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Document created: 1 December 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2005

Air & Space Power Journal


Emergent Capability

Influence Operations and the Strategic Airman

Lt Col Shaun Copelin, USAF
Lt Col Andre Provoncha, USAF, Retired

In just over 30 days, the US armed forces swiftly and skillfully defeated a proven threat to the Middle East and US national interests.1 Operation Iraqi Freedom validated the doctrine and methods of conventional modern warfare. Yet, senior military officers observe that although the campaign showcased brilliant technological capabilities, crisis-action planning did not adequately address the need to engage the people of Iraq in the postconflict phase. Additionally, campaign planners failed to draw upon unconventional doctrine and methods in support of US interests.2 Deliberate planning also fell short of fulfilling the national military strategy of fostering an environment for long-term stability in the region. Recent official reports and media stories from the field comment on the severe lack of resourcing for planning efforts aimed at postcombat activities, most of which included information operations, civil affairs, cultural awareness, and intelligence. These reports suggest that establishing cultural relevancy at the strategic through tactical levels of planning and applying it across the spectrum of conflict are key to engaging and advancing objectives within a given targeted group. Current operations, however, might have little effect on realizing long-term objectives because of the lack of trained, experienced, culturally relevant planners. Challenges facing the Air Force in building its future force include acquiring a wider understanding of influence operations, learning the nature of these operations, placing Airmen at the center of successful operations, and providing the tools of war necessary for victory.

Understanding Air Force
Influence Operations

The largely democratic and capitalistic systems that emerged in Europe following World War II do not owe their existence to the defeat of Germany alone. Instead, they benefited greatly from the Marshall Plan, a noble and ambitious program invested heavily in engaging local, national, and international entities—all influenced by American leadership. Military forces exerted much of that influence. Does the Air Force have the capabilities to produce the same effect today?

Current Air Force information-operations doctrine captures the influence-operations capabilities needed to meet the challenge of cultural aspects in warfare.3 Both joint and service doctrine define and codify information operations, which complement air, land, sea, and space power. Although these operations address a range of activities, influence operations, for the Air Force, constitute a principal subset of battlespace effects in the cognitive domain. Influence operations employ capabilities that affect behaviors, force the adversary to misallocate forces, protect operations, communicate the commander’s intent, and project accurate information to achieve desired effects across the battlespace. Furthermore, they involve the integrated planning, employment, and assessment of psychological operations, military deception, counterintelligence, counterpropaganda, public affairs, and operations security to gain superiority over the adversary’s decision process and disrupt his control of his forces. After developing target sets that affect key decision makers, influence planners then pair Air Force capabilities with those sets to change the behavior of the intended receiver. Photos of bomb craters and destroyed targets do not represent victory—capitulation of the adversary does. In the lexicon of influence operations, a change in observed behavior defines victory—not well-crafted messages or delivered information.

The Nature of
Influence Operations

When the US military engages in force-on-force operations, combat victory is a virtual certainty. Nevertheless, wars are not won solely by placing bombs on target but by achieving national and strategic objectives during all phases of the campaign. Many military members believe that combat operations end with a cessation of hostilities. However, the lion’s share of achieving national objectives involves operations by agencies other than the Department of Defense (DOD). Few would dispute the military’s critical role in creating an environment for successful postcombat operations, and the DOD does indeed remain a vital participant following hostilities. Yet, the focus at this time must shift to civil affairs. Although the restoration of infrastructure plays an important role in fulfilling campaign objectives, investment in engaging cultures provides long-term stability and growth. It is culture that binds victor to vanquished. People whose political and economic systems have undergone forcible alteration require guidance, dedicated support, and outside resources. The victors have an obligation to supply culturally relevant guidance, dedicated support, and resources. Less certain, however, is the extent to which the military contributes to precombat operations designed to shape an environment conducive to achieving national goals. Traditionally, it has focused on operations during and following combat.

One finds the best example of the application of influence operations in a report entitled Towards a Free and Democratic Iraq, which recommends methods of achieving a growing economy and democratic political system in that country. Citing the lack of trained and experienced personnel to apply relevant capabilities, the report notes that “[DOD] influence operations . . . have not succeeded in convincing the Iraqi people of the true purpose and character of American efforts . . . in [Iraqi Freedom].”4 By contrast, insurgents have had a significant influence on US audiences, as noted during a hearing before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia in April 2002.5 Jihadists have learned that culturally relevant propaganda can erode US public support for operations in Iraq.

The stark contrast between the effects of combat operations and those of influence operations became evident during the Abu Ghraib prison debacle in Iraq. That scandal, as well as the growing number of noncombatant deaths recorded by the media worldwide, causes both the “Arab Street” and some US citizens to believe there is little distinction between coalition policy and criminal acts committed by rogue military members. How could trained and experienced influence-operations planners and practitioners anticipate—even preempt—certain audiences’ misperceptions of events as related to intended effects or objectives?

