Small Wars Journal

Long-Term Behavioral Change in a Knife Fight: The Future of Psychological Operations

Thu, 11/19/2020 - 1:15pm

Long-Term Behavioral Change in a Knife Fight:

The Future of Psychological Operations

Wade Pommer

BLUF: Special Operations Forces - Psychological Operations should not exist in its current form. Rather, it should be moved to Conventional Forces with direct access to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.


Psychological Operations (PSYOP) is the influencing of foreign Target Audiences leading to long-term behavior change that achieves strategic level objectives. Due to this, the approval process for PSYOP is often retained at the highest level echelons of command (for good reason); however, most of the Active Duty PSYOP Soldiers operate at a much lower level, often times at the tactical level. This leads to extremely long approval timelines, resulting in missed opportunities to conduct true behavioral change. Missed opportunities have led to stresses in relationships with host nation partners as well as other SOF Soldiers. This holds particularly true when attempting to counter propaganda. In order to mitigate the missed opportunities, moving PSYOP to the national level gives the US Government the capability to conduct long-term behavioral change comparable to our adversaries’ capabilities. One counter argument in favor of keeping the status quo is a concern over a loss of capabilities to ground force commanders. My response to this concern is to question the capabilities a ground force commander is required. I propose that what a Ground Force Commander is wanting should be considered Psychological Warfare (PSYWAR) and deception operations.

I define PSYWAR as the utilization of influencing methods to gain a tactical advantage over the enemy. This can be conducted either through localized messaging campaigns or through the use of deception operations. One example of this is utilizing loudspeakers to conduct harassment messages to enemy combatants. Below I will detail the implementation of this major recommended change to force structure.

The first recommendation would be for the US Army Special Forces to assume this responsibility. This could be done either by assigning PSYWAR as an additional skill identifier for the Special Forces Sergeant, or currently PSYOP Soldiers attend the SF Qualification Course. This would require a new 18G MOS. PSYOP Soldiers selected for the SF Qualification Course would only need to attend Small Unit Tactics and Robin Sage considering they have already attended the Special Operations PSYOP Qualification Course.

If creating a new MOS proves to be a bridge too far, the second recommendation would be to relocate PSYOP Battalions. Currently, PSYOP Battalions are regionally orientated; this is also true of our SF brethren. Unfortunately, it is too often the PSYOP team meets the Operations Detachment Alpha (ODA) they will support in theater. This proves difficult as the PSYOP team has missed the entire Pre-Mission Training (PMT) and must demonstrate their value to their supported unit commander while simultaneously conducting operations. This issue would be alleviated by relocating the PSYOP Battalions.

In conclusion, maintaining the status quo, while easy, denies senior military commanders with a capability and it creates a difficult operational environment for the individual PSYOP Soldier. If PSYWAR activities fall under the realm of PSYOP, then they are subject to the lengthy PSYOP approval process. This has, as previously highlighted, led to many missed opportunities. This can be mitigated by separating tactical influencing operations, PSYWAR, from long-term behavior change, PSYOP.

This article has been cleared. These views are the opinion of SFC Pommer and in no way reflect the position of the Department of Defense or the United States Army.


About the Author(s)

SFC Wade Pommer has served in leadership roles from a tactical team leader to a Regional PSYOP Detachment NCOIC. He is currently serving at Fort Polk, LA as the PYSOP Planner for SOF Plans.