Guest Post: PSYOP for everyone

By Christopher Paul

An Army intelligence officer I met recently at a conference related an anecdote to me about the psychological operations (PSYOP) personnel his team was co-located with on a previous deployment. He shared that the PSYOPers would get upset when they perceived the actions of maneuver elements as impinging on (or ignoring) their domain: “They can’t do that without talking to us, that’s a PSYACT [Psychological Operations action]!”[1] The intel guys would overhear this and then tease them about their protective approach to influence.

This exchange prompted me to think carefully about the tensions implied in the possessiveness of the PSYOP personnel to other soldiers’ influence efforts. On the one hand, maneuver and line forces far outnumber PSYOP forces, and are the preponderant face of coalition forces to the populations in the area of operations. The words and deeds of these forces do contribute to influence; all the better if that contribution is thoughtful and positive. On the other hand, the release of various PSYOP products follows a strict process including audience analysis, message planning and development, and a rigorous review for approval. This sometimes lengthy (but certainly necessary) process increases the effectiveness of these products and decreases the likelihood that they are embarrassing or detract from influence goals. Maneuver forces freelancing influence efforts circumvent this process and take on much greater risk. What is the proper balance between leveraging the influence opportunities inherent in the behavior of all of the military elements in an area of operations and controlling and coordinating influence efforts for more certain effectiveness and reduced risk? What is the line between routine well-intentioned and positive behavior and PSYACTs which should be planned to correspond to PSYOP goals?

I don’t have the answer to those questions, but I have a notion that might be a step forward independent of those answers. What if we change the way we think about PSYOP to be inclusive instead of exclusive, and make a corresponding change in how we employ PSYOP personnel?

Consider the relationship between civil affairs (CA) forces and civil-military operations (CMO).[2] Like PSYOP, CA is a discrete military organization with its own personnel and force structure. CA forces conduct CMO, as do all other elements of the force at the commander’s discretion. CA units integrate with and support the CMO efforts of their (much more numerous) line unit colleagues. Civil affairs units engage in their own independent activities, but they also help plan and enable the efforts of these other forces.

PSYOP forces are the only personnel in the U.S. government who are trained to conduct influence. What if we make the relationship of PSYOP to the (intentional or otherwise) influence efforts of maneuver units similar to the relationship between CA and CMO? If PSYOP forces worked alongside and spent more of their time helping maneuver units focus the influence content of their actions and utterances rather than letting them stumble through on their own, what could we accomplish? True, using PSYOP forces in this training and direct support role would reduce the number of PSYOP products they would have time to produce, but I think the trade-offs are worth considering. Perhaps PSYOP personnel would be less inclined to be possessive about the influence efforts of maneuver elements if they were routinely involved in helping those maneuver units convert well-intentioned behavior into well-intentioned behavior with a firm foundation in the science and practice of influence.

Dr. Christopher Paul is a Full Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and is the author of Information Operations -- Doctrine and Practice, Wither Strategic Communication?, and coauthor of Enlisting Madison Avenue. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the opinions of RAND.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement.

[1] page Glossary-16 of FM 3-05.30 defines a Psychological Operations action (PSYACT) as —“An action conducted by non-PSYOP personnel, that is planned primarily to affect the behavior of a TA.”

[2] JP 1-02 defines civil-military operations as “The activities of a commander that establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relations between military forces, governmental and nongovernmental civilian organizations and authorities, and the civilian populace in a friendly, neutral, or hostile operational area in order to facilitate military operations, to consolidate and achieve operational US objectives. Civil-military operations may include performance by military forces of activities and functions normally the responsibility of the local, regional, or national government. These activities may occur prior to, during, or subsequent to other military actions. They may also occur, if directed, in the absence of other military operations. Civil-military operations may be performed by designated civil affairs, by other military forces, or by a combination of civil affairs and other forces.”