‘Centrally Planned and Decentrally Executed’ -- A Dilemma Facing Military Psychological Operations  1

(Submitted to Cyber Sword)

Steven Collins

4 September 1998

(Reprinted with the author's permission)

 A vexing issue facing military Psychological Operations (PSYOP)2 today is how to provide effective and timely support to tactical commanders.3 While no one within the PSYOP community would deny the importance of this issue, there is certainly debate on how best to accomplish this goal – especially with the mandated ‘centralized planning and decentralized execution’ of PSYOP. This issue is extremely important because of the revolutionary change in the Global Information Environment (GIE) coupled with the types of missions US military forces now find themselves a more frequent participant. This review summarizes the current state of affairs regarding PSYOP support to tactical commanders, analyzes the situation in Bosnia as a case study in providing tactical PSYOP support, and offers recommendations on how to remedy deficiencies in this area.

Operating Effectively in Today’s Global Information Environment

In the past, military PSYOP forces could reasonably expect to deploy to a contingency area and dominate the local means of information delivery, either because of a lack of indigenous media, or the military rules of engagement allowed indigenous media to be interdicted. Similarly, PSYOP forces could also expect to typically deploy to an area and operate under the so-called "Weinberger Doctrine" and support the application of maximum military force within a finite period of time with tight, centralized control emanating from the Joint Forces Commander (JFC). PSYOP policy and doctrine was developed to support this most probable military-information template. These planning assumptions formed the guiding mantra for PSYOP forces -- the ‘centralized planning and decentralized execution’ of PSYOP. 4

However, today, the battlespace expectations are quite different. Peace operations, in all their various flavors are in vogue, and military PSYOP forces can expect to operate for an extended period of time in an area where sophisticated, robust, indigenous media competes with the US military PSYOP message. 5 Additionally, other international "competitors" to the PSYOP effort, such as Cable Network News (CNN) or the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), are now ubiquitous in conflict areas. It seems unlikely today that military PSYOP will ever be able to fully dominate an area’s information outlets as in the past. Furthermore, today, the JFC is many times forced out of operational necessity to decentralize his command structure and transfer a significant degree of decision making authority to the local tactical commanders – especially in peace operations where local conditions can differ tremendously. In order to operate effectively in this challenging GIE, with likely decentralized command and control, current PSYOP policy and doctrine must change.

Globalenv.gif (22197 bytes)

The Bosnian Experience

Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR/GUARD 6 in Bosnia is an illustrative case study of why PSYOP forces must change the manner it provides tactical PSYOP support. Many have observed that the conflict in Bosnia from 1992-95 was as much a media war as a ground war. Mark Thompson’s Forging War convincingly demonstrates the pivotal role played by the media in Yugoslavia, particularly television, in unleashing and channeling latent ethnic hatred. 7 The current US military PSYOP effort in the Balkans dates back to 1993, as planners from the US Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group, headquartered at Fort Bragg, developed the PSYOP portion of various contingency plans for NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH), headquartered in Naples, Italy.8 When the Dayton Peace Agreement was initialed in November 1995, PSYOP was firmly embedded within AFSOUTH’s planning, and PSYOP forces subsequently deployed to Sarajevo in support of NATO in December 1995.

The Combined/Joint PSYOP Task Force (CJPOTF) Headquarters in Sarajevo controlled the PSYOP effort in Bosnia. The overall effectiveness of the PSYOP effort in Bosnia is not the focus of this review,but it is fair to say the CJPOTF had much work to do to merely to conduct the theater-level PSYOP effort and satisfy NATO’s Implementation Forces (IFOR)/Stabilization Forces (SFOR) command group and the various international organizations in Sarajevo. Because of the perception in the ground division areas that the CJPOTF was not responsive to divisions’ needs, and was too "Sarajevo-centric" in much of its analysis and PSYOP product symbolism, the divisions constantly voiced their disappointment with the PSYOP support.

