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Reprinted with permission from National Defense Magazine , Psyops Units Encouraged to Modernize Their Equipment by Harold Kennedy, February 2000. Copyright 2000 by National Defense Magazine

Psyops Units Encouraged to Modernize Their Equipment
by Harold Kennedy

A Defense Department advisory panel’s recommendation that the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) phase out its Commando Solo psychological warfare aircraft and replace it with a range of newer platforms has sparked a debate about the command’s modernization priorities. It also has helped shed light on the role that these units play in U.S. military operations.

A report, released last fall by the Defense Science Board (DSB), said that the command’s psychological operations (psyops) are hampered by aging equipment and a lack of appreciation for what they can accomplish. Psyops use a wide array of communications media–including radio and TV broadcasts, loudspeakers, newspapers, magazines, leaflets and even comic books–to help win or prevent wars.

Psyops’ main means of disseminating radio and TV broadcasts are eight EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft, flown by 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Air National Guard (ANG). The 193rd, based at Harrisburg International Airport, Pa., is the only ANG unit assigned to Air Force special operations.

The aircraft, built by Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, of Marietta, Ga., are able to broadcast programs in standard AM, FM, HF, UHF, VHF and military communications bands. They have operated in every major U.S. military engagement in the past two decades, including Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans.

Broadcasts can be used to inform and influence both military and civilian audiences. In Grenada, for example, they warned civilians about the impending U.S. invasion. In the Persian Gulf, they encouraged Iraqi soldiers to surrender–and they did by the hundreds of thousands.

Commando Solo broadcasts, however, have severe limitations, according to the DSB report. Cited were:

  • A range of 480 kilometers.
  • Vulnerability to obstructions such as terrain, vegetation and buildings.
  • A need to maintain a stand-off distance to avoid surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
  • Land-based broadcast technology that is too heavy, too large and becoming obsolete.

SOCOM plans to replace the EC-130Es, which are nearing the end of their planned service life, with an updated version known as the EC-130J, also by Lockheed Martin. The first one is scheduled to be delivered for operational service in the second quarter of this year. Three more are on order, said Lockheed Martin spokesman Peter Simmons.

"The J," as the new aircraft is known, boasts a 21 percent increase in maximum speed, a 50 percent decrease in climb time and a 40 percent increase in cruising altitude and range, according to Simmons.

The DSB report, however, recommends that the entire Commando Solo program be abandoned and replaced with unmanned air vehicles and leased aircraft. SOCOM should use the money saved–an estimated $250 million–to acquire new technological capabilities in areas such as cable TV, high-definition TV, digital audio, the Internet, satellite transmissions and wireless telephony, the DSB said. Psyops should "increase reliance on commercial providers for high-quality products," the report said.

Lockheed Martin, not surprisingly, doesn’t agree. SOCOM should think long and hard before getting rid of the EC-130s, said Simmons. "The bottom line is that they operate in environments where all normal means of communication have broken down," he said.

"In a combat zone, the first things that the bombers take out are the broadcast towers." Newspapers and magazines often are not distributed, either, he noted.

Army Lt. Col. C. Glenn Ayers, deputy commanding officer of the 4th Psychological Operations Group (POG), headquartered in Fort Bragg, N.C., conceded that many of the conclusions in the DSB report "are pretty accurate" as far as his organization is concerned.

The 4th POG, he said, is modernizing as fast as resources permit. For example, he said, "we’ve got smaller broadcast equipment."

As far as dumping Commando Solo for newer broadcast technologies, he said, "that’s easier said than done."

That "involves two entirely different funding streams" controlled by Congress, Ayers said. Members of that body from Pennsylvania, where Commando Solo is based, and Georgia, where the EC-130s are made, may "have something to say about that," he predicted.

SOCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, Fla., is the nation’s force of unconventional fighters. Created by act of Congress in 1987, it includes:

  • Navy Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) units, based in Coronado, Calif.
  • Air Force special-operations squadrons, centered at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
  • Army Special Forces, Delta Force, rangers, helicopter pilots, civil affairs teams and psyops specialists, all headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.

