Pentagon gearing up to fight the PR war

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referenced a “G-7 paygrade.” The error was an editing mistake.

February 6, 2013

The U.S. Army has embraced what civilians would call public relations as a key part of military operations for the 21st-century battlefield.

“Combat power is the total means of destructive, constructive and information capabilities that a military unit or formation can apply at a given time,” according to a new Army field manual released publicly last month.

Added to the traditional war elements — among them movement and maneuver, intelligence and firing against an enemy — is the new “Inform and Influence Activities” (IIA). As the manual states, IIA “is critical to understanding, visualizing, describing, directing, assessing, and leading operations toward attaining the desired end state.”

I’ve written before about the military moving into PR. But this manual shows just how serious the Army has become about it. There’s now a G-7 on a commander’s staff whose job is for “planning, integration and synchronization of designated information-related capabilities,” the manual says.

Listed on the Web site of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea is its assistant chief of staff, G-7, who is “responsible for planning, coordinating and synchronizing Information Engagements activities of Public Affairs, Military Information Support Operations, Combat Camera and Defense Support to Public Diplomacy to amplify the strong Korean-American alliance during armistice, combat and stability operations.”

The G-7 for the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., “assesses how effectively the information themes and messages are reflected in operations . . . assesses the effectiveness of the media . . . [and] assesses how the information themes and messages impact various audiences of interest and populations in and outside the AO [area of operations].”

Two years ago, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Cashen Jr., commander of the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, wrote in Military Review magazine that Army doctrine would adopt words as a major war element, saying it “was validated in the crucible of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In bureaucratese, he described IIA activities as employing “cooperative, persuasive and coercive means to assist and support joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners to protect and reassure populations and isolate and defeat enemies.”

Translated: Under the “inform” element, commanders will be responsible for keeping not only their own troops aware of what is going on and why, but also U.S. audiences “to the fullest extent possible,” the manual states. Commanders abroad will be required to inform their foreign audiences, balancing disclosure with protecting operations.

The “influence” part is limited to foreign populations, where, according to the manual, the goal is to get them to “support U.S. objectives or to persuade those audiences to stop supporting the adversary or enemy.”

The Army, like the other military services, has had PR operations for decades, but mostly they have been aimed at U.S. audiences. As the manual states, “Some people think of the information environment as a new phenomenon. In fact, it has been present throughout history and has always been an important military consideration.”

When radio and then television arrived, the services used their own personnel for interviews for the public. During the Vietnam War, they offered stories that often contrasted with what reporters were providing commercial news outlets. As the war expanded, reporters who went to the front lines traveled primarily with military support.

In Desert Storm, the 1991 operation that forced Iraq out of Kuwait, reporters in the beginning had to cover the fighting far behind the lines by attending televised briefings by the U.S. commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Near the end of the conflict, a few selected reporters rode with U.S. units.

As part of planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld decided to place reporters with military units. With “embedding,” many reporters who had never been in the military service shared time with troops and essentially became part of the outfit they covered. It mostly worked to the Pentagon’s benefit.

That lesson is key to the new manual’s approach. The best way to keep Americans informed, it says, is “through the actions and words of individual soldiers.” And the best way to do that is through army units that “embed media personnel into the lowest tactical levels, ensuring their safety and security.”

There is to be “a culture of engagement in which soldiers and leaders confidently and comfortably engage the media as well as other audiences,” the manual says.

Strategic communications came to the forefront over the past decade along with “information operations,” propelled by the belief that the U.S. military has been losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan, thanks in good part to the Taliban’s use of messaging. “Adversaries and enemies have proven adept at using information to gain a marked advantage over U.S. forces,” the manual says.

“With the advent of the Internet and widespread availability of wireless communications and information technology, this environment has become an even more important consideration to military planning and operations than in years past,” says the manual.

The Army has developed Military Information Support Operations units. These are troops trained as regional experts with language capabilities that are familiar with the religious, political, cultural and ethnic backgrounds of an area and so are prepared to shape messages to influence local perceptions and behavior.

“Victory depends on a commander’s ability to shape, sway, and alter foreign audience perceptions, and ultimately behavior, especially in the area of operations,” the manual says.Perhaps it’s a step forward if we are using PR to win wars rather than more guns, bombs or missiles. But there needs to be more public explanation of what all this involves, who is doing it and the results so far.

The last step I remember Congress taking was to reduce Defense Department spending on strategic communications and ask for a more detailed explanation of such programs.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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