Cognitive Warfare 2021: Latent Alliance Threats in Neurostrike and Havana Syndrome

Cognitive Warfare 2021: Latent Alliance Threats  in Neurostrike and Havana Syndrome

Cognitive warfare is the sixth arguable dimension of future conflict and must be understood as such. 

An introduction into NeuroStrike as a 21st century weapon by Robert McCreight

Apart from land, sea, air, space and cyber is a brain-based battlefield well recognized but only dimly appreciated. In cognitive warfare, the human mind is the target. Cognitive warfare aims not only to change what people think, what they perceive, what they remember, and how they think or act—indeed it externally manipulates brain functions and corrupts the Central Nervous System [CNS].

In campaign terms it is stealthy, progressively insidious, gauged to inflict gradual and irreversible cognitive degradation and almost always impervious to detection, deterrence and defeat.   Its effects are numerous and well documented, and it begs the question of finding coherent medical and neurological case definitions such that genuine cognitive injury can be identified and sorted out apart from psychological stress, hallucination or mass psychosis. In many ways we entered the threat realm of cognitive warfare years ago yet its seemingly non-kinetic nature has eluded sustained serious discussion and analysis as our strategic focus centers chiefly on hypersonic, CBRN issues, AI enabled platforms, drone swarms and enhanced soldier performance.

Operating silently amongst us, and engaging selected targets within the alliance, cognitive warfare—just as AI and cyber threats are seen—becomes a doorstep towards redefining what a true ‘act of war’ really is. As recently noted in the NATO Review

Waged successfully, [cognitive warfare] shapes and influences individual and group beliefs and behaviors to favor an aggressor’s tactical or strategic objectives. In its extreme form, it has the potential to fracture and fragment an entire society, so that it no longer has the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions. An opponent could conceivably subdue a society without resorting to outright force or coercion. [1]

[1]Countering Cognitive Warfare—Awareness & Resilience NATO Review  May 2021//Johns Hopkins University: Kathy Cao, Sean Glaister, Adriana Pena, Danbi Rhee, William Rong, Alexander Rovalino   Imperial College London: Sam Bishop, Rohan Khanna, Jatin Singh Saini

Remembering Sun Tzu’s dictum that the pinnacle of skill is to “…subdue the enemy without firing a shot” …we find cognitive warfare amply demonstrates the power of that observation. Fostering social upheaval and chaos through cognitive warfare is already effective in reflecting the confidence, confusion and controversy which the public invests in media outlets and social media. There is well-known evidence and sordid experiences where propaganda, disinformation and psychological warfare exerted degrees of measurable societal disruption, planting seeds of doubt among restive groups and classes, undermining the legitimacy of government, subverting lawful authority via staged civil disturbances, or inflaming separatist movements. These softer but still effective manifestations of cognitive warfare can be visualized within the continuum of influence operations and information warfare as well.

We have seen social media and messaging systems generate the spread of intentional and unintentional falsehoods, non-factual assertion, distorted information or slanted narratives. Cognitive warfare confers leverage and advantage to its hosts and sponsors, as the targeted population and its social and political leaders are so keen on open dialogue and discourse they cannot separate externally engineered manipulation of facts and news from reality as the public absorbs it daily. What this means at the outset is to recognize that cognitive warfare is real, that it is insidious in societal effects, and that sophisticated campaigns are underway. 

In turn, this places a new burden on leaders who care about strategic warning and feel confident they can characterize threats which manifest today and tomorrow. Without recognition that a subtle, relentless and covert campaign is  underway, there is no opportunity for resistance, countermeasures and tactical opposition as the silent offensive is unfolding right before their unwitting eyes.  Leaders may ask where the attack and cognitive warfare campaign originated—who is sponsoring it—and how best to resist it.  These are reasonable measures but may be insufficient and too late. 

What must be recognized and assigned high significance apart from these obvious interventions by hostile elements where media, news, disinformation and tireless propaganda emerge is the use of technologies specifically designed to degrade human cognitive function. In that case, the experience of American and Canadian victims of a well-known mystery termed ‘Havana Syndrome” which first arose in the 2016—2018 period must be appreciated and respected for the colossal threat it embodies to our collective security as we move into the decade after 2021.   US military organizations such as SOCOM, DARPA, DTRA and Army Futures Command are keenly aware of these issues.  The alliance should likewise focus on what these threats mean.

