Cognitive Domain: The Sixth Domain of Warfare

Sub Title : The brain is the future war zone

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Neeraj Mahajan

Page No. : 42

Category : Military Affairs

: February 6, 2023

The human brain is going to be the future combat zone. There is enhanced focus on Cognitive Warfare– a ‘Battle for the Brain’. The war zone is going to be global and active 24×7 – thanks to information technology, satellites, smartphones, and social media. Technology has immensely enlarged the scope and scale of waging Cognitive Warfare from what it was a few decades ago

In the 1930s German poet, and playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “We have a handy little gadget called man; he can fly a plane, he can kill. But he has one defect — he can think.” Brecht’s prediction has become a reality today. Modern-day researchers are burning midnight oil to develop an entirely new kind of combat called cognitive warfare to target and control the human mind the most complex part of the human body as well as the seat of intelligence and the decision-making hub that controls all senses, body movements, and behaviour, and is now going to be the future battlefield. NATO has classified this entirely new kind of combat as Cognitive Warfare or ‘Battle for the Brain’ in which the brain will play an increasingly predominant part. Cognitive warfare has been defined as the “art of using technologies to alter the cognition of human targets.”

Cognitive warfare involves five main elements:

  • Eroding the command, control, and authority of the enemy’s decision makers.
  • Corrupting their credibility as well as the ability to take quick and timely decisions.
  • Shield or insulate friendly decision makers.
  • Collecting and analyzing information and
  • Spreading misinformation to play on the adversary’s fear, and anxieties to demoralize them.

Cognitive warfare helps win wars and shatter the enemy’s decision-making capacity without firing a single bullet. It is a cost-effective way to prevent collateral damage and friendly casualties.

The prime objective of cognitive warfare is to find new ‘ways of harming the brain’ and change not only what people think, but how they think and act. Cognitive warfare seeks to exploit the vulnerabilities of the human brain through a process called social engineering – a term used for a broad range of malicious activities or psychological manipulation to trick the target to make silly mistakes or give away sensitive information.

Social engineering attacks invariably involve one or more steps that allow the attacker to gain the victim’s trust and make him/her reveal sensitive information or grant access to critical resources. What makes social engineering particularly more dangerous and lethal is its ability to pinpoint, magnify and exploit human error or mistakes which are much less predictable, and harder to detect.

Cognitive warfare can sow seeds of discord, instigate conflict, polarize opinion, and radicalize groups – in short divide or fragment an otherwise unified society. It has the ability to manipulate human feelings, such as curiosity or fear to draw victims into its trap using a combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology. It is a sort of Molotov cocktail and hybrid method of attack that goes beyond information warfare or psychological operations (psyops) to manipulate and overpower the victim’s brain. This is one of the reasons why cognitive warfare has been called the sixth domain of combat – the other five being – land, air, sea, space, and cyber.

According to a NATO-sponsored study, “The brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century. Humans are the contested domain and future conflicts will likely occur amongst the people digitally first and physically thereafter in proximity to hubs of political and economic power.”

Cognitive warfare can be compared to propaganda, disinformation, psychological operations, or perception management to plant ideas, change or alter public opinion and bring about active or passive participation of the subject which may be a group of individuals or an entire nation. If used properly cognitive warfare can help even a militarily or numerically weak opponent to bypass the traditional battlefield and transform a potential defeat into a decisive victory.

Cognitive warfare can be used to “program” minds and influence people’s behaviour by getting them to adopt the right attitude and do or not do certain things. Cognitive Warfare can be used or exploited as a component of a global strategy to influence adversaries and to weaken and undermine the autonomy of their decisions and the sovereignty of their institutions. The ultimate outcome of such campaigns invariably depends on the effective use of real or distorted information (misinformation), exaggerated facts, and fabricated news (disinformation) to take advantage of the adversary’s fear, anxieties or beliefs and makes them accept the false information. The only precondition for this is that the aggressor should have an understanding of the socio-political dynamics and know exactly how and when to penetrate to exploit these vulnerabilities of the opponent’s mind. The recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) can help radically enhance the capabilities of cognitive warfare to manipulate human minds and change human behaviour.

Here are some instances where Cognitive Warfare has been used in different situations.

Ukraine War: The ongoing Russo-Ukraine war is witnessing intensive use of cognitive warfare tactics, propaganda, and information warfare with the help and well-planned use of social media, digital and other means of communications to reach larger audiences with customized and targeted content at a lightning speed. Apparently, the US seems to be dominating this cognitive war because of its monopoly over social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and others. This allows NATO officials, diplomats, and journalists to strategically communicate with other countries and garner support for the US led sanctions. As compared to the Russians, the Ukrainians seem to be more comfortable swinging the internet and social media platforms. This is working to their advantage and helping them dominate the cognitive warfare and perception management campaign on social media. Zelensky being a former TV actor is using this edge to make dramatic emotional appeals to the international community for help and assistance and project Russia in poor light. On the other hand, the Russians are unable to tell their own story and there is no one in the world community who is seemingly interested in helping them do so. TV channels are screaming at the top of their voice magnifying the Russian atrocities, while the Russian version of the use of Ukrainian bio-labs by the US is hardly getting any coverage. As a result, Russia has apparently lost the war in the mind – even before being tossed on the ground – in reality.

The biggest lessons learnt from this ground situation are:

  • The first mover has the advantage in this type of warfare.
  • No one is big or small, everyone has a fair chance to win – anyone who plays the game well can give the opponent a tough fight and win the war. How else do we explain how the militarily and numerically inferior Ukrainians managed to turn the tide and Russians despite the apparent disadvantages?
  • Perception management and propaganda have a big role to play – the Russian has been totally discredited and shown to be involved in war crimes and human right violations.
  • Wars can be fought effectively –silently too with the help of words and visuals: The Ukrainians used videos and images of 13 Ukraine soldiers on Snake Island asking the Russian warship to buzz off. Similarly, the video of a farmer capturing a Russian tank had a greater impact than videos of the destruction of a Russian arms depot. These images and visuals went a long way to motivate the Ukrainians to boldly fight the Russians and created a positive world opinion and helped them get foreign military aid.

Vietnam War: US military attacked Vietnam in response to an alleged Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, which in reality never happened and was a deliberate hoax. Eventually many years later de-classified US National Security Agency (NSA) documents and tapes revealed that high-level US officials distorted facts to deceive the American public about the facts related to the Vietnam War.

Gulf War: The United States used cognitive warfare against Iraq in the Gulf War. American forces targeted Iraqi command and control centres with precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which disrupted Iraqi military decision making. This ultimately led to the collapse of the Iraqi army.

Kosovo War: President Bill Clinton administration and NATO used cognitive warfare against Yugoslavia in Kosovo as a part of Operation Allied Force. More than 1,000 NATO aircraft flew over 38,000 combat missions from air bases in Italy and Germany and bombed Yugoslavia. In this operation, a number of sophisticated propaganda and public relations methods were used by both the government and military to put across their views in “the best possible light”. NATO’s propaganda messages demonized President Slobodan Milosevic as a criminal and dictator like Hitler who rejected all peace proposals and went on to erode his credibility in public opinion. As a result, President Slobodan Milosevic had to withdraw from Kosovo.