Air University Review, September-October 1977

PSYOP is a Nasty Term—Too Bad

Major Fred W. Walker

TODAY'S money crunch continually requires that the Air Force do more with less. Yet while concern focuses on perceptions of the eagle's strength, we neglect the sparrows, who by their numbers range wider with more persistence. We are missing a bet by neglecting the field of psychological operations, commonly known as PSYOP. Here is a vast array of principles and techniques which, properly employed, can send powerful signals to enhance Air Force effectiveness at relatively little cost--perhaps no definable cost at all.

Too often, psychological aspects of operations are placed at the back of the book and completely neglected. Commanders and staff officers usually fail to consider these aspects because the term is misunderstood. Many are unaware of PSYOP's true nature, and intangibility makes it difficult to quantify or measure its effectiveness. To compound this, one enters a dense forest of obscurity when seeking official guidance. No clear direction is established for the military services except in wartime. As a result, the services are reluctant to deal with it at all, and operational effectiveness suffers.

To illustrate, several months ago the Air Force began a program in an overseas area where specially equipped aircraft flew night-and-day reconnaissance missions over U.S. bases and supply convoys to help protect them from bandits. When the responsible unit sent its operations plan to higher headquarters, a staff member noted that its PSYOP annex contained only a general statement of no value. Nevertheless, the plan was approved, and the unit was advised to expand its PSYOP annex prior to implementation.

The furor thus raised might have been classed as comic relief were it not such a sad indicator of the ignorance surrounding PSYOP and a prime example of its neglect as detrimental to the mission. Amid numerous phone calls, one colonel was aghast that we would contemplate any such thing without specific, highly classified guidance from the State Department, the ambassador, and numerous other headquarters. The issue was referred to me, and I was asked to deal with the calls and further operation.

Explaining that we simply wanted an unclassified and completely truthful information release describing the aircraft as sentinels, I noted that while no national policy specifically directs us to employ PSYOP techniques in daily activities neither is there any clear restriction. So long as material is in consonance with public information guidelines and national objectives, no prohibition exists. He reluctantly admitted that, though it sounded good, he still felt it was illegal.

He used the term "psychological warfare" (PSYWAR), as if that were involved, and maintained that we military people are constrained by laws and regulations regarding such nefarious activities. True, but we were not talking about psychological warfare. We discussed regulations and terminology to no avail, and the subject was dropped at levels above my staff position. In retrospect this was probably best; we were acting in a poorly defined area, so fraught with misunderstanding that it could have brought trouble. Still, the incident clearly illustrates the problem and hints at obstacles barring the way to improvement.

Here was an operation to prevent possible violence, injury, and loss of property. A major deterrent feature would have resulted with a modest and well-instituted bit of publicity—to inform potential thieves that aircraft were watching, equipped to see and give alarm even at night! Certainly this would have followed State Department public information guidance, but there seemed no need to seek out individual approval for a single minor item. I suspect that, had the issue not been linked to the term "PSYOP," it would have been conducted without one raised eyebrow. The term itself seems to stimulate thoughts of demons and witches' cauldrons. Because of ignorance, misunderstanding, and probably fear, this valuable tool was not used; and the operation was not executed with the best possible effectiveness. Though we cannot, even with hindsight, assess whether it would or would not have been more effective—due to the tool's intangible nature—few could objectively say that PSYOP would not aid such a program.

Many Americans consider "PSYOP" a nasty term. Among some more-or-less logical reasons most widely accepted is its close association with, and inclusion of, the term "propaganda" –another innocent term with an oddly acquired unsavory image because it has lost its original religious connotation and has come to mean lies, or at least an unethical twisting of truth. There is even a propaganda book facetiously titled The Un-American Weapon. Without foundation, or knowing its meaning, people have labeled it as unethical and evil.

All communication has some psychological objective, and government communication is naturally intended to support national objectives. Nothing is wrong with this; any government might be faulted for communicating otherwise. But, rather than engage in a dull, semantic analysis of terms such as "truth," "perception," "information," etc., let us briefly examine definitions and official doctrine:

Psychological operations—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.

Propaganda—Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, whether directly or indirectly.

Psychological warfare—The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives. 1

Are these necessarily sinister? As they are official definitions, one may logically expect official policy and guidance regarding them. Sadly, it is difficult to find and quite often very general in nature. For example, JCS Publication 2, Unifies Action Armed Forces, has only part of a sentence buried at the back of the book:

. . . the Department of State has primary or collateral interest in determination, among others, of policies concerning: . . . any matters involving psychological warfare, information and propaganda, and attitudes toward the indigenous populace. 2

Though the terminology suffers, an idea is there. Psychological warfare is indeed highly constrained and directly controlled. It is a limited field concerned with hostile targets in wartime. Note the differences between PSYOP and PSYWAR. This discussion involves the nonwartime areas of PSYOP, where it is in the national interest for military capabilities to be understood; where perceptions of power influence balances and budgets, strategies and economic policies; where national strength provides a cornerstone for diplomatic effectiveness. Here the military should have clear guidance regarding the psychological implications of every action.

