[Maarten Van Horenbeeck] [Information Security] [Information Warfare]

The “Theatre of Operations” in Information Operations

Maarten S.L.J.Vanhorenbeeck


The Theatre of Operations has always been an important aspect of warfare. While it did not always carry a set definition, the concept most certainly existed as of the very first of battles. With the advent of information operations, however, it requires a thorough overhaul. This paper describes the history of the concept, and investigates ways it can be adapted to modern information operations. It will also put forward a proposal definition for use in the new information age. I will also show that the use of this concept is not limited to military warfare but is also valid within the sphere of public relations and activism.

Keywords: Information Operations; Theatre of Operations; Activism; Netwar; Conflict

The Theatre of Operations

Dating as far back as 330 BC, military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his legendary ‘The Art of War’ that “Confirmation of the ground is of the greatest assistance in battle” (Sun Tzu, trans. 1998). He has never been proven wrong.

Knowing where to strike, and which parts of the battlefield to abandon has been of primordial importance to any form of warfare. As the amount of resources any army has to its disposal is by definition limited, it is important to concentrate your troops in places where they will be able to attribute most to military success.

The actual term “Theatre of Operations” was first dubbed in World War II. The hostilities in this war were divided over multiple locations, which included the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, Pacific Theatre of Operations and European Theatre of Operations. This was a very broad, but correct, allocation, as for example in the European Theatre of Operations; virtually all countries were in fact involved in the war.

US Army documentation on ‘Organization and Administration in World War II’ by Blanche M. Armfield (1963) states that “The term ‘Theatre of operations’ was defined in the field manuals as the land and sea areas to be invaded or defended, including areas necessary for administrative activities incident to the military operations.” It further specifies that “In accordance with the experience of World War I, it was usually conceived of as a large land mass over which continuous operations would take place and was divided into two chief areas-the combat zone, or the area of active fighting, and the communications zone, or area required for administration of the Theatre. As the armies advanced, both these zones and the areas into which they were divided would shift forward to new geographic areas of control.”

If we dissect this definition we can see that it consists of two major pieces: This clarifies why the previously mentioned Theatres were so wide in scope. During the Second World War, hostilities did not take place in every area of the Pacific Theatre of Operations. However, communications and logistics efforts took place throughout the pacific, potentially in anticipation of an expansion of the battle zone.

Translating the concept to Information Warfare

In Information Warfare, hostilities can take a more wide variety of forms than they did in the past. The core of the hostilities may no longer be to invade ‘land and sea areas’. Moreover, exact targets have become less tangible and may not always be clear at the outset of hostilities.

As there is no clear, universally accepted definition of information warfare, I will use the following for the purpose of this essay, as put forward by the US Secretary of Defence’s 1994 report to the US President and Congress in 1994 (cited in Rothrock, 1997, p.1):

“It [Information Warfare] consists of the actions taken to preserve the integrity of one's own information systems from exploitation, corruption or destruction while at the same time exploiting, corrupting, or destroying an adversary's information system and, in the process, achieving information advantage in the application of force."

In this essay, however, we will also be considering the concept of Netwar part of Information Warfare, defined in Arquila, Ronfeldt (2001, p.6) as “an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age”. As such, we will consider the ‘force’ previously cited from Rothrock in its broadest form, not merely as the action of expressing physical force over an opponent.
The definition of Information Warfare quoted above clearly expresses a need to dominate the Information spectrum on the battlefield. During the application of force, whether this consists of conquering market share, for a commercial organization, or in fact conquering or ‘liberating’ foreign land, in the military term, information supremacy needs to be achieved. In the case of market share, it cannot be increased without appealing to the consumer by providing him or her with information that makes them interested in the product – from the military perspective a ‘hearts and minds’ approach may be applied to prevent a war of attrition from arising.

Keeping our goal in mind, the Theatre of Operations will as such encompass a large area of interest, not merely limited to the locations where the parties to the hostilities are based, but it may also include regional and international media, pressure groups, NGOs and regulators. Based on this definition, I will put forward a working definition that can be used in the Information age. Do note that this is by no means intended as an attempt to provide an all-encompassing formal definition – it is merely an effort to initiate and encourage discussion on the topic:

The Theatre of Operations is the complete spectrum of actors, locations, ideas and communications media where operations may take place in order to lead to ones underlying goal of Information Supremacy.

How to define the Theatre of Operations

At the outset of operations, it is seldom clear which type of media will be used throughout a conflict. Especially in a Netwar context, the enemy may not be clearly defined immediately. In the case of terrorism, for example, it may take days to actually define what we are fighting.

