Since 2020, NATO has been driving forward plans for an entirely new type of combat it has called cognitive warfare. Until recently, NATO had organized its war operations into five different operational domains – air, land, sea, space, and cyber – but it is now preparing for a new, sixth type of domain: the human domain. As the military alliance put it, it is waging a “battle for the brain”. The objective is to fight disinformation and destabilization by China and Russia. But there are indications that NATO is also targeting its own population with the same propaganda tactics it is developing for adversary countries.
NATO Wants to Innovate in Cognitive Warfare
“It’s one of the hottest topics at the moment, according to Francois de Cluzel in his opening speech at the launch of NATO’s innovation competition, Countering Cognitive Warfare, in October 2021.
According to another participant of the event, French Defence specialist, Marie Pierre Raymond, cognitive warfare is the “most advanced form of manipulation that exists today.”
The event is sponsored by the NATO Innovation Hub (IHub), which provides a research forum for NATO’s ambitions for cognitive warfare. Founded in 2012 and based in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States, IHub is a self-proclaimed think tank where “experts and inventors from everywhere work together to solve NATO challenges”. IHub is not officially part of NATO, but it is funded by one of NATO’s two strategic headquarters, the NATO Allied Transformation Command.
The winner of the competition on countering cognitive warfare was the US company, Veriphix. In a press release, Veriphix CEO John Ruiz, celebrated his company’s expected collaboration with NATO, stating: “Influence operations have been around since ancient times. Advancements in the modern era from the cognitive sciences have made them more systematic and effective. We are pleased to offer our solution to help NATO strengthen its defensive cognitive warfare capabilities.” On the company website, Veriphix sells itself as a “behavioral science-based data analytics startup that tracks and measures belief, and provides the nudges that impact belief, to improve business outcomes across marketing, strategy, and product design.”
The company motto is “we measure beliefs to predict and change behaviour”.
NATO Gets Serious About Cognitive Warfare
A 2020 study sponsored by the IHub explains how cognitive warfare works. Whereas information warfare “aims at controlling the flow of information”, cognitive warfare “degrades the capacity to know, produce or thwart knowledge.” According to the paper, the objective of cognitive warfare is to undermine public trust in society – “trust is the target”, states the paper. This has the “potential to unravel the entire social contract that underpins societies.”
“It is easier and cheaper for adversaries to undermine trust in our own systems than to attack our power grids, factories or military compounds”, the paper reads.
Anyone and everyone is a target in cognitive warfare:
“Any user of modern information technologies is a potential target. It targets the whole of a nation’s human capital.”
In June 2021, NATO held its first scientific meeting on Cognitive Warfare in Bordeaux, France. In the foreword of the symposium anthology, French Air Force General André Lanata who previously served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation from 2018-2021, emphasized the importance of “exploiting the flaws of human nature to better target the minds of individuals”.
NATO aims to be ready for total war of minds, in which the opponent’s very capacity to build reality could be destroyed:
“The main goal is not to serve as an adjunct to strategy or to defeat without a fight, but to wage a war on what an enemy community thinks, loves or believes in, by altering its representation of reality. It is a war on how the enemy thinks, how its minds work, how it sees the world and develops its conceptual thinking. The effects sought are an alteration of world views, and thereby affect their peace of mind, certainties, competitiveness, and prosperity.
The stated objective is to attack, exploit, degrade or even destroy how someone builds their own reality, their mental self-confidence, their trust in processes and the approaches required for the efficient functioning of groups, societies or even nations. Although its technical aspects (cyber) are somewhat different, it is a companion to Psychological Operations (PSYOPS).”
In NATO circles, the new understanding is that cognitive warfare is the absolutely necessary adjunct to military operations if there is to be victory. Strategy must combine cognitive warfare with military action.
Cognitive Warfare: Who is NATO Targeting?
Officially, the aim of NATO’s cognitive warfare is to protect “NATO’s human capital” by countering similar warfare by adversary countries. The symposium anthology notes there is “growing concern” among NATO allies for the “disinformation and destabilization” activities of Russia and China.
The 2020 groundwork study on cognitive warfare sponsored by NATO on cognitive warfare explains in no uncertain terms that “everyone is a weapon”:
“While actions taken in the five domains are executed in order to have an effect on the human domain, cognitive warfare’s objective is to make everyone a weapon.”