As background, the operational area in Bosnia is trisected into three Multi-National Division (MND) areas of responsibility. One division led by the French, one by the United Kingdom (UK), and one by the US. Early in the Bosnian mission, despite possessing the most extensive PSYOP support of any division, the US-led MND, MND-North (MND-N), headquartered in Tuzla, was slow to understand the importance of PSYOP. In fact, the entire mentality in MND-N made effective PSYOP difficult. For instance, in the UK-led MND-Southwest, with the fewest soldiers of any MND and the largest area of operation, troops vigorously patrolled by foot and vehicle from the beginning of the NATO mission on 20 December 1995, and immediately set a new tone to distinguish NATO’s IFOR from the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR).

By contrast, the US forces in MND-N conducted patrols in convoys with a minimum of four vehicles, at least one crew-served weapon mounted, and soldiers sporting full battle gear. All of these actions made it difficult for the tactical PSYOP soldiers in MND-N to do their job of getting to know the Bosnian people and to attempt to change local attitudes through face-to-face discussions with the Bosnians and by passing out literature (newspapers, handbills, etc.). The implicit message sent to the people of Bosnia by MND-N because of the excessive force protection posture was "Bosnia is not safe for American soldiers" while, the explicit and paramount message was supposed to be "Bosnia is safe for you and everyone else." This mania for force protection in Bosnia has led one observer to note: "...the Bosnia deployment [for the Americans] resembles nothing more than the moon landings, with the principal objective being to send men far away and bring them back safely." 10 Scandinavian forces in MND-N, who had been in region as part of UNPROFOR, tried in vain to convince the Americans there was no need for an overly hostile posture. Moreover, some at IFOR Headquarters attributed several hostile actions by the local populace in the MND-N sector to the aggressive posture of the US-led MND.


mndmap.gif (8527 bytes)

Multi-National Division (MND) Areas of Responsibility in Bosnia and Herzegovina

At its greatest extent, the PSYOP effort in MND-N included over forty tactical PSYOP soldiers spread among the subordinate brigades, radio transmitters in both Tuzla and Brcko (eventually the Brcko transmitter was upgraded from AM to FM), a radio studio in Brcko built by MND-N for live broadcasts, and a large PSYOP planning staff in Tuzla with a lieutenant colonel in charge. 11 Many commanders in MND-N also were guests on the local radio talk show circuit. Despite the emphasis on force protection, it became evident the MND-N commanders were not oblivious to the value of effective "Perception Management."12 As one US Brigade Commander in Bosnia said:

...The factions get real nervous around the press, they get real nervous around cameras.... It definitely makes things happen. I can say I have close air support -- that’s obvious. I have attack helicopters -- that’s obvious. I have ‘x’ number of MK [Mark] 19s, I outnumber you. But I also got Time, Newsweek, and CNN and that has a big impact on their behavior. 13

Still, the level of PSYOP support did not satisfy the MND-N commanders. 14 The issue that created the most consternation is the requirement in US and NATO policy and doctrine for the centralized planning and decentralized execution of PSYOP. 15   The frustration over this issue is accentuated by the quantum leap in media production equipment capability, which makes it possible to conduct desktop publishing, as well as digitally edit audio-video products, with any ordinary personal computer. While the ability to produce high quality PSYOP products is now within the reach of anyone with a computer, a competing dynamic which argues for even greater centralized control is the proliferation of indigenous and international media. The chances that a PSYOP product meant for local impact could have operational or even strategic impact is enhanced. It takes little imagination to foresee how quickly a locally produced PSYOP handbill or poster, with a politically ill-advised message, could be flashed via satellite to millions of homes around the world.

The PSYOP element in Bosnia was never able to achieve the level of support demanded by MND-N. To fill this perceived support void, the second MND-N Commander, Lieutenant General (USA) Montgomery Meigs, requested personnel from the US Army’s Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) deploy to Bosnia and assist in planning and coordinating his IO effort. Although LIWA’s efforts were welcome, it was clear they understood little about the policy prohibitions against developing PSYOP objectives and themes at the division level.16 MND-SW was also similarly frustrated with the lack of a vigorous local PSYOP effort and unilaterally deployed personnel from the UK to produce local PSYOP products, to include a weekly news magazine, Mostovi ("Bridges"). This element operated with very little oversight from the CJPOTF. The French in MND-SE, although having a strong historical distrust of PSYOP, 17 eventually created their own PSYOP capability, including a FM radio station for Mostar, and began a largely independent PSYOP effort for their division’s area.

