US Military Faces Challenges in Countering Adversaries’ Psychological Operations

February 17, 2019 Updated: February 18, 2019

The U.S. military needs to upgrade its psychological operations as adversaries take advantage of cyberspace to ramp up psychological warfare on the United States. Yet the military faces a difficult landscape to up its game, based on remarks by several current and former Special Operations officers.

“We need to move beyond our 20th century approach to messaging and start looking at influence as an integral aspect of modern irregular warfare,” said Andrew Knaggs, former Green Beret and now the deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and combating terrorism, at a Feb. 5 defense industry symposium, the Military Times reported.

What used to be called psychological operations, or psy-op, is now called Military Information Support Operations or MISOs.

In fiscal 2018, the military spent over $160 million on MISOs, described as “operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals,” in a budget report by the Defense Department Comptroller (pdf).

The active-duty psy-op groups had about 1,050 officers, Maj. Gen. Christopher Haas of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) told Congress in 2015 (pdf).

Chris Erickson, a retired Green Beret, spent half of his decade-long military career in the Special Forces, where he engaged in counter-insurgency efforts. “A huge part of that is messaging to the populace,” he said in a phone call.

Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS rely, to a degree, on crafting and spreading their message to recruit. But if people can be the talked into it, perhaps they can also be talked out of it—that’s where a good MISO can help.

“[You have to] understand your populace, what resonates with them, and how best, effectively, to deliver the message to them and counter the messaging of the opposition,” Erickson said.

Cold Psychological War

MISOs get more complicated when the opponent isn’t in open conflict with the United States, such as with China and Russia.

Both have long-running psy-op against America to sway public opinion, influence policy, and even fuel antagonism and create divisions in American society.

Yet the U.S. government may be wary to use the military to aggressively counter the foreign operations with its own.

“Is that just traditional propaganda that we kind of understand is going on and everybody plays along or is that an act of aggression?” Ericson asked. “We haven’t seen our first cyber war yet and I don’t think any generals out there want to be the ones that fire the first proverbial shot.”

Erickson suggested that “one of the more effective measures” is to expose what the foreign governments are doing. Though that also comes with a caveat.

Once the government puts out the narrative, for instance, that “Russians” are out to stir up trouble on social media, the narrative itself can become a weapon in the information war for people to dismiss opposing views.

“It just becomes reactionary: ‘Oh well, this isn’t even a valid point. This is just Russian meddling,’” Erickson explained. “It can be a very messy situation.”

Cyber Capabilities

Large part of the foreign psychological operations is now conducted online, which makes it not only harder to identify the foreign actors, but also to contain or counter the spread of propaganda and disinformation.

“We have invested fairly heavily in our psy-op operators, developing new capabilities, particularly to deal in the digital space, social media analysis and a variety of different tools that have been fielded by SOCOM that allow us to evaluate the social media space, evaluate the cyber domain, see trend analysis, where opinion is moving, and then how to potentially influence that environment with our own products,” then-SOCOM Commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo told the Senate Armed Service Committee in April (pdf).

But just because the military has a capability to do something, doesn’t mean it’s free to proceed.

“As I mentioned, we have the knowledge and the skills to operate in this domain,” Tovo said. “Much of the difficulty lies in getting … the appropriate authorities and permissions to do so.”

Friendly Fire

One of the major limitations on MISOs is the privacy protections still enjoyed by Americans.

Since the cyberspace generally lacks boundaries and users can conceal their identities, military psy-op can easily cross constitutional boundaries.

“How do we know that any operation we take isn’t actually targeting or collecting information on American citizens?” Erickson asked. “Because that is far outside the purview of what the Department of Defense can do.”


What Knaggs suggested is “partnerships beyond traditional actors, throughout the world, through efforts to amplify voices of [non-governmental organizations] and individual citizens who bring transparency to malign activities of our competitors.”

Some of that work has already started.

Right before President Donald Trump took office, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act dedicated up to $160 million to establishing the Global Engagement Center to “recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts.”

The center was set up under the State Department, while Pentagon was authorized to transfer to it up to $120 million in defense funding over two years. In the end, Pentagon only transferred $20 million, white the State Department chipped in $20 million sent by Congress in the 2018 budget, a State Department official told The Epoch Times.

“This funding is supporting a variety of efforts to counter Russian, Iranian, and Chinese disinformation directed to foreign audiences,” the official said.

The center conducts audience analysis, employs online targeted advertising, deploys “technology to provide early warnings of foreign disinformation,” analyzes foreign audiences that are “most susceptible to disinformation,” develops partnerships with “key social media influencers abroad to produce content to reach critical audiences,” and trains civil society organizations, NGOs, local influencers, and journalists “to shed light on and help build audience resilience to the spread of disinformation,” the official said.

Update: The article has been updated with information provided by a State Department official.

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