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Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority against 21st-Century Insurgents

Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority against 21st-Century Insurgents by Martin C. Libicki, David C. Gompert, David Frelinger, and Raymond Smith. RAND, 2007, 194 pp.

This monograph examines an important but rarely discussed element of counterinsurgency operations (COIN)—information. While the importance of information may strike most readers as intuitively obvious, surprisingly little scholarship exists specifically dedicated to the subject. Byting Back does an admirable job in filling this void, addressing information as a critical tool in COIN and proposing a new framework to enable friendly forces to wield the tool more effectively than insurgents. The authors bring considerable credibility to the study. Martin Libicki has written extensively on cyberspace, cyberwar, and the information realm. David C. Gompert, currently deputy director of national intelligence, served as senior advisor for national security and defense to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. David Frelinger is a senior policy analyst at RAND whose research portfolio includes counterinsurgency and counter-IED operations and countering potential terrorist use of advanced conventional weapons and information technologies. Although published in 2007, Byting Back remains relevant to ongoing operations around the globe.

Perhaps no subject has permeated the contemporary security debate like the role and use of information in major combat operations. From revolutions in military affairs to network-centric warfare to cyberspace, the importance of information may be the one thing on which all sides can agree, yet previous authors have failed to identify the unique role information plays in COIN. Byting Back acknowledges the difficulties associated with supporting partner nations against insurgent operations. The authors question how the United States can translate its information networking strengths into advantage in the COIN fight and suggest that it is currently losing the information war because it fails to recognize the nuances of the COIN information environment. They recommend abandoning the major combat operation framework as the lens to understand the insurgency information environment. Unlike major combat operations, in COIN the population is the terrain both sides seek to capture and hold. Therefore, the information technology infrastructure and resulting information will be qualitatively different than that of more conventional operations.

The authors identify five primary sources of information that provide advantage in COIN operations. The first is aggregate cell phone data. Since cellular systems routinely collect large quantities of real-time user movement and interaction data, they represent a rich source of largely untapped information about a local populace. This aggregated context data is distinguished from individual content data. The latter is acknowledged as valuable intelligence for targeting individuals, but the former may be equally useful in deepening understanding of much broader societal trends. The second source of information is registry-census activities. These yield specific demographic data for the target population along five lines (basic census data, relationships, health, work, and license). The third source is developing wikis that the local populace would edit and update indigenously. Based on the accuracy and success of Wikipedia, the authors speculate on the universality of the willingness of people to contribute to large collaborative projects and suggest that this pattern could be used to enhance COIN effectiveness. Embedded video is the fourth source of information, which would presumably come largely from locals empowered by the same dynamics that made Facebook and Myspace top Internet destinations. Civil authorities and military forces would also provide video in hopes of establishing more sources of “truth data.” These data could be effectively tapped for mission reconstruction, promoting more rapid learning and refuting (countering) false insurgent messages. The fifth source would be voice notes. These would conceivably eliminate the requirement for friendly forces to generate reports by hand. Leveraging voice-to-text software, if successful, would speed the dissemination of raw data and reports and effectively aid in battling information latency.

To avoid the pitfall of creating another incompatible data warehouse, the authors propose an integrated system to collect and share the information. They dub their system Integrated Counterinsurgency Operating Network (ICON). In keeping with the premise that COIN requires different information than conventional operations, ICON represents a novel framework for integrating information from the five sources outlined. Perhaps most notably, ICON’s architecture might truly enable open access for not only US and friendly forces, but the local population as well. Readers familiar with intelligence operations and systems may be horrified at the notion of sharing militarily relevant information on an open system. However, the idea is not as far-fetched as it may appear at first glance. Open source intelligence (OSINT) has gained increasing prominence in recent years.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the monograph is the very element that makes counterinsurgency so difficult in the first place—people. The report acknowledged that developing ICON will require a close collaboration between government and industry. However, the recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Seizing the Wireless Advantage,” concluded that differing cultures and objectives make such partnerships extremely difficult to forge and maintain. Another distinct but related challenge will be creating the willingness for the military to accept non-vetted information in an effort to reduce information being late-to-need due to processing delays.

Byting Back ultimately earns a spot in the library of the serious COIN scholar and warfighter. It presents what could be a powerful new tool in fighting the information battle. Of course, battles are ultimately won by people, and only time will tell if the larger human issues of trust and culture will change sufficiently to allow technology to work.

Lt Col William S. Young, USAF

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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