The cause for PSYOP’s failure at the tactical level in Bosnia was more systemic than many wanted to acknowledge. The PSYOP community must reach the consensus that the operational environment in Bosnia was not an anomaly but a likely vision of the future and adapt accordingly. Without significant changes, PSYOP will not be responsive to the tactical commander and will never operate within the information cycle of a sophisticated competitor, such as the indigenous media in Bosnia.18

Recommendations for Solving the Problem

To summarize, while even a small leaflet drop meant for a village can potentially have strategic implications, especially if one of those leaflets is shown by CNN, corps and division commanders in the oft encountered peace operations today are demanding the capability to independently develop their own PSYOP programs and products designed specifically for their area of operation. Meanwhile, applicable US Government (USG) policy and PSYOP doctrine is geared towards a highly centralized, mid- to high-intensity conflict, in a DESERT STORM-like environment. However, in many peace operations, local military tactical commanders need, and are often granted, a high degree of autonomy. To correct these deficiencies and enhance PSYOP support in today’s competitive GIE, here are some recommendations:

Change PSYOP policy and doctrine to sanction and encourage the JFC to typically delegate PSYOP product approval authority to division-level commanders for tactical PSYOP products in their area of responsibility. Recent changes in PSYOP command and control practices and equipment fielding will give division commanders the capability to conduct their own PSYOP operations, but without the commensurate authority. Spurred primarily by the lessons learned in Bosnia, PSYOP tactical elements are now typically attached to their supported unit and no longer operate under the older doctrine where divisions received operational control, with tactical control of tactical PSYOP units often remaining with the CJPOTF. Additionally, division PSYOP elements are now augmented with limited PSYOP product development and production capabilities.19 Yet, PSYOP policy and doctrine still calls for all products to be approved by the JFC. The potential for harm caused by unintended PSYOP consequences is what makes many reluctant to give local tactical commanders the means to direct their own PSYOP effort. However, one can argue that the local PSYOP capability is no more consequential than the potential to say something reckless to a member of the media. Division level commanders frequently speak to the media. It is considered a responsibility of command. The constraints and measures of commonsense which apply when dealing with members of the press are similar to the guidelines one needs to operate under while directing a local PSYOP effort -- as well as the means by which to hold commanders accountable for their actions.

As division-level commanders are given the authority to direct their own PSYOP efforts and approve products, it will be essential to provide extensive instruction at Senior Service Colleges, and pre-command courses about the capabilities and responsibilities of PSYOP. Once given the weighty power of the PSYOP tool, division-level commanders must be schooled as to the correct use.

Orient PSYOP doctrine more toward supporting peace operations than operations of a conventional nature. PSYOP can no longer afford to almost solely align its focus toward supporting conventional military operations in a mid- to high-intensity conflict environment, but rather it must be prepared for the challenge to operate effectively across a broad spectrum of military support.

PSYOP must change in many ways to meet the challenges of a dynamically transforming GIE and a proliferation of operations other than war. Addressing the concerns of the tactical commanders and providing them with the PSYOP support they demand will be an important part of that process of change. Failure to change, or making only minor modifications, will cause frustration to mount and might force PSYOP to change from without instead of from within.


1 Although I benefited from discussions with many within the PSYOP community, this article represents my own views and does not present any official command position regarding psychological operations. I take full responsibility for any errors of content or omission.

2 "PSYOP are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals." Joint Pub. 3-53, Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations, (10 July 1996): v.

3 This focus of this paper is how to best support the US Army division commanders, because the US Army typically requires the bulk of tactical PSYOP support. Still, many of the issues regarding tactical PSYOP support are applicable to the other Services.

4 "Centralized planning for PSYOP should be focused at the combatant command level…. it is essential that all PSYOP products…use the same themes and symbols necessitating a single product development center [emphasis added]." Quoted from Joint Pub. 3-53, vi-vii.

