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Terrorism is a psychological operation. This is a critical distinction and must be understood to fully realize that terrorists cannot destroy the United States. The goal of the terrorist is to intimidate—to instill fear and coerce a response from the target. Fear and coercion occurs in the psyche. The intent of the 9/11 attacks was not to collapse two, three or four buildings and kill several thousand people. The intent of the attack was to showcase an ability to attack the United States in the United States, to instill a sense of fear and intimidation and illicit a response based on historical observation. The basic principle of a psychological operation is to alter the way the enemy is thinking and to get the enemy thinking in terms that are conducive to the achieving of the goals of the attacker conducting the PSYOP. In Operation Iraqi Freedom2, Psychological Operations were used extensively to make the enemy believe that they could not win, and that to resist would mean to die AND lose. In that conflict the psychological warfare was based on a truth—the Iraqis could not stop the United States' initial invasion and push to Baghdad. In 1941 the United States launched a Psychological Operation against Japan with the Doolittle Raid3. The desired perception was that the United States could attack mainland Japan and that this ability required a change in the Japanese strategy. The Doolittle Raid is a case when the PSYOP was based on a false premise. A change in Japanese strategy was NOT required just because mainland Japan was struck. Japan was not unduly vulnerable to persistent attacks on its mainland. However, Japan, suffering only a very small loss, altered their strategy in such a drastic fashion that it arguably lost them the war. Similarly, that an attack could be carried out against the United States by terrorists shows a vulnerability but does not in and of itself indicate whether the vulnerability is undue or what actions are required—if any—to actually mitigate the vulnerability. The PSYOP seeks to exploit prejudice created by an event or series of events—regardless if the prejudice is true or not—and create an environment that will be beneficial to the overall goals of the organization conducting the operation. The specific point is if the nation or military force that is having a psychological operation run against it does not recognize that the attack is against the psyche, then that nation or force is very likely to become stuck in the reality created by its attacker. The reality may be based in truth or fiction, but regardless, it is a mental reality created by the opponent. The target is then very susceptible to being manipulated into making decisions within a framework that the enemy has created. The framework that was created on 9/11 was that the survival of the United States was vulnerable to terrorist attacks and that extreme measures were/are required to close all vulnerabilities. The reality—the non-psychological influenced reality—is that the attacks were painful, detestable but insufficient to cause any lasting harm and were not inherently worthy of a change in national strategy or mores.

Terrorism is effects based: Closely related to the concept of psychological operations is the modern military theory of effects based operations4. The basic concept is that an effects-based operation is more than a military strike or series of tactical actions. Effects based operations in the conventional sense are an event or series of events conducted against the war-making ability of the enemy. The actual event is viewed in the larger context of a coordinated effort to remove the enemy’s ability to fight—this includes the enemy’s system of political, military, social and informational capabilities and their perception of the ability to succeed. (You will note that there is a close correlation between psychological operations and effects based operations—the intent of each is similar. However, the subtle difference is that the psychological operation is designed to create a frame of reference and mental "reality" for the target that is beneficial to the organization conducting the attack, whereas the effects based operation is focused on actually attriting the enemy's ability to fight.) A key component to conventional effects based operation is that accomplishing the desired effect defines success or failure of the operation. The success of a kinetic event, an explosion, may not equal mission success. Extremely over-simplified, there are two ways to darken a city; break all the lights or knock out the power supply. The effect—the city in darkness—is the same. The means of achieving that effect may be significantly different.

Terrorism as an effect-based operation is slightly different in that the terrorist is not likely to think he can actually destroy the war-making ability of a modern nation. The effect the terrorist is looking for is a means to manipulate the larger, more powerful, enemy. The terrorist is seeking to destroy the power, projection, and influence capability of the nation or to create a socio-political environment that favors the terrorist cause. The attack on the USS Cole is a good example. The terrorists were not trying to destroy the United States Navy. The effect desired was a decrease in the influence of the United States military in the region and an increase in the perceived risk faced by forces in the region. The means to achieve that effect was to conduct a small tactical action, that, when combined with the likely, as historically demonstrated, psychological reaction of the United States would hinder the United States Navy from exerting influence in the region. It worked—not because the attack was devastating to the Navy, but because a weak strategic framework did not bolster decision maker’s ability to stay the course or effectively fight the effects-based operation.

2A name chosen for its psychological image and impact and designed to have an impact on both the Iraqis and the Nation.
3A daring one-time launch of a flight of medium bombers from aircraft carriers with the mission of bombing targets on mainland Japan.
4This is an emerging area of military science and has not been tightly defined.

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Copyright 2003-2007 by Thomas Rancich. Printing, copying, creating or transmitting of electronic copies of this transcript in whole or in part without the written consent of Mr. Rancich is expressly forbidden and will be construed as constituting copyright infringement.


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