General guidance for military forces does exist, though finding it practically requires a major research project. The terms "PSYOP" and "PSYWAR" are often incorrectly interchanged, and policy statements are difficult to ferret out. Within the Department of Defense guidance is thinly scattered above service levels. Some guidance is in unified command plans and policy directives; we must look for the appendix at the back of the book, and it may often be characterized by the term "ambiguous." Lower in the system, it becomes more definitive. Among the services, the Army has broadly defined doctrine, as do the Air Force and Marine Corps, but service doctrine often reflects the ambiguity above service levels. This leaves it in a limbo of inattention because it cannot be effectively used without more specific direction.

Air Force guidance is contained in our Special Operations doctrine manual, Air Force Manual 2-5:

All aerospace forces have essential capabilities to produce psychological effects as a result of characteristics such as range, mobility, responsiveness, and over-all tactical versatility. 3

These capabilities are clearly spelled out:

(1) Show of force, which can vary from a specific planned mission and deployment, to simple publication of the fact that a friendly force is in the area.

(2) Attack on a selected target to demonstrate the futility of further resistance.

(3) Harassing actions to limit enemy effectiveness, such as night attacks to interrupt rest, sonic booms to terrorize, etc.

(4) Exploiting aerospace force maneuverability and mobility to demonstrate military superiority.

(5) Leaflet and loudspeaker missions to inform or convince target audiences.

(6) Humanitarian operations and support for US or indigenous civic actions.

(7) Monitoring, evaluating, and analyzing the effects of operations.4

Examination reveals that only number five is concerned with propaganda while just two of the seven involve warlike activities. Emphasis is on demonstrating capabilities for desired attitudinal or behavioral response. This emphasis supports our deterrent policy. There certainly does not appear to be anything nasty, untruthful, or unethical about these capabilities, or restrictions on use of them toward national objectives. It is part of our mission.

An unwritten national PSYOP doctrine may be deduced from a White House press release as long ago as 1953:

[there is] no strategic concept for psychological operations separate and distinct from a strategy concept for gaining national aims without war. [Psychological operations. . . are] "inherent in every diplomatic, economic, military action. There is a 'psychological' implication in every act. .. [and not] apart from the act." These fundamental propositions constitute the foundations of Doctrine about which everyone inquires. If these propositions and their implications are understood then there is no mystery about doctrine. It is an expansion of these ideas. 5

Regardless of the validity of this statement, ambiguity remains because policy, or national doctrine, has not been written in directive form so that the military services may take positive direction from it. Why is specific doctrine found only at lower levels with increasing obscurity as we seek reference 'higher? In comparison, the military public information service has, little problem determining guidance. Every information officer does not run to the State Department or National Security Council to receive individual blessings on each news release or issue of the local base paper. Release of public information is a local command function,6 and guidance comes ultimately from the same national authorities. So what is wrong with emphasizing capabilities to obtain the best possible results?

The answer is simply, nothing! More important, the reason that written doctrine is lacking, and that we do not use this valuable tool is ignorance. If that seems too strong, let us say that most commanders and staff personnel have little knowledge of the true nature and value of PSYOP. This is especially evident when we encounter people using the terms "propaganda," "PSYOP," and "PSYWAR" interchangeably. The Air Force has failed to fully train commanders regarding the concept, and they in turn have not explained it to those who influence policy. We have minimal training and only rudimentary means of identifying and managing what limited expertise we do have. Without cognizant staff personnel at each level of command, there is no effective communication channel for implementing PSYOP. Inputs from the field seldom reach National Command Authorities; direction and guidance are seldom, if ever, passed back down to the field.

Perhaps we have concentrated too much on equipment. Most people attending a PSYOP briefing expect an array of loudspeaker, leaflet, and mobile printing capabilities. These are merely small adjuncts to PSYOP and have little to do with the concept. They only bring to commanders' minds thoughts of the cost of equipment and people to use it, not appreciation of the concept. Whatever the reason, we must change.

Instead, we must inform people of the idea. PSYOP is the great magnifier, and a PSYOP-oriented staff can magnify the impact of any operation a hundredfold--if only it is recognized as a legitimate and valuable participant in both the planning and conduct of operations. It cannot be tacked on as an afterthought or added as a general statement to complete the format of a plan. In order to put this idea across to our people and enhance operations, let us examine where we presently stand and determine what we must do to use such a valuable resource.

The Air Force seems to cycle through interest and disinterest in PSYOP, like a historical roller coaster. In the early 1950s, training involved sending scores of officers to courses at Georgetown University, followed by field experience with Voice of America—obviously a result of PSYOP's demonstrated value in World War II. However, economy did away with specialized units after Korea, and training ceased. Our PSYOP capability was dispersed.

In 1967, the long-term effect of this neglect was apparently recognized. Some training was re-established with a course at the USAF Special Operations School but discontinued for lack of funds in 1968. Interest was kept barely alive by a brief description in professional military schools and a nebulous block of instruction at the Air Force Academy. It was also emphasized in counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare courses.

