Like many organizations, the military sometimes substitutes style over substance, particularly when it concerns systemic problems in training and execution. Despite more than a decade of fighting an unconventional enemy, and an immeasurable amount of lip service paid to out-of-the-box and disruptive thinking, when the rubber meets the road, unique or innovative proposals are almost universally ignored. There are a few notable efforts to remedy this problem – the Navy’s Rapid Innovation Cell for instance, but these sorts of programs are few, far between, and highly limited in influence.
Recently Stars and Stripes, reported on Islamic State, or Daesh as it will be referred to here, using social media to wage psychological warfare against military spouses. Two years ago we, the authors, were providing Psychological Operations (PSYOP) support for a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) sized training event for light infantry and special operations, at a Combat Training Center (CTC). During our planning phase, we heeded some advice from an officer with the National Guard’s Special Operations Detachment – Africa, that if outside-the-box isn’t working, we should make the box bigger. One detachment was in-game, with teams attached to the downtrace elements of the BCT, and our element was acting as both the White Cell (friendly) support, and creating the psychological warfare injects for the Opposition Force (OPFOR), or Red Cell. Two years ago we lobbied the Special Operations Force Plans section and the OPFOR command to allow us to incorporate social media threats just like the one being reported on today, in order to prepare soldiers and their families for these sorts of attacks.

In a controlled training environment, this exposure would have given individuals and organizations the stimuli they needed in order to respond, adapt, and prepare. While our proposals were lauded, and backslaps were accompanied by, ‘we sure are glad you’re on our team’, risk aversion won the day. Nearly all of our proposals were denied, and left to languish, unused, outside of the rigid, inflexible, and far too small, box. In fact this specific concern, that the enemy would use social media messaging to influence family members, was ruled to be ‘highly unlikely’. Though, while everyone from the National Command Authority down to company commanders, have acknowledged that our current conflict is one of ideology and influence, the fact is, battlefield influence has never approached anything other than an afterthought in America’s CTC framework.

There is an adage in the military, to train like we fight. The problem is, we aren’t doing that. The threats we face today are adaptive, flexible, and highly creative. If we deny service members the ability to be similarly creative when examining the types of threats we might face, we aren’t preparing our troops for the fight. Instead we focus on training for threats we’ve already managed, and only in the specific manner that they’ve already been presented. For instance, our current Direct Action Training Environment, or DATE scenarios, are elementary compared to the complexity of irregular warfare we’ve seen operationalized in and around Ukraine. The aforementioned intimidation initiative by Cyber Caliphate is not much different, save for the delivery mechanism, than what several propagandists did during World War II.

A stated vision of one of our CTCs is to “Develop Leaders at echelon who can prevail in conditions of ambiguity.” Unfortunately, there’s not much ambiguity in these scenarios. While the order in which specific exercises unfold is variable, the obstacles that soldiers face are entirely predictable. Rather than being a training ground where new and cognitively challenging threats are confronted, these training centers have been reduced to a series of checklisted events that units cycle through to be “validated” for worldwide deployment. On more than one occasion our Influence White and Red Cells were told that they could not do something because the unit being trained might fail at the task. This mindset is contorted, and rooted in fundamental misunderstanding of adult learning theory and positive reinforcement. CTCs need to be the place where soldiers are challenged with novel experiences they haven’t imagined, and are given the opportunity to succeed or fail. Failure is, after all, an opportunity to learn. If this type of experimentation is not happening at either Fort Polk or Fort Irwin, then it is not happening on a large enough scale in the Army, and we are not creating a force of adaptive leaders.

Training to fight hybrid conflicts is important. Ensuring a combat element can respond to multiple threats of different constitutions is absolutely critical to our military’s success. Unfortunately, if troops aren’t also challenged to be flexible and adaptable, responding to novel stimuli in training, then they won’t be as successful when dealing with new obstacles when it matters. Using Facebook to demoralize and intimidate military families was one of the most innocuous and low-grade enemy actions we proposed on the Red Cell side. Further down the list were other easily implemented, low resource intensive, operations with a much more immediate and profound potential to impact our missions downrange. It is only a matter of time that Daesh, or another enemy, will reach the same conclusions that we did, sitting in an office, thinking like the enemy. If we don’t anticipate enemy influence operations in training, we will always be in a position of response, chasing the enemy’s OODA loop, and failing to own the psychological battlespace.

Salil Puri and Blake Whitaker are PSYOP personnel and consultants with the Culper Group, an organization that provides training and consulting services to corporate and government clients. Mr. Puri earned a Bachelor’s in History, Psychology, Middle Eastern Studies, and Government, and a Master’s in Security Policy. Dr. Whitaker earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in History, completing a PhD focusing on post-colonial African conflict. These opinions are the authors’ own, and do not reflect the opinions of the US Army, or the Department of Defense. The authors can be reached via [email protected]