SOCOM has three psychological-operations groups (POGs), each about the size of a brigade. Two of these organizations–the 2nd, of Parma, Ohio, and the 7th, in San Francisco–are made up of reservists.

The Army’s only full-time, regular psyops unit is the 4th POG. It consists of six battalions, including one serving the needs of each of the European, Pacific, Central and Southern Unified Commands, plus a battalion for print, radio and TV services and another one for loudspeaker operations.

There also is a unit of 58 highly educated, multilingual civilians, who conduct research, analysis and planning activities for the group.

"No matter how you cut it," Ayers said, "there’s only 1,200 of us for the entire world, and that’s not very many."

Maroon Berets

Most uniformed members of the 4th POG are trained paratroopers, authorizing them to wear the maroon airborne beret. "Our mission is to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice," the group’s operations officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Evans, told National Defense. "Some of our support personnel never get around to going to airborne school, but all of our operators–those who go on deployments–have to be airborne qualified."

Members of the 4th POG often have to deploy quickly with Special Forces and other airborne units and set up psyops missions, Evans explained. Typically, he noted, they fly out of Pope Air Force Base, which is only two miles away from Fort Bragg and is home to the 43rd Airlift Wing and two squadrons of C-130s. Once the psyops missions are well established, members of the 4th POG often are replaced by deployed reservists.

The role of psychological operations is to convey "selected information" to foreign governments, organizations, military personnel and civilians in such a way as to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately their behavior, said Evans.

The 4th POG works out of a product-development center, a group of low-slung, military offices at Fort Bragg that is nicknamed "CNN Central," because it is the centerpiece of the organization’s broadcast and print operations.

"We don’t work with the kind of instantaneous speed of Ted Turner’s network," Evans admitted. But the center is capable of producing daily radio and television broadcasts anywhere in the world, he noted. Unlike CNN, Evans explained, the center doesn’t broadcast worldwide, 24-hours a day.

Instead, broadcasts are targeted to specific regions with crises involving U.S. interests, Evans said. Programs are produced both at Fort Bragg and in the field and broadcast by EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft flying in a circle above targeted areas.

In Yugoslavia, for example, psyops developed a 60 to 90-minute program entitled "Allied Voice Radio and Television," a mix of news, music and features related to the conflict. Video and audio programs focused on the atrocities being committed in Kosovo. They were aimed at Serbian military personnel and civilians, on the one side, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and nearby refugee camps, on the other.

The broadcasts continued for weeks after the air campaign ended in June of 1999, because NATO initially had no other means of reaching the populations in the area.


The programs painted an accurate picture of what was happening, Evans said. "Everything we do is based on the truth," he said. "We are most effective when we are credible. We can’t afford to lose that."

Print facilities range from massive, four-color presses that never leave Fort Bragg to lighter versions that are capable of deployment on C-130s and operating in tents with diesel-powered generators, said Evans. The presses are used to print posters, handbills and leaflets by the hundreds of thousands, even millions.

During the 1999 NATO air war in Yugoslavia, for example, psyops developed a series of leaflets urging Serb forces to "leave your unit and your equipment and get out of Kosovo now."

During that campaign, more than 104.5 million of such leaflets–-packed into leaflet bombs or boxes rigged with static lines–were dropped from MC-130s, F-16s and B-52s.

Leaflets were dropped from as high as 20,000 feet, in order for the aircraft to evade SAMs. Unfortunately, that made it difficult to predict where they were going to fall, said Evans. "In some cases, they didn’t even land in the right country," he said.

Enough of the leaflets, however, did hit their targets to do their jobs, Evans said. One of the best indicators of leaflet effectiveness, he said, is enemy counter-propaganda. "If they didn’t notice," he asked, "they wouldn’t complain, right?" Serb civil-defense headquarters put out warnings to avoid touching the leaflets, claiming that they were booby trapped with bio-chemical agents.

