Skip to main content

What is Information Warfare?

September 25, 2023


Morgan Bingle

Although it is widely agreed that information and Information Warfare (IW) has become a vital component of any modern conflict, there is no widely agreed upon understanding of what exactly constitutes IW. Even the term’s basic elements are debatable. Sometimes “information” is understood quantitatively by some as raw data or digital signals. In contrast, others see information qualitatively as the ideas or memes that bind groups together. Then there is the question of where IW falls within our understanding of war. Some prefer to think of it only in terms of conventional warfare between states, some assign it to irregular warfare between state and non-state actors, and others advocate a blending of the two. Each of these views is a valid look at one aspect or another of IW, and each brings a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the practitioners who use them.

Here I unpack the range of understandings found within the United States Department of Defense (US DoD), specifically how information warfare is considered within the four main branches of the US military. While their definitions of IW are unified around the common joint doctrine, they vary widely in how they understand and implement that doctrine. These differences produce what could be termed a “quantitative spectrum” in which all of the branch’s definitions retain a heavy focus on IW as a technologically focused, data driven endeavor. But they also find an increasing role for people, their emotions, and their ideas within the branch’s doctrinal understandings.

US Department of Defense: The Joint Definition of Information Operations

The US DoD, under which all of the military branches fall, defines IW through the Joint Chief’s of Staff definition. The Joint Chief’s of Staff’s publication “Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Joint Campaigns and Operations” defines IW as “the integrated employment… of IRCs [Information Related Capabilities] in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”[1] Information warfare takes place within the “Information Environment,” or the “aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.” The information environment is then further divided into three parts: the physical, informational, and cognitive. The physical dimension of the Information Environment is the target’s “command and control systems, key decision makers, and supporting infrastructure.” The informational aspect is anything related to the target’s collection, processing, storage, or dissemination of information, and how they protect that information. Finally, the cognitive dimension “encompasses the minds of those who transmit, receive, and respond to or act on information.”[2]

It is also worth noting here that the definition above is given within JP 3-0 not for Information Warfare, but for “Information Operations” (IO). This phrasing is used so that the term “warfare” can be restricted to use only in defining conventional vs. irregular warfare.[3] However, while some branches do retain this distinction, most will use IW within their own doctrines.

US Navy: Information Warfare as Pure Data

The US Navy sits firmly at one extreme of the quantitative spectrum with an IW definition that is the most technologically focused and data-driven of the branches. The US Navy defines IW in almost purely quantitative terms. According to “Navy Doctrine Publication (NDP) 1, Naval Warfare,” IW is “the integrated employment of Navy’s information-based capabilities,” which are, “communications, networks, intelligence, oceanography, meteorology, cryptology, electronic warfare, cyberspace operations, and space.”[4] All data-driven fields, with even the Office of Naval Intelligence focused on the production of “scientific, technical, geopolitical and military intelligence” to key decision makers.[5] This understanding limits the role of IW down to either protecting the ability of friendly forces to collect, disseminate, and utilize data, or denying those capabilities to adversaries.

That highly focused understanding is sensible, given the Navy’s reliance on sensor data and secure long-range transmitters for its ships and aircraft to monitor their surroundings, communicate between themselves, and to fight effectively if necessary. This reliance is likely to only grow as the Navy invests ever-greater resources into unmanned and autonomous systems requiring remote control or monitoring to operate effectively, and which are completely reliant on their own sensors to “see” the world around them. That reliance will likely need to be balanced in the near future against the increasing threat of Navy vessels being monitored and tracked through open-source intelligence. In addition, the US Navy faces the follow-on threat of malicious actors using images, videos, and other information about Navy activities, derived from open sources to develop mis- or disinformation that discredits Navy activities and seeks to inspire narratives counter to US interests at home and abroad.

