Does the Growing Importance of the Psychological Dimension in Warfare Put the United States and Its Allies at a Disadvantage?

by October 2021
Hezbollah flags and posters during a rally marking the 12th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Introduction: The Growing Importance of Non-Kinetic Means

In August 2021, commenting on the hasty withdrawal of Western military forces from Afghanistan, retired US Army Brigadier General and former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Mark Kimmitt told the press that the US “underestimated the Taliban’s capabilities when it comes to psychological warfare.” Kimmitt praised the ability of Afghan Islamists not only to inspire their fighters but also to “get inside the heads” of soldiers who served the defeated Afghan government. He nevertheless emphasized that “when it comes to military capability, the US military outguns, outflies, and outnumbers the Taliban,” which makes the outcome all the more dramatic, and indicative of the importance of the first half of the equation.  

This candid confession illustrates what may be the biggest flaw in the current perception of the rapidly changing nature of war by the US military establishment and its allies. Even when they admit their own mistakes and failures in the psychological sphere, which does not happen often, establishment speakers still tend to emphasize their countries’ overwhelming superiority in the “classical” kinetic sphere. Yet contemporary strategic encounters between state and/or non-state actors, including those that involve the use of military force on various scales, are won primarily in the psychological sphere. In this domain, those who “outgun, outfly, and outnumber” their adversaries do not necessarily win.

This essay will define this groundbreaking shift in the nature of military conflicts as an “influence revolution in military affairs,” to paraphrase the old Soviet (and later American) concept of a revolution in military affairs. It seeks to show how a better understanding of this aspect of warfare—particularly by non-state actors—has catalyzed the race for securing psychological superiority during conflicts, non-violent and violent alike. The art of this warfare—as practiced by the champions in this field, namely the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians, as well as Hezbollah and the Islamic State—will be presented to assess the growing gap between them and Western societies in terms of these capacities. This essay concludes by exploring the possible reasons for this gap and identifying some urgent steps to be taken in order to narrow it.

Russia and East Asia: Embracing Influence Campaigns as Part of a Postmodern Revolution in Military Affairs

The penchant of both Russian and Chinese civil and military elites for covert measures and psychological operations—aimed to undermine the enemy’s government, solidarity, and capabilities—is rooted in  the earliest stages of the two countries’ long history, enhanced by their legacy of Marxist revolutionary operational concepts. During the last century, the Russian and East Asian preference for winning interstate strategic rivalries by covert and/or overt non-military means was reinforced, adapted to the changing international, social, and technological circumstances, and implemented globally.

Contemporary Russian military thought systematically speaks of the “new-type warfare” of the 21st century, which has no clear limits of time nor space. It does not seek so much to physically annihilate the enemy’s forces through a kinetic encounter in the classic sense but rather to influence the enemy’s international environment, the public perceptions, and the attitudes of the ruling elites, armed forces, and decision makers to end the conflict on Russia’s terms. In this new reality of “psychological battles,” the purposefully and skillfully “cooked” blend of truthful, biased, and false information—spread via multiple channels of Russian and foreign official and private media, social networks, agents of influence, and so forth—in a sense became one of Moscow’s main weapons. It is operated separately or jointly with limited kinetic and/or cyber activities by a diverse alignment of forces. It is run not only by a community of the “information warfare professionals”—Russian official and semi-official military, intelligence and civil entities—but also by a growing constellation of Russian civilians and foreign players who consciously or blindly (“useful idiots”) serve Moscow’s geopolitical and military interests. The targets are plentiful, ranging from the near abroad countries, such as the Baltics, to foreign entities and figures further afield. The widely spoken successes in the operational theatres like Ukraine, Syria, or Hungary are just the tip of the iceberg of Russia’s recent achievements on this silent global front. Among the latest trends in the field are posting fake stories on real news sites to discredit and disunite NATO and threatening NATO servicemen and their families back home through phone calls and social networks.

According to the information about China available to the West, the authorities in Beijing seem to be developing their own psychological warfare capabilities. The Chinese apparently have adjusted their official military doctrine and, in practice, have called for the fusing of kinetic, psychological, and legal actions. As a result, psychological operations have been absorbed within the recently established People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force. China is actively using its official media, such as the national Xinhua News Agency and the military PLA Daily, alongside local and foreign social platforms to disseminate overt enemy-deterring propaganda. At the same time, China is covertly trying to “design” China-friendly political, military, societal, and economic spheres within specific countries, especially the key Western players, including Israel, which is targeted as a fountainhead of technological innovation. Recent reports by leading US civilian think tanks highlight the PLA’s commitment to improving its psychological warfare capabilities and predict that an elevated level of general disinformation, accompanied by messages tailored for key groups, such as senior political and military leaders, service members and their families, and base-hosting communities, will characterize any future kinetic exchanges between the US and China.

