Sagging 'Psyops' Power

'Psyops' Readiness Doubted; Equipment called 'Antiquated'

By David Abel  |  
The Boston Globe  |  10/18/2001

Psychological operations, or "psyops" in Pentagon parlance, have long been potent weapons in the US arsenal, from signaling civilians to flee an area to be bombed in Vietnam to hounding a Panamanian dictator from his hiding place with loud music.

Military analysts say propaganda is especially critical in a war against those isolated from Western views and infused with a dogmatic hatred for the United States.

But is the military up to the task?

A Pentagon report commissioned after psyops failures in the 1999 Kosovo conflict criticized the military for failing to keep pace with advances in electronic communications. It also called the equipment the Air Force is now using to broadcast radio and perhaps TV messages to Afghans "outdated and inadequate."

Other critics question the value of dropping thousands of leaflets on Afghanistan, a nation where little more than 30 percent of its nearly 27 million people can read.

"The ability for us to get out our message is a huge issue right now in Afghanistan and in the rest of the Arab world," said Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychology at George Washington University who specializes in psychological warfare.

"Unfortunately, we have been woefully inadequate in psychological operations, meaning inhibiting people from entering terrorist groups, creating dissension in them, facilitating their exit, and reducing support for them."

In the May 2000 report by the Defense Science Board Task Force, an advisory panel that briefs the defense secretary, the authors focused their criticism on the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, which supervises most of the military's psyops and is playing a major role in overseeing the attack on Afghanistan.

"While the United States is years ahead of its competitors in terms of military technology, in terms of psyops there are already competitors on par with or even arguably more sophisticated than the US," the authors wrote.

In response to glitches during the Kosovo conflict, in which the military failed to take over Serbian radio and TV broadcasts, the board called it ironic that the United States "leads the world in commercial media technology and development," while its military psychological operations units maintain an outdated Cold War structure with "antiquated equipment and limited financial support."

A prime example of the problems cited in the report is the equipment used by Commando Solo, the 193d Special Operations Wing, an Air National Guard unit based in Middletown, Pa.

The unit's old aircraft have been flying around the borders of Afghanistan in recent days, beaming radio programs in the local languages of Pashtu and Dari that disparage Osama bin Laden and call on soldiers to lay down their arms and defect from the Taliban, special operations officials say.

According to one broadcast released by military officials, a radio message being beamed from Commando Solo explains to Afghans:

"We have no wish to hurt you, the innocent people of Afghanistan. Stay away from military installations, government buildings, terrorist camps, roads, factories, or bridges. If you are near these places, then you must move away from them. With your help, this conflict can be over soon. And once again, Afghanistan will belong to you, and not to tyrants or outsiders."

"This is really nonsense," said Jarat Chopra, a professor of international law at Brown University, who has helped administer similar psyops campaigns while working for the United Nations in East Timor. "This is just a shallow form of propaganda."

While Afghanistan does not have the jamming ability of Serbs, the US military will have challenges broadcasting its message. The National Guard unit's lumbering EC-130 Hercules cargo planes - most of them built in the 1960s - are slow and can't fly at altitudes above 30,000 feet, so they are unlikely to fly inside Afghanistan. And they use equipment that TV and radio stations stopped using more than a decade ago.

"They're not using rotary phones, but these planes are definitely no longer state of the art," said Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael M. Smith, psychological operations policy officer at Special Operations Command. "In the military, especially for psyops, as long as it works, it's not antiquated."

The Pentagon had planned to upgrade the EC-130 aircraft this summer, but Commando Solo's one new plane is still being refitted in California, with much of the same old equipment.

In last year's report, the advisory board also recommended that the Pentagon upgrade the unit's ability to use special unmanned aircraft that can loiter over enemy areas for as long as 24 hours without returning. But that's yet to happen as well.

"Psyops never gets the respect it deserves," said Rick Hoffmann, a former psyops soldier in Vietnam who is now president of the Psychological Operations Veterans Association in Wilmington, Del. "The military spends most of its time on hardware, but there's a lot more necessary to win wars. Dropping leaflets is only part of it, and can only be helpful in places where the messages are understood and read properly."

In Afghanistan, the military is dropping leaflets, a propaganda barrage delayed because of windy weather conditions, Pentagon officials said.

Similar campaigns were successful in previous wars the nation has fought. In Vietnam, US planes peppered Viet Cong-controlled areas with playing cards showing only the ace of spades before bombers and artillery hit. After a while, just dropping cards from the air was enough to clear an area. In Iraq, US forces dropped leaflets along the front lines warning soldiers that heavy bombers were on the way. After delivering on the threat, Iraqi soldiers surrendered in droves the next time the leaflets were dropped.

On Sunday, B-52 bombers dropped 385,000 dollar-bill sized leaflets over the northwestern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan, military officials acknowledged this week.

One leaflet shows a camouflaged soldier in a pastoral setting shaking hands with a man in traditional Afghan dress. On the front, it says, "The partnership of nations is here to help"; on the back, it says, "The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan."

"People are not that stupid," Chopra of Brown said. "Just because people can't read doesn't mean that they don't have another perspective. The bottom line is that people are not as shallow as the message that's fed to them."

But those messages are part of a campaign that includes daily news conferences by US officials repeating specific messages, interviews with Arab broadcasters, and nearly 300,000 American-flag-covered food packets dropped over Afghanistan since the attacks began Oct. 7.

At a Pentagon briefing this week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld explained the information battle between the United States and its nemesis, Al Qaeda.

"They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us," he told reporters. "And we need to do everything we can to make sure the truth gets out."

David Abel can be reached by e-mail at