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Review: Theory & Practice of Cognitive Warfare, Deterrence to Grand Strategy, Marco R. Provvidera (2/11/23)

The CCW Emerging Threats Group convened on November 2, 2023, for a discussion with subject expert and attorney Marco R. Provvidera on cognitive warfare, practice, and legalities. The discussion centred on the increasingly important role of cognitive warfare and the “sixth domain” in great power competition. In the session, the difference between cognitive warfare and adjacent forms of conflict was explored conceptually. Key problems were identified as the detection and deterrence of cognitive warfare, pointing to attribution and deniability issues.

The Sixth Domain

The recognition of cognitive warfare as a sixth domain aims to create a continuously evolving framework that looks at shifts in warfare across a range of psychological factors. The concept of cognitive warfare reviews how human beliefs, perceptions and decision-making affect a nation’s success in achieving strategic goals. Rather than focusing on physical assets, cognitive warfare targets the human mind as the battleground. Moreover, it transcends the grey zone, hybrid warfare, and information operations in scope and aims.

While hybrid and information warfare support traditional military objectives on an operational and strategic level, cognitive warfare is designed to independently achieve lasting political objectives. Accordingly, cognitive warfare targets the unconscious level of values and beliefs through societal ‘centres of gravity’ like public opinion forums, including social media. Truth decay, societal division, and polarization are all both vulnerabilities for and goals of cognitive warfare. Examples of this can be seen both in the emergence of some European far-right parties, as well as the recent instability in West Africa.

Lawfare’s Emergence

Lawfare, as the weaponization of law, often involves the relativization of basic tenets of the Law of Armed Combat (LOAC). It is an attempt to establish divergent but equally legitimate interpretations of LOAC, which weakens the law and seeks to creepingly legitimate illegal practices of warfare. The notion of lawfare is increasingly used in reference to the regulation and governance of big tech and data. With increasing cognitive (warfare) capabilities, data, and resources available to private players, there are concerns about how to regulate the influence and power of big tech firms.

As cognitive warfare blurs lines between civilian and military, public and private, combatant and non-combatant, big tech companies have a central role in the detection, deterrence, and combating of cognitive warfare. The regulation of international tech standards, data governance, and big tech firms has become subject to lawfare, which has prevented further development of LOAC from accounting for the threat of cognitive warfare. There are problems surrounding trust, cooperation, and international competitiveness within this realm, but a lack of legal clarity also is advantageous for actors seeking to exploit cognitive warfare. 

Session Takeaways

Questions surrounding the topic were expansive. Discussions that the sixth domain may be too narrow to encapsulate the nature of conflict fully led to an analysis of NATO’s concepts. NATO is already conceptualizing the human factor beyond individual neuroscience, signposting its relevance in international analysis. Focusing on Canada, but relevant to much of the Western world, the group analysed how cognitive warfare can be used as a statecraft tool to destabilise and disrupt enemies without requiring physical violence. Such tactics are expected to be popular amongst nations as technology grows. However, it is important to be cautious.

Much of the discussion expressed interest in how growing technology and powerful private commercial companies could impact this domain. Both misinformation and deep fakes, as well as potentially biased cognitive capabilities, create concern surrounding future cognitive warfare. With the current levels of mistrust and lack of accountability, there are worries about the legalities and regulation of emerging technologies. As commercialisation in this field expands, it will be imperative for states to create clear, coherent policies to prevent misinformation and cognitive vulnerabilities

1 Comment

  • Marco Provvidera
    Posted December 15, 2023 at 4:08 pm

    Congratulations big time and much appreciation, Liberty! Your review of our session is simply perfect! So rich and articulated, it grasped all not-easy nuances in a truly excellent way. Thank you!

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