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Cognitive Warfare

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

The brain is the battlefield of the future. ~Dr. James Giordano

The concept of warfare has been evolving, from physical, linear, and cavalry battles in ancient times to the current state of advanced technology-driven warfare. In the past few decades, however, the nature of warfare has undergone a significant shift.

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Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Traditionally, there are three domains of warfare: land, air, and sea. Few scholars are of the opinion that space is also part of the traditional domain, separating it from the air domain. However, in modern times, as we are entering an era of a highly intertwined world led by cutting-edge technology, novel domains such as cyber and information have surfaced. The emergence of these new domains resulted in the elevation of warfare to the next level of intensity.

Conventional military operations are increasingly being supplemented by non-kinetic forms of conflict, such as information and psychological operations.

The advent of information technology has created a new form of warfare that focuses on controlling information and manipulating perceptions and beliefs, known as "cognitive warfare." Cognitive warfare refers to the use of psychological and information-based tactics to influence and manipulate the perceptions, beliefs, and emotions of individuals, organizations, and, to a large extent, nations. It is a form of unconventional warfare that leverages the power of technology, media, and psychology to shape the reality of its targets.

Functionally, Cognitive warfare can be defined as “the weaponization of public opinion, by an external entity, for (1) influencing public and governmental policy and (2) destabilizing public institutions” [1].


The line separating informational and cognitive warfare is very thin. Information warfare focuses on controlling the flow of information, either during peacetime or during wartime. On the other hand, cognitive warfare prioritizes the materialization of the response to the supplied information.


Primarily, cognitive domain operations can be classified into two broad categories:

  1. Military Operations

  2. Non-Military Operations

As clearly seen through the denomination, military operations are performed by military forces. Conversely, non-military cognitive domain operations are performed by state agencies independent of military forces to achieve certain strategic objectives.

Military cognitive domain operations consist of many elements, such as psychological operations, public information operations, civil-military operations, etc. Psychological operations are often used synonymously with cognitive warfare, but they are just one of the components of military cognitive warfare. One must not be bewildered by the attacker or point of attack.

In military cognitive domain operations, the attacker is a member of the military, and the target can be either civilian or military; in non-military cognitive domain operations, the attacker is a non-military organ of the state, and the target can be either civilian or military.


The precedents for controlling the flow of information can be seen throughout history. Sun Tzu explicitly emphasizes the importance of controlling information and manipulating it to one's advantage. In his book "The Art of War", he writes, "All warfare is based on deception." Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, in his book "On War," highlights how the objective of war is to disarm the enemy by all means; he advocates for the amalgamation of the diplomatic, military, and all other state domains to achieve such a goal.

Italian political thinker and strategist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his renowned work, "The Prince," writes that "Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception." Such strategic thinking pertains to India as well. In his "Arthashastra," which contains treaties on war and statecraft, ancient Indian political thinker and economist Kautilya comprehensively discussed ways to wage psychological and informational wars against enemies.

Here is an example in which Kautilya explained how to use deception and disinformation to dethrone the enemy: "The conqueror shall invite an attack on himself, call upon the enemy for help, and then adopt an appropriate one among a variety of measures to kill the enemy. The conqueror may, after taking suitable precautions, pretend to be suffering from a calamity and make his ally encourage the enemy to attack. When the enemy does so, he shall be squeezed between the two forces [of the conqueror and the ally]. The enemy may be killed or, if caught alive, released in exchange for his kingdom." [2]

Kautilya also mentioned the strategies of Sama, Dana, Danda, and Bheda, of which Bheda resembles modern-day cognitive domain operations. [3]

The ancient Indian epic Mahabharata also provides examples of how Lord Krishna waged cognitive, informational, and psychological operations to help the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. Drona Vadh is a good example of how manipulated information resulted in the accomplishment of the desired goals.

In modern times, military strategists like to coin new maxims and terminologies. Western theorists call it "cognitive warfare," while Russians prefer the term "New Generation Warfare".

In a 1999 manual titled “Unrestricted Warfare”, Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui mentioned a variety of cognitive domain operations, emphasizing Sun Tzu's doctrine of winning without fighting. [4]

Commenting on this unrestricted warfare, Brigadier General Robert Spalding, a former China strategist for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, writes, "Qiao and Wang wrote exactly the plan the CCP needed. It is a doctrine that says essentially, "Everything is war." They said that modern wars could be fought beyond traditional military means, or with no military at all. Civilians needed to be warriors too, and battlefields could be about information, economies, technology, the environment, and more. Finally, that this kind of war—unrestricted war, war without rules—needed to be permanent." [5]

As General Spalding rightly points out, for China everything is war and everything is the battlefield (including our mind). China has repeatedly used various cognitive methods to undermine adversaries; we’ll come to that in the later part of this article.


Although narrative warfare and Psychological warfare are topics for another article, we will look at how narratives are shaped using cognitive domain operations in this piece. One must have heard about Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm popularized by the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, in which the firm allegedly misused data from as many as 50 million Facebook users to manipulate the election outcomes of the US 2016 Presidential elections. There is of course a privacy breach, but such discussion requires comprehensive analysis, which is beyond the scope of this piece.

For now, let’s focus on how one firm managed to use data from social media to allegedly help Donald Trump win the presidential elections of the world’s oldest democracy. This is a classic case of narrative building where a narrative is being set up to use its outcome to one’s advantage.

