Study of Airpower and Disinformation

Lessons for Future Operations

By James S. Corum PhD, Dr Conrad Crane (USA), Dr Philpp Fraund (DEU), Dr Eugenio Cusumano (ITA), Dr Mathieu Chillaud (FRA), Dr James Pugh (UK)


This study will examine one of the most serious threats against Western airpower that we now face – the disinformation campaigns carried out against NATO and coalition forces in campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya that specifically characterize airpower as an inhumane and indiscriminate weapon of war. In fighting irregular non-state forces (and even forces in state on state war) groups and nations routinely and deliberately exaggerate the civilian casualties of aerial bombing, or even make false claims, to claim the propaganda advantage of victimhood (discussed in the book Airpower and Small Wars). Indeed such campaigns often conflate and exploit legitimate debate or genuine errors to serve their means. In recent air campaigns airpower has been routinely portrayed as indiscriminate, enormously lethal, and causing massive collateral damage and civilian casualties. Disinformation and misinformation published in the Western media have a powerful effect of winning sympathy for enemy forces and for undermining Western public support for military operations. In short, groups such as al Qaeda, Taliban and affiliated groups make the NATO use of airpower a major theme in very effective information operations. These information campaigns are some of the best weapons employed by NATO’s enemies. Besides their influence on the public, they also steer the political debate, e.g. the discussion about weaponized Unmanned Air Systems (UAS). It is important that the nature of information campaigns that target Western airpower, including weaponized UASs, and specifically weaponized UAVs, be examined in depth so that we can better understand the opposition and its information strategy. We need to understand the concerns and perceptions with regard to airpower and how these are dealt with by the Alliance and are exploited by its adversaries. We need to look at the recent NATO and Western air campaigns, in Afghanistan and Libya in particular (but not excluding Iraq and Kosovo) and the degree to which disinformation and misinformation about air strikes was portrayed in the European media and the degree to which the portrayal of airpower worked to win sympathy for the enemy groups and movements and to win support for restricting or avoiding the use of airpower altogether. With the rise of weaponized UASs we can anticipate that al Qaeda affiliates and related terror organizations (or any organisation without capable air power of its own) will use disinformation and misinformation to undermine the will of NATO nations to engage in military operations, and to specifically disallow the use of airpower in the strike role.


The aim of the study is in line with NATO’s work to identify problems and solutions to ensure that airpower continues to be a key enabler to the security of NATO. The study will identify and analyse the information campaigns that have been mounted against NATO and Western airpower over the last fifteen years which had the intent of discrediting NATO airpower. This study will provide doctrinal, policy and training recommendations to meet the threat of disinformation and to improve NATO’s Strategic Communications (StratCom) in employing airpower in the future. The finalized study will support “NATO Forces 2020” by providing realistic concepts and doctrines to meet the expected challenge of disinformation in an ever changing security environment. The study will also form the basis of a flexible module of training to be developed for NATO personnel to deal with the challenge of disinformation aimed against NATO airpower.


An in depth study will examine the role of airpower and information campaigns, particularly related to disinformation in recent air campaigns. The study will develop several case studies to examine NATO and national policies and reaction to the use of air power. These studies will determine which themes and information strategies have worked best in countering the portrayal of airpower as being inhumane and, by these portrayals, have won international support for the enemy cause. The case studies will determine where NATO and Western StratCom have succeeded in shaping the information environment with regard to the use of air power as well as countering the disinformation claims, and where NATO and NATO nations have not been effective and have allowed the enemy to have the information advantage. In addition to the case studies of disinformation and airpower the study will include national case studies of the major European nations that have employed airpower and UASs in recent conflicts to answer several questions. By examining a representative national media (major newspapers, magazines, news agencies) in each country we will determine: How is airpower portrayed in the media? How are UAVs portrayed in the media? What is the public understanding of aerial strike operations? What does the public understand of the targeting process? To what extent do the media repeat the disinformation themes of NATO opponents? What is the effect of the media reporting on the public view of airpower and UAVs? In addition the study will examine how is the application of airpower considered by commanders and planners in the development of operation plans and their information strategies to communicate and counter disinformation? What systems are in place to rebut or counter disinformation? How is this trained? The countries for special case studies will be: Germany, France, UK, Italy, and the US.

Project Team

Project Manager
Colonel Joachim Hahn, DEU AF

Project Leader
James S. Corum PhD

Project Status

Last Update 06 April 2016
Project Definition Report
Research and Data Gathering