Similarly, neighboring North Korea allocates a significant share of its scarce resources in developing information warfare doctrine, tactics, and tools, including those dedicated to waging psychological offensives against regional players, the West, and the international community in general. The ultimate goal of these North Korean offensives is to stifle the adversaries’ political resolve to initiate military actions against the Kim Jong-Un regime.

Iran and Islamist Terror Groups: Influence Weapons in the Service of Jihad

Iran is fully aware of the strategic advantages of the ongoing information revolution in military affairs and is devoting growing attention, energy, and resources, as well as intellectual, organizational, and technical efforts to improve its doctrines and capabilities in the sphere of information warfare (jang-e narm or “soft war”).

Tehran’s goals in conducting its influence operations abroad in peacetime are multiple: promoting the export of the Islamic revolution and elevating its interpretation of the Shiite mission in the world; securing a safe passage for the Iranian nuclear program, by deterring regional and international state rivals—especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US—from attacking the Islamic Republic; dividing and demoralizing rival societies; defending Shiite populations across the Middle East while supporting proxies, such as the Iraqi Shiite militias, Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and finally assisting the cross-border covert and overt activities of the Iranian Quds Force (QF), an elite military and intelligence entity affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 2021, special reports by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned of an increase in Iranian psychological operations both in Israel and the Gaza Strip, conducted in part through the IRGC. Among Israelis, such activity is aimed at fuelling internal conflicts over controversial issues and emphasizing Iran’s strategic superiority, whereas among the Palestinians, Iran sought to politically radicalize them and exploit them for geopolitical purposes.

In wartime, it is expected that intensive psychological warfare, inseparable from Iranian military efforts, will target the enemy’s moral strength and political will in continuing the hostilities (The head of Iran’s National Security Council has recently picked up the habit of tweeting in Hebrew to gain Israeli attention). The influence tools at the Iranians’ disposal are numerous, ranging from the official media platforms, social networks, religious-cultural centers abroad, and unattributed cyberattacks, to the covert, semi-covert or overt violent actions, including terror, commando raids, and drone or missile strikes, performed by the QF/IRGC and/or its different regional partners. Western scholars have indicated that Tehran regularly and increasingly practices psychological operations and has no compunction about disseminating falsehoods or manipulating information. Some of their activities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and even more remote geographical areas such as Latin America are considered highly effective.

Multiple violent non-state actors, including the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hamas (who in recent rounds used the social networks to sow fear in Israeli society), and, above all, Hezbollah, have also fully entered the era of the information revolution in military affairs. Inspired by their Iranian patron’s successful example, the last two movements are actively guided and supported by Tehran, both doctrinally, technically, and operationally. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have invested significant resources in developing a military doctrine that embraces conventional and psychological warfare, establishing a professional mechanism of psychological operations, and integrating them tightly into the organizations’ broader combat and intelligence architecture.

Since the beginning of the current century, during the rounds of open military hostilities with Israel, both Hamas and Hezbollah tailored many of their combat actions to the media. Fighting units are usually deployed with cameramen. The footage is carefully edited to give the impression that the Islamists are doing better on the battlefield than the Israelis and it is widely broadcast. Recently, Hamas, equipped with professional propaganda apparatus and supported by private “online influence fighters,” has made effective psychological use of launching rockets and incendiary balloons into Israeli territory. Demonizing the Jewish state both regionally and internationally, counteracting what they see as Zionist propaganda, and at times (at least according to their own perception) even degrading the IDF’s will to fight have been remarkable achievements for the Lebanese and Palestinian guerrillas on the psychological battleground and have played a crucial role in narrowing the gap in their strategic capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.

The United States and Its Allies: Problems of Underestimating, Underfunding, and Multiple Constraints

While it does have a sophisticated PSYOP function, the US military often seems frustrated in the face of the progress that the influence revolution in military affairs is apparently making among its state adversaries and non-state actors. Big military apparatuses, meticulously elaborated combat doctrines, and vast stocks of the most advanced weapons have not spared the US and its allies the painful strategic fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor have they been successful in preventing Russia and China’s military, cyber, espionage, and influence activism worldwide and even on US sovereign territory.

