Monday, January 9, 2012

Fixing Intel and Marine Corps Intelligence

In early 2010, General Flynn, the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan released "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan". At the time, I was the intelligence officer of 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, which was preparing for Operation Moshtarak, the clear-hold-build of Marjah, Afghanistan. I was given a copy and read it with great interest, finding myself agreeing with many of the points the article made. However, since then I’ve read the article several more times and must say I like it less and less with each reading. The article has become so ubiquitous that it is the "go to" reference in articles about Counterinsurgency (COIN) and intelligence. This is unfortunate, as the article is deeply flawed and in reality will do little to "fix" intelligence.

Three things about the article stand out to me; the first is that it advocates a population-centric focus to intelligence operations. While this hardly seems like cause for concern, it is that if we only spend more time on the population vice the enemy that we will be able to connect the dots and figure out the insurgency. This is an unproven idea that does not fully embrace exactly what intelligence does, which brings me to my second issue – that intelligence serves its master – the commander. If the commander and his guidance are unclear, the intelligence will be unclear as well. Finally, the major changes identified in the article have long been identified – in fact, the Marine Corps identified these issues nearly two decades ago, which leads me to believe intelligence education outside of the MOS is sorely lacking.

With regards to my first point, if you are a tactical level intelligence officer and read "Fixing Intel" chances are you would not have much to argue with. For one, it’s hard to argue that intelligence in COIN is typically a bottom-driven event and that regiments, divisions, and other higher commands have far too much manpower that could be better served at lower levels. Further, the document argues that the redundant effort in intelligence up the chain of command serves little purpose for those units most engaged in the fight. As an S2, I certainly agreed with these points, it’s hard not to, unfortunately this is where things start to diverge for me.

I take issue with the article’s assumption that population centric intelligence collection is vital to mission success. That is, too much time is spent doing collection on the enemy and therefore simply spending more time on the populace is key. On paper this sounds easy enough, but the either / or approach to intelligence collection and analysis is misleading. Even if I had everyone’s biographical data and a full profile of who they were, it still does not necessarily allow a decision maker to make better decisions, rather it muddies the water in terms of what is and is not essential information. Plainly, there is a lot of stuff I would like to know, but what do I actually need to know.

This brings me to my second point, intelligence is about the mission. That is, intelligence does not exist for itself, intelligence exists to support the decision maker - or as the venerable publication Frontline Intelligence puts it, "The primary object of combat intelligence is to enable a commander to issue a proper combat order." What this means is that intelligence directly supports the mission. In order to do this, intelligence answers requirements the commander needs to make decisions and to give him an idea of the situation. Thus, finding out local conditions and sentiment (often called "atmospherics") is not a bad thing – but doing so to the extent that one cannot address those kinetically engaging coalition forces seems foolhardy. This is the fundamental flaw - that even if all the effort in the world is spent collecting and analyzing information about a local populace, it means nothing if the mission is unattainable. This logic is perpetuated with the false belief that somehow the missing link will be found amongst the populace and that through it grievances will be addressed and the mission will succeed. However, if it turns out that my presence and my mission are what are causing the grievances, then what? Realizing at the tactical level that the mission is the problem means little if it is not also recognized at the operational and strategic levels where changes can occur. The article appears to have been published more so to support the shift in effort to population-centric counterinsurgency at the time rather than address intelligence shortfalls.

The recommendations from "Fixing Intel" can be distilled to: better people, better systems, focus on tactical intelligence, and broader collection capabilities / effort. Interestingly, post Gulf War I, the Marine Corps identified six deficiencies in Marine Corps Intelligence1 and thirteen functional concepts to address them2. The result became known as the Van Riper Plan which radically altered how intelligence Marines would be trained. Given the level of support around the intelligence community and the Marine Corps for General Flynn’s article, I am curious if we are destined to always believe that intelligence needs fixing? Certainly if one were to query Marine Commanders (particularly battalion commanders) of their level of intelligence support, I’m willing to believe most would be more than satisfied. So what gives?

I don’t think the answer lays in better trained intelligence officers and specialists (though it’s certainly a good idea) rather, it is in more educated commanders and staffs. What I mean by this is that planners and commanders need to understand how their actions potentially affect the circumstances within which intelligence is supposed to act. For example, during Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf, CINC CENTCOM restricted both Ground Reconnaissance and Surveillance (R&S), and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) over-flights from going into Kuwait, which in turn limited the MEF G2’s ability to answer MEF PIRs. Further, organic Marine ISR had been deactivated two-weeks prior to the commencement of the operation, further degrading intelligence capabilities. In essence, this created a situation in which our own forces were inducing considerably more friction than the enemy. Arguably, similar issues exist today. Given the pace of operations over the past decade, it is easy to confuse the science of intelligence with the art of intelligence.

In my experience, it seems we typically overestimate what intelligence can provide in a given situation and look to pin blame on "intel" when it cannot deliver. For instance, it is easy to look at the results of a successful operation without paying mind to the amount of intelligence effort put in behind the scenes. Likewise, it is easy to blame intelligence when the enemy doesn’t behave as we planned because we forget that perhaps the adjustments made to the plan because of intelligence forced the enemy to adopt a different course of action. However, in keeping with the theme of the post – intelligence can take considerable time to develop and its effectiveness in a given situation can vary greatly. For example, an Area of Operations (AO) that has long had Marine presence will most certainly have a more robust intelligence picture than a brand new AO. Quite simply, depending on the mission, intelligence cannot simply template actions from one place to another.

The next step is how to address this apparent shortfall in intelligence training. In my opinion, the answer is using the planning process as it was meant to be used. That is, rather than using it as a rote step set of procedures to instead use it as it was intended – a collaborative process where major issues about intelligence (and other warfighting functions) can be addressed. The way forward does not require new processes; instead it is simply to educate battle staffs on processes that are already in place.

Of course, I'm interested to hear other recommendations or ideas on the topic...

1 Inadequate doctrinal foundation, insufficient tactical intelligence support, lack of structure and professional career development for intelligence officers, insufficient joint manning, insufficient language capability, and inadequate imagery capability

2 The target is tactical intelligence; focus of support must be downward; intelligence must drive operations; intelligence disciplines must complement each other; intelligence must be directed and managed by a multi-trained and experienced intelligence officer; intelligence staffs use intelligence – intelligence organizations produce intelligence; intelligence products must be timely and tailored to both the unit and its mission; the last step of the intelligence cycle is utilization, not dissemination; HUMINT capability must be enhanced; increased efforts in HUMINT must not be at the expense of force protection; force protection must become a multi-disciplined effort; signals intelligence must focus on the tactical, vice operational or strategic intelligence; signals intelligence must broaden its perspective to include command and control warfare (C2W).

Interestingly, only 7 of the 13 concepts were eventually adopted (in italics), arguably they all should have been.

1 comment:

  1. We added a link to an incorrect version of this original Marine Corps Gazette article which had the author's name wrong.

    A sharp reader drew our attention to it and it has now been fixed.

    Here is the link once again: (This has been corrected in the body text above.)