Havana 2016—2018

The story of Havana Syndrome begins over five years ago when initial reports surfaced of American and Canadian diplomats being medically evacuated from Havana based on a set of common and uniform ailments which were medically assessed and validated in subsequent evaluations by experts. The nature and extent of these instances of cognitive warfare merit fair consideration and provide a stark warning of things to come. These reports contained indications of disturbing cognitive harm. .  US persons posted to embassy Havana reported a variety of neurocognitiveailments and brain injury, which began in the summer of 2016 and continued through the Spring of 2017.  Initial press reports of neurological and cognitive ill effects by US persons posted to the American embassy in Havana began appearing in various media outlets and was followed by multiple news reports which captured some major elements of the incident.  For example, numerous reports were published essentially containing the same basic facts such as these…

“The health incidents — which took place between November 2016 and August 2017 at homes and two Havana hotels — were initially blamed on “sonic attacks.” The cause has perplexed the Department of State, the FBI and other U.S. agencies that have been trying to figure out just what made 24 intelligence officers, diplomats and relatives based in Havana ill. Many reported a variety of symptoms such as hearing loss, headaches, cognitive problems and other ailments that doctors said correlate with concussions.  University of Miami Dr. Michael Hoffer, who led the initial team of physicians who examined the victims, said: “We still do not have a cause or source of the attacks. The investigation is ongoing.” 

[Miami Herald, March 2, 2018]

More than a year later further US press reports captured the mysterious aspects of these cognitive insults and this press item reflects the same degree of reporting on the issue as it was widely known….

The State Department has said the employees developed what became known as “Havana Syndrome” – headaches, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms that arose when they heard penetrating, high-pitched sounds.  MRI scans from the 23 men and 17 women showed changes in brain structure and functional connectivity between different parts of the organ compared with 48 other adults, according to the study by the University of Pennsylvania. The difference in the brains between the two groups “is pretty jaw-dropping at the moment,” lead researcher Dr. Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at Penn, told Reuters.  “Most of these patients had a particular type of symptoms and there is a clinical abnormality that is being reflected in an imaging anomaly,” she said.  However, in findings published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Verma and her team said it was unclear if the brain patterns directly translate into significant health problems.  [NY Post—pg 4-July 23, 2019]

The various victims of Havana Syndrome were seen by NIH, FBIUniversity of Miami and University of Pennsylvania medical and neuroscience experts. A serious and much respected report issued by the National Academy of Sciences [NAS] in December 2020 said this. The NAS noted the victims were exhibiting “.. a constellation of acute clinical signs and symptoms with directional and location-specific features that was distinctive…. unlike any disorder in the neurological or general medical literature”. [2] 

[2] An Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies,    National Academy of Sciences. Washington, DC 2020 pg 2

Independently,there are numerous medical studies and research reports which affirm the central NAS theory behind what the Academy and its experts say triggered Havana Syndrome. One such example illustrates the core issue.

“Pulsed microwaves above specific energy thresholds have been reported to cause brain injury in animal models. The actual physical mechanism causing brain damage is unexplained, while the clinical reality of these injuries remains controversial. Pulsed microwaves may injure brain tissue by transduction of microwave energy into damaging acoustic phonons in brain water. We have shown that low intensity explosive blast waves likely initiate phonon excitations in brain tissues. Brain injury in this instance occurs at nanoscale subcellular levels as predicted by physical consideration of phonon interactions in brain water content. The phonon mechanism may also explain similarities between primary non-impact blast-induced mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and recent clinical and imaging findings of unexplained brain injuries observed in US embassy personnel, possibly due to directed radiofrequency radiation. We know that certain RF frequencies and power levels can trigger pulsed microwaves and potentially injure brain tissue. Microwaves can also be focused into narrow field-of-view beams in order to target individuals.  Experimental evidence indicates that pulsed microwaves can induce disruption in brain  tissue,producing subsequent behavioral and cognitive dysfunction. In addition, pulsed microwaves reportedly may alter blood-brain barrier permeability, disrupt long-term potentiating and result in DNA strand breaks”  

[Pulsed Microwave Energy Transduction of Acoustic Phonon Related Brain Injury  Graham K. Hubler1Stuart W. Hoffman2, Tim D. Andreadis5*Frontiers of. Neurology., 04 August 2020   and

Without doubt, the combined medical, neuroscience and electronic warfare ingredients in the preliminary assessment of the technology which may have caused ‘Havana Syndrome’ merits a closer look and sustained research inside the alliance as well as more broadly in medical and academic communities.  Verification of its non-kinetic but devastating effects must be validated. Moreover, the specific cognitive impact and neurological effect of nanosecond-repetitive pulsed RF microwaves on human brains merits an urgent research campaign as some published research confirms that it can adversely affect humans as it has already done so in rats. [3]

[3] Some Biological Reactions of the Organism after Exposure to Nanosecond Repetitive Pulsed Microwaves, 6th International Congress-‘Energy Fluxes and Radiation Effects’, 2018 Journal of Physics, A Kereya, O Kutenkov, V Rostov  doi:10.1088/1742-6596/1115/2/22015

Act of War?

