NATO Airpower and the Strategic Communications Challenge

About the JAPCC’s Airpower and Disinformation Study

By Lieutenant Colonel (ret.)

By Dr


 Corum PhD

, US


University of Salford, UK

 November 2015


NATO airpower provides a huge asymmetric ­advantage in conflicts today. It is, arguably, the opponents’ top target for disinformation campaigns designed to influence Western media and public opinion. The aim is to push Western powers to limit and even compel them to renounce the use of airpower in campaigns against terrorists or aggressor states, thereby nullifying one of NATO’s most vital military advantages. NATO needs to recognize its serious shortfalls in Strategic Communication, specifically when it comes to justifying the use of airpower to the public. The JAPCC is sponsoring a study in order to further analyse this problem set and develop doctrine, policy and training recommendations for improving NATO’s Strategic Communications.


Even though the enemies that NATO and Western coalitions have faced in the last two decades are significantly inferior to NATO in terms of military cap­ability, both non-state and state enemies still have strategies to neutralize NATO advantages. Indeed, looking to undermine the will of our populations ­appears to be the best means to counter NATO ­action. Just as airpower is NATO’s major asymmetric advantage, it is also the primary target for disinformation campaigns designed to undermine support for NATO operations. If the adversary cannot defeat NATO in the air, they do what they can do by conducting information campaigns that characterize the use of airpower as an ­inhumane means of waging conflict, making it polit­ically impossible for democracies to use it. Thus, in­formation campaigns that use disinformation and misinformation have been a central element in any adversary’s strategy when fighting NATO. While NATO must play by strict rules, the enemy may violate laws and international norms with impunity to further their cause. Spreading false information and fighting in a way as to deliberately endanger civilians and ensure maximum civilian casualties works very effectively to undermine international public opinion. Such strategies have been commonly used in the past and are expected to play a key part in any major conflict that NATO will fight in the future.

Concept and Aim of the Study

The Airpower and Disinformation Study was commissioned by the JAPCC in 2014. It is being conducted by a team of professional academics, all of whom are employed outside NATO structures.

How do disinformation campaigns and misinformation about air operations affect public and opinion? How, in turn, do these perceptions affect policies concerning NATO’s use of airpower?

In order to answer these questions, the Study is looking at trends and historical lessons on how airpower is presented and perceived by the public and the themes used by NATO enemies to discredit NATO air operations. One part of the study seeks to identify how airpower is broadly understood in the Western nations. Studies of five specific NATO Nations are included: Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US).

Furthermore, the study will address the vulnerabilities of NATO airpower to disinformation and develop doctrinal recommendations to best counter the expected enemy media campaigns against NATO airpower as well as specific recommendations for Strategic Communications. Finally, the team of authors intends to develop education and training, i.e. short training courses, for air staff officers and MOD officials, to teach them how to handle airpower disinformation in future operations.

Disinformation versus Misinformation

Disinformation is the deliberate distortion of events and creation of false narratives disseminated by state or non-state actors with the intent of putting their ­enemy in a bad light, undermining the morale of the enemy and bolstering the morale of one’s own public. Disinformation has been part of information oper­ations in conflict for centuries. Today, dictatorships and radical movements use disinformation as a major part of their broader information campaign. Disinformation can be used as part of a long term strategy to undermine the public’s confidence in their government and key institutions. Disinformation can also be used tactically, in the short term, to discredit a particular act or operation.

By contrast, misinformation consists of exaggerated stories that normally have some elements of truth but have become, mostly through error or poor media practices, broadly distorted and often barely reflect the original factual events. Publication of misinformation is often based in the desire to publish information that is sensational and has great media appeal but ends up being basically wrong. Misinformation is closely related to disinformation in its effects but is much more common. Rather than being deliberate, misinformation is commonly caused by the poor use of sources, by overreliance on highly biased informants or material, or by the publication of unverified and poorly understood information. Misinformation can occur because the reporting agency, perhaps the media or an NGO, has a minimal understanding of military operations or conditions. In other cases, even reputable and experienced members of the media will publish poorly researched and unverified (but sensational) material due to the around-the-clock pressure to get news stories and commentary out faster than competing news outlets. Over the long term, misinformation can have effects even greater than disinformation.

The Media Challenge

Apart from occasionally poor media practices causing the spread of misinformation, deliberate media bias resulting in disinformation is a highly significant challenge to NATO’s Strategic Communication. While many publications on defence and airpower issues try for some measure of objectivity and credibility, an anti-Western and anti-NATO bias in media reporting is widespread and can have an effect on how the public views military operations. Anti-NATO political groups, which are usually aligned with the far left or right, have well-designed websites featuring anti-NATO messages.

NATO adversaries move quickly and efficiently to get their side of the story out to their audience on the internet, using both well-crafted websites and social media. For example, the radical movement Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) uses these media to disseminate videos of their own atrocities to instil terror in the local populations. ISIS also presents its positive side, as providers for the people who accept their rule. ISIS songwriters spread music meant to inspire the Muslim youth and create more followers. Currently, there are few means or strategies for Western nations to counter such messages.

