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NEWS | May 16, 2024

Civil affairs, psychological operations expand role in special operations training

By Lt. Col. Brett Walker 353rd Civil Affairs Command

Special operations Soldiers from the U.S. and partnered countries spent the month of April training in full spectrum irregular warfare operations in and around Camp Shelby, Mississippi. From April 7 to April 26, approximately 800 service members participated in the event, including members of the 20th Special Forces Group, the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, and the 2nd Psychological Operations Group, as well as the Air Force and Marine Corps.

The culminating event for the nearly month-long training operation was the defense and evacuation of a U.S. embassy. Extensive battlefield simulation effects such as pyrotechnics, smoke, simunitions and dozens of civilian role players enhanced the realism of the training.

The exercise, dubbed Southern Strike, was hosted by the Mississippi National Guard, which is home to the U.S. Army’s 20th Special Forces Group Command Headquarters. Southern Strike was designed to improve combat readiness, build relationships, strengthen interoperability, and pursue greater global stability. This year, 2024, marks the 13th year the Mississippi National Guard has hosted Southern Strike.

“I have seen Southern Strike make great strides from a joint endeavor to an international endeavor,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Barry Blanchard, Air Component Commander of the Mississippi National Guard. In military parlance, the term “joint” means a cooperative operation between branches of the U.S. military, whereas “international” means a cooperative operation between multiple countries.

U.S. Army Col. Christopher Cooksey was the overall exercise director. He stated that Southern Strike 2024 demonstrated successful interoperability of American special forces units with those of foreign partners. “It shows that warfighters are warfighters,” he said.

“In this training, we wanted our special operation forces to focus on the deep fight,” said Cooksey. “We wanted them to work on shaping the conditions for a more conventional war.” According to Cooksey, Southern Strike 2024 was designed to prepare special operations soldiers to undertake irregular warfare in the setting of large-scale combat operations.

Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Anthony Thorpe, the exercise non-commissioned officer in charge, explained, “We’ve expanded this from a series of training lanes to a large-scale warfare scenario for unconventional warfare by using a lot more elements, including internet and more role players.”
Representatives from partnered militaries participated in every aspect of Southern Strike from membership in the main effort task force, to portraying the enemy elements, to performing administrative functions necessary to support the complex training scenario. Most of the foreign military personnel taking part in Southern Strike 2024 were special forces, so they accompanied the U.S. Special Forces on the most challenging missions.

One such mission was a clandestine sabotage on a coastal facility undertaken by a joint team of American and Polish special forces soldiers. It required an aerial insertion onto a spit of land, followed by a stealthy nighttime march, then a swim across a channel to where the facility was located. Once the sabotage was complete, the soldiers withdrew back into the water and swam to the extraction boat loitering offshore.

Polish Army Col. Artur Kozlowski is the commander of the Polish AGAT special forces unit. He joined a group of distinguished visitors to view portions of the exercise, including the mock embassy extraction that took place on April 22. He was pleased to see the air-ground integration aspect of the exercise. The embassy evacuation alone involved a helicopter fast-rope insertion to a building rooftop, a show of force by U.S. Air Force F-5 Tiger fighter jets, gun runs by U.S. Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra gunships, and medical evacuations by U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.

In addition to the integration of combat power platforms, Kozlowski also noted the integration of non-lethal components of the special operations elements. “This was a great opportunity to train with psychological operations and civil affairs,” said Kozlowski. “Integration with enablers is crucial and we do not do much of that, so this exercise was a good opportunity to train with them.”

Civil affairs and psychological operations are assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command, alongside of and in support of the Special Forces combat elements. Civil affairs and psychological operations provide expertise in the civil-military and informational aspects of irregular warfare. They constitute part of the special operations spectrum.

“Here in Mississippi, we are fortunate to have the largest state-operated military mobilization site in the country, which allows us to conduct premier, realistic training in complex scenarios,” said U.S. Army. Lt. Col. Ellis Monk, Commander of the special operations task force participating in Southern Strike and a 16-year veteran of U.S. Special Forces. “In Southern Strike 2024 we were able to perform tactical combat-related tasks and incorporate some of the critical non-lethal enablers as well.”

Among the special operations enablers participating in Southern Strike 2024 were components of the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, 486th Civil Affairs Battalion, and the 310th Psychological Operations Company.

“Southern Strike allowed US Army Reserve Civil Affairs soldiers to support special operation forces and deliver civil environment capabilities in multi-domain operations,” said U.S. Army. Lt. Col. Lee Mathews, commander of the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion. “Civil Affairs can fill some of the gaps in operational needs for special operations missions.”

Mathews and his battalion Command Sergeant Major – Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Magaly Santillan – observed part of Southern Strike. “This exercise provides our Civil Affairs soldier’s the opportunity to support the civil affairs enterprise and nest it within our coalition partner’s equities and intent,,” said Santillan. She expects many more 411th soldiers will want to participate in Southern Strike next year.

Maj. Matthew Franco lead the psyop Soldiers in Southern Strike. “Typically, our collective training exercises are tailored to support conventional forces, but Southern Stike was a welcomed break from the norm and allowed us to expand upon our creativity with what we can provide in regard to Military Information Support Operations,” said Franco. “The most interesting thing we were able to do within this exercise was to begin to implement the use of artificial intelligence in our image, written message, and spoken messaging. We were also able to integrate messaging through a synthetic internet, as if we were messaging directly or generally to our target audiences . . . Being able to move quickly and effectively in the Information Environment is just as important as doing the same, kinetically, in the Physical Environment.”

The evolution of training exercises such as Southern Strike to include an emphasis on civil affairs and psychological operations indicates a shift in mentality among senior leaders in the military. Success in large-scale combat operations necessitates integrated use of the full spectrum of special operations capabilities.

As mentioned by Cooksley and Thorpe, the exercise administrative leads, Southern Strike 2024 was intended to prepare U.S. and partnered special forces to do their part in large-scale combater operations. To that end, and as demonstrated this April in Mississippi, civil affairs and psychological operations will play an increasingly significant role in the special operations spectrum of warfighting.