In keeping with the legitimate controversy about whether a Cyber or AI enabled attack using unconventional technologies is truly an ‘act of war’ befitting serious contemplation as we determine those aspects of the NATO treaty which may be applicable—we are left to consider the Havana Syndrome yet another puzzling example.  For example, when the first reported instances of Havana Syndrome were seen by senior US government officials, there was this reaction [4]

[4] “If this plays out and somebody is attacking Americans [even] with a nonlethal weapon … we owe it to our folks that are out there,” said Christopher Miller. ”…we owe it to them to get to the bottom of this.”   Former acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller | Joshua Roberts via AP  By LARA SELIGMAN and ANDREW DESIDERIO  05/03/2021 16;06 EDT

With former acting Secretary of Defense Chistopher Miller calling these randomized attacks on U.S. government personnel as an “an act of war,” he urged the Biden administration to stay focused on the issue.  Newly appointed Biden officials such as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and recently confirm CIA chief William Burns both pledged to investigate what really happened.  Secretary of State Blinken appointed a career ambassador named Spratlin to oversee the inquiry back in February 2021 but now has appointed Jonathan Moore, who served in posts in Bosnia and Namibia, along with Ambassador Margaret Uyehara who will lead the Department’s internal Health Incident Response Task Force.  As Blinken noted during the announcement,[5]

[5] Those who suffer from it have “experienced serious physical consequences, including persistent headaches and hearing loss. They’ve also experienced psychological harm, including trauma, anxiety, depression,” with no clear explanation, Blinken // Boston Herald, Nov 4, pg 5 

Over the course of the last six months in 2021 numerous press reports have been identified of parallel Havana Syndrome complaints from US diplomats posted to Berlin, Hanoi, Bogotá, Managua, Vienna and Guangzhou as well as at least 12 other posts overseas.  This provides additional impetus to find the offending technology and determine how best to protect vulnerable employees.  With a net cluster of potential victims among US military, intelligence and diplomatic ranks which may exceed 300 in number and rising, the alliance should pay attention to these disturbing developments.

If this insidious, stealthy and largely undetectable technology continues to inflict measurable cognitive harm on US persons, the United States will engage the full measure of its research infrastructure to identify and nullify further instances of Havana Syndrome.  For the interim, however, all people potentially vulnerable to this disruptive and damaging technology remain at risk.  A clear, concise and credible medical case definition is urgently needed along with a sophisticated strategy for isolating what the offending technology is.  Measures to defend, deflect and deter future uses of the technology is just as urgent and interim steps to thwart and deter the use of the technology today and protect innocent victims now must be found.

Neurostrike NeuroCognitive Conflict and Havana Syndrome

What is the strategic effect of a stealth weapon which debilitates or permanently impairs the minds of military and civilian leadership?  If that technology is largely covert, undetectable and pervasive even if its targets are limited in number, does that pose an incipient threat deserving of serious attention as geopolitical weapons leverage is considered?  Symptoms of its victims cannot be readily evaluated by physicians, as no case definition or peer reviewed research exists to verify its authenticity.  

The technology is insidious and consistently defies detection, prevention, medical verification and scientific confirmation aside from episodic reports that an anomaly has occurred and impaired the neurological and cognitive wellbeing of its intended targets. One could easily visualize reports of this technology being discounted as psychotic or delusional events, where the complaining individuals were labeled as malingerers or worse. But what is the technology is genuine, effective, repeatedly used in isolated cases and continues to wreak havoc among its victims, perplexing both medial and military experts with its long-lasting cognitive impact and negative effects?  If this technology exists, but we cannot easily identify it in operational use nor detect and deflect its harmful beams, emanations and pulse waves?

This is the central dilemma of a 21st century weapon which I have called ‘NeuroStrike” It is my preferred term for referencing the array of offending technology behind Havana Syndrome and drawing attention to its onward evolution and global proliferation. It has so far has eluded the best efforts of military, medical and intelligence experts to explain or categorize, but its authenticity and cognitive degradation effects are well documented.  While some aspects of the offending technology are known, other aspects less so.  The quest for a complete and accurate decoding of NeuroStrike technology is a high priority for the alliance as leadership, decision-making, threat analysis, tactical perception and situational awareness are all jeopardized by the technology.