US Army and Air Force: Mixed Perspectives of Information Warfare

Both the US Air Force and the US Army integrate an understanding of people and human behavior into more technically focused IW definition. Rather than define IW as a collection of technical capabilities, the Air Force defines it as “military capabilities employed in and through the IE [information environment] to deliberately affect adversary human and system behavior and preserve friendly freedom of action during cooperation, competition, and conflict.” The Air Force also allows that all its activities, “from words and images posted on social media to the presence of an armed aircraft on the ramp” convey a message and can either create or further a larger narrative. An understanding of IW that allows people a much greater role and allows for the idea that people themselves may be the direct target of an informational effort rather than just the data they interact with.[6]

This is not to say however that the Air Force’s doctrine is entirely people focused. It does not necessarily view IW as being conducted through direct interaction with target audiences, but instead takes an “actions speak louder than words” approach in which IW supplements a larger “Effects-Based Approach to Operations” (EBAO). A planning approach in which kinetic and non-kinetic actions are taken either singly or in series in order to demonstrate a message. Thereby communicating a commander’s intentions or impacting an adversary in such a way that it shapes and changes their decision-making, hopefully in favor of US goals.

The Army, meanwhile, takes a similarly mixed approach balancing quantitative and qualitative views of information, but with a greater emphasis on the role of people and interpersonal contacts. For example, the Army’s IW instruction, “Army Tactical Publication 3-13” The Conduct of Information Operations directs that whenever an IW officer arrives at a new command or in a new area, their first tasks are to develop an understanding of how their adversaries use the information environment and who the key stakeholders are in the operating area. The gathered information must then be turned into products the IW officer can use to build not only their own understanding of the information environment in their area, but to build and maintain the awareness of the other command staff officers and personnel around them.[7] All required tasks that are a part of this are drawn directly from the US Army and Marine Corp’s counterinsurgency handbook, which was developed from the two branch’s collective experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002-2008. The strategy places its greatest emphasis on the need for US and allied troops to develop interpersonal relationships with local populations and gain their trust through direct, human interactions.[8]

With both branches, it is also important to reemphasis that their approaches to IW are mixed, and both branches devote portions of their IW instructions to more quantitative approaches to information. Both branches incorporate electromagnetic warfare, signals management, and cyberspace operations into their understandings of IW, and both have arranged their IW elements within their respective cyber commands. Those commands being the Sixteenth Air Force,[9] and the Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER),[10] respectively. The placement of IW speaks to the centrality of digital communications to modern information operations, influence campaigns, and IW more broadly. Additionally, the IW placement speaks to the continued technological focus of the US’s approach to war – an approach that while effective in kinetic combat operations, falters in situations which call for direct engagement with foreign populations in situations short of armed conflict.

US Marine Corps: A Sign of Things to Come?

The US military’s most recent IW doctrine publication, the US Marine Corp’s “Marine Corps Doctrine Publication [MCDP] 8” takes a unique approach that illustrates how views of IW are evolving within the US DoD. The unique approach is due to the experience of 20 years conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from experienced gained by observing and encountering the efforts of rival states–particularly, the IW efforts of Russia in Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and the US; and the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

The publication opens by tying information back to the Corps’ focus on maneuver warfare, arguing that information is simply another element Marines can use to create advantages for themselves across all warfighting domains (land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace.) It then, rather than assigning IW to the realm of staff officers and conceptual strategic thinking, puts responsibility for it down to the individual level saying:

Even when Marines are not at war, they are still in a state of competition. The very existence of the Marine Corps is a competitive act that signals to potential adversaries… Every Marine, therefore, has the potential to help or hinder the Nation’s competitions by reinforcing or detracting from the Marine Corps’ narrative. Through their actions, words, and deeds—on and off duty—Marines can help or harm the Marine Corps’ reputation of acting with boldness, professionalism, and high competency.[11]

From here, rather than pursue a binary definition of information as either purely quantitative or qualitative, MCDP 8 pursues a middle road. It divides its definition of information into two broad categories based on context. The first, defines information in the context of command-and-control systems as “all manner of descriptions or representations from raw signals on the one hand, to knowledge and understanding on the other.” Meaning that information in this context can be seen to include everything from raw sensor data to more developed forms of information that have been “integrated into meaningful knowledge and understanding, such as symbols, intelligence reports, and ideas.” The second half of the definition considers information in an intelligence context. It defines information in quantitative terms, as “unevaluated material of any kind… [used as] raw material from which intelligence is derived.’ From this perspective, information is data that can be processed and put into an understandable form. It is the basic building block of knowledge.”

