Special Operations team in Pacific will confront Chinese information campaigns

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Officials described to Congress in recent weeks the various ways the military is seeking to thwart adversary influence and information operations. In this photo, the military dropped leaflets in 2013 over southern Afghanistan in support of operations to defeat insurgency influence in the area. (Sgt. Demetrius Munnerlyn/Marine Corps)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Operations Command created a task force in the Pacific region to work with allies there to thwart China’s information operations, the commander told lawmakers Thursday.

The Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific team will be focused on information and influence operations in the Pacific theater, a part of the world receiving much the military’s attention because of China’s growing capabilities.

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The team is poised to work with like-minded partners in the region, Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said before the Armed Services Committee. “We actually are able to tamp down some of the disinformation that they [China] continuously sow,” he said of the task force’s efforts.

The task force is an example of the fresh ideas the military is seeking to stifle damaging adversary influence and information operations. Officials are growing more concerned about these operations that sow chaos, doubt and confusion.

“Adversary use of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda poses one of today’s greatest challenges to the United States, not just to the Department of Defense,” Christopher Maier, acting assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations/Low-intensity Conflict, said earlier this month at a House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing.

Today’s information environment gives Russia, China and non-state actors real-time access to a global audience, Maier said. “With first-mover advantage and by flooding the information environment with deliberated and manipulated information that is mostly truthful with carefully crafted deceptive elements, these actors can gain leverage to threaten our interest.”

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Broadly, Maier explained that DoD organizes its efforts to combat disinformation, misinformation and propaganda in four lines of effort: countering propaganda by adversaries, force protection, countering disinformation and strategic deception abroad by adversaries, and deterring and disrupting adversarial influence capabilities.

Given that the primary delivery mechanism for this information malice is taking place through cyberspace, U.S. Cyber Command has seen an increased role beyond just affecting the 1s and 0s that are the language of the domain. Cyber Command also carries out cyber-enabled information operations of its own.

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The command’s leader pointed to the DoD’s “defend forward” directive — which charges Cyber Command to get as close as possible to adversaries in networks outside the United States — as a critical aspect of combating foreign cyber and influence operations before they reach U.S. shores.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, Cyber Command’s head, explained to senators Thursday that the command conducted over a dozen operations to head off foreign influence threats prior to the 2020 elections.

“The idea of operating outside of the United States, being able to both enable our partners with information and act when authorized. This is an active approach to our adversaries,” he said. “It’s been most effective as we’ve seen with the 2018 and 2020 elections with adversaries attempting to influence us, attempting to interfere but not being able to do that.”

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The forward defense concept isn’t just applicable to cyberspace. Clarke described Special Operations Forces, specifically Military Information Support Operations professionals, that are deployed forward and work closely with embassies around the world.

“By working closely with those partners to ensure that our adversaries, our competitors are not getting that free pass and to recognize what is truth from fiction and continue to highlight that to using our intel communities is critical,” he said.

1st Special Forces Command built an Information Warfare Center specifically designed to develop “influence artillery rounds” as a means of detecting adversary activity around the globe in and rapidly push that information to those that need it.

Ultimately, however, officials explained the military is just one instrument of national power to suppress these malicious activities.

“This is what the power of [Department of] Treasury brings to it, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, [Department of] Justice, Department of Homeland Security. This is the lesson that we’ve learned, is that we have to operate together because the partnership is where the power is,” Nakasone said.

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While responding to information or influence operations is imperative, Nakasone said the response could diplomatic or financial, not just a military action.

“There’s a broader piece that is being worked right now by the administration in terms of: How do we improve the further resilience of the United States as we look at adversaries continuing to avoid our laws and policies and try to use our own infrastructure in their own attempts?” he added. “This is not going to be episodic. This is something that U.S. Cyber Command and the other combatant commands need to continue to work at.”