Unconventional Warfare Psychological Operations: An ODA’s Experience at JRTC

Unconventional Warfare Psychological Operations: An ODA’s Experience at JRTC

Gordon Richmond

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.

37-Series Integration

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Comments

We should never forget that US Special Forces was born in the Office of Psychological Warfare after World War II. At its very core Unconventional Warfare is psychological warfare. Psychological operations has to be an integrated part of UW. Napoleon's words are just as important in UW as they are in any other aspect of warfare: The moral is to the physical as three is to one. In today's ecosystem of revolution, resistance, insurgency, terrorism, and civil war of the psychological and the political to the kinetic as ten is to one.

Wow...who knew an UW SF ODA had a psych ops capability.....ask those that served in the "old SF during the good ole UW days of the late 50s thru to early 70s"......

We had at out support entire SF Psych Ops BNs for language and production abilities as well as leaflet drops via UW aircraft...Beavers, Otters, and the ever solid Birddog ...we had no computers and no digital cameras.....and comms back to the rear were via hand cranked morse code....

Everything had to be pre-planned and prepared during isolation and then dropped in when needed........which required extensive area studies briefings during isolation....

So I am a tad surprised to see that now a single ODA rediscovers "a lost art"....

Example ...even in VN we had the capability....we massively beat up on a NVA BN killing and wounding a large number....called for a SF psych ops Birddog with a translator....they circled the area of the fighting playing Vietnamese funeral music and saying over and over that if they would surrender we would accept them as Choi Hoa (line crossers) and not POWs...
over 25 came in just on the first fly by....

Second example, we stumbled onto a single bunker hidden deep in War Zone C and killed a single NVA soldier and a second one ran....the bunker contained the entire records of a well known NVA elite Regt working out area...on the coversheet of a bundle of documents was stated.."defend this until your death".....

We again called up the Birddog and had him play the same music and say...we know you will be killed if you return to your until for not defending until the death your unit's records...so Choi Hoa over...he did a hour later....

Third example...we would call for leaflet drops all the time from our Psych Ops BN.....a variety of line crosser get out of jail free passes if they carried them when they came over.....

General Giap mentioned in his writings that the Choi Hoa ...line crosser program was responsible for a large number of his troops simply deserting over to the South in late 70 early 71....

Psych ops works...just ask AQ and IS.....

SF just needs to get back to the old style SF Psych Ops BNs....

outlaw,

While I understand your frustration, I welcome This article and what it represents. As you state, this isn't the old SF, it is the new SF. One deeply damaged in the 90s (conventionalized), followed by 15 years of micro management by CONOPs during GWOT (overly generalized, but team mates will understand my assertion). During this time PYSOP became MISO, and approvals for messaging were tied to a much slower OODA loop than our adversaries.

This article, IMO represents welcome change. It shows the impact of junior leaders trying to fight the right way moving into more senior positions, and creating the conditions for SF to operate in a UW environment. The trend is positive.

This is exactly what ODAs should be doing. I especially liked that the author pointed out that SF needs to conduct influence operations with or without MISO personnel present. The requirement to compete in the cognitive domain doesn't go away just because MISO personnel are not present. We can't afford to maintain our cottage industry approach to warfare. Just like every Marine is a rifleman, every Green Beret needs to be a UW operative who can compete in the cognitive domain. Hopefully you see this article as SF starting to self correcting itself.

Bill....my comments were meant two fold.....1) SF should have never "left it's roots" but it did in order to survive and let us not forget it....BIG Army's attempt to destroy it and 2) the overly heavy dependence on strat recon and DA..in order to just survive long enough under the same BIG Army....

Heck yes psych ops is inherent in UW....but here is my third comment....the current way SF has structured itself to reside inside the same BIG Army that wanted it destroyed is actually in the end causing a self inflicted delay in urgently shifting to UW....

Example....early SF Psych Op BNs were tailored to exactly the UW fight and could deploy as needed across the entire globe in support of the field ODAs and had their own air delivery abilities as well..all were airborne qualified and some had attended even the Q courses....they as well had the language abilities needed and had long years of experience in supporting info warfare operations which is what psych ops really is all about and could if needed drop in portable printing presses for the ODA to use.

Check MISO...created really by BIG Army in about the 2007/2008 timeframe designed to largely support BCTs...not necessarily SF....created to support BCTs in Iraq and AFG as that was the tenor being pushed at the NTC/JRTC in the same timeframe.

Then BIG Army decided that the BCTs needed Human Terrain Teams.....which if one takes a closer look is exactly what the early SF Psych Ops BNs were as well....as they supported and deepened the area studies that all ODAs used in isolation.

But here is the example that gets to the heart of the older true SF Psych Ops BNs....we were tasked to train the Greek Hellenic Raiding Force in UW ops for 12 long weeks....everything necessary to conduct UW went with us ie foreign weapons and ammo, demolitions, portable training aids largely done on white cloth sheets to save weight and one individual responsible for the Greek area Psych ops warrior.....

So while celebrating the nighttime Easter service in the Hellenic Raiding base in Class As holding small lighted candles with the entire Greek military Junta leadership in roars exactly timed a unlit skyhook equipped C130 flying flameless fuel at low level kicking out leaflets in Greek in celebration of Easter over the entire base and neighboring residential areas....followed by another even lower pass throwing out small packets of Greek sweets on small parachutes....the locals talked about that for days....and the image of our SF team went through the roof allowing us to achieve the secondary role we had been tasked with...

This had been part and parcel of the isolation prep prior to deploying and all comms controlling this event went as they would in actual war time...via morse code....

While it is great that this ODA tried on it's own....the current SF leadership and structure should have already been dictating it to them and it should have been part and parcel of isolation planning....

Some might disagree with me but after tracking eastern Ukraine and now Syria for over two solid years...we are in a hard fought non linear war of values with an opponent who uses every tool in his "soft power war chest" and that includes tons of money....coupled with thermobaric weapons.

SF needs to get out of the talking stage and into the active field it stage as fast and as soon as it can and improvise along the way if necessary......because right now the US is in fact losing the first round of a long non linear war.....BUT here is the bottleneck...convincing BIG Army....because SF sits inside now BIG Army....

It does really need to be placed again under CIA auspices if it is going the UW route....because what we are seeing in CENTCOM SF support to the PKK/YPG Kurds...with PKK being a US named terror group fighting against FSA a CIA sponsored group is a ridiculous waste of time, energy and is going to get some killed.......

BTW..just a side comment...when you read the article and some of the problems they encountered ...they could have been resolved during isolation if the Pysops side had been part and parcel of the isolation phase....if the ODA felt comms was a problem try doing it via hand cranked morse code on a hand cut long wire trying to hit both the UK and the States...but again comms could have been worked out during isolation.

We had prepared comm messages that were short and to the point and tailored to our needs by Psyops....so one could plan an op in about two message exchanges...remember we had to be quick as we knew the Soviet Army monitored anything we transmitted via morse code....so we had "real world pressure on every comms event"....

What one missed in this scenario was and or is the ability to replicate the ODA being "in country" and being able to practice UW improvised AC landings bringing in what they needed meaning quick setup and teardown of short landing fields using short take off AC....thus one would have been able to practice comms with the psyops unit, and then practicing UW air resupply either by short landing AC and or preplanned airdrops....

If one is serious about UW then it must be practiced during any and every opportunity....it has to become a "way of life"....and SF is not there yet.....