Sporadic Western ad hoc initiatives in the field of psychological warfare—in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—as well as the growing understanding by Western security and academic communities of adversarial conduct in the influence sphere have yet to be translated into the West’s own culture, concept, and practice of managing kinetic-psychological strategic offensives. It is therefore not surprising that the ability of Western armies to withstand hostile psychological actions from abroad is also underdeveloped. A series of recent Western academic reports on this issue argue that efforts to man, train, and equip forces for counter-disinformation remain ad hoc, service-dependent, and exhibit ambiguous effects. Western scholars in the field point to various possible reasons for this weakness, from poor understanding of the growing significance of psychological operations that results in weak theoretical development and underfunding, to obvious and profound differences in legal and moral constraints that prevent Western state actors from behaving in the sphere of influence like Russia, North Korea, or Iran, let alone the Islamic State.

The US ally that I am most familiar with—Israel—is dedicating thought and resources to the challenge of conducting effective influence operations. Since the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community have recognized the appearance of a new sphere of encounter, beyond that of the classical kinetic combat—“the battle over consciousness” (ha-ma‘aracha ‘al ha-toda‘a)—and understood its challenges and advantages. The IDF created a special function for “consciousness operations,” aimed at shaping opinions and attitudes toward Israel’s military actions among enemy forces, other Middle Eastern players, as well as Western and global audiences. Besides official warnings sent to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran through the Israeli and regional non-Hebrew media channels, constant messaging is directed at the broader international community, including foreign civil and military leaders, diplomats, the press, and the greater public. Much emphasis has been placed on coordinating the organizational, operational, and technological efforts throughout “all of government,” the civil and security authorities alike, to avoid delivering mismatched messages.

Still, within the “classical” Israeli military establishment, there is constant and significant opposition to Israel’s entering the era of the informational revolution in military affairs. The new trend of focusing on psychological warfare has been criticized for promising far more than its real strategic capabilities can deliver. As a result, the new unit of “consciousness operations” and the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit—while attempting to accompany every military operation with its own, specially tailored, psychological warfare program—are frequently marginalized and sometimes even accused of wasting vital military resources. This may be why Israel still often loses to its non-state foes in a fierce competition for psychological superiority as well as regional and world support. Israel also seems unprepared to deal with the growing Russian and Chinese psychological assertiveness in the Middle East in general and in Israeli society specifically.

Conclusion: It Is Time for the US and Its Allies to Regain Psychological Superiority

Since the beginning of the current century, we have been witnessing the ongoing rise of the influence revolution in military affairs. Psychological warfare has become the principal tool for winning both broad strategic competitions and military encounters between state and/or non-state actors. By wisely assessing and effectively pursuing strategic, operational, and tactical influence goals, such networks—especially those supported by their own side’s cyber and limited but purposive kinetic activities—can simultaneously impact the enemy’s international environment, attitudes of the general populace, economic infrastructures, ruling elites, and armed forces, thus compelling the opposing side’s decision makers to stop fighting and surrender or retreat.

At present, adversarial states and non-state actors seem to benefit from the influence revolution in military affairs, while the achievements in the field by the US and its allies are much less impressive. Fruitful Russian and Chinese investments in strategic and military influence worldwide—as well as the same trend in Iran and among the Islamist terrorist and guerrilla organizations—seem to face no serious competition from the US and its allies, where attempts to improve local psychological warfare capabilities suffer from insufficient political support and funding, voluntary moral and legal constraints, and serious resistance from conservative military establishments.

To effectively overcome these obstacles, Western political and military decision makers must finally realize the paramount strategic threat posed by hostile advances on the psychological front and adapt to this new reality—with all its challenges and advantages—by making the necessary theoretical, doctrinal, organizational, technological, and legal adjustments. Among the urgently needed measures are the creation in the US and key allied countries—and in alliance  structures—of authorities capable of effectively fusing together the psychological, kinetic, and cyber types of warfare; the coordination of policies among allies; the creation at both national and international levels of networked public and private bodies and their adequate funding; academic instruction in psychological warfare; its constant study; and the training and employment of specialists in psychological operations who can foil their impact.

Yaacov Falkov
Dr. Yaacov Falkov is a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya). A former senior analyst at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, he holds a Ph.D. in history from Tel Aviv University and is the author of several books on the history and theory of guerrilla warfare, underground resistance, diplomacy, and intelligence.
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