The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Captain Ryan C. Adams, USAF
/ Published June 07, 2021
“The speed of decision required to respond to a peer adversary in a dynamic tactical situation will require ISR, EW, IO, and offensive and defensive cyber Airmen to repeatedly make decisions and execute distributed operations under mission command with limited direction from higher headquarters.”
- Lt Gen Timothy Haugh
Following World War II, the United States established itself as a leader and superpower. During the Cold War, battlefield strategy focused on the adversaries’ strength in terms of men and weapons fueled by fear and unrecognized misinformation. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed, and the global security environment became one of information and the influence it could engender. Battlefields between major strategic players transitioned to a contest of words and ideas used to drive public opinion. 11 September 2001 brought the US back to kinetic warfare, where the primary focus of the US Department of Defense (DOD) was the destruction of terrorists and violent extremist organizations based in the Middle East. The adversaries of the US were outgunned and outmanned, so they sought methods to bridge this gap with a weapon far less costly and nearly as effective as kinetic strikes: words. The front lines were no longer solely about countering weapons of mass destruction, but rather, weapons of mass disruption. While America was fully engaged in counterterrorism, its adversaries were also expanding their capabilities in information warfare (IW) while staying below the threshold of armed conflict. “The U.S. media…industry is the largest in the world.”1 Within its media industry, the US maintains the greatest capacity and infrastructure for information distribution on the planet. Notwithstanding that fact, efforts by the DOD to leverage information for strategic advantage are often disjointed and appear uncoordinated by any standard. US efforts seem to fall well short of competing with the capabilities of its adversaries.
The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Chinese government-sponsored think tank, announced on 8 September 2020 that a USAF RC-135, callsign RAINY51, changed its Mode S code in-flight. Mode S is a secondary surveillance and communication system which supports Air Traffic Control (ATC). It allows the unambiguous identification of a particular aircraft and provides its location and altitude by interrogating the aircraft and displaying the response for the controller. On this particular day, RAINY51 was observed changing its Mode S code as it entered the South China Sea after taking off from Kadena AB, Japan on an alleged reconnaissance mission.
The changing of Mode S codes to random selections has been observed by plane spotters around the world many times.2 In these instances, an aircraft that changes its Mode S code is not putting any other aircraft in jeopardy. ATC is still receiving all required position and altitude information pertinent to the flight, just under a different aircraft identification number. The change for RAINY51 may simply have been an attempt to preserve a level of operational security associated with the sortie in the hotly contested South China Sea. On 8 September, the new Mode S code mimicked that of a civilian airliner. In their public condemnation of this action, released the day of the flight, SCSPI stated “a US spy plane was spotted seeming to disguise itself as a Malaysian aircraft…The dangerous maneuver poses the risk of confusing civilian and military aircraft, which in the past has resulted in deadly airliner shootdowns.”3
Following the release of the SCSPI statement, organizations such as warisboring.com published several articles that closely mirrored the Chinese interpretation—and extrapolation—of events. There was never a response provided by any member of the DOD. Any defense of the crew of RAINY51 from the DOD could have been used to support their actions and disrupt the Chinese narrative that they were dangerous, provocative, or hostile. Through inaction, the US allowed the propagation of a story that was counter-productive to its purpose in the South China Sea without response. The DOD failed to provide a timely, reality-based narrative explaining the operational justification for the actions taken by the flight crew. The aggressive Chinese response to the actions taken by RAINY51 seemingly caught the DOD by surprise with no mechanism in place to respond.
In the midst of this DOD passivity, a number of third parties filled the vacuum. Kyle Mizokami, from Popular Mechanics, wrote “If the reconnaissance is happening outside sovereign airspace, there is no pressing need to engage in that sort of deception. It's perfectly legal and done in plain sight off the coast of Russia, Syria, and Crimea all the time—literally, every day there are RC-135s off the coast of Russia, with their transponders on, and broadcasting exactly who they are.”4 This statement shows the DOD has a valid counter to Chinese spin, and a foundation for its actions. There was an opportunity to shift the narrative and show American compliance to international law while assertively highlighting deceptive Chinese behavior.