Disinformation – Common Enemy ­Narratives Against Air Power

State and non-state actors who oppose NATO and Western nations use disinformation as a means to falsely attribute civilian casualties to military oper­ations, in particular portraying attacks from the air as ruthless, indiscriminate, inhumane, immoral and illegal. In recent conflicts, adversary forces have used civilians as human shields in order to provoke civilian casualty situations that can be exploited to support the enemy narrative. Military strongpoints are, for example, located in midst of densely populated areas in order to make it impossible for the adversary to engage legitimate military targets without causing civilian casualties, which are then exaggerated.

Ensuring that civilians are killed reinforces the image of regular military forces as ruthless aggressors who deliberately target innocents. The consequent deaths and wounding of civilians is then given major coverage throughout social media as well as in the conventional international media in order to discredit their enemies, even when the regular forces involved are operating under very strict rules of engagement and comply fully with the internationally accepted laws of armed conflict. In many cases, international media are kept under tight control by the irregular non-state forces and are only allowed to film images and events that will support the irregular groups’ political agenda and propaganda message.

Enemy groups also construct false narratives to imply that NATO and Western forces are deliberately insulting the people’s religion and culture or have an agenda to forcibly convert the local populations. Such false stories are meant to appeal to the base fears, prejudices and ignorance of the local population, demonizing foreign forces in order to win popular support for the own forces as defenders of the people and the faith.

The themes of disinformation are only limited by the imagination of the adversary. No matter how improbable such stories are or how little real proof for them exists, some of the very wildest and implausible ­stories about Westerners are commonly believed in highly isolated and tribal societies with a low edu­cation level. In other cases, against a better educated and more developed population, disinformation tends towards conspiracy theories and somewhat more probable stories.

The Disinformation and Airpower Challenge in Afghanistan

The conflict in Afghanistan has been NATO’s longest active war and has featured large-scale airpower use across many mission areas. Although the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operated under ­careful rules of engagement and paid compensation to families of civilians killed or wounded in the course of military operations, a constant Taliban disinformation campaign was quite successful in creating public discontent against ISAF forces. Afghan President ­Karzai’s routine condemnations of ISAF actions did ­little to help this situation. By 2008, it was clear to ISAF’s leaders that the Taliban was exploiting airpower issues very effectively. A poll of Afghanis in 2009 showed that 77 % of Afghanis believed that air oper­ations caused excessive casualties. As to the blame, 41 % of Afghanis thought poor NATO targeting was the main cause of civilian casualties and only 28 % of Afghanis put most of the blame on the Taliban for operating too close to civilians.1 The common belief that airpower was causing the heavy civilian casualties was likely not true2 and based on a preference to blame the Westerners for Afghanistan’s problems. However, in counterinsurgency operations, it is public perception that matters in the long term and airpower was arguably causing some very negative public perceptions.

Aware of the views held by the Afghan public, in 2008 General McKiernan, Commander ISAF, issued rules that limited the use of airpower and tightened the rules of engagement. Upon taking command in 2009, General Stanley McChrystal restricted the use of air and ground firepower even further in order to improve public support. This strategy involved greater risk to NATO forces, but McChrystal was very interested in taking away one of the Taliban’s major propaganda leverages.3 This was a tough call to make, but, in the context of the war and the need to keep the support of the Afghani people, it was the right policy.

Afghanistan provided many valuable lessons for NATO in terms of Strategic Communication. ISAF leaders learned the importance of the rapid de­classification of strike imagery and the immediate release of video and photo imagery to the media to counter Taliban claims of attacking civilians. Another important lesson learned by NATO public affairs officers was the importance of communicating with local populations through well-placed information. Speed is essential in the news world and a traditional bureaucracy, which waits cautiously for full details, does not help to counter exaggerated or confusing reports. While NATO thoroughly investigated claims of civilian casualties and collateral damage, the ­normal procedure of releasing information had to be sped up to counter poor reporting and outright disinformation.

The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations

Numerous Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs) and other organizations in Western nations concern themselves with political and security issues, maintaining websites and publishing reports on NATO oper­ations, including extensive coverage of Western air operations, e.g. in Afghanistan, Libya and currently against the ISIS. Often connected to political groups and political parties, these groups have some influence on sectors of public opinion. Although most NGOs are well-intentioned, they often lack a sense of objectivity. A number of NGOs tend to portray Western armed forces negatively, having a strong bias against the use of any force in general and NATO’s use of force in particular. Some groups present well-­researched reports and balanced assessments of events; however, others have a blatant bias and present corrupted data that is useless to support serious analysis. In particular, when it comes to civilian casualties caused by Western military operations, the figures can vary widely.

