The Future of Strategic Intelligence
James Allen Laney
Strategic intelligence is a term heard often within intelligence circles. Unfortunately, what the military and the intelligence community call strategic intelligence is rarely actual strategic intelligence and is, in reality, tactical intelligence. This is a growing problem within the US intelligence community and one that has only gotten worse. Due to a number of factors, including the current wars in Afghanistan and Syria, the US has lost significant ground in strategic intelligence against its near peer rivals and will face numerous challenges in the future to even the playing field.
Before we can effectively discuss strategic and tactical intelligence, we must first determine what constitutes both forms of intelligence. The Pentagon defines strategic intelligence as “Intelligence that is required for the formulation of strategy, policy, and military plans and operations at national and theater levels” (Joint Chiefs Of Staff Washington Dc, 2010). Strategic intelligence is a broad look at a variety of information regarding a country. This could include political information, infrastructure, military strength, economic strength, or any number of other types of intelligence. Strategic intelligence provides the United States government with the knowledge required to make important decisions on the world stage. It’s vital for the United States’ continuing effective performance internationally. The vast majority of strategic intelligence comes from open-source intelligence, and requires the analyst to have in-depth knowledge of the country, region, or organization being analyzed.
Strategic intelligence was first truly utilized effectively during the Cold War. This was at the time also known as “warning intelligence” and was a vital part of the United States’ ability to understand the Soviet Union. (Grabo, C. M. 2004, July 1. ) Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States Intelligence Community, particularly the Military, began to move away from the use of strategic intelligence.
The Pentagon defines tactical intelligence as “Intelligence required for the planning and conduct of tactical operations” (Joint Chiefs Of Staff Washington Dc, 2010). As previously mentioned, Strategic Intelligence allows policymakers to make important decisions on the world stage that can affect the United States footing internationally. Tactical intelligence is intelligence gathered on a much smaller scale, such as a small area that the military is operating in. An example of this would be intelligence allowing a military unit to capture a high priority target located in an area in which the military is operating. Neither of these two types of intelligence is superior to the other, however, intelligence does not exist in a vacuum and without both strategic and tactical intelligence the United States would be at a significant disadvantage against adversaries.
The change from strategic intelligence to tactical intelligence aligns with the United States’ involvement in a number of foreign wars, in particular Iraq and Afghanistan. With United States soldiers on the ground, tactical intelligence was an absolute necessity to achieving the military’s goals. During this time, the intelligence customers shifted their intelligence collection strategy away from strategic intelligence in favor of tactical intelligence (Heidenrich, 2007). The Intelligence Community recognized the great need for tactical intelligence and focused on it almost exclusively, to the detriment of strategic intelligence collection.
To further compound the issues regarding the shift to tactical intelligence, the vast majority of intelligence analysts have less than 10 years of experience, and the ability to collect and analyze strategic intelligence is not usually taught in military intelligence job training or other intelligence agency training (Heidenrich, 2007). These skills have degraded significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with most strategic intelligence professionals having long retired. Even those Soviet era analysts remaining cannot effectively operate as their knowledge does not extend to any other nations outside of the Soviet Union (Heidenrich, 2007). Strategic intelligence demands an in-depth knowledge of the area in which the intelligence is being collected and acquiring that knowledge takes a significant amount of training.
Several international crises have arisen in part as a result of the United States lack of focus on strategic intelligence collection. The creation and rise to power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant completely caught the Intelligence Community off guard. The Arab Spring, that began in 2010, was a massive uprising causing political upheaval throughout the Middle East; an uprising that the United States was not prepared for. The Arab Spring is particularly indicative of the United States’ intelligence failures, as this event covered large swathes of the Middle East and caused massive changes in the political and military climates of all countries impacted, while United States intelligence was in the dark (Stimson). Additionally, the intelligence community did not predict the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, nor the Russian annexation of Crimea (Stimson). These incidents are wide-ranging and have a significant effect on United States’ foreign policy and additional focus on strategic intelligence might have given the United States government time to prepare for these incidents. As it stands now, the United States often operates reactively to such events and cannot engage them effectively.
