What Is Information Advantage and Why Is It More Relevant than Ever?
Information advantage. It’s a term that has gained attention from defense organizations as information’s national security role has evolved in recent years.
The United States Department of Defense (DoD) published a strategy for operations in the information environment in June 2016. A Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE) was released in 2018. In 2019, the US Marine Corps established information as a seventh warfighting function. In 2021, the UK’s Integrated Review cited information advantage as a core priority.
According to the JCOIE:
“...individuals and groups today have access to more information than entire governments once possessed. They can swiftly organize and act on what they learn, sometimes leading to violent change. When applied to military systems, this diffusion of technology challenges competitive advantages long held by the United States. Our competitors and adversaries are using technology to offset or diminish the physical overmatch of the broad range of U.S. lethal capabilities.”
The Russia-Ukraine war has shown, in the mainstream, the impact of information on either side of a conflict. Government and military forces now understand that information advantage is key to maintaining a strategic edge over adversaries—especially as global information environments rapidly change. They also realize that this goal requires innovative technologies and processes.
But it’s only been in the last year or so that officials have even begun to establish what “information advantage” means and write it as official doctrine. This article covers:
- What an information environment and information advantage is
- Why information advantage is necessary, including current barriers
- How technology is helping achieve information advantage
What Is an Information Environment?
Discussing information advantage warrants a definition of “information environment,” which the DoD describes as:
“The aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.”
Understanding a target information environment is key to information advantage. For government and military operations, an information environment encompasses three dimensions:
- Physical. Physical components include any infrastructure relevant to the domain at hand—whether it be air, land, sea, or space. For example, these could be technological devices, buildings, or people.
- Informational. The informational dimension includes where and how information is collected, processed, analyzed, stored, and disseminated.
- Cognitive. Considered the most important domain, the cognitive dimension describes how people in an information environment perceive their environment and make decisions. It includes factors like worldviews/culture, emotions, education, and ideologies.
The explosion of open-source intelligence (OSINT) has revolutionized how intelligence operations assess information environments, especially when it comes to physical and cognitive dimensions. This is largely due to the proliferation of social media, which illuminates on-the-ground activities (physical dimension), as well as public sentiment and other trends within groups (cognitive dimension).
Public social media content also enables analysts to acquire region-specific data. Social media usage varies widely between countries and regions, so visibility into regionally-relevant networks involves sources that aren’t well-known in the West.
Regional Data Sources for Information Environment Assessments
We all know about mainstream social media sources like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. What are some other examples of data sources unique to regions of interest?
This data is valuable for information environment assessments (IEA). According to NATO, IEA capabilities aid in understanding information environments (both friend and foe), and “support coherent and successful strategic communication… and related activities contributing to the achievement of Alliance and Deterrence and Defence, Projecting Stability, and warfighting objectives.”
What Is Information Advantage?
Understanding an information environment is crucial to gaining an information advantage—so what exactly is information advantage?
Unlike the term “information environment,” the concept of information advantage is relatively new. According to Air Vice Marshall Johnny Stringer, Royal Air Force, information advantage is the “ability to understand better, quicker, deeper than your opponent, and then make better decisions...”
In other words, information advantage is leveraging information to make more informed, timely decisions and stay ahead of adversaries. At its core, information advantage requires gathering, processing, and fusing vast amounts of data into actionable intelligence before dissemination.
This sounds a lot like the intelligence cycle, but the focus is to perform faster and at a greater scale than has been possible before. The concept of information advantage also puts a novel focus on information environments for government and military domains.
Information advantage is being brought to the fore now because:
- Data is expanding. Field sensors are becoming more cost-effective and abundant, generating more data. Growing demand for OSINT also increases data abundance as online sources like social media gain relevance. An information advantage helps address data overwhelm and optimize the use of available data.
- Both friendly and adversarial information environments are evolving rapidly. The information space is already a priority for global powers like Russia and China, who are investing in sophisticated information advantage technologies like AI.
- Warfighting capabilities are no longer limited to core military domains—they now include information tactics. Information advantage is necessary to stay ahead of adversary information operations and disinformation.
Information advantage allows governments and militaries to better understand and keep pace with target information environments, which prompts better decision-making and protects national security interests.
Information Advantage Vs. Information Warfare
For the US Army Cyber Command, the concept of gathering, understanding, and responding to information faster and more effectively than adversaries was known as “information warfare.” In the last couple of years, the preferred term has changed to “information advantage” to encompass a broader information strategy leading to what the Army calls decision dominance.
This is part of a shift away from combining cyber, electronic warfare, and information operations under the umbrella of information warfare—and towards applying information advantage across all military capabilities. Now, information warfare is considered one of five core activities encompassing information advantage: decision-making, protecting friendly information, educating domestic audiences, informing and influencing international audiences, and information warfare.