Lawfare – Criminalizing Unmanned Aerial System Operations

Many NGOs also engage in the debates on the legality of war and of weapons and doctrines. Currently one of the main issues in this debate is the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), widely recognized as ‘drones’ in the media and public, in particular when they are weaponized. An extensive poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2014, showed that there are only three nations – the US, Israel and Kenya – where a majority of people interviewed favour the use of drones against terrorists. This was not the case in any NATO nation other than the US. Only in Poland, the UK and Germany, did support for drones crack the 30 % approval rate.4

The level of public understanding about the use and capabilities of UASs, and airpower in general, is extremely low. Although UASs are little understood, they are generally disliked, as the public sees them as some kind of unfair or immoral weapon. For several years, various NGOs and groups aligned with the UN have made the argument that the use of armed drones against terrorist groups is illegal under international law. The US has contested this in legal arguments, but the US is at a disadvantage due in part to the media coverage of drones in counter terrorism operations. UN-aligned and international groups are today arguing that any use of drones in the strike mode is wrong and this is reflected in major media stories.5


It is essential to recognize that the main issues used by both state and non-state NATO adversaries, namely human rights and civilian casualties, actually play to NATO’s strengths. NATO’s adversaries essentially have no regard for human rights or the lives of civilians and the key focus of NATO Strategic Communications must be to emphasize the care that NATO takes to protect civilians and follow the laws of war. In contrast, NATO must take care to document and publicize the human rights violations of its adversaries.

NATO needs to place considerably more effort into Strategic Communication regarding military power in general and towards airpower in particular. While the Airpower and Disinformation Study is still in progress, it has developed some tentative recommendations for NATO covering the following issues:

  • Better anticipate the expected media issues in operational planning and include measures to deal with the major themes of human rights and civilian casual­ties. NATO needs to deploy expert media teams to document adversary war crimes and to respond ­immediately with true data and information to any charges of civilian casualties or collateral damage allegedly caused by NATO operations.
  • Where possible, loosen declassification rules to ensure that strike imagery is quickly made available to the public in order to counter disinformation, implementing this as Standard Operating Procedures for NATO and NATO Nations.
  • Be ready to embrace the social media. NATO and NATO Nations should allow their soldiers and units to maintain blog sites. These are not only good for troop morale, but are also an excellent means to connect to the general public (as well as family and friends). The military needs to avoid the organizational tendency to censor and control the message, and only apply a few common sense rules to serviceman blogs, such as no obscenities, no photos of dead soldiers, no inflammatory anti-Islam messages, etc., as well as considering operational security with regards to locations, plans and other factors.
  • Use embedded journalists as key enablers to educate the public about applied airpower. In the last decade, NATO nations that allowed embedded journalists to spend time with combat units have experienced remarkable success in connecting the public, with these media members showing the military deployed to field operations and even in combat. Excellent documentaries have been produced in the US, UK, Denmark and Lithuania that were shown on major television networks and reached a wide public audience. Such documentaries provided citizens with tangible impressions of the soldiers serving as both professionals and citizens, giving the public a positive (and accurate) account of the realities of modern warfare and refuting the enemy disinformation meant to portray the Western forces as callous or brutal.
  • NATO needs to use a general approach of allowing cleared journalists easier access and giving the media the opportunity to cover active air operations. While specific intelligence or operational details must not be compromised, the public could, however, be given some account of the careful teamwork invested in the planning and execution of air oper­ations. This is specifically true with regard to the use of UAS, which need to be better explained and demystified for the public in order to mitigate the nega­tive effects of commonplace dis- and misinformation, thus increasing the chances of reinforcing positive public opinion.
  • Finally, NATO officers and officials need much more training in Strategic Communications, including both how to conduct effective information oper­ations and understanding the nature of adversary disinformation campaigns to devise ways to counter them.
See Anthony Cordesman, Afghan Public Opinion and the Afghan War (Washington: CSIS Report, 2009), p. 5, the polling was carried out by ABC News.
The latest annual UNAMA on the Protection of Civilians in Afghanistan, in 2014, states that out of 6,849 civilian casualties 2 % are to be attributed to Pro-Government Forces (PGF) air operations, 34 % to PGF ground operations, 11 % to targeted kill. The rest is attributed to Improvised Explosive Devices, Unexploded Ordnance, and attacks by Anti-Government Elements, or other means.
The issue of airpower and firepower in Afghanistan and McChrystal’s decision to reduce air operations is discussed in General McChrystal’s memoirs. See Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).
Pew Research Center, Global Opposition to US surveillance and Drones, but limited harm to America’s Image, 14 Jul. 2014, p. 5.
See ‘Drone Strikes by US may violate international law, says UN’, Guardian, 18 Oct. 2013. See also ‘RAF’s crew’s role in US drone unit revealed’, Guardian, 23 Jul. 2015.
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Lieutenant Colonel (ret.)
 Corum PhD
University of Salford, UK

Dr Corum holds a MA from Brown University and a PhD in History (Queen’s University, Canada). He is an internationally recognized academic in military history, airpower and counter-insurgency. He has authored eleven books and more than 70 major journal articles and book chapters on strategic studies, airpower and military history. Dr Corum has had a career in higher military education, serving as a professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Spacepower Studies (1991 – 2005), professor at the US Army Command and General Staff College (2005 – 2008), and dean of the Baltic Defence College (2009 – 2014). From 2014 to 2019 he served as Programme Leader for the MA Programme in Terrorism and Security Studies at Salford University, UK.

Information provided is current as of January 2021

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