5 Ryan Henry and C. Edward Peartree, "Military Theory and Information Warfare," in Parameters 27 (Autumn 1998): 132.

6 Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR and Implementation Forces (IFOR) were the terms used until 20 December 1996, and Operation JOINT GUARD and Stabilization Forces (SFOR) are the terms used since that date.

7 Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina (Avon: The Bath Press, 1994).

8 AFSOUTH was the designated NATO HQ to provide support to UN efforts in the Balkans Former and was prepared, if ordered, to conduct military operations to implement peace agreements (e.g.: Vance-Owen Peace Plan), or assist in the pressured withdrawal of UNPROFOR.

9 For a view of the PSYOP effort throughout the entire theater, see: Pascale Combelles Siegel, Target Bosnia: Integrating Information Activities in Peace Operations. NATO-Led Operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, December 1995-1997 (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1998); and, Steven Collins, "A War of Words: The Media Clash in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Impact of US Army PSYOP," (forthcoming, 1998).

10 Gideon Rose, "The Exit Strategy Delusion," in Foreign Affairs 77 (January/February 1998): 66. An article in the Bosnian newspaper Vercernje Novine was entitled "Ambassadors under Lock & Key" (translated in the Tuzla Night Owl 3 (March 5, 1998)). This article reported General Wesley Clark, SACEUR/CINCEUR, was considering loosening some of the more extreme force protection measures for US soldiers. The first commander of MND-N, Major General William Nash, had an enthusiasm for force protection that even extended to previous conflicts. He criticized the Vietnam memorial statue in Washington because the soldiers honored do not have helmets, flak vests, and other protective gear, in: Tom Philpott, "Enforcing the Peace in Bosnia," in The Retired Officer Magazine (September 1996): 60-6.

11 Normally a major is the highest-ranking PSYOP officer at a division headquarters.

12 Perception Management is defined in Joint Pub. 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, (23 March 1994): 347, as: "Actions to convey or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning; and to intelligence systems and leaders at all levels to influence official estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the originator’s objective." PSYOP, diplomatic communiques, press releases, etc., are all subsets of Perception Management.

13 Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Civil Disturbance, Center of Army Lessons Learned Newsletter 96-11, Nov 96: 18.

14 See the chapter by Mark R. Jacobson, "Tactical PSYOP Support to Task Force Eagle," in Larry Wentz, ed, Lessons from Bosnia: The IFOR Experience (Washington, D.C.: NDU Press, 1998), 189-224. Jacobson witnessed firsthand the frustrations of trying to conduct PSYOP in the US-led MND-N sector in Bosnia. Also helpful is a chapter by Kenneth Allard, "Information Operations in Bosnia: A Soldier’s Perspective," also in Wentz, 255-71.

15 See: CJCSI 3110.05A, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction: Joint Psychological Operations Supplement to CJCSI 3110.01B, Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan FY 1996, (1 July 1997): B-2. Delegation of PSYOP product approval authority beyond the JFC requires approval by the Secretary of Defense (unclassified paragraph). Also, see NATO’s: ACE [Allied Command Europe] Staff Officers Guide to Psychological Operations, 16-5 (unclassified).

16 LTC (ret.) Stephen W. Shanahan and LTC Garry J. Beavers, "Information Operations in Bosnia," in Military Review 77 (November-December 1997) 53-62.

17 The distaste of PSYOP was borne as a result of French PSYOP’s role in the war in Algeria in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and French PSYOP’s assistance in the attempted coup against Charles DeGaulle in 1961.

18 "‘US forces must be capable of responding to media demands for instantaneous information... ...suggests the need for greater information dominance and for some thought about how modern, real-time news reporting can be used to US advantage in future military operations."’ As quoted by Frank J. Stech, "Winning the CNN Wars," in Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly (Autumn 1994): 43.

19 The PSYOP Development Detachment attached to the division will now include a PSYOP product development workstation, a digital-interfaced duplication machine, and additional PSYOP specialists to develop PSYOP products.