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The Frontier of Information Warfare and the PSYOPS

New technologies combined with the post-Cold War international environment have modified the traditional concepts of attack and defense leaving an essential role to information. In the present society, the latter is a very important resource and a soft power lever, indeed, over time it has become a primary strategic asset for the State. Furthermore, communication and information technologies (e.g. spy satellites, night vision goggles, flying television or radio stations etc.) have proved very effective in influencing the outcome of a conflict, and the media, given their ability to shape the socio-political and economic environment, are now central actors in the national security. Following this rationale, during the XX century, the primary targets of bombings have changed from strategic factories and shipyards to power plants, telephone exchanges and broadcasting stations.

Taking into consideration a conflict we can recognize two types of forces, namely physical (combat capabilities) and psychological (soldier’s morale), that refer to different objectives and thus, methods to conduct operations. In this article, we focus on the latter force and examine the ‘psychological operations’ (Psyops).

Information is at the same time an instrument of offense and a target; hence, in this context ‘information warfare’ indicates all the offensive and defensive actions deployed to pursue a competitive advantage in the information environment. Leading countries like the US (always ahead!), for several decades have been developing systems of 'information warfare' that combine specific scientific knowledge (for example, behavioral sciences and mass communication) with strategic-military application. This avant-garde warfare frontier includes many sub-areas namely, operational security, electronic warfare (EW), deception, physical attack on the information process, information attack on the information process and, in the end, the psychological operations (psyops).

The US Department of Defense defines psychological operations as “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. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives”. The Inter-American Defense Board adds that “these operations include psychological warfare and, in addition, encompass those political, military, economic, and ideological actions planned and conducted to create in neutral or friendly foreign groups the emotions, attitudes, or behavior to support the achievement of national objectives”. Therefore, we can see these operations as a more complete form of propaganda that combines scientific knowledge from several fields that study the human being in the biological and social dimensions and uses them in a strategic military sense. In the domain of psyops, it is necessary to address not only the objective world that surrounds an individual and a population, but also their perception of the world that in the end becomes the critical variable. It is notable that the DOD definition leaves room to perplexity when states that psyops pursue the objectives of the creator rather than those of the nation (as instead is written in the DOD and IADB definition of ‘psychological warfare’).

The US defines three sub-categories of PSYOPS based on the scope of the operations conducted. Firstly, the ‘strategic’ PSYOPS are information activities conducted at a global/ regional level in support of the national strategy and can come in many forms such as diplomatic initiatives, aggressive military attitude and political statements. Secondly, the ‘operational’ PSYOPS are organized within a specific geographical area as a part of a master plan developed by the scenario commander or of other joint operations; these are very effective deterrents and powerful means to trigger a reaction of the target e.g. the deployment of army units and offensive maneuvers close to the border. Lastly, the ‘tactical’ operations consist of individual commitments aimed at consolidating the overall action. These have a strong impact on the opponent’s morale and can be for ex. propaganda of prepackaged stories on the violation of human rights and publicization of the destruction of enemy’s vital facilities. However, the distinction between the three levels has become less clear and more subtle from the ‘post-Cold War’ period onwards, up to the present day when the almost instant way to access information and news anywhere, makes it practically impossible to locate an information campaign.

It is important to point out that weapons are psychological in relation to the effect they produce rather than to their nature, in this way ethical and physical means, in addition to orthodox military ones, are employed in this type of operations. Although the military psychological factor on the battlefield (ex. morale, deceptions) has always been considered important, the relevance of psychological operations as a ‘force multiplier’ was originally recognized only by some military leaders and statesmen (for ex. Sun Tzu, Alessandro the Great and Napoleon) and ultimately, after WW2, the PSYOPS were elevated to the rank of weapon system and used as such. To carry out the ‘psychological warfare’ program, as advocated by James Webb (Undersecretary of State 1949-1952), the US security services cooperated with university experts and social scientists. One remarkable proof of this collaboration is the Project Troy (1950s) in which a group of scholars from MIT, Harvard and Rand tried to help the government strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the VOA (Voice Of America: government-owned broadcasting network) as a propaganda device; the final report stated that VOA was not sufficient to tear the ‘Iron Curtain’, thus advocating other means and methods. The following years consolidated the relationship between officials at CIA and State Department and scholars at prestigious universities; funding was allocated from several US military branches, departments and agencies including the aforementioned, the Air Force and the Navy to many research centers (e.g. BASR, BSSR, CENIS) to meet the demand of scientific information in different fields of study such as communication sciences, persuasion and interrogation techniques. In the following decades, asymmetric armed conflicts have emerged and have shown the importance of connecting military commands with civil authorities and the local population, thus increasing the psychological depth of the operations. For this reason, from the 80s onwards, military commanders could no longer do without the advice of their PSYOPS unit, whose task is to use the psychological persuasion to influence the perception of friendly and enemy forces, civilians and military towards desired behaviors (producing audiovisual and editorial material to be distributed to the local population). These groups were deployed to provide tactical support in every conflict fought by the US in Europe (Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania), Asia (Afghanistan, Iraq) and Africa (Somalia) as well as natural disasters.

