The US military is turning to special operators to fend off Russian and Chinese influence in its neighborhood

Army Special Forces Guatemala
A member of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) briefs Guatemalan Special Forces prior to an exercise in Guatemala, March 3, 2020. US Army/Spc. Aaron Schaeper
  • US military leaders say China and Russia are using information operations to shape local perspectives in their favor in Latin America.
  • The top military commander in the region says US forces, including those from US Special Operations Command, are countering that challenge.
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In recent testimony to Congress, US military leaders made an alarming statement: China and Russia have been using information operations to shape local perspectives and push their global narrative right in the US’s neighborhood.

By using information operations, or propaganda, Beijing and Moscow are trying to gain an economic, intelligence, and military advantage.

China, the more capable and dangerous adversary, is trying to garner influence in its bid to global supremacy, while Russia uses information operations to destabilize the US.

Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees military operations in and around Central and South America as head of US Southern Command, recognized the danger and revealed the steps his command taking to counter the threat – including the role of US special-operations units.

Battle of ideas

Navy admiral Craig Faller Southcom Uruguay
Adm. Craig Faller at an event with Uruguayan military personnel who have received training in the US, in Montevideo, Uruguay, April 6, 2021. US Embassy Uruguay

To be sure, every country with global aspirations exercises some degree of influence abroad. For most such countries, the aim is usually cultural or economic, trying to create relationships abroad from which they can benefit.

For example, the Goethe Institute teaches the German language and culture to hundreds of thousands of people in scores of countries. The aim is to encourage an interest in Germany among foreigners and thus benefit from worker migration, business dealings, or tourism.

But Chinese and Russian information operations have a malicious spin, as they exploit big data and local vulnerabilities to further their own, often sinister ends. Chinese intentions are usually masked within other business or infrastructural schemes.

In Ecuador, for example, China has exported its version of the “safe city,” an Orwellian concept in which the government can track the movement of its citizens through the use of tens of thousands of cameras and artificial intelligence.

Faller told lawmakers in March that a leader in the region had asked candidly how to “get rid of the Chinese information technology” the country had bought to monitor crime but which ended up around the US Embassy and in other secure areas.

Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Brazil
A US Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewman explains maintenance procedures for an outboard motor to members of the Brazilian Marine Corps Special Operations Battalion. US Navy/PO1 Kathryn Whittenberger

Chinese and Russian influence doesn’t come through just information operations. Beijing and Moscow use economic, medical, and even cultural diplomacy to varying degrees in order to garner favor with other countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic took this effort to new levels. For example, the Chinese government sold testing kits to 180 countries and established labs in several others, some of it done free of charge under the banner of common good.

However, behind these acts of purported solidarity likely were more malign aims: gather DNA files, promote the Chinese Communist Party, and push Beijing’s narrative about the coronavirus. China has also attempted to use vaccine diplomacy to advance its longer-term goal of isolating Taiwan.

Russia has also sent medical supplies to several nations, including the US, in a much-publicized hearts-and-minds move.

Make no mistake, every Chinese venture is part of a whole-government approach in pursuit of global supremacy. The National Intelligence Law requires all Chinese entities and individuals to share technology and information with the military, intelligence, and security services.

Information commandos

Army Special Forces medic Haiti earthquake
An Army Special Forces medic interviews a Haitian patient at an improvised clinic in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, February 8, 2010. US Navy

The US military is building or enhancing partnerships with nations in the region, employing special-operations units, and tackling big data to counter the threat.

Faller told Congress that his command is partnering with US Special Operations Command to stand up an “appropriate” information-operations capability in response to those Chinese and Russian efforts.

Although the capability is still very small “given the volume” of operations it has to counter, Faller said, but it’s already “having some effect.”

When it comes to information operations, there is only one unit in the US special-operations arsenal that can effectively perform and counter such operations. The Army Special Operations Command’s two Psychological Operations Groups specialize in influencing foreign audiences and encouraging a positive narrative.

Although not the same, psychological operations and information operations share many variables and goals.

Psychological operations seek to convey selected information to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behavior. In a nutshell, PSYOP units target a foreign audience and seek to inspire or reinforce attitudes that are favorable to US interests.

Other units can also contribute, although indirectly. Special Forces and Civil Affairs also have the capability to influence partners through joint training exercises, advising, and infrastructure building. These units are particularly useful in encouraging and enhancing partnerships with Central and Southern American militaries.

Big Data

Air Force Special Tactics CH-47 Chinook helicopter
US Air Force Special Tactics operators load tactical vehicles onto a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, November 23, 2020. US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Rose Gudex

But the US military isn’t only leveraging partnerships to counter Chinese and Russian information operations. Technology, and big data particularly, are increasingly important in an undeclared war of words and ideas.

US special-operations forces are looking to use big data to determine the state and gauge the effectiveness of Chinese and Russian information operations.

“The more data one has, the better one can understand the environment and opportunities to leverage it in order to achieve a desired end-state,” a digital security expert from the Signature Management Unit (SMU), a risk, security, and intelligence consulting firm led by former special-operations and intelligence professionals, told Insider.

Commercially available big data offers countries great targets for intelligence-gathering purposes, but it can also be used to tailor information-operation campaigns to push a particular narrative and increase the campaign’s effectiveness with the target audience.

“Big data provides context and deep understanding through bulk data access that enables actors to impose costs [on] or hold at risk their adversaries,” the SMU expert added.

“Take the use of OSINT [open source intelligence], for example, in due diligence or online investigations. It’s simply the collection, ‘en masse,’ of an individual’s data for the purposes of obtaining leverage that can aid negotiations or business deals. You need context and bulk collection for that to occur,” the expert said.

“The problem with big data is that it never seems harmful up front but poses a formidable threat once aggregated/in its composite. That’s the issue we’re running into now, is trying to determine what data our adversaries have collected in bulk, and what types of insights or analytics could they use it for,” the SMU expert told Insider.

In the shadowy world of information and influence operations, your personal data might be used by foreign adversaries against you.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.