Revisionist powers like China and Russia seek to expand their influence without reaching the threshold of armed conflict—they are changing the character of war. Using information as their primary instrument of national power, they continuously reveal that information often wields more influence over humans than bombs and bullets.
Our national leadership acknowledged this trend in 2018, defining great-power competition as the primary U.S. national security concern in both the National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy. If we take this threat seriously, it stands to reason we should have strategic leaders who spend their careers wielding influence and information as their primary weapons system.
However, as of October, none of the Army’s 311 active-duty general officers were drawn from psychological operations (PSYOP), to include the 153 brigadier generals. Why? In such a turbulent time, dominated by information, why does the Army not have one active-duty PSYOP general officer in its ranks?
As information warfare becomes more the norm in how states interact and attempt to influence one another in the modern-day Westphalian system, it may be time to reassess the road to Army generalship.
With its nearly 246-year history and service to the American people, how the Army selects its general officers is very much a reflection of its culture and values, with a premium placed on command experience and operational success.
According to a 2020 Rand Corp. report, “Raising the Flag: Implications of U.S. Military Approaches to General and Flag Officer Development,” the most important factors in promotion to brigadier general in the Army are command experience, combat-related deployments, high-visibility assignments (following brigade command), personnel-based leadership and personal networks.
Command experience and high-visibility assignments have been shown to be two of the most influential factors associated with becoming a general officer.
Regarding command experience, the path to general can be traditional or nontraditional, with the traditional path being the most common. The traditional path places heavy emphasis on command, specifically, battalion and brigade command. Although successful brigade command is a significant discriminator in selection to brigadier general, so, too, is the type of command, with the brigade combat team considered the most valued. These formations are only led by officers from infantry and armor.
Interestingly, those two branches also make up the highest percentage of colonels who go on to make brigadier general. Although PSYOP officers follow the traditional path and compete for promotion within the operations career management field, which also includes infantry, armor, field artillery, air defense artillery, aviation, engineers, military police, chemical, Special Forces and civil affairs, they are disadvantaged in the current promotion system because they do not command a brigade combat team.
The other factor heavily influencing promotion to brigadier general is an officer’s assignment immediately following brigade command. Colonels who move to “high-visibility” assignments after brigade command have a markedly higher propensity to be chosen for brigadier general.
This is because those positions result in substantial interaction with general officers, which in turn perpetuates network development and advocacy. This increased visibility, network development and advocacy is critical as general officer promotion boards are both led and staffed by general officers.
Obtaining a Billet
There are two ways the PSYOP branch could obtain a billet from the Army. The first is a “zero growth” scenario; the second is “out of hide,” so to speak.
In the first scenario, another unit in the Army would have to surrender a billet so PSYOP could receive one. This scenario is almost never preferred.
The second scenario is directly from DoD.
According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service in February 2019, DoD maintains a number of general and flag officers (G/FOs) lower than the maximum statutory cap. This practice provides “DoD flexibility to respond to new requirements for G/FOs without the delays caused by the need to find an ‘offset’ by downgrading or eliminating another G/FO position,” the report says.
In other words, billets are authorized and held in reserve until a contingency or requirement presents itself. Considering the current and increased information threat to U.S. interests, now may be one of those occasions.
The Rand report addresses this point eloquently when it states, “Given the uncertainty of future challenges, it is impossible to know the precise characteristics and perspectives that might define highly effective military leaders years from now. However, the pivotal changes in the nature of strategic competition, the increasing adaptability required to counter U.S. adversaries, and the critical roles that G/FOs play in the design and execution of U.S. national security strategy give reason to ask: Are the military leaders being developed today the ones we will need in the future? This is a critical question to consider so that the services do not find themselves applying today’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems.”
Finding the Best Fit
There have been few instances when a PSYOP officer was promoted to general officer. However, the Army announced in November that a U.S. Army Reserve PSYOP officer from the 2nd Psychological Operations Group was selected for brigadier general. Assuming an active-duty PSYOP officer is also selected for brigadier general in the near future, the question to ask is: Where should that potential billet reside?
The most logical place to start would be in the operational force with the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne). Currently, there are three general officer billets within the command: commanding general (major general), deputy commanding general-operations (brigadier general) and deputy commanding general-influence (brigadier general). Considering the command structure, it would make sense to place a PSYOP officer in the deputy commanding general-influence billet.
Similarly, a PSYOP officer could also fill the position of the same name at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, ensuring curricula are updated and paying appropriate attention to the role of influence on the modern battlefield.
However, to gain the most immediate and longest-lasting effects from a PSYOP general, the Army could convert the joint information operations positions at geographic combatant commands to brigadier billets. Geographic combatant command commanders on the front lines of great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific and European regions would be better served by a true influence and information professional managing the geographic combatant commands’ information-related capabilities and directly advising the commander as they seek to thwart and overmatch Russia and China’s informational power.
Finally, converting the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Joint Military Information Support Operations Web Operations Center director position to a brigadier billet provides the Special Operations Command commander the same expert PSYOP advice to counter global adversarial influence as equivalent geographic combatant command commanders would have for their regional adversaries.
Need for Change
In 2018, the National Defense Strategy explicitly sought to prioritize capabilities to better gain and exploit information and influence. However, two years since its publication and despite the increased weaponization of information by revisionist powers, infantry and armor officers still comprise nearly 30% of the brigadier general population.
As the world moves toward a more information-dominant future, the U.S. Army will need more senior leaders who are seasoned and adept at gathering, managing and weaponizing information against our adversaries. PSYOP officers can provide these requisite skills and bolster the Army’s information capability at the most senior levels—an area where the U.S. government is woefully behind compared to its adversaries.
Although the information paradigm shift is well underway, it is not too late for Army leadership to rethink and restructure senior-level staffing to give the U.S. a fighting chance at information advantage and dominance in the contemporary security environment.
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Brig. Gen. Harrison Gilliam is deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Previous assignments include commander, Special Operations Detachment-Europe and commander, European Engagement Group, Stuttgart, Germany; director of operations, Joint Operations Directorate, West Virginia National Guard; and director, Joint Staff, West Virginia National Guard.
Maj. Stuart Gallagher is chief, Plans and Analysis, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Previous assignments include senior psychological operations observer coach/trainer, Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Hohenfels, Germany; commander, Company B, 6th PSYOP Battalion, Fort Bragg; and military adviser to the U.S. State Department.
Maj. Anthony Wertz is deputy director for engagement, Commander’s Initiatives Group, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Previous assignments include battalion operations officer and commander, Company C, 8th Psychological Operations Battalion (Airborne), Fort Bragg; deputy director and PSYOP representative to Tribal Engagement Coordination Cell, U.S. Embassy, Baghdad; and Military Information Support Operations officer in charge and special operations forces liaison element commander, U.S. Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria.