RAND Study Examines Ways U.S. Can Better Counter Political Warfare

For Release

April 5, 2018

The United States needs to improve the ways it combats adversaries adept at using political warfare tactics to achieve their goals and undermine U.S. interests and allies, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

Political warfare is a term often used to describe measures that fall short of conventional warfare. These can include political, informational, military and economic measures to influence, coerce, intimidate or undermine U.S. interests or those of friends and allies. These efforts can include cyber warfare, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, economic sanctions and even a Russian state-sponsored biker gang.

Political warfare is as old as war itself; the United States has used it to protect its interests since the Revolutionary War. However, following the end of the Cold War, the United States has gotten “rusty” at this deliberate tool of statecraft and needs to adapt to how adversaries such as Russia, Iran and the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant are wielding it to advance their goals, said Linda Robinson, lead author of the study and a senior international policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

“Political warfare tactics are often subtle, more ambiguous forms of conflict, which can sow conflict, weaken, destabilize and disrupt,” Robinson said. “One example is Russia's rapid annexation of the Crimea without resorting to all-out warfare and its campaign to disrupt Estonia via cyber warfare, employing agitators and keeping Russian-speaking Estonians on a steady diet of Russian propaganda from Russian media outlets. We see other countries, for example Iran and China, increasingly resort to such nonmilitary tactics to advance their objectives and impede their adversaries.”

The RAND study examines political warfare as it is practiced today by both state and nonstate actors and provides recommendations for how the U.S. government and its allies can most effectively respond to or engage in this type of conflict to protect U.S. interests. Once practiced mainly by state actors, modern communications and weapons technology have made it increasingly easy for nonstate actors such as ISIL to gain unprecedented reach, Robinson said.

Three case studies are examined in the report: two examining current strategies and practices by state actors—Russia and Iran—and one examining a nonstate actor, ISIL.

Political warfare relies heavily on unattributed forces and means but employs all the elements of national power. The United States' adversaries turn to political warfare because they find it a relatively effective and low-cost form of competition that does not incur the risks of confronting the U.S. head on; the U.S. uses it because it offers additional options to policymakers, Robinson said.

Detecting early-stage political warfare requires a heavy investment of intelligence resources. Robinson and her colleagues recommend that the U.S. Department of State take the lead in the political warfare effort, coordinating with other agencies such as the Global Engagement Center, the Military Information Support Operations within the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Central Command, among others.

The study also notes gaps in U.S. information capabilities and practices and parses the implications. Strategic-level communications are high profile and bureaucratically risky characteristics that militate against speed and initiative. Robinson said U.S. agencies need to be more nimble, and leadership should empower communicators to quicken response times and take risks.

The information arena is an increasingly important battleground, where perceptions of success can be determinative. Information warfare works in various ways by amplifying, obfuscating and, at times, persuading. Compelling evidence supplied in a timely manner is the best antidote to disinformation, Robinson said. The plethora of independent media outlets can be a tool to expose political warfare efforts.

Robinson said Estonia, with a population of only 1.5 million, provides a good example of the whole-of-government approach to combating political warfare as well as the capabilities and limits of Russian political warfare.

Other authors of the study, “Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses,” are Todd C. Helmus, Raphael S. Cohen, Alireza Nader, Andrew Radin, Madeline Magnuson and Katya Migacheva.

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command G-9 and conducted within the RAND Arroyo Center's Strategy, Doctrine and Resources program. RAND Arroyo Center, part of the RAND Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the U.S. Army.

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