One of the most evident examples would be the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. When American Airlines 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46, initial thought, by both law enforcement and the public, was that a terrible accident had occurred. It was only at 8:37, twenty minutes after the initial hijacking, that the military had received first word of the incident (US Government, 2004). This information however had not been processed by operational units managing the incident. At this stage, the Intelligence apparatus also still needed to start its investigation into what exactly was happening, and who was behind it. The passenger lists needed to be inspected and correlated with available information, the likelihood of a group being involved also required review. Even though work was required, from an intelligence perspective this was actually an achievable task – as George Tenet, CIA director at the time, stated in the 9/11 Commission Report, “The system was blinking red!” just prior to the attacks. One could imagine that in other, more unexpected situations identifying the culprit of an attack could take much longer. Examples of this are the London and Madrid Bombings in July 2005, where positive identification of the bombers, or at least its public release, took significantly longer.

It is obvious that even in the 9/11 case, though, time was required in order to achieve an identification. Responding to crime & terrorism does not provide us with the cleanly delineated battlefields of the past. Identifying the assailant and the threat it poses is however a prerequisite for successful response. “Know the enemy and know thyself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated” (Sun Tzu, trans.1998).

Interesting work, albeit from a completely different perspective, has been performed by the Amsterdam based Govcom.org foundation, which proposes a split between where ‘issues are happening’ and where ‘they are based’ (“The Places of Issues. Issue Crawler backend movie”). They identify that while an issue may be based in a certain location, it could be happening elsewhere. Putting this concept into reality, they also created a web based tool called the Issue Crawler, which is able to “map” the internet presence of actors in relation to a specific issue.

A clear example of this concept is the ethnic war in Sudan. After its independence from British and Egyptian co-rule in 1956, Sudan came under largely Arab leadership. However, the majority of Sudan is not Arab. This, fuelled by instatement of the Shar’ia Islamic law in Southern Sudan led to two civil wars and a set of conflicts between a number of rebel groups, the predominantly black population and the Arab government (International Crisis Group, 2006).

While some success in resolving violence was achieved in part of the country, the government has proven inept at ceasing violence between the Janjaweed militia and non-Arab people in the Darfur region of Western Sudan. As a result, multiple action groups have pressured international organizations such as the UN, the African Union and European Commission to intervene in the conflict. With over 1.6 million internally displaced people and over 200 000 refugees in neighbouring Chad in 2004 (UNHCR, 2004), these comments started to be heard.

NGOs such as the Red Cross, Médecins sans Frontiéres, Oxfam and many others are creating awareness for the events through their websites, television commercials and internet sites as well as by lobbying directly at the international organizations mentioned above. This type of awareness building has in the past led to the deployment of African Union peacekeeping forces in Sudan. At time of writing initial steps are being made within the UN Security Council to deploy UN peacekeeping forces in Sudan. However, these efforts are in themselves not appreciated by the Sudanese government, who would rather not have foreign troops on its land (The Economist, 2006).

In addition to these NGOs, but most likely triggered through their awareness building, many unrelated organizations also took action to protest the situation in Sudan. Merely one example is the fact that Amherst, Yale and Brown Universities and most recently the University of California all decided to cease investments in organizations active in Sudan (Wood, 2006 and University of California, 2006).

While this conflict is based in Western Sudan (and the surrounding countries, to a limited extent), it is clear that it is in fact happening in Khartoum, Brussels, New York, Geneva and Addis Ababa (which houses the headquarters of the African Union).

One would be tempted to state that the above locations, together with the Western Sudan region itself would form the Theatre of Operations in this particular instance. However, it is in fact even more extensive. While the headquarters of each of these organizations are no doubt the focal point of many negotiations and discussions on how to proceed, the NGOs involved also directly target the perception of peoples directly, through mass media. This is done by carefully providing the correct media with information so that their point of view is proliferated. A prime example of this are the “case studies” published on their websites and often submitted to regional media to create awareness with the public.

The Theatre of Operations and Netwar

In order to correctly view the Theatre of Operations in the case of Netwar, we have to be aware of the ‘network’ existing between different parties in a conflict. Within such network, parties will work together – however there is little to no hierarchy. Arquilla and Ronfeldt describe in their work “The Advent of Netwar” that such network would simultaneously be “acephalous and polycephalous”. Some ‘nodes’ within the network may have a particular task, while others can be used for generic interventions. Networks may have no heads, or multiple heads, in certain situations.

In the case of Sudan, for example, UNHCR, or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees works specifically in assisting refugees and internally displaced people, and building awareness regarding this issue. Other groups such as Médécins sans Frontiéres focus on medical issues. There are also generic groups, and even “groupings of groups” which support a specific purpose, such as media awareness building – Save Darfur as a prime example. Save Darfur is a coalition of 130 organizations, assembled to raise public awareness. While it is limited in staff compared to any of the individual organizations, it specializes in awareness building, and bundles what is convergent about the message of the other organizations: “Influence the people who can end the violence and reduce the suffering in Darfur” (Save Darfur, 2006).