One of the foundations on which Psyops are based is the credibility of the statements declared, and the Gulf War is an interesting example of information warfare in which the media were used in an innovative way. During the Desert Storm Operation, the US forces operated radio and televisions programs as the radio program ‘Voice of the Gulf’ which broadcast continuously for more than 540 hours, as well as leaflets and speakers to spread messages about the Arab brotherhood, the Coalition air power and the isolation of Iraq, in order to destroy the enemy morale and to induce the troops to desert. About 29 million leaflets of 100 different types were launched within 7 weeks, reaching 98% of Iraqi soldiers, informing enemy units on the ground, of massive bombings that would begin within 24 hours and the instructions to desert. The media campaign urged Iraqi soldiers to make a choice: escape and live or stay and die; as a result, there was a large-scale surrender and desertion of Iraqi soldiers (often conscripts).

One type of leaflet featured Saddam Hussein's face on the main side and on the back the inscription in Arabic: “children of Iraq. With your death you lengthen Saddam's life, but shorten the life of your homeland Iraq”.

PSYPOS are related to human behaviors and must consider the attitudes, opinions and emotions of the target groups, to shape their perceptions, exploiting ethnic, cultural, religious and economic differences. In this respect, an example of unsuccessful psyop is represented by the propaganda radio broadcaster Baghdad Betty, operated by Iraqis against the US (during the Gulf War), that once broadcast a message to American soldiers warning them that on the other side of the ocean, characters like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Bart Simpson were comforting and flattering their lonely wives. In recent decades, behavioral sciences and mass communication have advanced, multiplying the capabilities and value of these operations; the US has achieved a leadership in this sector from all points of view (doctrinal, training, technical) and has offered training courses and ‘good advices’ to partner countries that are willing to form their own PSYOPS units.

Communication applied to media platforms represents a formidable tool for achieving strategic objectives, because people build their opinions based on the information and ideas they receive from the main media (newspapers, radio, TV and internet). Not by chance, when national security issues arise (both in time of war and peace), governments exercise control over the media by deciding both the content of the news and the means of dissemination to the public; scoops for example are news given by authorities twenty-four hours in advance, to a selected group of newspapers, as long as there is no judgement. The political-economic power has a deep-rooted relationship with the media, and both view the public opinion as a target (in the same way as the psyops). The most common techniques used to influence attitudes and public opinion involve: targeted use of newspapers, radio, TV and opinion leaders to condition the public perception of various events in a desired way, the production of ad hoc news as well as the distribution of press releases adapted to the strategic interests. The psychological operation is an effective ‘combat reducer’ (primary function), able “to subdue the enemy without fighting” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War) and hence, to minimize civilian and military casualties. Especially in this historical period in which human losses are hardly tolerated by the world public opinion, governments employ Psyops units as a more discrete instrument and more attractive in political terms than the so called ‘conventional’ military operations, as in the case of peacekeeping missions where the use of force is strictly limited by the rules of engagement and it is evident the need to implement effective information activities. Taking into consideration the massive spread of the internet in the last decades, the creation of websites dedicated to information/ propaganda can also be part of psychological operations aimed at shaping the public opinion (of one or more countries). This field is very topical and many nations are deepening it as evidence of an increasing awareness of the Psyops effectiveness as a ‘force multiplier’ and ‘combat reducer’.

In the final analysis, the most avant-garde frontier is represented by ‘Information warfare’ whose concept is based on the idea that the information environment is a new domain in which information is, at the same time, an instrument of offense and target. Thanks to technological and scientific progress, psychological operations have emerged, in contemporary society, as a fundamental tool in both civil and military scenarios, making use of (all) media to disseminate selected information to affect the target’s ability to reason and ultimately influence its perception towards desired behaviors. One striking case that should be cited, has been the CNN, one of the largest and most followed news sources in the world, that during the Kosovo war, employed the military of the 4th Group for Psychological Operations (US Army, Fort Bragg), that may or may not have edited the news about the conflict. As the homonymous effect suggests, the news that trigger emotional and sensorial suggestions are more effective at persuading the audience, and the transmission of dramatic images can even determine foreign policy decisions. In the end, in the so-called ‘Information Age’, the means of media communication have achieved sophisticated forms, close to ‘real time’ and it is evident that “give or deny information is a source of enormous power” (Ten. Col. Luca Fontana, Le Operazioni Psicologiche (PSYOPS) la “Conquista” delle Menti).


Agency financed covert studies in '50s and '60s Documents disclose CIA research (

Simpson, Christopher. Science Of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Project Troy: How Scientists Helped Refine Cold War Psychological Warfare, The Atlantic ( )

Leaflets of the Persian Gulf War, 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), Fort Bragg ( )

Ten. Col. Luca Fontana, Le Operazioni Psicologiche (PSYOPS) la “Conquista” delle Menti ( )


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