Recent examples of cognitive domain operations in narrative construction can be found in the western media, particularly during the prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In the past few months, western media have purposefully accused India and China of funding Russia during this conflict because of oil purchases from Russia. If successfully propagated, the narrative has the potential to sway public opinion in Western countries against India and China.

Here, the logic of western media is primarily flawed; they deliberately ignored humanitarian aid sent by India to Ukraine, and they condescendingly chose to ignore India’s multiple appeals for peace, including those from the UN. We were able to neutralize such false narratives thanks to India's robust media network and steward diplomacy.

China also uses clandestine, covert cognitive methods to sway public opinion in its favour. The Chinese People's Liberation Army developed a "three-warfare" doctrine in 2003 that included psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. Under this doctrine, China aims to achieve mastery in cognitive domain operations. Falsification of history, inaccurate projection of political and military power, and aggressive diplomatic practices resemble the materialization of this doctrine. [6]

During the Galwan conflict with India, China persistently tried to shape false narratives using propaganda.

Circulating fake videos and photos on social media and propagating disinformation through various state-controlled media channels are all part of China’s psychological warfare, where the victim feels mentally disturbed and defeated.

China’s Iron Brother Pakistan also has expertise in waging cognitive domain operations against India in the form of various psychological and information campaigns. Pakistan’s propaganda wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), has solely dedicated itself to propagating false narratives against India, especially in the context of Jammu and Kashmir. However, in recent years, the Indian armed forces have been countering such narratives before they can make a greater impact.

Apart from state organs, non-state actors are also an important part of this larger cognitive warfare. Non-state actors consist of extremists, terrorists, and, in some cases, civil society organizations. India’s National Security Advisor, Mr. Ajit Doval, while addressing the passing out parade of the 73rd batch of IPS probationers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad in November 2021, warned against the use of civil society organizations to hurt national interests.

He said, "The new frontiers of war, what you call the fourth-generation warfare, is the civil society; it can be subverted, suborned, divided, and manipulated to hurt the interests of a nation."

In his book, "Backstage: The Story Behind India's High Growth Years," former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia details a similar case study, analyzing how an NGO halted the construction of towns by Lavasa Corporation Ltd. under the Maharashtra government's tourism project in 2010, citing violations of environmental norms. Whether such acquisitions had any merit or not, needs to be determined by the judiciary, but this particular case highlights how easy it is for any non-state actor to halt any important project of national interest. He writes, "Indian law permits anyone to approach the courts and seek a stay on a project on grounds of public interest." [7]

The most recent example of how the cognitive actions of a non-state organization can hurt the national interest is the Adani-Hindenburg fiasco. One foreign company publishing one report eroded almost $100 billion from the stock market. Lt. Gen. D. S. Hooda (Retd), the former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army's Northern Command, wrote in this context on Twitter: "An example of what classic infowar will look like. Not going into the merits of the Hindenburg expose but a foreign report leads to an immediate drop in stocks of company dealing with infra[structure] in India. Need IW[Information Warfare] preparedness."


As we’ve seen throughout the article, the victim of cognitive warfare ranges from an individual to society, and from an organization to an entire country. In this new era when it is very easy to influence anyone with just a small social media message, the need of the hour is developing a mechanism to tackle such challenges.

We need a strong doctrinal approach with a robust strategy dealing with cognitive domain operations.

On a strategic level, there is a need for integration at the ministerial level, where all the security agencies under MOD and MHA work cooperatively to counter propaganda and disinformation. Civil-military fusion will pave the way to prevent any larger catastrophes.

India has a population of 1.4 billion people, which can be used as an asset as well as a liability. It is up to policymakers to decide how to channel this potential. India needs a public awareness campaign to warn the common people against threats from misinformation and disinformation.

The concept of cognitive warfare is expected to play an even greater role as a component of the 4th, 5th, and 6th generations of warfare, in which the lines between war and peace continue to blur and non-kinetic forms of conflict become increasingly prevalent. It is a rapidly evolving field that has significant implications for contemporary conflicts. As mentioned earlier, information and psychological operations are increasingly being recognised as key components of it, and the nation needs to prepare with a whole-of-government approach to deter greater threats from this cognitive warfare.


1. The Role of Today’s VRE and Considerations for Cognitive Warfare :: NATO’s ACT. The Role of Today’s VRE and Considerations for Cognitive Warfare :: NATO’s ACT, 2022.

2. Kautilya. The Arthashastra, {13.3.29,30}.

3. The conqueror shall control the members of his circle of kings using the four methods [Sama, Dana, Bheda, or Danda], in accordance with the principles of restriction, option, or combination. The weak shall be controlled by Sama [conciliation] or dana [placating with gifts], and the strong by Bheda [sowing dissensions] and danda [force]. This is the group of four means. (Kautilya. The Arthashastra, 7.16.3-8)

4. To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. - Art of War Sun Tzu.

5. Spalding, Robert. Chapter -2 War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination. Sentinel, 2022.

6. “Win Without Fighting”: The Chinese Communist Party’s Political and Institutional Warfare Against West. Hudson, 2023.

7. Ahluwalia, Montek S. Backstage: The Story Behind India’s High Growth Years, 2020.





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