Communications operations are conducted at two distinct yet inter-related levels: The strategic level and the tactical level.
At the strategic level, Strategic Communications Operations (SCOs) or STRATCOM, also referred to as Strategic Information Operations, is nothing new in the “war of words” to discredit, demoralise and/or disrupt an opponent and boost the morale of the citizens and own forces. It can even be used to turn a legitimate organisation into an illegitimate organisation. But, the converse is also true: it can turn an illegitimate action into a legitimate action.
At this level, these operations entail more than simple rumour-mongering. They are used to give a government or a force an advantage in their fight against a real or perceived enemy. But they ought to include white, grey and black propaganda in such a manner that the receiver (reader, listener or watcher) at a minimum becomes aware of the message and at best, believes it.
In South Africa, and indeed in Africa, we witness the use of SCOs or propaganda warfare on a daily basis – as well as its effects. Some of it is actually quite good. Some of it is rather pathetic. But, despite my opinion of it, it still reaches many people out there and ultimately, it is the people who decide on how this will influence their lives – or react to it.
The result of all of this is, when comparing the West to the East, is that the US’s AFRICOM is now seen by many in Africa as a wolf in a sheep’s clothing and the Chinese as a sheep in a wolf’s clothing. That in itself shows the effect of these types of operations. It also shows how these types of operations can backfire on the originators.
Truth be told, these operations are financially very expensive. As an example, the US military has spent in excess of US$ 1 billion the past three years in Iraq and Afghanistan alone in trying to counter its enemies there. The result of these operations remains debateable.
Just as warfare has certain primary and dynamic principles, so too do SCO’s have primary and dynamic principles.
The first principle is, in fact, something Sun Tzu penned more than two and a half thousand years ago:
“Know your enemy, know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster”
To succeed with any SCO, an intimate knowledge of the enemy or target group is required. If this is knowledge is not present, any hoped for success will remain that – hoped for.
Knowing the “enemy” – or the target audience – will determine such basics as what language the message needs to be transmitted in. Paid-for news articles, advertisements, billboards, radio and television programmes, and even polls and pressure groups need to promote their messages in a language that everyone (or at least the vast majority) will understand. But, language is not the only criterion that is of great importance: culture, beliefs, level of education and so forth all determine how the message should be packaged in order to achieve maximum success.
I am reminded of a foreign company that wrote to me claiming they had a contract to “do Africa” and asked if I could recommend someone who spoke “African”. This is a basic example of how misinformed many are. When these companies get involved in SCOs, the end-result can only be terrifying at best.
The second principle of these types of operations is centralised control. Without centralised control, everyone will be developing and preparing their own uncoordinated messages and subsequently, these messages will clash with one another and render the entire operation a waste of time and money. They will also show that they are simply part of a (poorly) planned operation and therefore lose any potential value they may have had.
How the information will be packaged is likewise very important. The best message, poorly packaged will be poorly received. Incorrect packaging of the message serves no purpose if it will never reach the intended audience or target, let alone achieve the desired effect.
Furthermore, pro-active planning is critical in achieving success. In order to gain the initiative and maintain it, plans need to be formulated well in advance and those plans must be based on intelligence (reality) and not on perceived reality.
SCOs can also used to negate High-Value Targets (HVTs) or turn their followers against them. Again, detailed intelligence, coordination of effort, packaging and pro-active planning is critical to success.
At the tactical level, these operations used to be known as Communications Operations or COMOPS. At this level, the aim is to meet and discuss issues of mutual importance with the village elders and provide much needed assistance and support to the villagers in the Area of Responsibility. In essence, this is the “hearts-and-minds” war and many a young South African soldier can testify in having partaken in such operations.
It is here that, should any semblance of success be wished for, the tribal customs, beliefs and traditions be known, understood and applied by those conducting the COMOPS. It is at this level that vital information and intelligence is gathered and the support of the local population is either won or lost. If the battle is lost at this level, the gunfights that follow will bring about nothing but a hollow victory.
Those that plan these operations, especially at the strategic level, have so much technology at hand – mobile phones, blogs, social networks and so forth – that they have no excuse for their poor performance.
But looking at what is going on around me, I have to ask if these operations are successful. They present a golden opportunity to the user if correctly planned, packaged and executed but when they are haphazardly implemented, they cause more damage than good.