“We are in a war of ideas.” This is how Murray Dyer, in 1959, described the standoff between the United States and its allies and their Soviet-led adversaries. While some of those adversaries have changed, the war of ideas and the weaponization of information in both times of peace and times of war remain—and have continued to evolve.
The term “information warfare” has become an inseparable component of both the operating concept of Multi-Domain Operations and the more general large-scale combat operations that the US military is increasingly preparing for—as the United States enters a new period of great power competition. The term itself predates the period, appearing increasingly in the early 1990s. Its widespread usage since then speaks to the need for the United States to more readily acknowledge the current threat environment. That acknowledgement must also include lessons learned from the recent conflicts—among which are the importance of flat organizations, Red Team concepts integrated into small teams, and a little-known entity called the special operations forces effects cell.
Special operations forces (SOF) organizations throughout the Army have learned lessons that could benefit the US military’s shift toward Multi-Domain Operations and leverage information warfare capabilities. The Army’s Civil Affairs (CA) Regiment has discussed the need for additional knowledge-management tools, and the Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Regiment has established sections to begin addressing the requirements for continuity, achievable effects, and conflict within the information environment that may be further operationalized and empowered.
There have also been multiple opportunities for SOF organizations to cooperate. Civil Affairs (CA) human network analysis teams and their efforts within CA organizations complement PSYOP’s target audience analysis process and authorities. Similarly, CA and PSYOP are not as constrained to foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare as Army Special Forces (SF) are, providing Army SOF a broad base of capabilities when CA, PSYOP, and SF operate as a collective.
What are SOF Effects Cells?
Not to be confused with fires effects cells, the goal of SOF effects cells is often to foster nontraditional solutions by gathering SOF personnel into a single section, split up into multiple teams, often with other personnel from information-related capability organizations.
Effects cells are normally detachment-sized elements, designed to function as miniature information warfare task forces tasked with either measuring the information environment or achieving effects, with a focus on synchronized efforts across the range of information-related capabilities.
They have performed especially well when empowered by commanders who understood the importance of incorporating influence effects into their operations, while simultaneously having the right mix of adaptable personnel to implement the desired effects.
SOF Effects Cells in Practice
In 2015, Congress approved the authority and funds to train and equip vetted Syrian forces. This also included nonlethal support to enable these forces’ operations and build their own indigenous media capabilities. For this reason, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Syria stood up its first Joint Effects Group (JEG).
The JEG was initially an ad hoc group created by the 5th Special Forces Group staff. The section concentrated on optimizing joint doctrine to a battle rhythm, implementing information operations and civil-military operations working groups, and developing targeting meetings that fed into a Targeting Working Group.
The result was a mix of partner-nation effects with PSYOP, CA, electronic warfare, and public affairs operations all synchronized at the tactical level. It was initially developed within the group headquarters element but transitioned to a section within the group’s 4th Battalion in 2016.
A similar initiative took shape a couple years later in 4th Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, where an effects cell was established. This section was a seven-person team of PSYOP, CA, and SF personnel, a mix of officers and enlisted, all with previous team time. The intent of the section—which deployed to the Middle East—was to develop a means of optimizing the PSYOP and CA billets within the SF group in such a way that would provide resourced and empowered results.
Similar undertakings occurred elsewhere in the SOF community. In 1st Battalion, 8th Psychological Operations Group, a team was stood up that was dubbed the PSYOP publicly available information exploitation cell, or PPEX.
An important aspect of the implementation of the PPEX was its battle rhythm, which facilitated creativity and freedom of information by adopting several Red Team concepts. The PPEX began collaborating with a prior Red Team facilitator who was serving as an anthropologist attached to the larger mission, which led to even further Red Team concept integration.
During each day the teams would practice a “discovery” phase, which entailed gathering relevant material from the information environment. That phase intentionally did not include the OIC or the NCOIC in order to embolden subordinate experts to flex their training and imagination. At the midpoint of the day the teams briefed both the OIC and NCOIC, who then issued guidance, set priorities, or restructured the teams based on the metrics, sentiments gathered, and guidance from higher echelons.
Developing Future Effects Cells
Just like 1959, we are in a war of ideas. For the US military to operate effectively in that war, there is a growing need to facilitate flatter organizations, capable of empowering personnel to accomplish missions that require the sharing of expertise. The SOF effects cell is a strong proof of concept of that type of organization.
So far, effects cells have been largely personality-driven: the right group of people at the right time, with the right effects. However, there will be a need for all SOF components to feed personnel in a sustainable way into future iterations of these effects cells.
One way to do that would be to develop military occupational specialties within both the PSYOP and CA Regiments designed to bring people with the right knowledge and skills into effects cells. Such efforts would also facilitate intermixing of SF, CA, and PSYOP personnel as they develop cross-functional teams.
Regardless of the specific steps taken, the goal is clear: achieving information dominance through Multi-Domain Operations. As the US Army considers ways to do so, the lessons from the effects cells offer a compelling starting point from which to build future developments and capabilities.
Maj. Ashley Franz Holzmann is an Army PSYOP officer. He graduated with a BS in Sociology from West Point in 2009 and a Master of Military Art and Science from the Command and General Staff College in 2020.
Maj. Assad Raza is an Army Civil Affairs officer. He graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Tampa in 2004, an MA in Diplomacy from Norwich University in 2014, and a Master of Military Art and Science from the Command and General Staff College’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation program in 2015, where he was the recipient of the General Dwight D. Eisenhower Award.
Maj. Travis D. Johnson is an Army PSYOP officer. He graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Mount Union in 2009 and an MA in International Studies from the University of Kansas in 2020.
