, and mid-level politicians; New opportunities emerging from the convergence of neuroscience, neurotechnologies, cognitive sciences, AI, and blockchain technologies should be carefully explored in the design of defensive, retaliatory, and offensive cognitive capabilities; Military human enhancement projects should incorporate the CogWar context and be evaluated to determine whether they (1) improve soldiers’ cognitive immunity, (2) increase their offensive cognitive capabilities, and (3) do not create new vulnerabilities for cognitive attacks.

On the whole, democracies must develop strategically coherent offensive cognitive capabilities and operational planning against competitors and adversaries. This approach is neither immoral nor amoral if ethical considerations and prudent, case-by-case decision-making guide the preparation and conduct of their cognitive warfare. For those in political circles who are reluctant to accept this, I would dedicate Winton Churchill’s famous remark to Joseph Stalin made during the Teheran conference in 1943: “In wartime, the truth is so precious that it should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Łukasz Kamieński holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Jagiellonian University (2005) as well as an M.Sc. in International Relations (London School of Economics and Political Science, 2001) and an M.A. in political science with a minor in international relations (Jagiellonian University, 2000). He is a professor at the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He was a Visiting Fellow at Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, University of Pennsylvania (2024); Visiting Researcher, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania (2023); Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS (2019), as well as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, C.A. (2003).

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