Army Special Ops Is Changing Psyops Training to Reflect Ukraine War
Even as some operators chafe at rules that keep them out of the fight, they are keenly interested in how Ukrainians are applying their U.S. training.
FORT BRAGG, N.C.—U.S. Army special operators have taken note of how quickly information operations have moved in Ukraine’s 8-month-old battle to eject Russian invaders, the leader of Army Special Operations Command told the Modern Warfare Week conference here on Tuesday.
Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, who praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “Churchillian effect of mastering the information environment,” said ARSOF has already changed its training pipelines to teach those skills.
“Our Psychological Operations combination exercise now incorporates synthetic internet and real-time sentiment analysis to educate students on the speed of information,” Braga said. “I’d say perhaps the speed of information, the power of information ops, might be one of the greatest lessons learned from the events unfolding in Ukraine.”
The Civil Affairs qualification course has similarly “modernized,” to more heavily emphasize pre-conflict competition and creating environments where governance can be “rapidly reconstituted” following conflict against a “major power,” he said.
But Braga also noted that the Ukrainians spent the past eight years—since the annexation of Crimea in 2014—learning a lot from special operators and other U.S. trainers.
“SOF has been part of a much larger effort to help Ukrainian SOF transform from a Russian-influenced Spetsnaz-type organization into a NATO-compatible, professional, and lethal fighting force,” the general said. “Our irregular warfare contributions are proving effective on Ukraine's battlefield today.”
Modern Warfare Week, one of the biggest annual events for the special operations community, convened this week for the first time since a two-year pandemic hiatus. Key SOF thinkers, leaders, and industry-movers were meeting for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
At least one panelist—speaking under Chatham House rules that forbade reporters to attribute remarks—said he and others were disappointed that they could not stay in Ukraine to help troops they had spent entire deployments training.
“We'd spent eight years building rapport—which is not a four-count exercise—and building deep relationships. And all of a sudden, when it’s game on,” they were called back to the United States,” one panelist said. “That did not go over well.”
U.S. special operators put more than 200 Ukrainians through a special-forces pipeline between 2014 and 2022. A resistance-and-resiliency training effort led by NATO and influenced by U.S. special operations doctrines gave Ukraine a “two-year running start” on its resistance efforts. And the same Ukrainian information ops that Braga praised have their origins in U.S. special operations training, the panelist said.
“We're seeing a master class on [strategic communications] and psyops every day. But it started out with our SOF guys helping them out,” the panelist said. “Two of the first strikes on Feb. 24 into the Kyiv area were on the psyop-production facility…with long-range precision strike missiles. That’s how much value the Russians put into messaging.”
Still, as SOF watches the influence of their training play out, there are frustrations within the community and in Ukraine about SOF’s lack of physical presence in Ukraine.
“It’s an issue not being there physically to be able to do this with them,” the panelist said.
So while policy prevents America’s spec-ops forces from fighting side-by-side with Ukrainians, SOF instead is paying attention to how its past training and efforts in the region are panning out. The panelist identified the effectiveness of psyops and Ukraine’s strategic resilience efforts as two of the biggest takeaways from the conflict in Eastern Europe.