Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University




Advisory Board




Feedback Loop

Join email lists


Concept: InfoWar

Information warfare, aka 'infowar', is essentially a struggle of intelligence over force, of signs over weapons, of mind over body. Notorious for its many definitions, the meaning of infowar shifts with escalating phases of violence. In its most basic and material form, infowar is an adjunct of conventional war, in which command and control of the battlefield is augmented by computers, communications, and intelligence. At the next remove, infowar is a supplement of military violence, in which information technologies are used to further the defeat of a foreign opponent and the support of a domestic population. In its purest, most immaterial form, infowar is warring without war, an epistemic battle for reality in which opinions, beliefs, and decisions are created and destroyed by a contest of networked information and communication systems.

Infowar has a history that goes back at least as far as Sun Tzu, who identified the ability to subdue an enemy without killing him as the 'acme of skill' in warfare. From its earliest application in the beating of gongs and drums, to the more sophisticated use of propaganda and psychological operations, infowar has traditionally been deployed by the military as a 'force-multiplier' of other, more conventional forms of violence. With the development of mass and multiple media, infowar took on new forms and greater significance in the modern polity. New organizational structures enabled by information technologies began to transform the nature and culture of commerce, politics, and the military, effecting a gradual and uneven shift from rigid, centralized hierarchies to fluid, nodal networks.

Infowar has become the umbrella concept for understanding the new network wars. As the infosphere engulfs the biosphere, as the global struggle for 'full spectrum dominance' supplants discrete battlefields, as transnational business, criminal, and terrorist networks challenge the supremacy and sovereignty of the territorial state, infowar has ascended as a (if not the most) significant site for the struggle of power and knowledge. Under the mosaic of infowar we witness the emergence of cyberwars, hackerwars, netwars, virtual wars, and other kinds of information-based conflicts that ignore and defy the usual boundaries between domestic and foreign, combatants and non-combatants, war and peace itself. More a weapon of mass distraction than destruction, infowar nonetheless shares some common characteristics with nuclear war: it targets civilian as well as military populations; and its exchange-value as a deterrent outweighs its use-value as an actual weapon.

Infowar couples sign-systems and weapons-systems. Command and control, simulation and dissimulation, deception and destruction, virtual reality and hyperreality: all are binary functions - sometimes symbiotic, other times antagonistic - of infowar. Networks of remote sensing and iconic representation enable the targeting, demonizaton, and, if necessary, killing of the enemy. In its 'hard' form, infowar provides 'battlespace domination' by violent (GPS-guided missiles and bombs) as well non-lethal (microwave and electro-magnetic pulse weapons) applications of technology. In its 'soft' form, infowar includes virus attack on a computer network or the wiping out of terrorist organization's bank accounts. In its most virtual form, infowar can generate simulated battlefields or even create 'Wag-the-Dog' versions of a terrorist event. In any of these three forms, infowar can be offensive (network-centric war, trojan horse virus, or public dissimulations) or defensive (ballistic missile defense, network firewall, or preventive media).

Just as critical thinking lagged behind the advent of nuclear weapons, so too have the social sciences been slow to assess the virtues and perils of infowar. In pursuit of a public awareness of infowar, as well as a civil defense against its abuses, the ITWP project undertakes an investigation of the technologies, methodologies, and ethics of infowar and infopeace.

Arquilla, J. J., and D. F. Ronfeldt. 1993. Cyber war is coming. Comparative Strategy 12:141-165.

Barnett, R. W. 1998. Information operations, deterrence, and the use of force. Naval War College Review, 51(2):7-19.

Critchlow, R. D. 2000. Whom the gods would destroy: An information warfare alternative for deterrence and compellence. Naval War College Review 53(3):21-38.

Der Derian, J. 1994. Cyber-deterrent. Wired 2(9):116-122; 158.

Der Derian, J. 2001, Virtuous War. New York and Oxford: Perseus/Westview.

Economist. 1995. The ties that bind. Economist 335:Special Sup 18-20.

Harknett, R. J. 1996. Information warfare and deterrence. Parameters 1996 (Autumn):93-107.

Joint Chiefs of Staff. 1998. Joint Pub 3-13: Joint Doctrine for Information Operations. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense.

Libicki, M. 1995. What Is Information Warfare? ACIS Paper 3. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press.

Mahnken, T. G. 1995. War in the Information Age. Joint Force Quarterly 1995-96 (Winter):39-43.

O'Hanlon, M. 2000. Technological Change and the Future of Warfare. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Sullivan, Jr., L. 1994. Meeting the Challenges of Regional Security. Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.

Schwartau, W. 1994. Information Warfare: Chaos on the Electronic Superhighway. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Thomas, T. L. 1996. Deterring information warfare: A new strategic challenge. Parameters 1996-97 (Winter):81-91.

Wheatley, G. F., and R. E. Hayes. 1996. Information Warfare and Deterrence. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press.


Home | Input/Output | Team | Advisory Board | Concepts | Strategy | Press