The basic principle of a suggested neurostrike weapon is a fairly simple proposition.  It entails a handheld, or platform mounted, mixture of an RF, directed energy pulse or engineered neurocognitive disrupter, which is designed to harm, disable or permanently damage a human brain. It may also indirectly adversely impact the brains of several people near the attack.  One viable conclusion is that NeuroStrike technologies after 2021 will dramatically alter all prior theories of combat or the use of non-lethal force on both civilian and military targets.  These notions must be rethought.  While such reports provoke a number of questions not readily answered such as the suspected sponsors, owners, attackers and developers of NeuroStrike as well as their motives, the sheer magnitude of conformable neurological harm inflicted on victims cannot be refuted.  Victims of NeuroStrikehave experienced sustained and persistent neurocognitive disruptive effects which can be medically confirmed, and this cognitive degradation defies facile medical categorization. 

So, it is of utmost importance to assess the net strategic value of such weapons in future conflict scenarios short of an actual shooting war.  We can visualize the onset of an arguable domain known as NeuroCognitive Conflict [NCC] or cognitive warfare. It is not for threat analysis in future decades after 2050 because it operates even now. As such, it exists outside normal discussions of electronic warfare or beyond the boundaries of serious speculation about exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum for military purposes. It lies outside the threshold of arms controls discussions or agreement, and it sneers at hapless medical attempts to define or understand it. 

The potential for non-kinetic neurocognitive disruption, degradation and disablement of human brains via remotely positioned platforms alters our ordinary sense of strategic warning, risk, electronic warfare and modified information operations.  In a joint multi-domain conflict environment, neurostrike technologies are game changers owing to their covert nondeductible nature, resulting in zero defensive and deterrent capabilities among targeted persons. As such, NeuroStrike issues add complexity and heft to gauging the nature, extent and focus of future defense threats and securing the geopolitical interests of the United States.  Detection, defense, deterrence and defeat of future neurostrike systems ought to become one of our highest defense priorities to retain a competitive strategic edge.

Strategic Dimensions and C4ISR

Strategic and sub strategic issues arise immediately as NeuroStrike technologies are assessed. The lack of attack warning, the absence of protective measures and the defensive/countermeasures gap combine to make this a strategic issue.  Further, in the medical and leadership dynamics arena if the existing cognitive degradation technology can be modified to adversely affect dozens of troops it may have strategic effects. Sub strategically, it signals a new threat variation on aspects of electronic warfare, PSYOPS, information operations and C4ISR. Continued development of sophisticated broad scale NeuroStrike technology by hostile forces suggests a three-fold strategic dilemma for the alliance

1-If NeuroStrike attacks occurred, how would they be validated or proven? 

2-What technologies can be developed today to detect, deter and defeat existing and future NeuroStrike technologies?

3-What specific medical case definition can be made for Neurostrike victims, and what technologies can be devised to reduce or eliminate adverse cognitive harm and progressive neural degradation?

In the annals of  current military theory and security policy the paradigmatic reference to C4ISR has held a classic significance reflecting a blended continuum of policy and technology which identifies Command, Control, Communication, Coordination, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance as bedrock principles for conducting warfare.  In most cases this constellation of values, functions, operations and principles is sufficient to explain combat imperatives worth noting out twenty or more years into the future past 2021. But C4ISR as we understand it is in jeopardy. 

What specific future technologies such as hypersonics, lasers, AI, drone swarms, autonomous platforms, robots, genomic enhancements and other cutting-edge  discoveries will alter, redefine and reshape what we regard as C4ISR well after 2021? Where does the set of NeuroStrike technologies fit, and how do they potentially dilute or disrupt C4ISR? In an era of cognitive  warfare,C4ISR is target number one.

NeuroStrike technologies can potentially impair military leadership and mission execution temporarily to attain a strategic advantage and asymmetric degree of leverage in conflicts where the ‘fog of war’ is paramount. Commanders unable to reliably ascertain or assess enemy movements, technologies or intentions and thereby communicate and coordinate appropriate responses and maneuvers are likely compromised to a significant degree. Transmission, interpretation, acknowledgement and execution of orders whether oral, written or cybernetic in nature could be negatively affected by intermediate military officers and nodes of command which cannot accurately read, digest, apply and understand what specific orders require. 

The inability to defend and protect senior officials from NeuroStrike technologies, together with the technical challenges involved in discerning when such technologies are being aimed at alliance leaders and officials, remains an uppermost strategic threat. Further, the proliferation of such technology globally, along with its steady maturation and sophistication, poses additional threats to U.S. security interests. The  future threat such technology poses to overseas posted diplomats, military officers, civilians and their families is not well recognized, evaluated or understood. 

