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Unconventional Warfare Psychological Operations: An ODA’s Experience at JRTC
In February 2016, Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) 1236 participated in Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) Exercise 16-04. We operated outside of the “Box” (the military training area) during the Unconventional Warfare (UW) Exercise, while some of our sister ODAs operated on Fort Polk, proper. Since our team operated from an operational base on a civilian farm, surrounded by unwitting neighbors who were not part of the scenario, our freedom of maneuver in both real terms and within the exercise was extremely limited. This drove our efforts from a planned focus on guerrilla warfare to more information operations-driven subversion. Our team filmed four videos, published eight issues of a resistance newspaper, and wrote two dozen social media posts during the two-week exercise. Our efforts made significant impact within the context of the scenario, all without any attached Psychological Operations (PSYOP) personnel, specialized training, or special equipment. Though this training scenario was an imperfect reflection of a real-world UW mission, our success could be replicated in other environments, by any ODA. Beyond structuring the narrative and building individual media messages, our experience at JRTC indicated three fundamental principles that helped enable success: integrating messaging into the operational cycle; having the right tools to develop and distribute the message; and assessing the reach and effectiveness of the messaging effort.
Integrating Messaging Into Planning
Each of our mission planning cycles incorporated the generation of messages for the event of both mission success and mission failure. Together with our resistance leadership, we wargamed what success or failure might look like, and built messages that could capitalize on both types of outcomes. Potential friendly casualties were portrayed as enemy atrocities, while enemy KIAs or property destruction were attributed to enemy infighting. These usually took the form of written social media posts, since these were easy for the resistance force’s information operations cell to produce and quickly distribute to the target audience. Our experience in the training environment was that our speed of message dissemination was nearly as important as the quality of the message. We structured video and newspaper content, which took more planning to produce, in a targeted approach to elicit a response from the enemy or local population that was directly linked to a future objective.
Hardware and Software
We brought three CF-19 Toughbook computers and one iPad into the operational area. The laptops all had Microsoft Publisher, which enabled us to design newspapers or fliers. However, the CF-19s lacked even the simplest video, audio, or photo editing software, so we had to use the iPad for this purpose. We purchased the Videoshop app ($1.99 in the Apple App Store) and Adobe PhotoShop Mix (free), which fulfilled our basic video and image editing needs. Though we had a fancy Canon reconnaissance camera, the iPad was far more useful to capture both still images and video. Our production routine for video was to film our scenes using the iPad, adding voiceovers or additional audio within Videoshop, and export the finished product to our standalone laptop. We used the same laptop to build our newspapers and used thumb drives and writeable CDs to pass all digital products through our resistance organization for distribution.
Without an iPad, we would have been unable to film and edit video. The use of personal cell phones was prohibited during the training exercise, but there was no definitive guidance on tablets or other electronic devices. Writing such items completely out of the scenario makes for a 20th century training environment. In today’s world, even if an element infiltrates without any electronic devices, iPads and comparable tablets with simple applications are often easy to acquire for a price. They offer an incredibly easy means with which to record, edit, and display digital content—we will not deploy again without a tablet computer.
Assessing Message Impact
One of our shortcomings was our failure to assess the reach and impact of our messaging until the exercise was almost over. We used enemy action as our measure of effectiveness, but were slow to establish a means to determine our messages’ level of penetration and level of influence within the target audience. We got plenty of positive feedback through word of mouth from our resistance leadership, but we did not establish more definitive metrics. We conducted a rudimentary form of target audience analysis, but we did not have any reservoir of training or doctrinal knowledge to draw upon. A cursory reading of FM 3-05.301 (Psychological Operations Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) would have yielded the concept of “impact indicators,” which the manual defines as “specific, measurable, and observable behaviors performed by the target audience,” which indicate changes in behavior. Armed with this concept, we could have measured effects and tailored our messaging accordingly.
Limitations of the JRTC
Though the lessons we learned about information operations have real-world applicability, the training environment at JRTC had definite limitations. First and foremost, all the interaction with role players occurred in American English. We did not have to work through our own rudimentary knowledge of a target language or an interpreter to explain to our resistance force partners what sort of message we were crafting. Similarly, per the scenario’s area study, the fictional country of “Atropia” had a distinct culture, but we never had to step outside our American cultural comfort zone. While the majority of our products were intended for dissemination through social media and blog posts, we could not actually see the posts in finished form. Perhaps most significantly was the amount of autonomy that we, as an ODA, had within the JRTC scenario. Recent counterinsurgent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were extremely restrictive in terms of what US forces could produce, even during combined efforts with indigenous partners. Within the scenario, the area command developed general themes, which were amply broad to allow for messaging that suited the conditions within individual operational areas.
The elephant in the room is the ODA’s success in conducting information operations without the integration of, or even interaction with, PSYOP personnel. Our AOB had a tactical PSYOP team augmenting their efforts at the area command level. Our communications bandwidth with the AOB was extremely limited, so we would send text summaries of information operations we were conducting, but had to physically pass CDs or thumb drives to the AOB with the IO products themselves. This meant that the PSYOP element with the AOB was unable to see our products in real time or provide any advice on how we could improve future efforts.
Though we were ultimately successful, our efforts would have been much more effective had we planned for PSYOP personnel to provide the ODA with pre-deployment training. An understanding of the basics of target area analysis and PSYOP series evaluation, would have helped to flatten a very steep learning curve. Instead of deliberate psychological operations objectives, where each of our messages tied into an overall narrative that was structured to change the behavior of a specific target audience, our efforts were more haphazard. The messaging certainly had a disruptive effect on the enemy, but it was nowhere near as effective as it would have been with more training and a greater depth of understanding. A PSYOP team could have explained what software and hardware were required, depending on the sort of access that the target audience had. In an ideal world, they could hand us a tablet or computer with a suite of software already installed which we could later use as a training aid for our resistance partner force. ODAs must assume that information operations, to include the generation of digital, video, and print content, will play a role in all of our future operations and gain literacy from both practical and conceptual standpoints. Training in producing digital messages is not resource-intensive and can be conducted without even leaving the team room.
The most important part our experience is that a “regular” ODA successfully waged its own psychological campaign-without special training or additional personnel. Any other proactive SF detachment could replicate our success, provided they have some software and hardware capabilities, integrate their psychological campaign into the planning for every individual mission, and have a system in place to assess feedback for their messages. Qualified PSYOP personnel operating under a similar set of constraints could undoubtedly produce superior products and effects by drawing on their own advanced training. However, given the relatively small size of the PSYOP Regiment and the difficulty infiltrating additional personnel into denied areas, it is unrealistic to expect PSYOP Soldiers to be always be able to integrate their efforts with every SF element. ODAs should anticipate having the opportunity, if not the operational necessity, to structure some form of information operations campaign. This is a likely condition, regardless of whether the ODA is partnered with elements of the underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla fighters.