NATO defines information warfare as the act of “controlling one’s own information space, protecting access to one’s own information, … acquiring and using the opponent’s information, destroying their information systems and disrupting the information flow.”
Barriers to Information Advantage
What roadblocks are governments facing on the path to information advantage?
Perhaps the most pressing challenge is data overwhelm. We already mentioned how low-cost battlefield sensors and other technology developments, widespread digital transformation, and growing demand for OSINT are flooding analysts with data. Connected IoT devices are expected to grow from 46 billion in 2021 to 125 billion by 2030, and available open-source data like social media content expands daily.
This creates an environment where analysts battle alert fatigue, overlook relevant insights, and drown in mission data. Without the right tools, these teams can’t gather reliable intelligence early enough for commanders to gain an information advantage.
There are also logistical gaps when integrating information advantage across multiple military capabilities. This includes determining who performs information advantage activities, how to structure these activities within military units, and what information advantage looks like for different applications. For example, information advantage for public affairs looks very different than for military deception operations.
To achieve a stronger information advantage, governments and militaries will also need to fill skills gaps necessary for assessing information environments. This means advancing OSINT tradecraft, improving subject matter expertise for regions of interest (including knowledge of regionally-relevant data sources), and mastering new tools and technologies.
Innovations Driving Information Advantage
The Russia-Ukraine war—which has been ongoing for over a month at the time of writing—is a prime example of the value of information advantage.
Russia has been associated with dominating information operations for several years, from leveraging QAnon conspiracy theories in the United States to justifying military actions in Syria and Georgia. But unlike past information operations, Western governments better understand information tactics and are ready not only to identify and debunk Russian narratives—but to predict and pre-bunk information before it has any impact.
Part of this information advantage has been attributed to the advent of OSINT tradecraft and technologies, which have become more widespread over the past decade. Information advantage will require continued technological developments to harness novel data sets, manage data overload, and address logistics and skills gaps.
What do these technologies look like in support of information advantage?
- Open-source intelligence software. Advanced OSINT tools help analysts gather, process, and analyze open-source data in real-time and at scale. These tools are useful for information environment assessments and information advantage in target regions. This is because social media content provides insights into the physical and cognitive dimensions that are often unavailable through classified data feeds and field sensors.
Some OSINT tools, like the Echosec Systems Platform, are optimized for regional information advantage. This is achieved through location-based searching/geofencing (allows users to search for content tagged in a specific area), and location classifiers (automatically extracts locations from content, whether or not it’s been tagged by the author). OSINT tools can also consolidate and index regionally relevant data sources that analysts don’t recognize.
- Data fusion systems. Data overwhelm is partly caused by the fact that analysts collect, process, and analyze data from several different sources—from web pages to field sensors. Data fusion systems integrate these disparate sources to extract more meaningful insights than would be available through any single source on its own. These systems help alleviate analyst workload—particularly with tasks like data normalization, anomaly detection, and pattern recognition—generating more timely, accurate intelligence.
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning. AI and ML techniques are central to information advantage for two reasons. First, they address data overwhelm by performing simple but time-consuming tasks, freeing up analysts to deliver more accurate, timely intelligence. Secondly, they aid in predictive intelligence necessary to make proactive decisions. This enables military operations to stay ahead of adversaries at a speed and scale not possible with human analysis alone.
The Value of Technology Partnerships
There is no silver-bullet technology for information advantage, and information advantage can’t be achieved alone. These innovations require a network of partnerships, combining specialized skill sets to meet mission requirements and address end-user needs.
Building technologies that support information advantage will rely on partnerships with commercial technology companies. It also requires technology integrations, small to medium-size enterprise subject matter expertise, and a combination of bespoke and commercial off-the-shelf solutions.
“It's very much layered shared services [linked] together with open standards—we have tried that before: demanding a standard and try[ing] to get everything to work together, and it doesn't work. But open standards or setting standards won't just do it on its own. You have to have companies that actually can integrate it all.”
—Al Potter, Director of National Security and Defence, Leidos UK
For example, Echosec Systems has domain expertise in online open-source data access. Echosec offers a commercial Platform and API that provide easy access to a wide range of social media, news, and deep and dark web sources not available through most commercial data providers. This includes social networks unique to specific regions ideal for information environment assessments.
In partnership with other technology providers—like those specializing in data fusion or AI—government and military organizations can develop tools that leverage open-source data, address current end-user challenges, and elevate information advantage.
In a digitally transformed world, information plays an important part in achieving strategic advantage. The goal of information advantage is to collect, process, fuse, and analyze data at speed and scale—driving more timely, effective decision-making for national security. As data volumes increase, this will only be possible through technological innovations and partnerships, both within and between the public and commercial sectors.
Echosec Systems partners with organizations to deliver in-demand defense software. Connect with us to talk about partnerships. Or, if you'd like to learn more about the Echosec Systems Platform, book a discovery call using the button below.