After the Cold War, many in the defense community explored new ways to leverage the rapid expansion of information technology beyond traditional command, control and communications functions. Naval innovators were at the forefront of this effort. Most notably Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski proliferated the concepts of Net Centric Warfare and Admiral William Owens partnered with Harvard professor Joseph Nye to pen an influential Foreign Affairs piece on America’s information edge. Owens and Nye argued that the US military advantage in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control, and precision guided munitions enabled “a general ability to use deadly violence with greater speed, range and precision.” In other words, information would provide a significant advantage in conventional military operations.

At the same time, CDR Randall Bowdish focused his intellectual work on expanding the use of psychological operations in the information age. Bowdish clearly took a different approach in his research and notes, “By combining Clausewitz’s and Sun Tzu’s ideologies, we can discern a goal for information age psychological operations (PSYOP) -to compel the enemy to do our will without fighting. This goal is particularly relevant today in view of an increasing American intolerance for casualties. Information-age PSYOP, more than any other military instrument, may provide us with an increased capability to pursue our national interests without bloodshed.”

goat staring Modern western militaries have resisted Bowdish’s approach of using non-lethal force to achieve policy objectives in favor of traditional military fire power. As renowned military strategist Colin S. Gray remarked, during irregular conflicts in the future the U.S. armed forces “will need to curb their traditional, indeed cultural, love affair with firepower.” While those in the West may not have recognized the value of expanded use of information-based capabilities, others certainly have.

As explained in a 2003 Special Warfare Journal article, Chinese strategists believe that psychological warfare should be included in any long term strategy. Non-violent intimidation, media manipulation, economic sanctions, financial attacks, information isolation and network attacks are all valid tactics. Chinese psychological warfare experts advocated for a strategy to attack the enemies’ mind leaving him unable to plan and to create misperceptions that cause the enemy to not fully prepare. Future military operations should be combined with operations focused on affecting the opposing commander’s decision making process.

The Chinese thinking on psychological operations continues to advance and expand. In a recent backgrounder, Dean Cheng notes, “Successful coercive psychological warfare is the realization of ends for which one is prepared to go to war without having to take that final step and engage in active, kinetic, destructive warfare. From the Chinese perspective, given the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and even conventional forces, there is also significant incentive to develop coercive psychological approaches in order to achieve strategic ends without having to resort to the use of force.”

As witnessed in the Vietnam War, sophisticated adversaries will attempt to turn American public opinion against its military efforts. Moscow and Hanoi certainly attempted to leverage American anti-war and counterculture inertia to their advantage. As Giap noted after the war, “Do not forget that the war was brought into the living rooms of the American people… the war was fought on many fronts. At that time the most important was American public opinion.”

Should tensions escalate with China, the American public will be vulnerable. The growing schism between the institutions of internal power (Government, media, police, religious institutions, etc) and the American citizenry is expanding rapidly. This creates an excellent opportunity for any skilled psyops practitioner to hammer a wedge between the government and its people and to mobilize forces to undermine government strategy. This problem is further exacerbated by what former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski refers to as a highly ignorant American public. The majority of Americans is simply not well informed on geopolitics and is easily influenced by misinformation.

Is it possible to defend a nation against widespread psychological operations? The Chinese believe so. Cheng describes one of five broad tasks:

Implementing Psychological Defenses. Since psychological warfare can have such far-reaching impacts, in the Chinese view, it is assumed that an opponent will mount psychological attacks. Consequently, in addition to negating or neutralizing such attacks, it is necessary to expose them, both to defeat them and to demoralize an opponent by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of his efforts. Thus, not only must there be counter-propaganda activities, but one must also publicize enemy machinations and techniques, thereby exposing and highlighting their futility.

Considering the internal dynamics of the United States, could the US mount an effective defense against an adversary’s psychological operations? The cornerstone of such a defense is trust. Given the partisan gridlock in Congress and the scandals within the executive branch, the sense of trust in government may be eroding.

In the end, the burden of such a defense may fall on the US military. While this is not an optimal solution, the US military still maintains a high degree of public confidence compared to other institutions. Coincidently (or not) Congress recently lifted the ban on using propaganda on Americans. What role, if any, does the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which passed as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, play in preparing for this national security dilemma?

Posted by Robert Kozloski in Cyber, Navy, Tactics
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  • Gordon Miller

    “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” – An unsourced quote that falls in line with this theory. We have all too often resorted to the M in DIME, without (nationally) using (in time) all of the elements of national power.

    • grandpabluewater

      The motion picture industry did an excellent job of this from 1940 to 1947 (roughly). They had motivation to do so.

      Any successful strategy for psychological defense of the republic must enable similar motivation for the motion picture and publishing industries.

      The means for that end are left to the reader for an exercise.