Strategic Influence Operations: A Call to Action

Written by
Aug. 26, 2021

by Merlin Boone, SPIA International Relations and Security Studies PhD Candidate, for Annotations Blog

As the era of proxy warfare and low-intensity conflict ebbs, great powers have begun to rethink national power and competition for political influence. Facing fundamental shifts in the nature of great power, China expands authoritarian control of its disenfranchised populations and Russia leverages political influence operations. However, the United States remains focused on conventional military expansion and traditional geopolitical threats, missing the opportunity to meet the challenges emerging from the modern operating environment. The United States must drastically rethink its approach to state power, streamline its influence abroad, and detect and prevent malign influence domestically.      

Source: Creative Commons

Critical influence operations remain uncoordinated and stovepiped within bureaucratic politics. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

For example, who maintains the responsibility to investigate alleged Russian interference in domestic American politics? The Department of Justice (DOJ) maintains the domestic mandate but the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Cyber Command and the European Command possess vast capabilities and resources focused on European influence operations. Similarly, the intelligence community has assets in the region but does not typically address domestic political issues. Simultaneously, the Department of State maintains missions in-country with limited intelligence capabilities but the most up-to-date assessment of regional and state-level trends.

Through critical evaluation of the U.S. government’s (USG) influence operations enterprise, this article calls for a bureaucratic reorganization of U.S. influence operations and the centralization of agency/command and control.

Defining Modern Influence Operations

Although debate surrounds the precise definition and measurement of the influence operations framework, policymakers agree that it remains a critically understudied area of international politics. Indeed, policymakers and practitioners often use the terms “‘cyber operations’, ’information warfare,’ ‘information operations,’ ‘psychological operations,’ and ‘influence operations’” to describe the broad spectrum of activities related to countering and projecting influence abroad. Nonetheless, a recent study sponsored by the DOD defines influence operations as “the coordinated, integrated, and synchronized application of national diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and other capabilities in peacetime, crisis, conflict, and post conflict to foster attitudes, behaviors, or decisions by foreign target audiences that further U.S. interests and objectives.”

At the national level, this definition emphasizes the importance of coordinating and synchronizing strategic assets in both offensive and defensive influence operations. In the current framework, the USG has a diverse range of agencies and units working in influence operations without direct coordination or the appropriate legal authorizations.

Without centralization for sharing information, communication and collaboration, the current system lacks visibility and transparency, further reducing opportunities to utilize the joint inter-agency community to achieve strategic goals.

Accordingly, the USG must analyze and critically evaluate existing efforts to project and counter influence abroad.

The Existing USG Influence Enterprise

The DOD currently serves as the lead USG agency for influence operations. Given the DOD's traditional role of overseas force projection and large budget, international influence operations have fallen into the military’s area of influence. However, the success and effectiveness of influence operations are impeded by the lack of a national-level command system. Without this centralization for sharing information, communication and collaboration, the current system lacks visibility and transparency, further reducing opportunities to utilize the joint inter-agency community to achieve strategic goals. Instead, the existing command hierarchy falls under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD-SOLIC), an already overburdened position.

Ezra Cohen, the acting Assistant Secretary for Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, recently emphasized that DOD can’t do this alone, it must require a joint effort between other government agencies that “integrates technical capabilities and institutional knowledge across civilian agencies, foreign partners and other entities.” The current lack of a centralized command and control directly detracts from the United States’ ability to counter and project influence operations abroad.

Similarly, other USG agencies have begun to develop ad-hoc task forces to independently counter influence operations. While the intelligence community maintains a wide breadth of sensory and analytical capacity, it does not maintain the inherent capability to project, maintain, or counter large-scale influence campaigns. In response, the DOJ has led efforts to investigate and counter influence operations domestically. In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation created a Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF). While an important development, this task force primarily seeks to “identify and counter malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States” but is constrained by jurisdictional issues and the DOJ’s limited international operating platform. Perhaps most effectively, the Department of State focuses on projecting influence worldwide via a more traditional system of diplomatic exchange and interaction.

While the intelligence community maintains a wide breadth of sensory and analytical capacity, it does not maintain the inherent capability to project, maintain, or counter large scale influence campaigns.

While the USG has disjointedly endeavored to counter and project influence abroad, these nascent efforts lack critical synchronization and coordination between agencies to maximize efficiency and streamline operations. 

A Call for Task Force Influence 

Given the wide breadth of actors, digital domains, and influence mechanisms, it is critical to effectively design a system focused on sharing capabilities and streamlining processes and actions. This article calls for the creation of a national-level, joint, interagency task force, focused on influence operations (similar to the existing Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) operational structure). There are four key areas for innovation and growth to consider in developing the USG influence task force.

First, the task force must identify and define its critical operational capability: countering and projecting influence. Accordingly, its structure and funding mandates should correspond to its different required operational capabilities.

Second, the task force must effectively source leaders and subject matter experts from the USG community and apply human capital in a synchronized and coordinated manner. Currently, the USG maintains duplicative efforts within multiple agencies focused on similar areas. For example, the DOD’s USINDOPACOM recently created a Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific focused on information operations. While an important development, this task force primarily leverages DOD assets and fails to draw widely from the existing influence operations community across USG agencies.

Third, additional investigation is required to determine the regional structuring of the task force. For example, the existing combatant command framework fails to adequately address trans-regional non-traditional influence competition. In this regard, it is important to reevaluate whether a regional focus truly matches the operational requirement to counter and project trans-regional influence.

Finally, the task force requires civilian, rather than military command and control. Given the inherent interdisciplinary nature of influence operations, the diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement nodes (DIME-FIL) require an executive-appointed political civilian leader. This executive civilian oversight ensures that task force’s efforts are not shoe-horned into a military-versus-military perspective but instead represent the broad range of stakeholders and policymakers in modern influence operations.


Although this proposal calls for dreary restructuring of bureaucratic stovepipes, it will optimize and streamline the USG response to, and projection of, influence operations. Otherwise, siloed agency-based attempts will remain duplicative and fail to generate synchronization effects. Without further reorganization and resource allocation, the US remains vulnerable to overseas influence operations and possesses only limited, stove-piped, response capabilities. Accordingly, the USG must reorganize the influence operations apparatus and reshape the strategic nature of US influence abroad.

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Meet the Author: Merlin Boone

Merlin Boone is a Ph.D. student at Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs and an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army. Professionally, his experience includes special operations in Syria and throughout the Asia Pacific. Merlin's research interests include great power competition, economic statecraft, and East Asian security relations. Merlin holds a M.A. in International Affairs from The University of Hong Kong and B.S. in Economics (Honors) and Chinese from West Point.