The SCSPI added to the deception in early October 2020 by releasing an in-depth analysis of 60 US reconnaissance missions around China during September. This article included additional claims of dangerous provocations from the US and “hints at the much talked-about contingency where bases on the Japanese island are knocked out by Chinese missiles during the opening stages of a Sino-American conflict.”5 The article is alarmist in nature and includes multiple false statements which only require a cursory knowledge of military activities to discredit.
Jim Garamone, of US DOD News, stated “The United States is under attack—under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place … From U.S. businesses, to the federal government, to state and local governments, the United States is threatened by cyberattacks every day.”6 While specific to the cyber domain, this statement captures the tempo at which China’s forces are operating in and through the information space. Because of the volume of Chinese operations within cyber, traditional media, or other venues, it is impossible and unnecessary to counter every account that shows the US in a negative light. However, RAINY51 stands at the head of a long line of situations that could be used to promote US interests and degrade Chinese efforts to wage IW in the South China Sea.
The 16th Air Force
The 16th Air Force (16 AF), subordinate to Air Combat Command, was created to engage with this exact type of scenario. It is meant to “integrate multisource intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber warfare, electronic warfare, and information operations capabilities across the conflict continuum to ensure that our 16 AF is fast, lethal and fully integrated in both competition and in war.”7 While the stated goal is to be fast and lethal, the first reaction to the 8 September SCSPI article was not published until 21 days later, on 29 September. There has never been an official DOD response.
The only plausible explanation of the crews’ actions stemmed from an interview of a former RC-135 pilot, Robert Hopkins, by theaviationst.com. Hopkins said “USAF RC-135s have indeed been squawking bogus Mode S codes, but they are RANDOM, not intentional…There was an instance where ONE Mode S code apparently fell within the range assigned to Malaysia, but not specifically assigned to an airliner… My assessment is that someone has determined that using these random Mode S codes will confuse amateur OSINT tracker/Flight Radar followers from tracking RC-135s on their legal missions in international airspace. Instead, serious trackers note this discrepancy and report it, spawning no end of stupid conspiracy theories and drawing needless attention to missions that have been going on without incident for decades.”8 The context provided by this interview is important in discrediting the Chinese account of this situation. However, the 16 AF’s response to defend RAINY51 was non-existent. Worse, their inability or unwillingness to clarify and publish the truth demonstrated to the adversary that small attacks may go unanswered, likely encouraging future challenges to US efforts.
Lt Gen Timothy Haugh, 16 AF Commander, said, “Our adversaries have brought strategic competition to the nation’s front door by engaging the US population in the information environment… Our adversaries’ goal is to degrade political will or to generate internal conflict, while creating the plausible deniability necessary to avoid international responsibility.”9 In the RAINY51 example, China implies that the USAF displayed deception worthy of an aggressive response. However, their intent remains only thinly disguised: degrade the willingness of the US population to support further engagement in the South China Sea.
While explaining how the US will counter adversaries, Lt Gen Haugh adds, “Multi-Domain and whole-of-government IW operations will impose a cost on US adversaries by exposing their malign activity and eliminating their plausible deniability.”10 The potential issue with this statement is that it appears to establish a defensive posture for 16 AF. However, the strategy is sound: expose malign activity in response to an action already taken by an adversary. That exposure takes time to coordinate and often requires high-level approval to release. 16 AF is building the infrastructure to shorten that timeline considerably.
Information Warfare Tradecraft
Being able to proactively step in front of a narrative that an adversary is attempting to disseminate is a risky and resource-heavy endeavor. However, having action officers postured to quickly and truthfully respond to an emerging narrative would capitalize on the resources already dedicated to 16 AF. It would provide critical opportunities to support fast and lethal IW. Being ready and empowered to articulate the context of RAINY51’s mission and actions would have denied China the ability to use this situation against US efforts. China’s goal is to degrade the political will of the US to remain engaged in the region and US efforts should be focused on countering that goal.
