Military spending on communication leaps

WASHINGTON — Trying to counter information-savvy enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has rapidly spent nearly $1 billion in the past three years on strategic communications.

Paid-for news articles, billboards, radio and television programs, and even polls and focus groups have been sponsored by the U.S. Central Command, which has raised its information operations programs from $40 million in 2008 to $110 million in 2009 to a requested $244 million in 2010.

But when Congress earlier this year asked what the Defense Department across the services and commands proposed spending for strategic communications — or information operations as it is often called — in next year's fiscal 2010 budget, Defense Secretary Robert Gates found that no one could say since there was no central coordination. The first answer came back at $1 billion, but that was later changed to $626 million.

As a result, Gates has multiple studies under way to get a firmer grip over the individual military services' plans for strategic communications next year, according to Pentagon officials.

"Just what is the DoD (Defense Department) role?" is one of the questions Gates is asking as part of the department's Quadrennial Defense Review, according to a senior Defense official, authorized to speak only if he is not identified. In a more basic sense, the Defense secretary also wants a definition of just what is strategic communications.

Increasing interest in strategic communications across the government has led the White House to hold biweekly interagency meetings to coordinate activities of the Defense and State departments as well as of the intelligence agencies. "It's an effort that brings together all the actors across government with equity in strategic communications," according to a senior administration official who would only discuss the matter if guaranteed anonymity.

"It is a rapidly developing field of endeavor," the official said, adding that proactive planning for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater is under way, linking experts in the area with strategic information specialists. "Based on data, people are working on the best way to get our message across whether through radio, television or some other means."