With the Islamic State demonstrating state-of-the-art propaganda techniques drawing thousands of foreign fighters into their ranks, psychological operations (PSYOPS) units should be deployed on the first line alongside SOF advisors and the Kurdish forces they support. As a member of the Western coalition currently assisting in the fight on the ground, Canada sent CF-18 fighter aircraft and CSOR operators to Iraq last September, but no PSYOPS support to operations, failing to preserve a hard-earned capability.

Psychological operations (PSYOPS) tactics were first used extensively during Operation Medusa in 2006—loudspeaker operations to distract the enemy and coordinated leaflet drops that exposed the Taliban’s command and control structures. Ever since, the Canadian Forces (CF) have built an envious reputation and earned credibility with their PSYOPS and civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) teams in Afghanistan, frequently summoned—and commended—by American and British units.

Canada’s military campaign in Kandahar has been officially over since 2011. Four years later, it is time to consider that the future of one of the forces’ winning assets seems very grim.

The CF has demonstrated a willingness to consolidate and improve on its influence activities (IA). The creation of the Influence Activities Task Force (IATF) in late 2009 helped centralize and organize an otherwise scattered entity. The operational side of the task force is staffed by primary reserve soldiers while administration/logistics are still conducted at the area level. It effectively separates PSYOPS and CIMIC from similarly oriented yet very different information operations (IO).

The decision to hand over PSYOPS and CIMIC to reservists is highly commendable, as IA operations draw tremendous advantages from having boots-on-the-ground tactical operators—all of them non-commissioned members with higher education, a trait that is easily found among reservists. The target audience analysis branch of PSYOPS, the military version of an advertising agency’s idea room, and CIMIC also benefit from recruiting college-educated soldiers with backgrounds in political science, communications, marketing, and management.

The PSYOPS production branch, charged with creating PSYOPS products (leaflets, sound clips, video), employs soldiers with extensive civilian backgrounds in visual arts, a highly cost-effective measure eliminating the need for an actual PSYOPS production course.

All this makes IA recruiting, selection and training more of an orientation process that draws on the skills soldiers already possess; operational deployment preparation and attachment to field units remains the most complex task to be mastered over time.

But a few debatable initiatives have been made over the past few years that, ironically, send a confused message about the seriousness with which the CF handles those crucial assets and could jeopardize their effectiveness. Although some of that might be blamed on the experimental aspect of IA integration, lessons must be learned.