For refugees in Albania and Macedonia, psyops distributed 40,000 copies of a biweekly camp newspaper containing international news, sports reports and other information directly concerning Kosovo and Yugoslavia.

How to Surrender

During the Persian Gulf War, psyops officers heard that Iraqi soldiers carrying "safe-passage" leaflets–encouraging them to desert and seek refuge behind U.S. lines–were being executed by their commanders. So they designed full-color leaflets that looked exactly like Iraqi currency on one side. The other side contained detailed surrender instructions in the Iraqi language.

"Iraqi soldiers could hide the leaflets with their own money, making it difficult for their officers to find," Evans said. As a result of such ploys, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendered.

Sometimes, the 4th POG finds it more efficient to turn to outside contractors, even when it could do the work itself. For example, "We could produce comic books, if we had to," Evans said.

Instead, the group contracted with DC Comics to produce special versions of Superman and Wonder Woman comic books–in the languages of the Balkans, Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia, among others–teaching the dangers of land mines.

"It would have been difficult for us to match the drawing style of the comics–not impossible, but difficult," Evans said.

In addition to radio and television programs and printed material, psyops makes widespread use of loudspeakers. One battalion in the 4th POG has helicopter-mounted loudspeakers, with a range of two to three miles; versions for HMMWVs (Humvees), with a range of 1,000 to 1,800 meters, and others that fit into backpacks, that reach 700 to 1,000 meters.

Loudspeakers are used to broadcast messages into foxholes, trenches and city streets, where radio and TV programs–for one reason or another–cannot reach. "The loudspeakers help clear enemy soldiers and civilians out of target areas," said Lt. Col. Brian Keeth, psychological-operations branch chief at SOCOM in MacDill.

Sometimes, they do it through the persuasiveness of messages, psyops officers said. Other times, sheer noise helps do the job. For example, they noted an operation in Panama in 1989, when they used several days of loud rock music and bright flood lights to help persuade former dictator Manuel Noriega to surrender.

Although he is proud of such successes, it would be a mistake to become too concerned about technology, according to Evans. Some of psyops’ greatest successes–such as use of minstrel shows and silk-screen T-shirts in Thailand–involve very simple technology, he insisted.

Many psyops missions, Evans said, involve sending personnel out to distribute leaflets, handbills, newspapers and other products to targeted audiences and to talk to them, face-to-face, in their own languages.

In fact, Evans said, psyops personnel and language skills are key concerns. Most psyops troops are non-commissioned officers and above, he said. Many have at least some college education.

Too few, however, are fluent in a second language, he said. "No matter how well you train a U.S. soldier in a foreign language, he or she is never as good as a native speaker."

Every member of the 4th POG is supposed to be articulate in a second language, Evans said. "But that’s very difficult to achieve."

The command tries to recruit native speakers, he noted. It has succeeded in attracting many Hispanics, but it has had a hard time finding recruits who are fluent in languages of many regions where deployments are taking place, such as the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.

"Of all the U.S. personnel who deployed to Somalia, for example, only two were native speakers," Evans said. "One of them turned out to be the son of one of the warlords."

As a result of this shortage, psyops produced a brochure that "was poorly translated" into Somali and had "a negative impact," Evans said.

Psyops also is having trouble recruiting talented broadcasters and writers, explained Capt. John Donaldson, commander of the psyops broadcast element. "I need people who are skilled at what they do," he said. "I have about a third of the people that I need to man everything that I’ve got."

It’s difficult to attract talented communicators into the Army as enlisted personnel, he said, and once you train people to do the work, "they can take that commodity into the outside market and make far more money than the Army can pay them."

Another factor in the retention problem is the frequency of deployment, said Capt. John Dzienny, commander of print operations. "When these guys are good, they deploy a lot," he said. "But that gets old after a while. Once they get married and have kids, they don’t want to do that anymore."

Reprinted with permission from National Defense Magazine , Psyops Units Encouraged to Modernize Their Equipment by Harold Kennedy, February 2000. Copyright 2000 by National Defense Magazine