For many Americans, the first time they heard the word PSYOP was in conjunction with the final stages of Operation Just Cause. They watched on television as a group of PSYOP soldiers played deafening rock music, 24 hours a day, over loudspeakers that ringed the Vatican Embassy compound where General Noriega had taken refuge. The siege continued until General Manuel Noriega couldn't take it anymore and surrendered. It is unfortunate that this is what most Americans remember of PSYOP in Panama because in actuality, the role played by PSYOP in Operation Just Cause far outweighed the music playing outside the Vatican Embassy which was highlighted by the press.

PSYOP contingency planning and preparation for hostilities in Panama began years before Operation Just Cause. PSYOP materials to include prerecorded TV, radio and loudspeaker tapes were developed, radio and loudspeaker scripts were prepared, and possible themes and designs were identified for printed materials. The Commander for the 1st Psychological Operations Battalion, the battalion with area responsibility for Panama, was designated Commander of the PSYOP Task Force in the event hostilities should arise. They didn't have to wait long.

During the spring of 1988 Noriega increased his anti-American propaganda and directed his troops to harass US Forces. The US responded by adding additional security elements which included, military police, another infantry brigade and three PSYOP loudspeaker teams.

As the duration of the hostilities was unknown, the 4th PSYOP Group took advantage of the situation by rotating loudspeaker teams in order to give them real world on site training to virtually all team members. As tensions ignited, the loudspeaker teams found themselves supporting the US security forces against staged protests by members of the Panama Defense Force (PDF) and Dignity Battalions (DIGBAT). In each case the loudspeaker teams proved their worth utilizing pre-recorded tapes and scripts that later would be invaluable during Operation Just Cause.

In May of 1989, Noriega nullified the presidential elections after Guillermo Endara was elected President. This action further contributed to worsening internal conditions as well as international relations. This heightened unrest in the country signaled that a combat scenario might be required after all.

On October 3rd members of the Panama Defense Force (PDF) attempted an unsuccessful military coup. In response to this attempt, Noriega purged the PDF military leadership leaving only those that he felt he could trust. This action proved to be unpopular with many PDF soldiers and would later be useful in the employment of PSYOP.

As discontent within Panama increased along with anti-American propaganda, concerns for the safety of US personnel and property increased. The handwriting was on the wall, the escalation of the threat against United States interest as well as the overall well being of the Panamanian population left little choice but to plan and prepare for a full scale combat operation.

The 1st PSYOP Battalion Commander was designated by General Stiner, Commander, Joint Task Force South, as a member of the 20-man Joint task Force-South staff element identified to pre-deploy to Panama in advance of the assault forces if the combat contingency should become a reality.

On 18 December 1989, two days after the shooting of a US servicemember and the harassment of another and his wife by the PDF, the 20-man advance JTF-South team received the go ahead to deploy to Panama.

The forward PSYOP Task Force in country now consisted of the 1st PSYOP Battalion Commander, a forward liaison cell, the loudspeaker detachment already in country, a pre-positioned 4th PSYOP Group 10,000 watt AM radio broadcast team, Volant Solo PSYOP TV/radio broadcast aircraft from the 193 Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, and the USSOUTHCOM J-3 PSYOP office.

On 20 December 1989, Operation Just Cause was executed. The loudspeaker detachment in country fielded 5 loudspeaker teams, which linked up with their designated supported units. Other loudspeaker teams would deploy with their supported combat units (82nd Airborne Division, 1/75th Rangers, US Marines, Navy Seals, etc).

The Opposing Forces

The Panamanian Defense Force numbered nearly 12,800 troops, national guard, police, and officials- but only about 4,000 could be classified as combat troops. The ground forces of the Panama Defense Force were organized into 2 infantry battalions, 5 light infantry companies, I cavalry troop, and 2 public order companies; their equipment included 28 armored cars. The PDF air force comprised five hundred troops with an assortment of reconnaissance, transport and training planes as well as unarmed helicopters. The PDF navy numbered four hundred sailors equipped with a handful of patrol craft, cutters, and launches. In addition, Noriega's forces included up to eighteen paramilitary Dignity Battalions.

Before H-Hour, American forces in Panama numbered nearly thirteen thousand troops, including the 193d Infantry Brigade, a battalion from the 7th Infantry Division a mechanized battalion from the 5th Infantry Division, two companies of Marines, and an assortment of military police, Air Force, and Navy personnel. On and shortly after H-Hour, the airlift brought in a strike force of seven thousand troops: a composite brigade of the 82d Airborne Division, the 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger), and the equivalent of five or six battalions of other special operations forces that included Army Special Forces, Navy Sea-Air-Land forces (SEALs), Navy special boat units, Air Force special operations personnel and psychological operations specialist.

Later on D-Day, and during the next few days, an additional seven thousand troops-mostly from the 7th Infantry Division (L) and the 16th Military Police Brigade and various civil affairs and psychological operations units-arrived to relieve the assault forces, engage in stability operations, and help establish the new government. The last increment brought to twenty-seven thousand the total of U.S. forces in Panama for JUST CAUSE; nearly twenty-two thousand actually engaged in combat operations as members of the conventional task forces, ATLANTIC, PACIFIC, BAYONET, SEMPER Fl, or of the unconventional warfare task forces, GREEN, BLACK, BLUE, WHITE, and RED.

