Watchdog warns DOD lacks clear guidance for training leaders in contested information environments

GAO’s new study notes that while progress has been made, the Pentagon has not given clear guidance for what components should focus on for training in this realm.
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The Department of Defense lacks clear guidance on various training efforts to prepare leaders for an increasingly contested information environment, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Adversaries are becoming more active in this realm, seeking to contest U.S. and friendly forces every day. This daily competition largely takes place below the threshold of armed conflict, but, in the event of a war, adversaries will seek to disrupt info systems by, for example, jamming radio frequency communications and leaving military decision-makers with incomplete or inaccurate information.

“According to DOD, our competitors and adversaries are taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the information environment to advance their national objectives and offset the U.S.’s position as the preeminent warfighting force. DOD’s military operations in the information environment play a pivotal role in engaging our adversaries,” the report states. “The wide reach and fluid nature of the information environment poses risks that adversaries can contest and attack to undermine U.S. and friendly forces’ understanding, decision-making, morale, and will, according to DOD.”

The Pentagon has taken several steps in recent years to reestablish its prowess in the information environment and beat back adversaries by placing greater importance on these capabilities. In 2017, it elevated information to a joint function, identified globally integrated operations in the information environment as a special area of emphasis for education, issued an update last fall to its joint publication for information in joint operations, completed an assessment of capability gaps and challenges with operations in the information environment, and is slated to publish an update to the 2016 Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment this year.


However, outside experts still believe the proof is in the pudding regarding whether or not these efforts will be implemented and the department will better integrate its capabilities.

GAO’s study, mandated by the annual defense policy bill for fiscal 2022, notes that while progress has been made, the Pentagon has not given clear guidance for what components should focus on for training.

“DOD components are unclear about what information environment aspects to cover in such education and training because guidance does not specify what content to include. DOD officials also reported having limited resources for their education and training efforts and cited simulation, infrastructure, and personnel limitations as further impeding these efforts. Officials stated that these limitations hinder the creation of realistic environments in which leaders can practice decision-making skills,” the report states.

“DOD has not assessed or comprehensively reviewed component assessments of resources. Until DOD develops guidance and assesses its resources, it will lack assurance that it will be able to educate and train leaders to prepare them to make decisions in a contested information environment,” it added.

The watchdog made two recommendations: the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should develop DOD-wide guidance about what content to include in education and training for decision-making in a contested information environment; and conduct an assessment and comprehensive review related to component assessments of resources needed to meet current education needs and train leaders.


The Pentagon agreed in part on the first recommendation and concurred on the second. Regarding the first recommendation, the DOD said the secretary would develop guidance regarding content to include, but noted that combatant commands would determine the frequency of such efforts based on their operational tempos.

Regarding the second recommendation, DOD did not provide GAO with a timeline for completing the assessment.

“Given the critical nature and challenges associated with conducting operations in a contested information environment, the department will be better positioned to provide any required education and training resources by taking these actions in the near future,” the watchdog said.

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