The official line from NATO is that its work cognitive warfare is designed for defensive purposes mainly. But the study makes clear that NATO increasingly considers its own domestic population to be a threat. It warns of “an embedded fifth column, where everyone, unbeknownst to him or her, is behaving according to the plans of one of our competitors.”
NATO’s focus on cognitive warfare comes at a time where NATO countries are targeting their own domestic populations, in what appears to be a creeping militarization of human psychology in free societies.
In September, The Ottawa Citizen reported that Canadian military leaders saw the COVID-19 pandemic as a unique opportunity to test out propaganda techniques on an unsuspecting public in a campaign for “shaping” and “exploiting” information.
The command saw the propaganda plan on the pandemic response “as an opportunity to monitor and collect public information in order to enhance awareness for better command decision making,”
The plan which was devised and put in place by Canadian Joint Operations Command, also known as CJOC, in April 2020 used propaganda techniques similar to those employed during the Afghanistan war. This is despite the fact Canadian Forces had already acknowledged that “information operations and targeting policies and doctrines are aimed at adversaries and have a limited application in a domestic concept.”
The CJOC proceeded with the plan even though the Canadian government never asked for the so-called information operations campaign, and cabinet did not authorize the initiative developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Forces conducted an investigative report on the plan, in which it emerged that the CJOC staff had a “palpable dismissive attitude” toward the advice and concerns raised by other military leaders. CJOC claimed the information operation was needed to counter public protest during the coronavirus pandemic and to bolster government messages about the pandemic.
In an article in the 2021 NATO Cognitive Warfare symposium anthology, French General Eric Autellet writes that NATO has lost wars despite military superiority because of “the weaknesses of our narrative” on foreign populations but also in “our own populations.”
“Since Vietnam, despite military successes, our wars have been lost, in particular because of the weakness of our narrative (i.e., ‘win hearts and minds’), both with regard to local populations in theaters of operation, and with regard to our own populations.”
The statement is remarkable. There is here the open recognition that NATO must use cognitive warfare techniques on its own population for winning wars. But while statements of this nature are rare, since it would be politically explosive for NATO officials to admit to such operations, there exists clearly an understanding within NATO on using cognitive warfare proactively to shape the beliefs and attitudes of its own population in favour of NATO objectives. This has enormous implications. The subjective nature of determining what constitutes misinformation and the strategic interests of NATO in limiting free flow of information and debate on controversial topics gives NATO governments a potential blank cheque to mount operations of mass influence on their own populations without the justification for them existing necessarily, and this in order to produce politically complaint attitudes and behaviours. The alleged threat posed by cognitive warfare also provides NATO governments with a suitable cover for operations that might have other objectives than fighting disinformation by adversary countries.
As NATO plans for cognitive warfare, the enormous question is exactly who is the military alliance targeting in such propaganda operations. What does it mean for NATO to protect its own population from cognitive warfare? Whether used on domestic or foreign population, cognitive warfare is in essence about subjecting people to propaganda. In the fight to counter cognitive warfare, the elephant in the room is whether NATO is using propaganda techniques on its own population to degrade “their capacity to know, produce or thwart knowledge” on critical topics, such as COVID-19, on which NATO governments would like to shape societal attitudes in their favour. What is the line between legitimate debate and dissent by free citizens, and what would constitute cognitive warfare on NATO countries by adversary countries? And how does NATO draw that line? This appears to be a question which the military alliance would rather not address. Scrutiny on how NATO is applying the “most advanced form of manipulation” to presumably protect its population is neither desired nor answered by the alliance.
Where governments have professed to fight misinformation, it is not uncommon to find the alleged misinformation to be simply presumed by fiat, with concrete examples often lacking. For example, TCE reported on a leaked internal document on fighting Russian disinformation from the German Ministry of Interior, which purporting to fight Russian disinformation as something that needs no more to be justified with proven cases, effectively entailed censoring information that did not fit with the official narrative.
In early 2021, it emerged that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) sponsored Reuters and the BBC to conduct a covert information warfare campaign to undermine governments in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to a series of leaked documents.
The documents imply Russian misinformation to mean anything that comes from the Russian government.
In late March 2022, after the war in Ukraine broke out, the British government announced in a press release that it would provide the BBC World Service with more than £4 million “to counter disinformation about the war in Ukraine.” The funding is provided by the UK Foreign Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
In a press release, the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs reacted to the grant, stating “The BBC receives a propaganda mandate publicly and directly from the British Treasury. Now all they have to do is rewrite the doorplate to ‘BBC by Foreign Office’.”