Since being announced in October 2019, 16 AF has taken great strides to correct decades of DOD missteps relating to IW. “The changes come as Congress has grown concerned in recent years regarding lack of coordination for information operations across the department.”11 The simple recognition of a need for an IW-centric command is a giant leap forward. Dedicated 16 AF personnel who understand the threat and are trained to act can modernize the efforts of the DOD in the electromagnetic spectrum. This would place the US back on a strong footing of both defensive and proactive IW, while actively keeping us below the threshold of armed conflict.
An excellent example of the benefits that can, and should, arise from the 16 AF can be seen in the Public Affairs release from US Africa Command in July 2020. Before the release, it was suspected that the Russian government, through the Wagner Group, was covertly supplying military equipment to Libya in an attempt to establish a long-term Russian presence in the region. DOD analysts were able to provide multisource evidence that Russia was attempting to camouflage its support to Libya through non-attributable means.12 This situation afforded the 16 AF an opportunity to leverage truth to counter Russian attempts at malign influence meant to subvert allied efforts in the region. These analysts exposed adversarial intent by leveraging their considerable expertise and were able to reach a beneficial outcome for the US and its allies.
10 U.S.C. § 161 dictates that each combatant commander is responsible to the President and to the Secretary of Defense for the performance of missions assigned to that command. To meet this statutory requirement, and to better support collaboration with 16 AF, a command-specific strategic messaging policy should be developed and updated regularly in each combatant command. It must satisfy the requirements of the National Defense Strategy and be applied to all aspects of information operations within the combatant command. Critically, it must provide the ability to be flexible, adaptable, and rapid in generating action. This policy must then be integrated into the command so all members can understand and support the commanders’ intent. This policy should not be intended to address every possible situation that may arise. Rather, it should provide the overall message the commander wishes to convey within their area of responsibility. When the commander is assured that their policy supports their intent, appropriate guidelines for determining the acceptable level of risk (ALR) in different situations can be developed. With a policy in place and guidance on interpreting the commanders’ intent, individual combatant commands are almost ready to wage effective IW.
Though declared IOC in July 2020, 16 AF still has lots of room to expand its influence and refine its tradecraft. It likely will not be able to staff every combatant command with its own IW cell. However, 16 AF could still build global influence with region-specific teams that coordinate efforts with deployed action officers—those requesting effects for a specific campaign. This proposed course of action would meet the vision Lt Gen Haugh presented about problem-centric operations. “Our IW forces must integrate into joint command and control concepts that allow for the flexible employment of a distributed force… The speed of decision required to respond to a peer adversary in a dynamic tactical situation will require ISR, EW, IO, and offensive and defensive cyber Airmen to repeatedly make decisions and execute distributed operations under mission command with limited direction.”13 This concept is further supported through an examination of the aforementioned IW operations regarding Libya, contrasted with the inaction against China. Purpose-built IW teams would have the expertise to understand pressure points within a region and how to exploit existing capabilities to meet commander’s intent.
Once the command policy is developed and the applicable training completed, the 16 AF staff should be entrusted to execute policy independently within their assigned region under the ‘limited direction’ concept, if necessary. This new concept of execution would require the commander to accept the risk of counter-messaging for which second and third-order effects may not be fully understood. Through strict adherence to ALR guidance, this risk can be mitigated. Additionally, by delegating his authority to the IO cell action officer, the timeline for execution of effect could be reduced significantly to great operational benefit.
Once policy has been implemented and guidelines for ALR established, the biggest challenge lies in identifying the most qualified personnel to staff IW cells. “The Air Force is facing a large shortage of field grade cyberspace operations officers, in the near and long term.”14 Staffing levels within the cyber force is just one example. Other IW career fields face similar challenges. Without dedicated officers to fill their role in each IW cell, 16 AF must craft a creative manpower solution in order to deliver prevailing cyber and IW effects. With the distributed talents and specialties being introduced into 16 AF, cross-training will be required to recognize the full potential of the new command. A baseline understanding of IW should be identified, and training must be provided to every member who joins the 16 AF. This training should factor into the risk identified by the combatant commander during the ALR analysis. An ISR pilot may be the action officer on call when a narrow window of time opens to capitalize on a messaging opportunity within the cyber domain. This pilot cannot waste time looking for a cyber officer or seeking approval from the first general in the chain of command. Each action officer must be trained and empowered by policy to take actions they deem appropriate for successful operations. Those actions could be pre-planned, or they could be ad hoc, for effect as requested by the actioning team. The decision for IO medium and execution timing should be delegated to the action officer level in accordance with intent and ALR guidance established by the commander. The 24-hour news cycle, propagated by instantaneous worldwide dispersal through social media, demands that the public aspects of IW be delegated to the person who knows how to execute the plan in real-time.