Strategic Airmen

What is the link between pursuing national objectives and influencing a targeted group? Moreover, what is the nature of the relationship between US military personnel and strategic impact? We may find the answer in the concept of the “strategic Airman.” All Air Force members should understand that the messages they communicate and the actions they take lead to strategic, operational, and tactical effects. Even actions by relatively junior military personnel can have a long-term, significant impact. As Gen Matthew B. Ridgway, US Army, stated during the Korean War, “The soldier is the statesman’s junior partner.”6 Actions taken by operators at the tactical level of war represent the entire American military and are extensions of US foreign policy. Ultimately, however, the influence-operations planner, working for the combatant commander, is responsible for building and executing a culturally relevant plan that enhances and contributes to the achievement of national objectives in any given theater. Ideally, well-crafted and well-coordinated efforts of Airmen at all levels and during all phases of operations should contribute to the achievement of national objectives. The more realistic approach would require the Air Force to employ deliberate and crisis-action planners as well as tactical-execution units that engage in culturally relevant operations. Operational planners who engage all target sets must have a clear understanding of the cultural terrain, just as tactical units must understand the linkage among objectives, operations, and cultural effects. Consistent and accurate cultural training is essential in the modern influence-operations battlespace.

Tools of War

The DOD needs to invest in operational planners and intelligence analysts who have in-depth training in the cultures in which operations occur. The Air Force must build a force capable of planning for and conducting culturally relevant activities at all levels and during all phases of theater operations. Currently the Air Force conducts influence operations geared toward such relevance. Yet, the information-warfare flights that include these planners are neither fully trained for nor-actively engaged in their assigned cultures. Furthermore, the Air Force, as well as the other services and joint staff, does not have adequate resources to build and sustain an influence-operations force. Services lack a single, consistent, accurate, and responsive cultural-awareness training program that would assure successful influence operations. Although several joint and service courses exist, the training reaches only a small segment of the total force and emphasizes predeployment scenarios. Does the Air Force have a stated need for such training? The vetted information--operations requirements for cultural-awareness training found in the prioritized-needs summary of the Air Force’s Information Operations Capabilities Plan for fiscal year 2008 include the following: integrating training in information-operations awareness into initial accession training at all levels; developing research in human vulnerabilities to support Air Force operations; producing culturally relevant communication and interaction tools to research the public-information environment as well as cultures in the joint-operation area to best support public-affairs operations; and creating an expert cadre of agents to support assessments of human vulnerability.

Successful prosecution of the global war on terrorism demands that we maintain a culturally aware fighting force. The Air Force, therefore, faces a fundamental challenge in successfully conducting the combatant commander’s influence operations in a particular theater because it must provide trained experts who understand and continuously apply the social and cultural norms that define the target audience’s mind-set. Creating the proper mind-set for the strategic Airman, then, depends upon linking requirements with a rigorous, dynamic training program that includes cultural scholars, experienced interagency officials, and officers from sister services who have experience in-theater.

Even though criticism from academics and others may lead to an understanding of the complexity of the modern combat environment, we should remember Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s comment that “credit goes to the man in the arena.”7 People with experience in the combat arena believe that winning wars requires an understanding of cultural relevancy. The responsibility for applying that relevancy to any conflict rests with well-trained and experienced influence operators. Thus, an influence-operations force composed of strategic Airmen must become an essential element of future joint operations, and creating those Airmen will make influence operations a reality for the United States Air Force.


1. Major combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom began on 20 March 2003 when coalition forces invaded Iraq and concluded on 1 May 2003 with an announcement from Pres. George W. Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Pres. George W. Bush, “President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended” (Washington, DC: US Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, 1 May 2003), http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/20203.htm.

2. Maj Gen Robert H. Scales Jr., US Army, retired, “Culture-Centric Warfare,” US Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2004, n.p.

3. See Air Force Doctrine Document 2-5, Information Operations, 11 January 2005.

4. Towards a Free and Democratic Iraq: Organizing, Training and Equipping to Optimize Influence Operations in the Iraq Theater of Operations, White Paper (Langley AFB, VA: Headquarters Air Combat Command, July 2004), 3–6.

5. Words Have Consequences: The Impact of Incitement and Anti-American and Anti-Semitic Propaganda on American Interests in the Middle East. A Hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the Committee on International Relations, 107th Cong., 2nd sess., 18 April 2002.

6. Newsletter, West Point Society of Southern Arizona, 2nd quarter 2002, http://home.earthlink.net/~web71/second02.html.

7. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” (speech, the Sorbonne, Paris, 23 April 1910).


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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