The United States is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. A large portion of these wars is asymmetrical and tactical intelligence is the primary form of intelligence gathered regarding these encounters. This is not unexpected, as the military operates in a largely tactical fashion. Regardless of this, strategic intelligence is greatly important to the United States’ military. The United States may be fighting an asymmetric war, but there are still adversaries that the United States isn’t currently engaged in a conflict with. These include near-peer and peer nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The United States has focused heavily on tactical intelligence whereas our adversaries, who have not been in boots-on-ground conflicts to the same degree as the United States, have focused on strategic intelligence. This has particularly devastating consequences, as it’s unlikely that the United States would be prepared for a conflict with these nations in the realm of intelligence. This could potentially allow one of these nations to catch the United States unaware and do severe damage to this great nation.
This is obviously a terrible worst-case scenario, but it highlights the importance of strategic intelligence in the defense of the United States. Strategic intelligence allows the United States government to make educated decisions on a grand scale. On a much smaller and less devastating scale, strategic intelligence provides intelligence on drastic political shifts within allied or enemy nations that could help predict potential insurgent activity. Strategic intelligence is not exclusively used for the defense of the United States, however, as strategic intelligence also allows for the development of policies toward all nations, including our allies, to ensure economic power for the United States across the world. The benefits of increasing our consumption of strategic intelligence cannot be overstated.
Another important aspect of strategic intelligence that cannot be overlooked is strategic counterintelligence. Counterintelligence is intelligence gathered to determine how another entity views the United States and intelligence gathered to weaken or prevent the ability of an entity to collect intelligence on the United States. Counterintelligence, specifically strategic counterintelligence, is often ignored due in very part to its nature. Counterintelligence is all but forgotten until such a time as there is a failure within the intelligence community to protect classified information. It is extremely important that strategic counterintelligence play a more important role within the intelligence community, as it allows the United States to prevent our adversaries from collecting intelligence on the United States, its government, military, or any other area of importance (Van Cleave, 2008).
There are several methods to address our current lack of strategic intelligence and counterintelligence, but we must start at the top. Intelligence managers must be allowed to train in strategic intelligence. Intelligence managers who have only operated in the tactical realm cannot be expected to provide relevant training to their analysts in strategic intelligence. Additionally, strategic intelligence requires in-depth knowledge of the area or group in question and analysts must be trained on this for them to effectively collect and evaluate strategic intelligence. This is not a cheap process and will cost a significant amount of resources, but it is necessary. The payoff would be the increased readiness necessary to meet any potential adversary head-on while fully understanding their capabilities. This alone should merit the shift back to strategic intelligence.
As intelligence professionals, it’s important that we do not lose our knowledge of strategic intelligence. We must play our part in ensuring that these skills do not further degrade. It is vital to remember that the United States is not only in conflict in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, but also face arguably even greater threats from nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The only way to truly be prepared for the wide variety of threats the United States may face from a near-peer or peer adversary is to re-acquire the knowledge of strategic intelligence that the United States Intelligence Community has lost since the early 1990s.
In conclusion, there are a number of issues with the current state of strategic intelligence within the US intelligence community, however, through modernizing our intelligence strategies and refocusing our efforts towards the big picture, the US can move past these issues and regain or reaffirm strategic superiority on the world stage.
Joint Chiefs Of Staff Washington Dc. (2010). Department of Defense Dictionary Of Military and Associated Terms. 226-234. doi:10.21236/ada536504
Heidenrich, J. G. (2007). The State of Strategic Intelligence. Studies in Intelligence, 51(2), 15-26. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a498042.pdf#page=20
Stimson, C. (n.d.). Reforming Intelligence: A Proposal for Reorganizing the Intelligence Community and Improving Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/reforming intelligence-proposal-reorganizing-the-intelligence-community-and#_ftn1
Grabo, C. M. (2004, July 1). Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning. Military Review.
Van Cleave, M. (2008, June 26). Strategic Counterintelligence. Retrieved November 18, 2018, from https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no2/strategic-counterintelligence.html#_ftn4