Ending wars through information dominance: Californians know how

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While the ongoing coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will certainly blunt the terrorists’ military momentum, history tells us our bombs will do little to thwart their ideology. In 2006, an F-16 dropped two precision bombs on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and killed him, but eight years later, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group based on his ideas, has grown and spread.

ISIS’s devastating images of beheadings and mass executions are making global headlines as the terrorist organization attempts to influence the masses to gain political legitimacy, recruit new followers and demoralize opposition. These “information campaigns” of shocking images and twisted messaging are barbaric, but they are grabbing the world’s attention using the most powerful tools in ISIS’s arsenal: TV, the Internet and social media.

{mosads}In California, the members of our Air and Army National Guard possess the expertise to analyze, respond to and defuse these broadcasts, but the capability remains untapped because of a lack of funding.

The soldiers and airmen of the 22,000-member California National Guard work civilian jobs Monday through Friday in virtually every industry. In California, home to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, these filmmakers, writers, marketing professionals, digital engineers, hardware and software specialists and other skilled professionals bear expertly honed skills that could be invaluable to countering terrorists’ venomous misinformation campaigns.

To take advantage of those skills and combat the information war being waged by terrorist groups, the California Guard has partnered with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the nongovernmental organization Sea Aerospace Ground Evaluations to design a unique prototype unit: the 1st Joint Softwar Unit (Virtual).

The talented soldiers and airmen central to this effort were identified in early 2013 and brought together to train as a team. But shortly after the unit was conceived, funding constraints halted their ability to gather and train. In the interim, despite these challenges, these passionate professionals have volunteered their own time, collaborating through online discussions and exchanges to further develop the concept.

Establishing this unit on a permanent basis would continue a long military tradition of America relying on California to bring its cinematic expertise to the global fight. During World War II, for example, the Army Air Force’s 1st Motion Picture Unit, based at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, commissioned men like Ronald Reagan, Jack Warner and Alan Ladd to create films that countered Axis propaganda. When America and our allies triumphed over the Axis powers, the powerful effect achieved by Hollywood’s contribution to the war effort was recognized as one of the keys to victory.

As was the case in the 1940s, the proposed unit would directly advise military commanders on the best methods to combat the enemy’s information warfare efforts by analyzing the weaknesses in their campaigns and recommending countermeasures for a global audience.

In an early study, the 1st Joint Softwar Unit (Virtual) demonstrated an ability to rapidly draw key intelligence from adversary propaganda campaigns by analyzing al Qaeda videos. These guardsmen excel at recognizing vulnerabilities in an adversary’s propaganda and repurposing the enemy’s ideology against them, breaking the link to their target audience.

Such a small, streamlined and inexpensive unit could provide significant strategic advantages. It would disrupt terrorists’ ability to deliver their message of hate and deny them an uncontested outlet for their propaganda.

Dominating the information battlefield doesn’t require vast armies or billion-dollar weapon systems; it requires cutting-edge skills and an in-depth understanding of the art and science of messaging and the larger narrative. We believe it is time to leverage the full potential of our citizen soldiers and airmen decisively: Congress should permanently fund this specialized, cost-effective and highly adaptive unit with proven capabilities to counter terrorist information campaigns.

The tools and talents to market ideas effectively are rare, but nowhere are they more plentiful than in California. We stand ready to use those capabilities to make the world a safer place.

Baldwin is the adjutant general of the California National Guard; de Caro, president of SAGE, is the progenitor of the 1st Joint Softwar Unit (Virtual). The views presented are expressly those of the writers and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.

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