The Crucible: PSYOP battalion forged for Africa
KEY WEST, Fla. — Across the vast continent of Africa, U.S. Army Special Operations psychological operations teams are working through, with, and by their partnered forces to spark societal change.
There’s a saying in the PSYOP community, “ARSOF makes change happen. PSYOP makes change last.” PSYOP is the long game, where changes in behavior are measured not over a deployment, but often over years. In today’s rapidly evolving information battlespace, PSYOP Soldiers are almost always at a disadvantage.
Influencing a population to create lasting change when you don’t look, sound, or dress like that population is a tricky proposition. Cultural training, language proficiency, and an indigenous approach can go pretty far towards closing the gap, but true effectiveness is only achieved through airtight relationships with host nation partners.
But to develop those relationships, the PSYOP Soldier has to first come correct; hit the ground as a value-added combat force multiplier, capable of developing series that are cogent, impactful, and aimed right at the heart of the population.
The 7th Military Information Support Battalion, 4th Military Information Support Group, is charged with equipping, training, and validating the teams that will go forth into the gray zones of Africa where alliances can be fluid and the people are as diverse as the many landscapes. Held in the last weeks of January in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Key West, Operation Warrior Anvil served to validate deploying teams through unparalleled training with joint, inter-agency, and civic partners in real-world urban environments that that reinforced PSYOP fundamentals, fostered teamwork, and strengthened character.
Lt. Col. Patrick McCarthy, commander of 7th MISB, describes Africa as an archipelago of complex societal islands. The challenge for his battalion is preparing their professionals to partner effectively in any one of those numerous societies that make up the continent. Missions vary from maritime interdiction to creating alternative options for youth in danger of radicalization, with a thousand nuanced shades between.
With teams spread across the continent, working such disparate missions, it proved impossible to craft a validation exercise that mirrored exact mission sets. Rather than fighting the mission, leadership chose to have the teams fight the process.
By focusing on doctrinal tasks, Soldiers were evaluated on how they constructed a narrative framework to fit their environment. To prevent collection on American citizens, a simulated mission set and social media environment was created. This intranet created a dynamic, reactive and proactive environment to affect and inform audiences. With analogs to Facebook, Twitter, and even Craigslist, the system provided an invaluable feedback mechanism that showed which messages were heard and to what extent they were understood.
Like actual social media, there was plenty of noise in the system. Fake news, unrelated commentary, trolling, memes, and even pictures of cats all served to replicate, on a small scale, the sorts of data the teams must scrub through in order to glean information and create knowledge.
Col. Robert A. B. Curris, commander of 4th MISG, visited the event both as a role-player but also to observe operations and provide command guidance to the teams and staff. A key point in his discussion was the importance of maintaining Warrior Anvil as a validation exercise vice a training exercise.
“Building the mindset that this is a test you can fail is important,” Curris said. “On a macro scale, it’s about the credibility we bring to the table. On the micro level, if the world falls down around our Soldiers, we have to know that we’ve given them everything they need to survive.”
The diverse agencies partnering in the exercise are one of the ways that 7th MISB fills those gaps where Soldiers might not yet have everything they need to survive, Curris said. Those partners provide the requisite experience and knowledge to challenge the teams being validated.
A litany of agencies committed personnel and resources to facilitate the exercise. Local law enforcement, U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and civic leaders portrayed Conch Republic government personnel. More than simple role players, whose character background for military exercises typically is seldom more than a few paragraphs deep, these partners were able to use the entire breadth and scope of their careers. They challenged the teams to provide legitimate analysis and actionable plans.
The week was not just a series of partnered engagements, but single dynamic exercise where actions had immediate or delayed impacts and teams had to deal with unintended second and third order effects of their decisions.
When the chartered flight from Fort Bragg touched down at the Key West Naval Air Station, the teams aboard never made it to Florida. Instead, they stepped onto a tarmac in the Conch Republic, a fictional nation off the western coast of Africa. Beset by a bevy of societal problems from drug trafficking to domestic terrorism, the government of Conch had requested support from the U.S. Embassy to combat these ills.
While Soldiers completed customs paperwork aboard the aircraft, battalion planners surreptitiously planted explosive scented training loads in one of their bags. Security personnel from Naval Air Station Key West served as border security for the fictional nation and swept the teams with an explosives-detecting canine at the Conch Republic border. The Sailors were able to train on their own procedures and techniques as Soldiers were taken into custody and interrogated by Drug Enforcement Administration agents serving as Conch Republic secret police.
Any misstep was exploited; Soldiers were detained for missing copies of orders, incorrect team documentation, and tough-boxes that flew unlocked were pilfered. All the while the observer controller team took notes, evaluating from a rubric comprising myriad deployment-necessary skills.
The unit broke new ground in this exercise along both technological lines, through the use of new communications equipment and series development software, to partnering opportunities as the first PSYOP battalion to conduct joint training with the U.S. Coast Guard. The green-suiters provided training on equipment such as the New Generation Loud Speaker and other transmission devices — equipment that is both useful in influence campaigns but also can be lifesaving in times of natural disaster or other civil emergency.
In turn, the PSYOP Soldiers learned how to integrate their systems onto a variety of watercraft, the transmission capabilities over open seas, and how the Coast Guard conducts risk mitigation and mission planning. Valuable skills that directly translate to what the teams will need to know when they reach the coasts of Africa, where many will partner with host nation naval forces to combat piracy and smuggling.
One team leader shared his thoughts about Warrior Anvil and where the focus was for this iteration.
“Prior exercises have been less about the seven step PSYOP process,” the U.S. Army captain said. “This time, we have been focused on the process throughout training and certification on the road to validation.”
That focus is exactly for what Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Callahan, senior enlisted advisor for 7th MISB, has been striving. PSYOP not as just a job, but as a craft. A place where science and technique blend.
“Train for the skillset, don’t worry about the mission,” Callahan said. “We need to develop the craft to be applicable to any environment.”
To aid that process, the battalion ensured that teams would never be truly comfortable with their environment. Some scenarios were planned and coordinated ahead of schedule, allowing the teams to prepare. Others came seemingly at random from a variety of role-players. Local radio disc jockeys, roving reporters, and even the police would ambush teams in broad daylight and attempt to gain information, curry favor, or even solicit a bribe to make a tough situation disappear.
Local law enforcement role-played the Conch Republic national police. Responding to early mistakes by the teams, some of the role-players were given a more adversarial role. This made for uncomfortable bedfellows when PSYOP teams interacted with police, often during surprise traffic stops.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy John McGee discussed the value that exercises like Warrior Anvil bring to his own department.
“We like joint agency training, we include as many law enforcement departments as we can,” McGee said. “We have detectives, SWAT, and road departments involved. This helps us stay on our toes, stay sharp.”
While Key West seems like a dream destination, it wasn’t the first choice for the command. McCarthy contacted both the National and Joint Readiness training centers, but says they were unable to replicate the high intensity social engagements available through the agencies uniquely collocated in Key West. Without those partnered engagements the teams couldn’t be validated.
“We are trying to connect legitimate government institutions to their people,” McCarthy said. “We cannot train complex, inter-agency, inter-governmental, and international operations without our partners.”
By all accounts, the juice is worth the squeeze. Community leaders take pride in supporting a high caliber exercise, the partnered agencies have found unique ways to meet their own training objectives through the scenarios, and the teams heading out the door are better prepared; prepared to amplify African solutions to African challenges, and prepared to survive if the world falls down around them.
Source: US Army