The United States, as a global superpower, finds itself at a critical juncture in the evolving landscape of international security and geopolitics. The post-Cold War era, characterized by U.S. preeminence as the lone superpower has given way to a world where great power competition, which refers to the competition between the U.S., Russia and China, has reemerged. In this complex and volatile environment, the United States faces a myriad of threats ranging from traditional military challenges to asymmetric warfare, cyber threats, and operations in the information environment.
A crucial yet underutilized tool in the U.S. strategic arsenal can help counter the multifaceted threats sophisticated adversaries pose: military information support operations, or MISO, carried out by psychological operations forces. In layman’s terms, MISO is designed to develop and convey messages and devise actions to influence select foreign groups and promote themes to change those groups’ attitudes and behaviors.
These activities fall under the umbrella of U.S. Special Operations Command. While other countries have been making significant investments in this domain, the U.S. military’s psychological operations capabilities, in contrast, have been severely constrained by a lack of adequate funding and resources.
Psychological operations were subordinated to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command upon its creation in December 1989. Army Special Operations Command is responsible for ensuring psychological operations forces are ready for military information support operations.
In the Cold War era, the Department of Defense developed a comprehensive strategy for psychological operations that went beyond propaganda. This strategy included establishing specialized units, developing cutting-edge technologies, and creating sophisticated methodologies for influencing target audiences. These capabilities were actively deployed in various theaters of conflict, from the jungles of Vietnam to the rugged terrains of Afghanistan.
A 1985 Pentagon study called for increased funding, improved joint coordination, and greater utilization of psychological operations in peace and in war. In a gradual process that started in the 1990s, military strategy has shifted — moving from information warfare to more conventional forms of warfare. Budget documents from recent years show a decline in funding and personnel.
Recent reporting indicates that there are conversations to dissolve unfilled billets and enablers within Army Special Operations, but it’s not clear what the reduction to the PSYOP force would actually be under proposed cuts. PSYOP has always been a special operations force in its own right, which is a history that is often forgotten or denied. But what can’t be denied is that PSYOP is a congressional interest item with direct mention in the current National Defense Authorization Act. So having Congress verify whether the current trajectory will further erode military information support capabilities and affect national security is a fair and honest question. That is especially true in an age marked by technological advancements that will make information warfare even more critical in the coming years.
Countries like Russia and China have developed specialized units within their military structures dedicated solely to information warfare and have been actively deploying these capabilities in various conflict zones, from Ukraine to the South China Sea.
The current National Security Strategy speaks directly to influence in its strategic overview and the last four National Defense Authorization Acts, or NDAA, are very specific about influence and military information support operations. The inclusion of military information support operations in the NDAA shows an understanding that we live in an age where information is as potent a weapon as any piece of military hardware, and the ability to influence perceptions, shape behaviors, and guide decision-making processes among target audiences is paramount.
Any moves to further deteriorate the psychological operations force require intervention from Congress and national leadership. Such decisions would be in direct opposition to strategic guidance and congressional directives.
Army Special Operations Command should be held to account for decisions made that could create an influence vacuum above the tactical level. It should be required to provide a plan on how it will support the other psychological operations requirements, including support to cyber and to civil assistance and information in times of natural disasters.
A decline in psychological operations capabilities is a strategic error that will have severe implications for U.S. national security. The time for half-measures is over; the United States Congress and defense senior leadership must act decisively to restore psychological operations and the military information support operations mission to its rightful place in the pantheon of national security tools. Failure to act now will have long-term implications for the United States’ ability to protect its interests and counter the growing threats posed by adversaries who are increasingly leveraging information warfare as a tool for achieving their strategic objectives.
Retired Army Col. Robert “Bob” Curris is a former 4th PSYOP Group Commander and former Psychological Operations Commandant with 30+ years of experience in the military, both enlisted and officer time, 19 of which were in psychological operations. Bob has operational deployment experience in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
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