A third major revitalization came in late 1974, when the Special Operations School was again tasked to develop a course tailored to Air Force requirements. This latest effort was sparked by General Momyer's study of lessons learned from the Vietnam debacle. In this study he concluded that USAF: (1) needs a highly trained group of staff officers capable of planning and directing PSYOP, (2) should pursue a modest research and development program on supporting equipment, and (3) should maintain research programs with the professional military schools to develop appropriate PSYOP methodologies. 7

This course is presently fulfilling designed objectives. Only one week long, it is aimed at providing officers with theory and techniques in planning and conducting PSYOP and making them aware of the psychological impact of every military action. It is not designed to produce specialists, merely to provide a solid background for middle managers. However, continued lack of interest at major command levels has decreased the impact and effectiveness of this training.

Early in 1975, USAF Basic Doctrine was completely rewritten, and nearly all direct references to PSYOP were deleted. Although implicit references remain, the term may only be found buried in a sentence under Special Operations, " ... and functions which may be considered adjuncts to or in support of various other operations. "8 Thus, PSYOP is left to the imagination, despite the obvious truth and historical fact that all aerospace forces have, and will continue to have, these essential capabilities to send highly perceptive signals in support of national objectives.

That is where we stand at present. Our most recent and promising upward surge of the interest cycle may be ready for yet another downward swoop. Specific steps might prevent this—place PSYOP in its proper, officially sanctioned perspective, and then use its signal-sending value.

First the Air Force must put its own house in order by: (1) removing PSYOP from the enigma of being grouped only under Special Operations, specifying the all-encompassing nature of PSYOP regarding all Air Force actions, and delineating responsibilities as applying to all forces; (2) establishing and using a system to identify and manage trained resources--the Special Experience Identifier (SEI) is fine but not presently used to its intended capability--operations and planning staffs must require certain Unit Detail Listing (UDL) positions to have PSYOP SEIs. To be properly employed, the PSYOP officer should usually be in the operations rather than the plans section of the staff. (3) Providing support, emphasis, and expansion to PSYOP training—all commanders and staff personnel need not be trained, but certainly they should be oriented to its nature and value; (4) establishing channels through which PSYOP opportunities, intelligence, and suggested themes may be reported from the field to national decision-makers; and (5) requiring operations and planning staffs to include and apply tactical PSYOP concepts. Even if no PSYOP actions are undertaken, the commander and staff should be advised of psychological implications and opportunities of every planned action, as directed by the USAF War and Mobilization Plan.

Second (and more difficult because of bureaucratic considerations) USAF must request, through established channels, more definitive guidance from National Command Authorities regarding PSYOP objectives. Each service should have a clearly defined and mutually supporting PSYOP mission, stemming directly from national objectives. Given proper direction, neither the Air Force nor other services should have difficulty in applying PSYOP principles.

While the need to enhance Air Force PSYOP is very real, unlike other pressing needs, to do so is not costly. No additional personnel are required, no equipment, and only minimal additional training. Instead we must pay attention to the subject, put command emphasis on our fledgling program and use it daily. For a small investment, potential rewards are great with this force magnifier.

WHAT CAN we possibly lose by spreading understanding and emphasis? If folks still insist that the terminology is nasty, we may have to start by correcting that. Nevertheless, can we afford to do without it? Less money and monumental mission requirements force us to seek maximum effect from every action. Now is the time to make more people aware of the importance of PSYOP as a powerful perception tool.

Kailua, Hawaii


1. JCS Publication I, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3 September 1974), pp. 263-65.

2. JCS Publication 2, Unified Action Armed Forces (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, October 1974), p. 141.

3. AFM 2-5, Aerospace Operational Doctrine, Tactical Air Operations—Special Air Warfare (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Department of the Air Force, 10 March 1967), p. 20.

4. Ibid.

5. Franz Henry Michael, Gerald L. Steibel, and Frank N. Trager, Soviet and Chinese Psychological Operations and the United States' Response (Arlington, Virginia: 1970), study submitted to Office of the Deputy ASD/Policy Plans and NSC Affairs/ISA, p. 113.

6. AFR 190-12, "Release of Unclassified Information to the Public" (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Department of the Air Force, March 1973), p. 1.

7. Paul R. Stankiewicz, "U.S. Air Force Psychological Operations," Lecture, Joint PSYOP Conference, 20 November 1974.

8. AFM 1-1, United States Air Force Basic Doctrine (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Department of the Air Force, 15 January 1975), p. 3-4.


Major Fred W. Walker (B.S., USAF Academy) is a Special Operations Staff Officer at Hq CINCPAC and Executive Editor of Asia-Pacific Defense Forum. He has flown C-130, 0-2, T-29, and T-39 aircraft in addition to duty as Liaison Officer with U.S. Army Special Forces units and Hq XVIII Airborne Corps. He was an instructor at the USAF Special Operations School and a staff officer at Hq Thirteenth Air Force, Republic of Philippines. He has published several other articles and poems. Major Walker is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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