MCDP 8 also varies from other US doctrines by including a unique definition of the information environment. Rather than seeing the environment as a collection of systems or small parts of larger systems, MCDP 8 defines the information environment as including “information itself and all relevant social, cultural, psychological, technical, and physical factors that affect the employment of forces and bear on commanders’ decision making.”[12] A version of the information environment in which people and the many influences which affect their thinking take on a leading role, standing for themselves within the conceptual space as the clear targets of IW – whether individually as key decision makers or collectively as populations. But also as the primary tools or drivers of IW, with the possibility that individuals at every level may find themselves in the key position to define the narrative of a US effort for either good or ill at any moment.[13]

What is IW?

Given this spectrum of definitions from the purely quantitative to the and heavily qualitative, giving an all-encompassing definition may seem an impossible task. Creating such a definition may also appear to be a simply unnecessary task. But consider that while the above definitions are all equally valid and well suited to their organizational cultures and contexts, their specialization does breed weaknesses, as does their use of exceedingly specialized military language to describe their subjects. What is needed is a broad definition that gives equal weight to both quantitative and qualitative views of information, uses language that can be understood by laypeople seeking to understand the subject without a deep background knowledge, and that helps to illustrate how IW can be put to use.

With these goals in mind, consider the following proposed definition:

Information Warfare (IW) is a struggle to control or deny the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information in all its forms, ranging from raw data to complex concepts and ideas. It is a struggle that can be conceived as occurring at three points, either individually or in some combination:

  1. During the movement of information (literally or metaphorically) from its source to decision makers.
  2. During the movement of information from decision makers to those actors who must carry out their decisions.
  3. In the process of learning from or interpreting information that occurs within each of the nodes described above (source, decision maker, actor).

Offensively, IW occurs when one side within a conflict seeks to impose their desired information state on their adversary’s information and affect how target individuals or populations interpret or learn from the information they possess or are collecting. To pursue this, the offensive actor can target at either the information itself or the individuals and larger group forming their target audience. While in contrast, defensive IW occurs when one side seeks to sustain their desired states and retain the ability to freely collect, interpret, and/or learn from their available information without outside interference.


In closing, here I both illustrate the range of understandings that exist within the US military on Information Warfare and encourage the development of a more universal understanding which promotes a more balanced view on the subject. A more balanced view is one in which technology and quantitative data will not dominate and lead to a neglect of the human element underlying IW. Nor will a definition of IW over-emphasize the more qualitative approach to IW to the extent that the technological elements of IW are neglected or forgotten.


[1] Joint Chiefs of Staff Publication 3-13, Information Operations § (2012). 

[2] Joint Chiefs of Staff Publication 3-13, Information Operations § (2012).

[3] US Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-13, Information in Air Force Operations § (2023).

[4] US Navy, Naval Doctrine Publication 1 — Naval Warfare § (2020).

[5] “ONI Fact Sheets.” Office of Naval Intelligence. Accessed August 31, 2023.

[6] US Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-13, Information in Air Force Operations § (2023)

[7] US Army Techniques Publication 3-13.1, The Conduct of Information Operations § (2018).×1%20FINAL%20Web%201.pdf

[8] The U.S. Army & Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

[9] “About Sixteenth Air Force (Air Forces Cyber).” Sixteenth US Air Force (Air Forces Cyber). Accessed August 24, 2023.

[10] “Cyber 101: US Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER).” U.S. Cyber Command, November 30, 2022.

[11] US Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 8 — Information § (2022).

[12] US Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 8 — Information § (2022).

[13] US Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 8 — Information § (2022).