Researchers all over the world today are tirelessly working to develop a new form of warfare known as cognitive warfare, which aims to target and manipulate the human mind. The human brain, the most intricate part of our body, housing intelligence and governing our decision-making, is becoming the focal point of future conflicts.
This new combat realm, classified by NATO as Cognitive Warfare or the ‘Battle for the Brain,’ is set to play an increasingly dominant role. Cognitive warfare is defined as the “art of using technologies to alter the cognition of human targets.”
Cognitive warfare encompasses five key elements:
- Eroding the command, control, and authority of the opponent’s decision-makers.
- Undermining their credibility and decision-making capabilities.
- Shielding or insulating friendly decision-makers.
- Collecting and analyzing information.
- Spreading misinformation to exploit the adversary’s fears and anxieties, thereby demoralizing them.
Cognitive warfare enables victory and the crippling of the enemy’s decision-making abilities without firing a single bullet, offering a cost-effective means of avoiding collateral damage and friendly casualties.
The primary objective of cognitive warfare is to “harm the brain” by not only changing what people think but also how they think and act. It exploits vulnerabilities in the human brain through social engineering, a broad term encompassing various malicious activities and psychological manipulation designed to deceive targets into making mistakes or revealing sensitive information.
What makes social engineering particularly dangerous is its ability to pinpoint, magnify, and exploit unpredictable human errors or mistakes that are challenging to detect.
Cognitive warfare has the power to sow discord, incite conflict, polarize opinions, and radicalize groups, effectively dividing a once-unified society. By manipulating human emotions like curiosity and fear through a blend of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology, cognitive warfare becomes a potent tool, extending beyond conventional information warfare or psychological operations (psyops) to manipulate and overpower the human mind.
Hence, cognitive warfare has earned the distinction of being the sixth domain of combat, alongside land, air, sea, space, and cyber warfare.
A NATO-sponsored study emphasizes that “the brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century.” It anticipates that future conflicts will predominantly occur in the digital realm, targeting human populations and physically manifesting near hubs of political and economic power.
Cognitive warfare shares similarities with propaganda, disinformation, psychological operations, and perception management. It seeks to plant ideas, alter public opinion, and elicit active or passive participation from individuals or entire nations. When used effectively, cognitive warfare can empower even militarily or numerically weaker opponents to circumvent traditional battlefields and achieve decisive victories.
Cognitive warfare enables victory and the crippling of the enemy’s decision-making abilities without firing a single bullet, offering a cost-effective means of avoiding collateral damage and friendly casualties. The primary objective of cognitive warfare is to “harm the brain” by not only changing what people think but also how they think and act
Cognitive warfare can “program” minds and influence behaviour, directing individuals to adopt specific attitudes or actions. It can be harnessed as part of a broader strategy to influence adversaries, weaken their autonomy, and undermine their decision-making and institutional sovereignty. Success in such campaigns relies on the skilful use of real or distorted information (misinformation), exaggerated facts, and fabricated news (disinformation) that exploits the adversary’s fears, anxieties, or beliefs.
For this to succeed, the aggressor must have a deep understanding of socio-political dynamics and know precisely when and how to exploit the opponent’s mental vulnerabilities. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have further enhanced the capabilities of cognitive warfare to manipulate human minds and behaviour.
Here are some instances where cognitive warfare has been employed in different contexts:
Ukraine War: The ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict features intensive use of cognitive warfare tactics, propaganda, and information warfare, leveraging social media, digital communication, and targeted content to reach a global audience swiftly. The US seems to dominate this cognitive war due to its monopoly over major social media channels. This enables NATO officials, diplomats, and journalists to strategically communicate and garner international support for US-led sanctions. In contrast, the Russians struggle to tell their side of the story, and their version of US involvement in Ukrainian bio-labs receives little coverage. Consequently, Russia appears to have lost the war in the minds of the global community before any physical confrontation.
Key lessons learned include:
- The first mover gains an advantage in cognitive warfare.
- Size does not determine success; anyone who excels in the game can challenge a stronger opponent.
- Perception management and propaganda play pivotal roles in shaping public opinion.
By manipulating human emotions like curiosity and fear through a blend of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology, cognitive warfare becomes a potent tool, extending beyond conventional information warfare or psychological operations (psyops) to manipulate and overpower the human mind
Vietnam War: The US attacked Vietnam in response to an alleged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, which later proved to be a deliberate hoax. Declassified documents revealed that US officials distorted facts to deceive the American public about the war’s origins.
Gulf War: The United States employed cognitive warfare against Iraq by targeting their command and control centres, disrupting their decision-making processes, and leading to the collapse of the Iraqi army.
Kosovo War: In Kosovo, President Bill Clinton’s administration and NATO used cognitive warfare to shape public opinion and erode President Slobodan Milosevic’s credibility.
War on Terror: Following the 9/11 attacks, the US, UK, and their allies utilized cognitive warfare to wage the war on terror, emphasizing the threat posed by global terrorist networks.
Cognitive warfare can be wielded as an extension of traditional military conflict or as an independent, standalone option. As such, it presents the possibility of endless conflict without clear peace treaties or surrenders. It establishes a new global battlefield through the internet, devoid of geographic boundaries and operational hours. This battlefield’s success hinges on capturing the psycho-cultural mindset rather than securing physical high ground.
–The writer is a seasoned media professional with over three decades of experience in print, electronic, and web media. He is presently Editor of Taazakhabar News. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda