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“Cyber influence warfare”: The French Armed Forces unveiled their new doctrine

On 20 October, the Minister of the Armed Forces and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces presented the third part of the military doctrine for operations in cyberspace. After the computer network defence (CND) and attack (CNA) weapons, here are those dedicated to cyber influence warfare—’L2I’ in French for ‘Lutte Informatique d’Influence’.

Winning the war before the war“— such is the expression used a few weeks ago by General Thierry Burkhard, Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, to illustrate one of the priorities of his “strategic vision”: to give ourselves the means to face the “real information war” that is raging in cyberspace. With the advent of the digital revolution and the hybrid wars favoured by the new power-states, it is impossible to claim to defend the French without giving ourselves the means to counter the effects of the “hypersonic weapon” that information has become,” said Florence Parly, the Minister of the Armed Forces, on 20 October, when she unveiled the broad outlines of France’s new doctrine of cyber influence warfare, or ‘L2I’). This ‘L2I’ covers military operations conducted in the informational layer of cyberspace to “detect, characterise, and counter attacks; provide information; conduct deception; or support strategic communication,” according to the official definition. In short, explains the Hôtel de Brienne, it covers all actions that make it possible to “limit the deliberate propagation of false and biased information for deliberately hostile purposes.” Initiated by terrorist groups or parastatals, these actions are aimed directly at the capabilities of our armed forces by seeking to demoralise soldiers or disrupt operations.

This new corpus complements the first two parts of the conceptual architecture that our Armed Forces have equipped themselves with to be able to act in the information field: computer network defence (‘CND’ – 2018) and attack (‘CNA’ – 2019). In order to “keep the initiative“, General Burkhard explained on 20 October, “we must invest in this battlefield and manoeuvre in it.” This means being able to plan operations “by gathering intelligence, studying the actors, developing modes of action, and anticipating non-compliance“. He added: “We must accept risk-taking, because it is through boldness that we will create a favourable balance of power.” On the condition, of course, that the rules of engagement are “clear.” The French Armed Forces, explained Florence Parly, “will not conduct informational operations on the national territory, and will not destabilise a foreign state through actions that would target, for example, its electoral processes.” In this area as in others, France adopts an “ethical asymmetry” linked to the enforcement of national and international law. In wartime, as for the operational rules of engagement (ROE) applied by units in contact with the enemy in the Levant or in the Sahel, cyber influence warfare actions comply with the basic principles of international humanitarian law (IHL), in particular the rules of distinction, military necessity, precaution, and proportionality in attacks.

The implementation of the informational weapon is entrusted to the Cyber Defence Command (COMCYBER), under the command of Air Force Major General Didier Tisseyre, who is in charge of planning and conducting the ‘L2I’ part of operations. As for the human resources and technical means, they come from the Lyon-based Joint Centre for Environmental Actions (CIAE, for ‘Centre interarmées des actions sur l’environnement’), which is the expert organisation for military influence within the Armed Forces. The 2019-2025 military planning law (LPM) had initially provided for the recruitment of 770 cyber fighters. The update conducted this year has increased this ambition to 1,100. The recruits are computer technicians, linguists, psychologists, or graduates in human sciences, whose perspective is essential to understand the environment in which the informational weapon evolves. In Mali, for example, the manipulated information is often initiated on social media before being transmitted orally in the villages. This organisation is inspired in particular by the choices made by the U.S. Armed Forces, a pioneer—together with the USSR—of large-scale informational operations during the Cold War. In the United States, each major military command linked to a region of the world has a digital watch and action unit called ‘WebOps’. Its missions are to support strategic communication, disrupt adversary propaganda, expose false information, and mobilise the adversary’s opponents.

Unlike most of its allies, France is now choosing to communicate on L2I. Yet, the Armed Forces have actually been practising it since the mid-2010s, in conjunction with its allies. The same applies to the Ministry of the Interior, whose Pharos platform makes it possible to report and put an end to illicit content on the Internet. This is evidenced by the 46,000 accounts linked to Daesh that our soldiers engaged in the Levant are helping to monitor, Florence Parly revealed. In the Sahel, Operation Barkhane is working to fight against propaganda and manipulation of information by constantly monitoring social media. This is how the communication department of the Armed Forces was able, at the end of October, to rectify almost instantly a nascent rumour that accused our soldiers of having killed a woman by mistake. The communiqué explained how this woman had been formally identified as a combatant and neutralised during a legitimate action.

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