Capt. Robert K. Kava is an Army PSYOP officer. He graduated with a BS in Law from West Point in 2012.
Image credit: Cynthia McIntyre, US Army
The authors of our article above state: "Just like 1959, we are in a war of ideas."
If such is the case, then what, exactly, are the ideas that we, and our opponents,
a. Have to work with today and
b. Hope "persuade, change, influence" others to (a) agree with in our case and (b) reject with regard to opponents?
In the Cold War, we could, and indeed did, define "our" and "their" "ideas" along, respectively, market-democracy versus communist lines.
Today, in amazingly sharp contrast, the U.S. has embraced the idea of "sovereignty" — which accepts, and declares as legitimate, a great diversity of political, economic, social and value orientations and ideas.
"The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique."
(See President Trump's remarks to the United Nation September 19, 2019.)
Based on the above, should we say the difference in ideas — that we will be able to work with, utilize and exploit today — this is between:
a. Those who embrace, as we do, "sovereignty" — and thus embrace a great difference in state and societal organizing, orienting and ordering institutions and ideas. (This is the U.S. position today?). And:
b. Those who reject such concept?
As a follow-on to my initial comment above, let me suggest that, prior to President Trump — and his embrace of the idea of "sovereignty," "diversity" and "equality" (and thus of legitimacy) of all nations —
("We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for cooperation and success.
Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect."
See President Trump's remarks to the U.N. in 2017)
Prior to this amazing "sea-change," the "ideas" weapon that the United States could, and did, bring to bear — BOTH IN PEACE AND IN WAR — suggested, in sharp contrast, that only the U.S./Western way of life, way of governance and values, etc., were valid and legitimate.
(This, of course, put the "wolf" right at Putin's, Xi's, Kim's, the Islamists, etc., "door" — and their own "freedom-loving"/"freedom-seeking" people as the means to their regime, or movement's, demise.)
In this regard, see how our forces, in pre-Trump times, might have "deployed" our such amazing "weapon:"
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)
With "sovereignty" as our new foreign policy "idea" — replacing, shall we say, "American exceptionalism" — how do we "fight," with ideas, now ????
The JEG mentioned is an interesting concept and good example of the continued and growing cooperation among the three tribes of ARSOF. However, I find this article slightly unimaginative. Info ops, psychological ops and other IW must be expanded past the known/comfortable scope. In order to compete with adversaries' main efforts of misinformation and cyber warfare we must be able to augment the IW capabilities that are currently only available in great quantities in the SOF realm. Info ops and messaging en masse must be capabilities of the larger, conventional joint force in order to reach and exceed the magnitude of enemies' capabilities. Alternatively, additional resources and techniques to expand the range of messaging; drastically increase quantity of messages; and efficiency of special operators in learning about various environments IOT influence them effectively through well-trained tactics may permit the current force to compete on its own, albeit with this large change in scope.
This article is interesting in its call for more effects cells that will supposedly foster more creativity and cooperation among the various branches of SOF. I think these effects cells will certainly foster creativity, especially if they can remove some of the rigid hierarchies and restrictions that might usually be in place. But will this be enough to achieve information dominance? Probably not. We are already in a war of information against our state competitors. They simply have more resources and more personnel dedicated to flooding American information sharing domains. Additionally, they have no qualms about attempting to use these operations, targeting our population, to destabilize our society. They are getting reps at using it now that will effectively allow them to conduct MISO in a conflict. We have many obstacles to overcome if we want to compete.
I agree. I think this article's main points are a great idea in helping reach the goal of information dominance, but the idea of effects cells in general will not get us there. As of now, we are trying to catch up to competitors in terms of information capabilities, so to reach dominance will take time and more ideas.
I agree. I think that these groups may be useful in a limited capacity, but if we want to truly revolutionize our information warfare capability, especially to match some of our adversaries, we need to restructure our entire system. Right now, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs are a small subset of USASOC, but they need to be their own branch with a larger budget and scope if we want to flood our enemies' information sharing domains, as you mentioned they do with us.
Nick, I agree that we have many obstacles to overcome in order to achieve information dominance through multi-domain operations, but i do not believe the authors were suggesting effects cells as a means to an end. They seem to be recommending these cells as a strong starting point on the path to achieving this goal. What these effects cells will ultimately accomplish is fostering nontraditional solutions by gathering SOF personnel into a single section with many components and varying organizations. As you mention in your response, the effects cells foster creativity. It is then up to these organizations and the organizations which these effects cells support to take action with the now greater understanding they possess.
This quartet of writers all make an interesting case, examining the success of SOF being used in foreign nations to aid their ability to counter threats outside of conventional warfare. The interesting tactics they examine are the same the US military could use in future conflicts. Gathering information and intelligence is vital to understanding enemy capabilities and political systems. At the same time, it can examine critical weaknesses that unconventional warfare could exploit. The fact of the matter is that the tactics SOF used in Syria can lay the groundwork for future operations against threats greater than terrorist regimes. This is a new method of obtaining information in urban and rural areas, but it has been proven effective in this environment. It will be interesting to see how the US will develop doctrine to match these tactics and test them in other environments.
Effects cells are an interesting concept. The cooperation of CA, PSYOP, and SF is talked about often and this application seems to utilize the separate talents well in the task of gaining information dominance. The FOM and autonomy designed into these small task forces do not seem like a new concept though, rather an application of CA, PSYOP, and SF. Further, the development of "military occupational specialties" within CA and PSYOP would only benefit the forces.