Dr. Barnett S. Koven, START’s Training Director, Near-peer Competition Lead Researcher and Counterterrorism Lead Researcher, has been accepted as a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute (MWI) at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“With almost 130 high-quality applicants, this was easily our most competitive year for selection,” MWI Director Col. Patrick Howell said. “I’m excited by the wide range of backgrounds of this year’s cohort because I truly believe that a variety of perspectives helps fight intellectual staleness.”
In his discussions with MWI, Koven proposed exploring operations in the information environment.
“I think this could give me an opportunity to delve deeper into reworking the Counterterrorism Net Assessment Data Structure (CT NEADS) project for information operations,” Koven said.
Koven first saw the call for proposals from MWI on the Summer Workshop for the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS) listserv, which was a program he took part in as a doctoral student.
“I proposed something related to operations in the information environment as it relates to great power competition,” Koven said. “I think a lot of people are talking about it, and no one really understands how this works in practice, both in the Department of Defense and academia. So I think there's a lot of fertile ground there.”
In collaboration with his former doctoral student, Cpt. Maggie Smith, Koven is proposing a joint project with MWI, the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU).
“What we are currently trying to do is pitch a project with West Point and JSOU to put together a publication about non-kinetic approaches to countering near-peer competitors, such as operations in the information environment and the cyber domain,” Koven said. “Hopefully this ends up being a research study that helps better position both START and the U.S. Army for competing with near-peer competitors, and potentially also leads to some benefits for cadets at West Point, if we are able to involve them in the research.”
START already has close ties to both West Point and JSOU, as START’s Director William Braniff graduated from West Point and later worked at the Combating Terrorism Center there, and has been lecturing at JSOU for over a decade. Koven is also an adjunct faculty member at JSOU, and in addition to lecturing in their classrooms, he has produced a JSOU occasional paper on “Re-Evaluating Special Operations Forces-Led Counterterrorism Efforts,” and he and fellow START Senior Researcher Dr. Katy Lindquist have a forthcoming book-length monograph on special operations forces counterterrorism effectiveness with JSOU Press.
“This proposal, should it be favorably reviewed, is just a first step in what I hope will be a more pronounced relationship between START, JSOU and West Point,” Koven said.
Koven sees his proposed project being relevant to the United States’ competition with China and Russia.
“A lot of policymakers are thinking about how we would fight a force-on-force engagement in or near mainland China,” Koven said. “But I think the reality here is if the U.S. finds itself fighting a shooting war inside China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) bubble, it’s already lost. This competition is going to play out in the non-kinetic space and in the periphery. What’s more, I am not convinced the U.S. is prepared for this.”
Koven foresees future conflicts which depend on influencing populations and operations in the cyber domain, more so than traditional military actions. In terms of periphery, Koven identifies the potential for competition playing out in places as diverse as Baluchistan, Pakistan or in huge swaths of Africa, where the Chinese are actively trying to extend their influence through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative.
“But in terms of operations in the information environment, this is about denying strategic gains, whether it's militarily strategic or economically strategic, to the adversary, by influencing the local population,” Koven said. “And in some respects, this is much easier. For example, a messaging campaign encouraging an African population to resist their government making a ‘sweetheart’ deal wherein China finances their infrastructure for astronomically ballooning payments, is not a hard message to sell. It's just about developing locally appropriate messaging strategies and doing a better job at it than the adversary.”
Koven notes that the work done on the CT NEADS project can inform operations in the information environment.
“The idea here is we use the same approach to data integration as CT NEADS and do even more with public opinion data,” Koven said. “Influencing publics is going to be critical to besting near-peer competitors in these third countries. So by developing a tool that will help us put data against our understanding, we will be able to devise better approaches to operations in the information environment, we’ll be able to test them to a limited extent in a sandbox-type environment and then we'll be able to evaluate actual operations so we can fully understand what worked, what didn't and why.”
Koven also pointed out that this may have an impact on how the United States approaches other conflicts in the future.
“For the last 20 years in counterterrorism, the U.S. government spent lavishly on a panoply of programs, hoping that some interventions would stick even if it wasn’t always clear which ones were effective and which were not,” Koven said. “This, of course, was not a cost-effective approach. And while the U.S. could afford to do so when fighting al-Qaida, which compared to the U.S. government is poor and ill-equipped, a similar approach applied towards competition with China would prove catastrophic.”