Is War in the Sixth Domain the End of Clausewitz?

Thoughts from Chloe Diggins & Clint Arizmendi of the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre

Chloe Diggins & Clint Arizmendi are Research & Analysis Officers at the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Warfare takes place across four domains: land, air, sea and space. Recently – in search of a comparative advantage over the enemy – cyberspace was included as the fifth domain. In the future, this will no longer be the case, the human mind will be the sixth and perhaps the only domain of warfare.

Current technologies are shaping our ability to not only influence, but also to penetrate the human mind. As such, warfare is moving into information spaces such as cyberspace, as well as into the mind itself – through the emerging technology of the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) as we recently argued on Wired. However, unlike the widely criticised COIN strategy, this is more than just winning hearts and minds. War in the sixth domain is about controlling the human mind, either by shaping emotional and cognitive responses, or by outright exploitation of man-machine technology. It is, in a sense, coercive persuasion through internal and external stimuli.

Sound like something from a science fiction movie? Perhaps; but the future is not as far away as we think. Information operations (IO) – the effort to inform and shape perceptions, attitudes, behaviours, and understanding through the circulation of information – have always been a pivotal part of warfare.

Traditionally, an IO campaign was based on targeted information filtered through one-way communication channels. However, the spread of online networking technologies and the digitalisation of global news media means that the public now has greater access than ever before to events happening across the world, and can engage with them in real-time. As a result, we are seeing an increased emphasis on real-time IO unfolding across interactive multimedia platforms as forces such as Israel and Hamas compete to influence the human mind and dominate both public and private information and communication spaces.

So far, real-time IO using online networking technologies have relied on sympathisers seeking out or reaffirming information amongst their like-minded community. This means they take an active role in accessing and receiving an IO message. In the sixth domain of warfare, this role will be more passive as recipients are delivered messages involuntarily. By harnessing the technology behind personalised advertising, combatants could implant ideas and messages directly into the minds of their targets, eliminating any potential barriers between sender and receiver.

Imagine impressionable targets waiting at a bus stop where high-definition cameras scan their faces, retrieve their biometric details (which, presumably have been linked through a number of online networking technologies) and subsequently deliver a customised message to a nearby digital advertising board. Or perhaps, using audio spotlight technology, combatants could target potential recruits by delivering a message inside their head – a message that no one else can hear. Each target would receive a personalised message that accounted for their gender, socio-economic status, political background, personal biases, and social network characteristics. In a world in which we are increasingly “plugged in”, this kind of personalisation is not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. These technologies are well and truly here, and it’s not inconceivable that they’ll be used as effective real-time IO tactics to influence what people think and feel about conflicts happening at home and abroad.

If future technologies will allow us to intensify IO campaigns to influence minds, what might such technologies mean for the manipulation of minds when we use it concurrently with BCI?

In August of this year, the 21st USENIX Security Symposium took place in Washington. In addition to the usual contemporary topics of interest to IT security professionals such as password protection and cyber-security education, there was one additional topic that has significant implications for the future of defence and national security: “The Brain”.

What was once the purview of futurists and conspiracy theorists has now become a startling reality – the creation of tools and methods to harness the power, thoughts and desires of the brain to undertake both simple and complex operations. With this new reality comes new dangers. Researchers at the Symposium demonstrated how easily the brain could be hacked for private and secret information using cheap accessible technology designed for video games and keyboards. Essentially, technology that has been developed to enhance our lives may prove to be one of our biggest liabilities as our understanding of the brain significantly increases, leading us to question what one blogger recently referred to as the need for neurosecurity.

Whether it is a human controlling a metal exoskeleton or monkeys controlling a robotic arm, the increased technological capacity for brains and computers to interact is an area for further exploration, and it holds implications for the future of warfare, especially if exploited.

Control of the sixth domain would effectively mean that domination of the enemy’s mind both externally (IO) and internally (BCI) is possible, thereby altering the individual into a mind-controlled weapon. The risks here – if successfully applied in a nefarious manner – are that such individuals would have the ability to kill, maim or sabotage without conscience, but no capacity to question the command to do so – even if it contravened the Law of War or the Rules of Engagement.

Clausewitz argued that the application or threat of violence was the most effective method of coercion. A successful combination of IO and BCI manipulation (the sixth domain) would reduce war to just phase zero, eliminating the necessity for traditional warfare across the former five domains.

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.