Hudson Institute

Cognitive Competition, Conflict, and War: An Ontological Approach

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(Getty Images)

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Executive Summary

The character of war has evolved from the precision strike and stealth regime developed in the late Cold War–era to operations and technologies that target an opponent’s decision-making. This shift has taken many forms, such as gray zone operations, hybrid warfare, little green men, and salami-slicing operations and tactics. Cognitive warfare represents the culmination of this evolution in how countries conduct military operations and calls into question whether traditional kinetic operations alone are necessary to achieve an aggressor’s objectives.

Cognitive warfare is highly disruptive, threatening democratic institutions and sovereignty and likely changing the character of war and perhaps analysts’ understanding of conflict. The convergence of advances in brain sciences, data and computational technologies, and algorithm-based attention models has fundamentally altered the global strategic environment, expanding the attack surface that foreign adversaries can exploit using cognitive manipulation. Thus far, policymakers in the United States have been slow to diagnose and react to cognitive warfare not only because of its novelty but also perhaps because the American public has remained under a persistent state of cognitive manipulation, which has debilitated the people.

This report builds on Andrew F. Krepinevich’s analysis in The Origins of Victory, which emphasizes that the world is facing a shift in military affairs.1 The United States’ precision-strike advantage has eroded, and disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and synthetic biology are reshaping warfare dynamics. China and Russia are contesting and, in some cases, achieving overmatch against the US military, with ambitions of reshaping the global order.

The emergence of cognitive warfare—which manipulates cognition to destabilize sociocultural, economic, political, and military systems—poses a unique threat to America and its allies. This type of warfare differs from information warfare2 in that it aims to influence how, not what, people think, feel, and act, altering the cognitive space from individual to population levels. Key components of cognitive warfare include its tactical and strategic use, manipulation of the way people think, reliance on brain science and data, and ability to employ multiple engagement modes. The use of algorithm-based computational propaganda and the ability to create self-sustaining feedback and amplification loops are significant features.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other allies have acknowledged the changing character of warfare and the implications of failing to meet the associated challenges. Operations will become fractured, disjointed, and ultimately ineffective as enemies disrupt or destroy linkages and network connections. Perhaps most insidiously, the military may find itself irrelevant to adversary operations as cognitive warfare capabilities emerge and mature to the point where adversaries can coerce societies through so-called information confrontation. The US and its allies are likely to find themselves outflanked in the battle space, either ineffective or unable to respond because adversaries can reach into entire domestic populations. Despite this danger, US and allied military forces and national security policymakers have not yet organized their institutions and infrastructure to detect, track, and combat cognitive warfare campaigns that adversaries are waging against the American public. Moreover, Washington and its partners have not developed the operational concepts and requirements necessary to employ their own cognitive warfare capabilities in support of their security needs.3

To understand the effects of cognitive warfare and to operationalize defensive measures in support of national security decision-making, one needs to construct a mental framework for how it appears and operates on human beings. The first step in building this framework is to construct an ontology—a formal system for organizing knowledge. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) define an ontology as a formal knowledge organization system, which serves as a shared conceptualization and framework for understanding complex relationships. In this context, the NASEM’s 2022 report Ontologies in the Behavioral Sciences serves as a crucial reference.4 It highlights the significance of ontologies in the behavioral sciences, a relevance that extends to the environments of competition and conflict.

The use case, a concept that originated in software engineering, can help readers design the ontology. In this report, use cases are narrative scenarios that illustrate how individuals interact with a system to achieve objectives. Engineers structure use cases around five parameters: actors, context, resource, expected outcome, and stakeholders. In the context of competition and conflict in the cognitive space, this model identifies and categorizes ontological elements.

The following proposed tool dimensions provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the multifaceted nature of cognitive warfare:

  1. Tools exploiting cognitive biases and perception: These threats manipulate individuals’ cognitive biases and perceptual vulnerabilities to shape their opinions and behavior.
  2. Tools involving neuroscience and biology: Adversaries leverage advances in neuroscience and biology to influence and control the cognitive processes of individuals.
  3. Tools exploiting social psychology and group dynamics: Adversaries harness social psychology and group dynamics to manipulate group behavior, create polarization, or influence collective decision-making.
  4. Tools employing techno-social applications: Adversaries use information technology to disseminate narratives, engage in social engineering, and conduct information operations.
  5. Tools related to information technology: Information technology provides tools for cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and the disruption of critical infrastructure.

These tool dimensions serve as a foundation for constructing an ontology that systematically categorizes and organizes the diverse aspects of cognitive warfare. The ontology encompasses elements such as classes, attributes, properties, and hierarchies to provide a structured understanding of the cognitive domain. It acknowledges the dual-use nature of these dimensions, in which they represent both threats and opportunities. It also highlights the overlap between technological threats and cognitive threats.

The proposed cognitive warfare ontology offers a tool for understanding and countering cognitive threats. By categorizing and interconnecting the diverse aspects of cognitive warfare, it aids in the identification of vulnerabilities, the development of countermeasures, and the assessment of opportunities. It empowers national security decision-makers with actionable strategies and operational concepts tailored to the cognitive space. As cognitive warfare evolves, continuous refinement, integration into existing security protocols, and collaboration among experts from various fields should enhance the ontology’s capabilities. The ethical and legal dimensions of cognitive warfare, privacy concerns, and international cooperation also require attention.

The cognitive warfare ontology, shaped by the forces of neuroscience, technology, and influence, is a crucial tool in navigating this complex and evolving topic. Through research, adaptability, and a forward-thinking approach, the United States can secure its cognitive spaces in an era defined by cognitive warfare.

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