Effectiveness of Loudspeaker Teams

At H-Hour, 1-508th Airborne had the mission of securing Ft. Amador, an installation shared by the U.S. and PDF. Because of the need for OPSEC, American dependents could not be evacuated in advance of the attack. This complication, and the desire to minimize enemy casualties and physical damage, made PSYOP loudspeaker teams a key asset. The battalion sealed off the PDF portion of Ft. Amador and ensured that all noncombatants were safe. After daylight, the task force set about systematically securing the area. When initial appeals failed to persuade the PDF to surrender, the commander modified the broadcasts. The holdouts were warned that resistance was hopeless in the face of overwhelming firepower and a series of demonstrations took place, escalating from small arms to 105mm howitzer rounds. Subsequent broadcasts convinced the PDF to give up. The entire process allowed Ft. Amador to be secured with few casualties and minimal damage.

The US Marines ran into heavy resistance from PDF and DIGBAT forces at La Chorrera, a small village on the outskirts of Panama City and Howard Air Force Base. That evening as the Marines ceased fire for the night, the loudspeaker team broadcasted surrender appeals as safe passage leaflets were dropped. Resistance ceased early the next morning without an additional shot being fired. Members of the PDF and DIGBAT surrendered peacefully all the time waving the safe conduct passes that were dropped during the night.

In addition to loudspeaker support, PSYOP activities included leaflet drops of safe conduct passes , AM radio and television broadcasts, and wanted posters as well as posters urging members of the PDF and DIGBAT to turn in their weapons for money.

Just as it was important for President Bush to explain to the American people the reason for US intervention in Panama, informing the local population of the US military intent in Panama was crucial in order to obtain their support. Three initiatives that helped keep the general population informed were the publication of a Spanish language newspaper and radio and television broadcasts by Volant Solo aircraft.

The radio and television broadcasts, all in Spanish, notified the Panamanian population not only informed the population of US intent but also provided advice on how to avoid becoming a casualty. This effort was cited as being a major factor in the reduction of civilian casualties. For the television broadcast, Channel 2 was chosen, as it was the national channel operated by the Panamanian military.

By January 8, 1990, The PSYOP Task Force had produced and disseminated over one million leaflets and handbills, 50,000 posters, 550,000 newspapers, and 125,000 units of other miscellaneous printed materials. In addition to the Volant Solo television broadcasts, the PSYOP radio stations operated 24 hours a day in an effort to get the word out to the people of Panama.

PSYOP had once again proved itself to be a force multiplier through the integral role it played during Operation Just Cause. The loudspeaker teams deployed with conventional units proved effective in reducing resistance and controlling the local populace. Integration of major themes below joint task force (JTF) level was slow at first, but picked up momentum as programs like "money for weapons" began impacting directly on tactical units.


Early integration of PSYOP planning helped ensure overall success of the operation.

Use tactical PSYOP loudspeaker teams to encourage the enemy to surrender before assaulting their position and to control flow of refugees by broadcasting the directions to the collection points.

Use broadcasts to get the general population to comply with instructions and advisories to not only keep them informed but also to keep them out of harms way.

Commanders should personally prepare messages used by PSYOP loudspeaker teams to encourage enemy to surrender. Aspects of local culture must be considered.

Plan to use pre-printed leaflets to augment efforts of loudspeaker teams in controlling flow of refugees.

Provisional Reorganization
of the 4th PSYOP Group (Abn)

Lastly but perhaps most important was the fact that out of the experienced gained from the formation of a PSYOP Task Force for Operation Just Cause, the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) recognized a need to provisionally reorganize. Regionally oriented battalions would remain the same, but the Group would now be better able to support a wide variety of contingencies.

Under the new tenets of the reorganization established in June of 1991:

The 4th Psychological Operations Group's (Airborne) Commander would deploy to the theater headquarters, along with a small headquarters element , to provide PSYOP advice and assistance to the supported theater Commander-In-Chief (CINC) and act as an expeditor for PSYOP-related actions.

The PSYOP Task Force would continue to be commanded by the theater PSYOP Battalion Commander, with two other battalion commanders working for him.

  1. A tactical commander (the former 9th PSYOP Battalion Commander) would control all loudspeaker teams and other tactical PSYOP assets and ensure support to other tactical elements of the Joint Task Force (JTF). Furthermore the 9th PSYOP Battalion would train for these support elements worldwide.
  2. A media production commander (The commander of the new provisional PSYOP Dissemination battalion) would produce all printed material, recordings, and audiovisual products, as well as be responsible for conducting all radio and television broadcast operations.

The effectiveness of the new provisional reorganization was to be tested only 2 months later with the start of Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm. Judging by the success of both PSYOP operations the decision to reorganize proved to be a good one.

Copyright May 1, 2000