Psyops – old knowledge in new form saves lives

Psyops, psychological operations, is a relatively new activity for the Swedish Armed Forces. With Sweden’s expanded commitments in international contexts, however, it has now become a self-evident part of operations, even though it sounds mystical and almost secret.

Perhaps it was the Vikings who were the first to conduct psychological operations. Psyops officer David Bergman returns to the source – a rune stone more than a thousand years old. Photo: Sven-Åke Haglund/FBB

The head of the psyops unit within NBG is lieutenant commander and reserve officer Anders Johansson, who agrees that the unit’s operations need to be made less dramatic.

“There are people who call our corridor in the barracks at the Command Regiment the secret corridor,” says Anders, explaining that while these operations may be relatively new in Sweden, other countries, such as the US and the UK, have been using such methods for a long time.

Anders Johansson is an instructor and researcher in crisis and conflict communications at the National Defence College. He has a master’s degree in media and communication science, which is valuable, since psychological operations are a science in their own right. His expertise was augmented at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Centre in Fort Bragg.

Well educated
The academic level in this unit is unusually high. “Most have two or more areas of expertise,” relates Lieutenant David Bergman, who has both a master’s degree in psychology and psyop training from Fort Bragg. The troop’s personnel were recruited in part from Radio Sweden, SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster and private radio broadcasters. What then is psyops?

Shaping attitudes
“Put simply, psyops is about shaping feelings, attitudes and behaviour in a favourable direction for the mission,” explains Anders Johansson. “Such operations are relatively new in Sweden but an established science in the US and the UK, for example.”

“The Nordic people may have been first, however,” jokes David Bergman. “Just look at the rune stones. The Vikings were very skilled at sending out messages about their own prowess and the more limited abilities of their opponents.”

Lowering combat morale
One example of how psyops can be used is through the ability via information initiatives to unite and strengthen a target group that is considered to be friendly or neutral.

“Psyops can also be intended to cause division with the objective of lowering combat morale and dejection in a hostile target group. That tactic was used by the US in the Gulf War,” says David Bergman.

Psyop actions may never be used against a force’s own troops or population. “A basic tenet of all behavioural science is to maintain the receiver’s perspective, if you want to get a message across, and to think about what knowledge the recipient would like to assimilate, rather than what we want to say,” continues David Bergman,

Own radio station
The methods for psychological operations are many. The collective media expertise in the troop is extensive.

“We don’t have our own equipment for TV broadcasts, but in other respects, we can do almost everything, distribute flyers, print newspapers and posters, transmit radio broadcasts from our own radio station and make announcement via loudspeakers.

“All the technical aids notwithstanding, nothing compares with personal meetings,” says Anders Johansson.

Both he and David Bergman emphasize the importance of psyops in modern warfare or in areas dependent on peace-promoting initiatives.

Saving lives
Anders Johansson relates how a well-implemented psychological operation can save lives. “By telling the local population why NBG is on the scene, who we are and what military power we possess, for example, we can create calm conditions that would be difficult to achieve by other means.”

Text: Rolf Arsenius