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Low-Level Commanders Need Authority to Counter Information Operations, Northcom Leader Says

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How's the United States doing in its efforts to counter the information and propaganda campaigns waged by adversaries to undermine American democracy? Not so good, the commander of U.S. Northern Command said.

"I think we're getting, and I'm on the record, I think we're getting our rear end handed to us in the information space because we're so risk-averse in the environment that we operate in today," Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck said yesterday, during a presentation with the Air Force Association.

Military personnel sit at computer terminals in a room with a large screen.  One service member is standing.
Cyber Ops
Personnel with the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group conduct cyber operations at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Md., June 3, 2017.
Photo By: J.M. Eddins Jr., Air Force
VIRIN: 170603-F-LW859-023A

The general said he thinks the United States must speed up its ability to respond if it's going to protect things like elections or prevent the spread of misinformation and propaganda by the likes of Russia and China.

"I think we need to be a little more aggressive," he said. "I think, right now, we should change the paradigm [for] the way we do information operations."

Right now, he said, information operations plans might go through a combatant commander, to the Defense Department, bring in the National Security Council and involve the White House as well, he said.

"That is a very slow process, and in the environment we're operating in right now ... in about 12 hours to 24 hours in the information space, you're irrelevant. It has moved on," he said. "I believe we need to flip that paradigm and push down, use mission command — the lanes in the road, the rules of the road — and allow commanders of the lower level to be able to execute within the mission environment that we're operating in to be more effective in real time."

More Than Nukes 

Northcom is responsible for protecting the U.S. homeland — its people, national power and freedom of action. Right now, VanHerck said, more of that protection is dependent on nuclear power than what should be.

"Homeland defense today is too reliant on what I think is the foundation of homeland defense, and that is our nuclear deterrent and deterrence by punishment," he said. "But what that doesn't do for us is give us opportunities to deescalate early and deter earlier."

Deterrence with nuclear capabilities he said, while useful, are too escalatory in nature and other avenues must be looked at.

Rocket sits on pad
Ballistic Missile
A Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile replica stands at the front gate at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 10, 2019. The base hold two-thirds of the American nuclear triad.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Dillon J. Audit
VIRIN: 190610-F-DJ826-0012C

"What I'm trying to do is fill that gap and focus on a little bit of deterrence by denial," he said. "Ballistic missile defense is deterrence by denial. But I also believe hardening resiliency, or the way we project our force, creates deterrence options on a day-to-day basis."

The homeland defense of tomorrow, he said, won't look like what it does today. Getting there starts with changes to policy — which he said will need to involve civilian policy makers rather than uniformed military personnel.

"It needs to be our policymakers that decide what we must defend kinetically," he said. "And it's not everything. So I'm reaching out, trying to work through the department, trying to work through the interagency, to figure out what that is."

Certainly, he said, things like continuity of government, nuclear command and control capabilities, forward power projection capabilities, and the defense industrial base are included.

Beyond that, he said, homeland defense can also include things like resilience, deception and information operations. But those are not enough either. VanHerck said he wants to go even further to the left — meaning to get ahead of crises before they happen.

"I believe that takes a layered defense, a layered defense focused on forward capabilities," he said. "I don't want to be shooting down cruise missiles over the National Capital Region. I think we need to be partnered with [our] 11 combatant commands, allies and partners forward, to generate deterrence day-to-day, and then in crisis and conflict, utilize those capabilities to deter and defend forward before it becomes a threat to our homeland. That's where my homeland defense design is focused."

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