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.

The first issue is the absence of permanent, integrated IA units. Reserve training is conducted on a part-time basis and thus subject to conflicts between home-unit training and IA training. Even more of a concern is the fact that non-commissioned officers holding the rank of master corporal and above are also called to duty as recruit training instructors, dragging IA to the bottom of the reserve training hierarchy of priorities.

This is a significant problem considering that, unlike other deployment-specific assets like HUMINT, IA troops are deployed as fully organized platoons where maximum cohesion and esprit de corps is required. Also, this approach fails to prevent the CF from losing personnel to the private sector, where battle-hardened operators can find lucrative occasional, if not full-time employment.

A second issue is the lack of recognition that IA assets pay to support units deployed within the full range of the CF spectrum of operations. Consequently, senior leadership often does not have a strong grasp of IA capabilities. A good example was the lack of a fully staffed PSYOPS platoon during Operation Hestia following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Quebec Area was tasked with providing IA personnel but an ad hoc platoon was formed with only five PSYOPS operators; the rest were CIMIC, a decision most likely motivated by the wrong perception that PSYOPS was less useful than CIMIC in a support/disaster-relief operation. By failing to understand the scope of IA capabilities, CF leaders deprived a PSYOPS platoon that was preparing for its upcoming deployment in Afghanistan of a unique opportunity to hone its soldiers’ skills in a non-hostile, yet “live” environment.

So how can the Canadian forces improve upon the commendable creation of IATF?

The first and most evident suggestion is the implementation of permanent, fully staffed IA units comprised of PSYOPS and CIMIC companies ready for deployment on a rotational basis. IATF maintains very few soldiers save for HQ and a few teams.

Another is to deploy IA assets within all relevant current CF operations, employing IA assets in peace support roles (Africa and Middle East operations, for example), disaster relief (DART, for instance) and even special forces operations such as those currently taking place in Iraq.

The creation of a permanent target audience analysis cell, centralized within IATF and developing analysis worksheets for all potential operation areas, would also help improve performance.

Developing IA expertise has, over the past decade or so, made the Canadian forces a leader in the field. However, it came at the price of several combat casualties within PSYOPS/CIMIC units. The CF must stop losing that momentum.