Cognitive Practices in Hybrid Warfare

Andrew Maksimov
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Varvara Belokurova
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


The modern world states everything can be weaponized. With the advanced technologies, public involvement and increased global interdependency, warfare has changed dramatically. Due to the major shift towards focusing on human mind as a critical weapon it is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between legitimate and manipulated information. This article focuses on a relatively novel concept “cognitive warfare” that puts human mind in the center of hybrid warfare toolkit. The objectives are to dwell upon the mechanics of cognitive war and to demonstrate the power of cognitive influence. In order to analyze how it works in practice several cases are provided as the examples through the case study method. The findings of the article suggest that the concept “cognitive warfare” belongs directly to the domain of cognitive, implying the influence on subconscious levels of human mind. Cognitive instruments have been utilized throughout history for decades but today the threat is embodied in the conceptualization of these instruments. Overall, these results enhance our understating that now the instruments of cognitive influence have become severer and the further studies of this concept is of paramount importance.

Key words: hybrid warfare, cognitive warfare, human mind, cognitive, manipulation


"Hybrid warfare" is a relatively new concept. It dates back to 2005 when James Mattis and Frank Hoffman highlighted the utmost importance of utilizing non-conventional tools together with the traditional means of warfare in their article “Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”. Hybrid warfare can be defined as the combination of conventional and non-conventional instruments in order to take advantage of the opponent's vulnerabilities and achieve a synergistic effect[1]. In fact, the definition of "hybrid war" can mean any unfriendly action of one country in relation to another, without actions of the armed forces. However, in the modern landscape a major shift within the means and tools of Hybrid warfare is prominent. With the goal of winning a war without starting it, tools of cognitive influence come to the fore.

The notion of cognitive

The word “cognitive”, deriving from cognition, is the mental action or process of understanding, encompassing all aspects of intellectual function, including the sub-conscious and emotional aspects that drive a majority of human decision-making[2]. These processes are studied by cognitive science, which analyses cognition within different contexts and fields. For this paper it is essential to note one of the largest fields of cognitive science – cognitive linguistics.

In recent years, the correlation between language and mind has become the subject to many studies. The field of cognitive linguistics is considered to be of great importance in the processes of cogitation and understanding the world as it links language with cognitive processing in the human brain. Consequently, cognitive linguistics focuses on the interface between syntax and semantics. The relation of cognitive linguistics to cognitive warfare is fairly evident. Many scholars highlight semantic attacks as a vital element of cognitive influence. During a semantic attack, the information is distorted, and the individual does not suspect that they have formed their opinion under the influence of external factors. This is one of the basic principles of cognitive warfare.

Cognitive warfare

Cognitive warfare means the activities that are conducted to affect attitudes and behaviors by influencing, protecting, or disrupting individual and group cognitions to gain an advantage. In such instances, cognitive warfare aims to weaponize public opinion in order to influence governmental policy and destabilize public institutions[3]. In this case it is important to mention two essential features of cognitive warfare. First, emotions are an integral part of a cognitive war as cognitive attacks are usually conducted through emotional manipulation. Second, cognitive warfare doesn’t necessarily carry tangible outcomes as the ultimate goal is actually to stay in the ‘Gray Zone’ below the threshold of armed conflict. It is also crucial to distinguish cognitive warfare from information warfare. The major distinction is that informational warfare seeks to control information in all its forms, while cognitive warfare seeks to control how individuals react to presented information.

Selective case studies

To confirm the thesis about the importance of cognitive shift in the modern world, it is worth turning to instances. One vivid example of cognitive warfare means is the Vietnam war. Back in the days there was a photo of a very famous American actress Jane Fonda taken during her visit to Hanoi, where she met with North Vietnamese troops[4][5][6]. She was sitting on an anti-aircraft gun that was used to target American planes. That photo influenced greatly the way Americans perceived the war and it definitely contributed to the opposition movement against the war. Another photo notoriously known as “Napalm girl” caused global outrage especially among American people and all over the world[7]. That was a photo of a girl (Kim Phuc) running naked amid other fleeing villagers and soldiers. It became one of the most haunting images of the Vietnam War. These photos perfectly exemplify the power of cognitive instruments. Without any words, without any direct influence and messages, the photos served their purpose.

In addition to the abovementioned examples, it is known that all the elements of pop-culture, such as cinema, theater, music, are an effective and frequent tool in cognitive warfare. The United States has always used Hollywood as a powerful means of cognitive influence. Through movies and movie franchises like Marvel, the US creates an attractive image of the US military. "Iron Man" shows off the military-industrial complex and the arms trade, and "Hulk" shows off science labs working for the Pentagon. What is more, for example, the film "Captain Marvel", where the main character is a female superhero, who is also a military pilot. After the release of the film, the number of girls wishing to serve in the US Air Force increased significantly. The film has been called an Air Force recruiting tool[8]. Thus, it is evident that the cognitive impact can be exerted both on the public of an adversary state and on the public of your own country.


Today, the world is witnessing a dramatic change in the traditional means of warfare. It is clear that cognitive wars are continuous and unceasing. It is nearly impossible to spot the frames and limitations of such war. The examples provided in the article prove that cognitive attacks have existed long before the notion itself, however, the majority of these attacks were carried out casually, unwittingly. From now on these attacks have become very deliberate and very intentional up to creating think-tanks, hubs and departments the activity of which is specifically focused on engineering cognitive attacks and tactics. The considered examples confirm the relevance of the development of the concept "cognitive warfare". The findings of the article open a new perspective to studying the influence and consequences of cognitive warfare in the modern world.


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Internet Resources

  1. Cognitive Warfare: Strengthening and Defending the Mind // NATO URL:
  2. Countering cognitive warfare: awareness and resilience // NATO URL:
  3. Napalm // Wikipedia URL:
  4. The Complicated Story Behind Jane Fonda's 'Hanoi Jane' Nickname // URL:
  5. The Real Story of Jane Fonda and the Vietnam Vets Who Hate Her // URL:
  6. The Role of Today’s VRE and Considerations for Cognitive Warfare // URL:
  7. Why 'Captain Marvel' is a Recruiting Win for the Air Force // URL:

[1] The Role of Todays VRE and Considerations for Cognitive Warfare. // URL:

[2] Cognitive Warfare: Strengthening and Defending the Mind // NATO URL:

[3] Countering cognitive warfare: awareness and resilience // NATO URL:

[4] The Complicated Story Behind Jane Fonda's 'Hanoi Jane' Nickname // URL:

[5] Jane Fonda: Hanoi Jane photo was a 'huge mistake' // The Guardian URL:

[6] The Real Story of Jane Fonda and the Vietnam Vets Who Hate Her // URL:

[7] Napalm // Wikipedia URL:

[8] Why 'Captain Marvel' is a Recruiting Win for the Air Force // URL: