One of the most fundamental truths is that for any entity to thrive, it must be well suited to its surroundings. Should its environment change, an organism’s continued survival and reproduction is dependent on its ability to adapt in stride with these changes. Many species rewrite the rules of engagement to survive within a rapidly changing world, while the ones that don’t risk extinction. Facing the consequences of human overfishing and habitat degradation, orcas, for example, have ingeniously adapted their hunting techniques to the new environment. They now target great white sharks using swarm tactics and an uncanny knowledge of shark biology to stun their peer competitors. They have also developed other new tactics like sending waves onto icebergs, washing sea lions off the ice and into the ocean for an easier meal. In a critical period of crashing food populations in dynamic ecosystems, these maritime geniuses teach us an important lesson—you don’t assert your spot in the food chain by resisting necessary change.

In the wild, it’s evolve or die. For human organizations, it’s no different—a fundamental reality that underpins recent Department of Defense–directed force structure cuts and the implementation of 1st Special Forces Command’s integration policy. This integration policy—which will subordinate regionally aligned psychological operations and civil affairs battalions to Special Forces groups with the same regional focus—seeks to better match the command’s force structure with the shifting demands of contemporary warfare to ensure it remains agile, adaptive, and, most importantly, effective in the information domain. This has sparked ongoing debates with some information professionals viewing these developments as a threat to the importance and long-term survival of US Army psychological operations. But this interpretation misunderstands the dynamics at play: integration is an opportunity for Army psychological operations to evolve toward a stronger position within the broader special operations enterprise. The proposed cuts and integration efforts aren’t harbingers of decline, but rather potential catalysts for necessary adaptation and advancement. Instead of perceiving integration as a threat to its autonomy or identity, the Army’s psychological operations professionals should see this as an opportunity to enhance the branch’s effectiveness and subsequently increase its prominence in irregular warfare.

The Army’s special operations enterprise must evolve or die in order to be relevant in a future fight. This integration policy is a vital step in that evolution, one that will make the entire enterprise more cohesive while also enabling psychological operations forces to reestablish themselves as central pillars within the special operations bag of tricks. To do this, we emphasize three key points. First, unity of command—a long-standing principle of war—is essential for effective operations, especially against near-peer adversaries; the conditions of the modern battlefield require that Army special operations forces optimize their structure in accordance with this principle. Second, special operations forces operate on a merit-based system focused on mission success and effectiveness; to assert its merit and demonstrate its potential outsize impact in strategic competition, the psychological operations branch must modernize its abilities. Lastly, it is imperative that Special Forces commanders more actively engage in information warfare, but an ability to do so is predicated on successful implementation of the first two points.

Collectively, these adaptations would enable each of the Army’s special warfare tools (Special Forces, psychological operations, and civil affairs) to more seamlessly integrate their distinct contributions in alignment with the objectives set by the joint force commander. Importantly, this requires transcending lingering divisive narratives that promote tribalism within the special operations branches and impede their collective advantage.

Why Integration? Unit of Command/Unity of Effort

For years, Army special operations leaders have searched for ways to enhance the interoperability and cohesion of its Special Forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations units. They tried softer measures, such as directing combined training events or synchronizing deployment cycles, but partial measures only produce partial results. The integration policy is the most recent attempt to solve this issue. A comparatively full-strength measure, the policy assigned Special Forces groups operational control over their regionally aligned civil affairs and psychological operations battalions. Coupled with recent cuts to historically vacant Army psychological operations billets—driven by a service-wide process known as Total Army Analysis—implementation of the integration policy has spurred significant criticism.

A recent War On the Rocks contribution summarizes various critics’ opinions well; however, it, and other articles, mischaracterize decisions regarding Army force structure cuts and therefore misdiagnose issues related to the integration of psychological operations and Special Forces. Conversely, one of this article’s authors, an active duty Special Forces officer with over eighteen years of experience, brings firsthand knowledge of the policy’s development. In his view, the integration policy is not, as critics suggest, about “psychological operations and civil affairs’ continued relegation in the special operations hierarchy.” Instead, the policy is founded on a profound understanding of the potency and significance of psychological operations in irregular warfare.

A pivotal first step in realizing this vision is ensuring unity of commanda principle of war—which enables unity of effort. Integration is essential to military operations, making the cohesive coordination and alignment of all specialized units under the 1st Special Forces Command umbrella crucial. The objective is to achieve seamless unity of command and effort, ensuring that each component, including psychological operations and civil affairs, plays a significant and indispensable role. This approach recognizes the unique capabilities that psychological operations and civil affairs bring to the table and underscores their importance in mission success.

While all military functions are valuable, maneuver commands serve as operational nuclei across all echelons. They take many forms, but often look like joint and combined arms elements, such as company teams, special operations task forces, combatant commands, or even interagency elements. Maneuver commands bear the critical responsibility of prioritizing objectives, allocating resources, and assuming primary operational risk.

Maneuver commanders, including Special Forces officers, are trained early on to integrate and synchronize functions beyond single specialties to achieve unified objectives within their designated areas of operation. Joint force and theater special operations commanders expect Special Forces commanders at all levels to integrate enablers and adjacent functions to achieve theater objectives, regardless of formal or informal command-and-control relationships.

By contrast, supporting or enabling elements, like psychological operations units, are expected to integrate their plans, activities, and operations within the supported commander’s objectives. While some information professionals may resist the term enabler, psychological operations units function similarly to artillery, aviation, or engineers. These units are organized, trained, equipped, and employed, as Army doctrine describes, to “provide unique capabilities in support of both Army special operations maneuver units [and] conventional forces.”

Neglecting the pivotal role of maneuver commanders leads to disjointed operations and inefficiency. Critics, meme lords, and bloggers often portray psychological operations as perpetual victims of Special Forces and special mission unit commanders. They insinuate the existence of a secret agenda aimed at undermining the psychological operations branch and denying it rightful prominence. These critics propagate a zero-sum mentality, suggesting that any funding, resources, or power accrued by Special Forces inherently detracts from psychological operations or civil affairs. At best, these narratives are unproductive; at worst, they foster division and undermine morale. Admittedly, these critics echo the sentiments of many psychological operations professionals.

We maintain a straightforward perspective—the special operations enterprise functions as a meritocracy, assessing organizations based on their effectiveness and contributions to mission success. We urge PSYOP professionals to question whether they are truly delivering the capabilities that the SOF enterprise requires. Integrating more cohesively within the enterprise offers improved opportunities for innovation and the subsequent cultivation of only the most impactful information capabilities; it also allows psychological operations units to demonstrate their unique capabilities and showcase their contributions to mission success. In turn, this will enable the psychological operations branch to address core issues—from understaffing and underresourcing to any perceived lack of organizational influence.

Embracing Modernization: Adapting, not Dying

In today’s resource-constrained environment, psychological operations must embrace change and modernize to excel. Joint and Army special operations leaders increasingly expect psychological operations to integrate a broader spectrum of US information-related capabilities beyond traditional functions. This includes leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning for enhanced sentiment analysis, messaging development, and decision-making processes to attain information advantages at scale.

There’s a growing demand for influence forces capable of precisely targeting key adversary decision-makers and cognitive nodes, rather than broadcasting messages broadly in hopes of achieving desired effects. Realizing this targeted approach requires dedicated intelligence resources and collaboration with joint and interagency partners, such as US Cyber Command.

Leaders also seek dynamic information forces capable of near-real-time engagement with the information environment, but current approval frameworks hinder this capability.

Realizing several Army special operations priorities is crucial for cultivating these essential capabilities. This includes the full establishment of the Information Warfare Center, deliberate development of advanced psychological operations training courses at the future PSYWAR School at Fort Liberty, and the implementation of the recently unveiled integration framework. We believe these adaptations could enhance psychological operations’ utility to maneuver commanders and elevate the branch’s organizational standing within the Army and the joint force.