Various ISR aspects of military operational prowess and strategic leverage are facing real risks of dilution and evisceration if the array of NeuroStrike technologies deployed against friendly force commanders and echelon leaders is found to be even of limited effectiveness. The craft of ordinary tactical intelligence seeking enemy capabilities, intentions, technologies and enemy leader traits could be impaired by deft targeting of friendly systems using NeuroStrike technologies. If cognitive disruption technologies—even of a temporary nature—were employed by unfriendly forces to mask, deceive or camouflage enemy activities, systems, platforms and capabilities, the net effect could undermine the activities, operations and mission goals of friendly forces.  If leader perception, interpretation, analysis and reaction to enemy conduct was impaired, cloaked or hidden by such technologies, the battlefield advantages to an aggressor would be obvious. Likewise, the critical functions of surveillance and reconnaissance could be adversely affected if NeuroStrike technologies could effectively interfere with pattern recognition and other mental skills integral to normal routines where surveillance and reconnaissance were relied upon,  Clearly there is an implied risk that disruptive NeuroStrike technologies could impair or diminish proper assessment and analysis of data, photos, maps and other materials which could not be understood or interpreted normally owing to the impairment.

We must also evaluate NeuroStrike systems within the context of EMOE. The Electromagnetic Operational Environment [EMOE] is a composite of the actual and potential electromagnetic energy radiation, conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and the decisions of the commander. It includes the existing background radiation (i.e., electromagnetic environment) as well as the friendly, neutral, adversary, and enemy electromagnetic systems able to radiate within the electromagnetic area of influence. This includes systems currently radiating or receiving, or those that may radiate, that can potentially affect joint operations. 

The EMOE is comprehensive and strategically significant and include—AI enabled communication services including safety services like aeronautical, maritime, radio navigation, radio location, radio astronomy, radio ranging, meteorological, broadcasting, satellite broadcasting, fixed-satellite, mobile-satellite, space services, as well as most cyber based platforms. It is an internationally shared spectrum where influence and dominance are clear strategic objectives, possessing characteristics with major geopolitical leverage attached.

An Urgent Need for Research

The sheer existence of debilitating systems and platforms among hostile nations which enable randomized cognitive warfare and under gird NeuroStrike technologies poses an immediate and urgent need for research inside the alliance.  While medical, neuroscience and electronic warfare experts can construct theories which support the operation of cognitive degradation  technology,there is the paramount need to reduce or nullify its adverse effects as soon as possible.

Within the alliance, military, civilian and academic experts must collaborate now on calibrating and dissecting the essential parts of any cognitive warfare system which poses an immediate or future threat. Joining the USA, the alliance must discern what the actual size, location, origins, scope, sponsors, technology and significance of the prevailing cognitive warfare threat. Cognitive warfare contains the subtle but powerful effects of strategic surprise and inflicts damage ambiguous enough that victims have to fight energetically to get an objective assessment of their true cognitive impairment.

Characterizing the full scope, magnitude, meaning, distribution and verified harmful neurological effects of cognitive warfare platforms, systems and technologies has not yet been accomplished. Efforts must be launched immediately to

  • Identify fundamental cognitive warfare technologies operating globally 
  • Develop defensive and protective countermeasures 
  • Devise  reliable detection and deterrent systems
  • Clarify current cognitive warfare threats globally in the 2021-2030 period
  • Align alliance experts in thwarting future cognitive warfare attacks

Focus allied energy on identifying State sponsors of cognitive warfare technologies, their proliferators and developers. This will also likely require extensive expert review and discussion along with red team integrated exercises to illustrate blind spots, faulty assumptions and unknown aspects of combat vulnerability.

Finally, we must recognize that the offending cognitive warfare technology involved in Havana Syndrome has certain identifiable characteristics: [1] the beam is effective using 5 to-8 separate instances of attack, each one being less than 6 minutes duration; [2] it is  likely hand held or table sized technology; [3] its effective beam range is 30-75 meters distant from the target; [4]  it penetrates glass, metal and concrete walls; [5] it is often accompanied by  low-level clicking sounds; [6] it often triggers immediate intense headaches.  For certain cognitive warfare is NOT crickets, organophosphate poisoning, hallucination, PTSD or imaginary. It is harmful, real, and it is already here.

Robert McCreight is an expert on advanced weapons systems, convergent technology and neuroscience based threats. He was a former US Army Special Ops officer, treaty negotiator with the State Department and advisor to the Reagan White House on nuclear matters.  He teaches graduate school and has published 5 books and 34 articles on a variety ofsubjects including emergency management, homeland defense, national security and future technology risks