By integrating this new plan—defining command IW policy, delegating authority for execution, and finally identifying skilled action officers—the expected level of effectiveness and efficiency of 16 AF can be realized. Lt Gen Haugh believes “the Air Force can be aggressive within the information environment because we will produce facts and fact-based evidence of malign activity.”15 While communicating truth may seem simple, there are many steps required to determine the basis, context, and application of these truths. It takes concerted efforts from experts in a wide variety of specialties to present truth to power in a way that decisions can be made. If steps are taken as outlined here, information operations of the US DOD and federal agencies can be employed as a unified front, and the US can embark on a rapid and overwhelming effort to counter the malign activity of adversaries around the world.
Captain Ryan Adams
Captain Ryan Adams is an instructor pilot in the 343d Reconnaissance Squadron, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. He is responsible for commanding the premier manned reconnaissance aircraft in the United States to conduct politically sensitive, potentially hostile RC-135 RIVET JOINT reconnaissance missions as directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has deployed extensively to support US Central Command and Pacific Air Force operations. Captain Adams has logged more than 1850 flights hours, including nearly 700 combat hours.
1 International Trade Administration Department of Commerce, “Media and Entertainment Spotlight: The Media and Entertainment Industry in the United States,” SelectUSA, n.d., https://www.selectusa.gov/.
2 Kyle Mizokami, “U.S. Spy Plane Impersonates Malaysian Aircraft, Apparently to Fool China,” Popular Mechanics, 10 September 2020, https://www.popularmechanics.com/.
3 Morgan Artyukhina, “US Spy Plane Impersonates Malaysian Aircraft to Fly Close to Chinese Airspace - Report,” Sputnik International, 9 August 2020, https://sputniknews.com/.
4 Kyle Mizokami, “U.S. Spy Plane Impersonates Malaysian Aircraft, Apparently to Fool China.”
5 Kristin Huang, “US Sent 60 Spy Planes Close to China in September: Beijing Think Tank,” South China Morning Post, 13 October 2020, https://www.scmp.com/.
6 Jim Garamone, “Cyber Tops List of Threats to U.S., Director of National Intelligence Says,” U.S. Department of Defense, 13 February 2018, https://www.defense.gov/.
7 “Sixteenth Air Force (Air Forces Cyber),” Sixteenth Air Force, 27 August 2020, https://www.16af.af.mil/.
8 David Cenciotti, “Yes, U.S. RC-135s Have Used Bogus Hex Codes to Transmit a False Identity. But It’s Not to Fool China or Other Enemies,” The Aviationist, 29 September 2020, https://theaviationist.com/.
9 Lt Gen Timothy D. Haugh, Lt Col Nicholas J. Hall, and Maj Eugene H. Fan, “16th Air Force and Convergence for the Information War,” Cyper Defense Review, 21 July 2020, https://cyberdefensereview.army.mil/.
10 Haugh, Hall, and Fan, “16th Air Force and Convergence for the Information War.”
11 Mark Pomerleau, “Congress Wants to up DoD’s Game in the Information Environment,” C4ISRNET, 10 December 2019, https://www.c4isrnet.com/.
12 US Africa Command Public Affairs, “Russia and the Wagner Group Continue to Be Involved in Ground, Air Operations in Libya,” US Africa Command, 24 July 2020, https://www.africom.mil/.
13 Haugh, Hall, and Fan, “16th Air Force and Convergence for the Information War.”
14 Chaitra M. Hardison, et al., Attracting, Recruiting, and Retaining Successful Cyberspace Operations Officers (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 2019).
15 Haugh, Hall, and Fan, “16th Air Force and Convergence for the Information War.”
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