The example of Darfur may be a bit different than what one would expect regarding information operations. It is certainly not conventional warfare, and in fact most readers will find it easy to identify with the ‘good’ side in the conflict. Nevertheless, we should remember that there are actually parties benefiting from the ongoing violence – or at least who wish to maintain the status quo. The Sudanese government has loudly protested against the UN sending forces into Darfur (Economist, 2006 and Al-Jazeera, 2006). In addition, there has been some concern that the US has at times toned down its criticism of the Sudanese approach in return for assistance in the “war on terrorism” (Silverstein, 2005). As such there is definitely an ongoing struggle to obtain information supremacy.

As a secondary example, it may be interesting to briefly review a current netwar-type conflict, the Insurgency in Iraq. A very interesting study was published on this issue by the International Crisis Group, titled “In their own words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency”. According to this report, four main militant groups dominate the media releases by the groups, of which one group tends to act more as a ‘public relations’ type service for the other ones (International Crisis Group, 2006).

As more groups begin to organize in similar ways, it becomes important that when assessing the theatre of operations we attempt to answer the following questions: We need to identify the parties in order to know those who are our allies, and those who are not. In addition, if certain groups have points of view convergent with our own, they can be used in perception management operations and PSYOP to create public awareness for our cause or erode the cause of one of our opponents. The difficulty of identifying groups mainly lies in the type of conflict: If we look at the Iraqi insurgency, it is very difficult to define those groups that do not engage in public diplomacy. Groups that publish information on the internet regarding their most recent attacks can easily be located; however those groups that do not publish this information can usually only be identified through hard, on-the-ground HUMINT. Recent experience, such as the US interpretation of Iraqi’s potential to build an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction show that even in the largest intelligence organisations, the acquisition of good HUMINT, and especially mechanisms for its interpretation are in scarce supply (Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States, 2005). This fact is widely recognized by intelligence services worldwide. Quoting Dame Stella Rimington, head of MI5 between 1992-1996: “So we are more likely to get hold of the end of a planned terrorist attack if we have our ear to the ground in the right places -- and that means human sources of information” (cited in Burton, 2005).

Knowing where your opponent is based is crucial in Information Operations. Diplomacy usually takes place at these locations, the results of which is translated into public diplomacy, public relations and other perception management operations.

The location for these discussions may not always be in an area which is related to either party. An example is the tripartite agreement between Angola, Cuba and South Africa, which was signed in New York. While the United States were not, in effect, a party to the agreement, they did act as a mediator (Berridge, 2002). Seen in the light of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and mediation by the US, it is clear that the mediator often has public relations issues proclaiming its independence from the conflict, and may be seen by some parties to influence any agreements made to a certain extent.

The function within the conflict of a certain organization is important for impact assessment purposes. By identifying the portion of the conflict an organization is active in, one can define its constituency and audience more easily. This is useful if directed perception management operations are to be engaged. Slim organizations, that only have a narrow scope of the conflict, can launch a message that appeals strongly to a small group of people (such as decision makers), while broad organizations, which have a very wide scope, can launch a message that appeals moderately to a larger audience. For example, in the area of medicine, the American Medical Association can be considered a ‘slim’ organization, as the information it distributes has a thorough impact on its readers. Doctors, for example, may alter the way they prescribe drugs, or conduct medicine based on information they receive from this peer organ. The World Health Organization however, is a much ‘broader’ organization that not only counts physicians as its constituency but also global media, the world and political decision makers.

The function mainly collaborates as well with the type of media outlets used by the organization. As described in the Crisis Group report mentioned earlier, some Iraqi organizations such as the Tandhim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda’s Organization in Mesopotamia) publish multiple official websites and send out daily communiqués, while there is some indication that other, smaller organizations may be using Jami’, the short name of the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance, as a communications organ (International Crisis Group, 2006)..

Posing these questions will aid in defining the theatre of operations, and will allow us to better define our own requirements, both knowledge and resource-wise, to achieve information supremacy.

Conclusion: Re-integrating the Theatre of Operations

This essay mainly has as goal to discuss the re-integration of the concept of the Theatre of Operations into the age of Information Operations. Many organizations, both civilian and military are at this stage implementing Information Operations or Information Warfare in one form or the other to gain information supremacy over a competitor or enemy.

While conducting such operations, care needs to be taken to address the different modus operandi used by the competitor. In order to do so, we first need to launch an intelligence effort to extend our knowledge of our competitor and the media he may use to get his message across. The gathering of this information leads to defining the Theatre of Operations: still the place where hostilities take place, but different. In the Information age we can no longer define it simply as ‘where bombs are dropped’. It has become much more than that: different parties are involved, their communications media, their location, their constituency and audience.

No Information Operation can be completed successfully without knowledge of the opponent that has high integrity and correctness. As such, definition the Theatre of Operations should be the first step in any such action.

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