KEY WEST, Fla. — Across Africa, U.S. Army Special Operations psychological operations teams are working through, with and by their partnered forces to spark societal change.
Influencing a population to create lasting change when you don’t look, sound or dress like that population is a tricky proposition. To develop relationships that affect change, the PSYOP Soldier has to hit the ground as a value-added combat force multiplier.
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 late January at Fort Bragg 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 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 in between.
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 feedback to show 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 the sorts of data the teams must scrub to glean information and create knowledge.
Col. Robert A. B. Curris, commander of 4th MISG, visited the event both as a role-player, and as an observer, to provide command guidance to the teams and staff.
“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.”
Many 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, challenging the teams to provide legitimate analysis and actionable plans.
When the 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 planted explosive-scented training loads in one of their bags. Security personnel from Naval Air Station Key West served as border security and swept the teams with an explosives-detecting canine at the Conch Republic border. 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 and incorrect team documentation.
The green-suiters provided training on equipment such as the next generation loud speaker and other transmission devices, all of which 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.
“Prior exercises have been less about the seven step PSYOP process,” said one team leader, a U.S. Army captain. “This time, we have been focused on the process throughout training and certification on the road to validation.”
That focus is exactly what Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Callahan, senior enlisted advisor for 7th MISB, has been striving for — PSYOP not as just a job, but as a craft.
“Train for the skillset, don’t worry about the mission,” Callahan said. “We need to develop the craft to be applicable to any environment.”