Military forces long employed the practice of air-dropping paper leaflets with messages on people and military forces that are targeted for attack. One of the earliest known incidences of an airdrop happened in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, when leaflets were dropped from a French balloon.
After the development of airplanes, this practice developed further into full-scale psychological warfare, with the purpose of causing civilians in enemy countries to rebel against their own government, or for soldiers to defect or sabotage their own armies. This practice continues to this day.
Now, the US military wishes to create an innovation, with leaflets that “talk” to those they are dropped on.
The idea, brought forth by the US Special Operations Forces Command (USSOCOM), involves the development of high-tech leaflets that have photovoltaic cells to provide power to drive tiny speakers, allowing the leaflet to actually “talk” to the intended people. Further, the project hopes to install listening circuitry into these devices, to allow US forces to listen to and gauge the responses of those people targeted by the leaflet drop.
Special operators have been looking for a way to get a short audio message to target audiences in enemy-controlled areas — say, civilians in need of reassurance or enemy soldiers who might surrender or defect. Now they think they have one: a piece of paper, about the thickness of four ordinary sheets, infused with microcircuits that can store and replay a 30-second message.
U.S. Special Operations Forces Command, or USSOCOM, has developed a prototype; now they’re looking for companies to improve it enough for combat evaluations as soon as year’s end.
In May, SOCOM representatives were reaching out to industry and academic partners at the SOFIC conference in Tampa, Florida. A SOCOM video display described a need for a “printable electronics incorporating ‘flexible micro-circuitry’, [a] flexible speaker, and super thin photovoltaic batteries.”
Ryan Brown, an acquisition official with SOCOM, said the prototype has a writable area of about 4 by 6 inches. Now he’s looking to make it better and cheaper. “One of the downsides of making something new… the first-time articles and prototypes are expensive,” Brown said.
The display at SOFIC said that the paper should be printable “in the field [to be] deployed or scattered across designated areas to broadcast information as well as provide feedback to assist in MISO planning and analysis.”
The current name for the group that specializes in psychological operations in warfare is MISO (Military Information Support Operations). And according to DefenseOne, MISO is taking an increasingly significant role in high-profile military operations.
For instance, psychological operations helped decimate Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, SOCOM officials said last year. Operators said the nearly six-year operation was aided by delivering recorded messages to LRA soldiers, persuading them to defect. But it’s hard to reach enemy soldiers deep in the jungle, especially when they are is surrounded by other combatants. Furthermore written messages don’t always work if the target is illiterate, as many of Kony’s child soldiers were. The SOF operators resorted to dropping devices to relay the messages into areas that they knew LRA members would be.
Over time, the operation had the desired effect, culminating in the defection of Michael Omono, Kony’s radio telephone operator and a key intelligence source. Army Col. Bethany C. Aragon described the operation from the perspective of Omono.
“You are working for a leader who is clearly unhinged and not inspired by the original motivations that people join the Lord’s Resistance Army for. [Omono] is susceptible. Then, as he’s walking through the jungle, he hears [a recording of] his mother’s voice and her message begging him to come home. He sees leaflets with his daughter’s picture begging him to come home, from his uncle that raised him and was a father to him.”