US may cut info-warfare assets as China, Russia expand influence ops
Key psyops units may get squeezed by a Pentagon effort to trim special-operations forces.
U.S. Army information-warfare capabilities are on the chopping block as the Pentagon looks to trim special operations forces, even as China and Russia expand their own influence efforts, according to multiple individuals with direct knowledge of the Army’s future plans who spoke to Defense One.
Service leaders are eyeing cuts to Military Information Support Operations, or MISO—perhaps better known as psychological operations—in order to spare “shooter” special operators such as Green Berets or Rangers, the individuals said.
An Army spokesman did not respond before press time.
Discussions of cuts to special operations forces have been bubbling for at least a year, ever since the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office recommended reducing the number of special operators in support, logistics, and communications jobs. The Army may ultimately cut as many as 3,000 special operators. Defense officials had previously said that the cuts would primarily target logistics and headquarters staff.
The Army’s MISO operators, such as the 8th Psychological Operations Group based at Fort Liberty, N.C., which faces potential cuts, comprise most of the Pentagon’s front line troops for influence and information warfare.
They are far outnumbered by the influence-and-information warfare teams mounted by near-peer adversaries. Russian tactics include using troll farms to mold discussions on American social media platforms, misattributing attacks on the battlefield, and making fake news articles to convince local populations to turn against NATO troops. China also has sophisticated information operations, which it recently brought to bear against the Tiawanese election.
“All our adversaries have invested in this space a lot because they see themselves as having an advantage in it relative to us. And it's a cheap barrier to entry relative to some of the other traditional military overmatch that we continue to enjoy,” a senior Defense Department official told Defense One.
U.S. influence and psychological operations, in contrast far, are far smaller with much more limited aims. “Within our own government, there's apprehension in cases about the military out there doing information operations because it sounds like a big brother. And it also sounds like something that's not particularly connected to military operations,” the official said.
“At times, we tend to rely heavily on a public- affairs- type approach. That can be powerful to a degree. But it's still official messaging. When there's a thousand flowers blooming from 100, trolls, maybe centralized from a government, and we're out there with one spokesperson at the podium, sometimes there's a mismatch in terms of, I think, how the audiences in different quarters are going to observe and interpret that.”
The military’s influence-ops forces are a tiny subset of U.S. troops, but they play an outsized role in many U.S. battlefield engagements. In 2017, for example, psychological operations soldiers convinced many fighters in the Lord’s Resistance Army to abandon their cause, making it possible to take down the central African rebel group at less cost.
“It's much better when you have a targeted objective, the same way we would think about targeting with munitions,” said the official. “You want to be very targeted: aim small, miss small. But at the same time having the infrastructure to observe the effects and measure those to quickly adjust.”
Today, U.S. psychological operations are playing an important role in the Middle East, where they are often executed with other operations, like retaliatory missile strikes, or public-affairs efforts from partner states like Jordan.
Although their effects are hard to measure, the official said influence operations were likely reducing—though, of course, not eliminating—recent attacks by Iran-backed militant groups on U.S. outposts and warships.
“I think where we are often the most successful is less the hardened guy who's literally already decided that he's going to fire at an American outpost, and more about those that are in the environment in which he or she has to operate,” the official said.
For instance, the official said, recent strikes in Iraq and Syria might not persuade hardcore members of Kata'ib Hezbollah to lay down their arms. But psyops can persuade their neighbors to reduce their support.
“You have some pushback from the local population: ‘Why are these Iranian militia groups storing advanced conventional weapons in my backyard so it's bringing the Americans to strike this?’ That makes it more challenging for them to operate with impunity.”
One former U.S. Special Operations Command official said that the proposed cuts show the persistence of outmoded thinking within the Army.
“The Army is still waiting, you know, to fight the Soviets at the Fulda Gap. That's a fight they've been planning for since 1945. And these issues of Iraq and Afghanistan…all the things that go with it and [information operations] are just distractions from the battle that they know is going to come one day.”