Understanding influence activities

The Canadian Forces lag behind many (if not all) our closest allies in the development of a capability which, in conflicts such as Afghanistan, seeks to bring influence to the forefront of campaign planning and execution.

While nations such as the U.K., U.S., Germany, Denmark, France and others, including NATO, have invested considerable resources into the development and implementation of influence and strategic communication (StratCom) – think of it as “operations in the information environment” – the CF has done little forces-wide to study, adapt and adopt the concept.

There are pockets of activity. The Influence Activities Task Force (IATF) at Land Force Doctrine and Training System headquarters in Kingston stands out as a leading initiative in this emerging area of operations. But throughout the CF the concept is little known and even less studied.

Every CF member should get interested, and quickly. To this end, I highly recommend Behavioural Conflict: Why Understanding People and Their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict.

The book is written by two seasoned British military officers, Army MGen Andrew Mackay, who commanded 52 Brigade in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and Navy Commander Steve Tatham, commanding officer of 15 PSYOPS Group, and is based on their work in preparing 52 Brigade to deploy to Helmand Province. While the authors discuss previous conflicts from the Balkans in the 1990s, to Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Gaza and the Iraq war, 52 Brigade’s ISAF deployment is the case study upon which the book revolves.

The forward is written by General Stanley McCrystal, who observes that “while commanding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, what I saw in the cities and countryside affirmed the importance of understanding local politics, individual needs, and communal motivations…Our actions, although well intentioned, were often ineffective, sometimes even counterproductive.”

Mackay and Tatham collaborated to do extensive Target Audience Analysis (TAA) of the local population with which their soldiers would interact. The goal was to understand the population as a group – not simply attitudes but also motivation – ultimately to design a campaign with a goal to change behaviour. And the behaviour they were seeking to change? Anything negatively impacting the mission, while prompting behaviour positively impacting the mission.

An important part of the campaign design was to delegate to the lowest level, the soldier, the ability to apply influence based on events, activities, sentiment and circumstances at play at the time.

The results suggest significant success. Using TAA as the basis for understanding societal motivation toward behavioural change, 52 Brigade, during its deployment, suffered 13 killed in action – .16 percent deaths in relation to the size of its deployment. Compare this to the percentage of deaths in U.K. deployments in the same area of responsibility before and after 52 Brigade: .73, .25, .43, .30, and .38 percent. 52 Brigade suffered half the deaths of some deployments, and as much as four times fewer deaths than others.

The fundamental premise of the book is that the extant practice of influence activities in particular, and StratCom more generally, being a second thought, an add-on, to kinetic operations maybe getting the whole thing wrong. Mackay and Tatham make a credible argument for influence-led operations of which kinetic operations are a part.

Behavioural Conflict has now become mandatory reading for all US Army Information Operations Officers. The CF should take notice.

LCol Rita LePage is the director of Public Affairs Operations (Military Strategic Communication) at ADM(PA), National Defence Headquarters, and has spent the past three years developing NATO’s Strategic Communication capability at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (

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