Furthermore, earlier and more frequent integration with Special Forces maneuver units can foster greater cultural assimilation and enhance psychological operations’ perceived effectiveness. Over the long term, such effective adaptations can lead to improved opportunities for career advancement, recognition, and resource allocation within the Army special operations community.

How Special Forces Commanders Can Help

The success of integration relies on mutual collaboration, an area where Special Forces commanders play a critical role in several key ways. Firstly, at all levels, they must deliberately integrate psychological operations and civil affairs into their routine systems and processes. Overcoming the obstacle of geographical separation between many psychological operations battalions and the Special Forces groups they’re aligned with becomes imperative. Special Forces units must actively engage psychological operations commanders and staffs in their battle rhythms—weekly meetings, operational planning events, and staff dialogue.

Secondly, Special Forces commanders must clearly communicate their expectations regarding the role and objectives of psychological operations within their collective activities. This involves identifying gaps in influence capability or areas where psychological operations support can have a significant impact. Simply instructing them to just do psychological operations things is insufficient. Special Forces commanders must move beyond vague directives and provide specific guidance on how psychological operations can contribute to achieving mission success. Over time, the collective body of Special Forces commanders must refine and adapt their understanding of psychological operations’ capabilities to facilitate more purposeful integration.

Lastly, at the headquarters level, US Army Special Operations Command must develop a comprehensive force presentation model that outlines how theater special operations commands can effectively employ all Army special operations functions under a unified Army special operations commander. This plan should also include strategies to enhance the use of portions battalion and brigade psychological operations and civil affairs headquarters. While critical in psychological operations doctrine, these components typically remain undeployed, except in times of conflict.

Better integrating psychological operations into the Army special operations framework offers an opportunity to address pressing challenges while boosting the effectiveness of both psychological operations and Special Forces units. Integration promotes a deeper understanding of capabilities and constraints, fostering greater interoperability and synchronization. This enables both forces to evolve together to meet the demands of modern warfare.

The 1st Special Forces Command’s integration policy transcends mere consolidation of special operations units; it aims to enhance overall operational effectiveness. It stresses the importance of each component, including psychological operations, in contributing meaningfully to mission success. Integration presents a pivotal moment for the psychological operations branch to redefine its role within the special operations community. By embracing modernization and seamless integration, psychological operations can reaffirm its significance within the Army special operations enterprise and enhance its effectiveness and prominence in irregular warfare. The time for evolution is now, and through strategic adaptation, psychological operations can emerge stronger and more indispensable than ever.

A substantial investment in integrating psychological operations into Special Forces, including resources and personnel, isn’t just a choice—it’s a strategic imperative. With its status as the largest near-peer rival and the richest challenger the United States has ever faced, China’s growth demands a concentrated effort due to the scarcity of both resources and time. Both China and Russia have strategically integrated modern information warfare into their military strategies, reshaping engagement protocols. As competition intensifies, the ability to discern and counter rival narratives in the information sphere will significantly impact global outcomes.

For the United States, the crucial question is how best to adapt and seize the initiative in information warfare from adversaries. Integration offers a pragmatic response to evolving threats, ensuring a strategic advantage against advanced information warfare strategies employed by formidable opponents.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Hoelscher is an Army Special Forces officer with significant special operations experience in the Middle East. He is the program officer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department in Monterey, California and holds a master’s degree from the same program. He most recently served as the G35 director at 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), where he led the team responsible for global force management and development of the command’s strategic operating guidance.

Dr. Siamak Tundra Naficy is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of Defense Analysis. An anthropologist with an interdisciplinary approach to social, biological, psychological, and cultural issues, his interests range from the anthropological approach to conflict theory to wicked problems, sacred values, cognitive science, and animal behavior.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Department of the Navy and the Naval Postgraduate School.

Image credit: Cynthia McIntyre, US Army