Report on COIN intelligence collection

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A few months ago the Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense Intelligence released a report on Counterinsurgency (COIN) Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations (pdf). Among its recommandations is that:

the government generally should increase investment in social science disciplines (anthropology, ethnography, human geography, sociology, social-psychology, political science, and economics) to inform a whole-of-government approach to understanding local cultures and customs and to support future COIN campaigns.

and the report notes that:

the United States government is not investing adequately in the development of social and behavioral information that is critically important for COIN.

Great news for someone hopeful to have a degree in political science in the near future! But beyond that, the report deals with larger issues with modern intelligence and information collection by the military. Much of what people in the military think of first in association with ISR, like unmanned drones, battlefield radars, or ground moving target indicators (GMTI), was developed in the context of the Cold War with the purpose of identifying concentrations of troops, tanks, and so on. It might be great to see that a hexagonal array of tracks on the ground likely is a specific type of surface to air missile site. Knowing that there are a lot of moving ground targets traveling on certain paths in Baghdad probably on the other hand is not so useful. One would maybe rather know about lone targets heading into remote areas (weapons caches?). So a first challenge is figuring out how to appropriately use that type of ISR in a counterinsurgency campaign.

More importantly though, as the report notes, this technical kind of ISR is not well suited to supporting warfare when the population, rather than terrain or equipment, is the focus. Rather, there is more need for the kind of research and analysis that is common in the social sciences, with questions appropriately focused on the local population. In Afghanistan this has been happening under the Humman Terrain System program, which among other things collects local surveys to inform military policy.

Most exciting for me is not only the acknowledgement the people are the key, but a concurrent admission that more rigorous, scientific analytical methods are called for: “analysts will have to operate with a better balance of regional knowledge and theoretical/methodological competence,” compared to the current approach based on indication, specific instances of an event and its analogues, and ultimately subjective intuition. Having done some very limited work along the lines this suggests when I was an intelligence officer in Iraq, and seeing how it is usually received, it will take a large change in attitude for a shift like this to be accepted. Unfortunately.

Some other comments:

  • “there are few effective, temporally‐acceptable methodologies for the integration (or fusion) of current levels of data streaming from the many space‐based, airborne, mobile, in situ, and terrestrial remote sensors, let alone real‐ time integration…” Yes! I would love to have a dashboard with choice apps like live video (e.g. unmanned drone), custom satellite imagery, GMTI, …
  • In response to a question about emerging technologies and methodologies, the report directly mentions computation social sciences, social network analysis, behavior modeling and simulation, and associated programs like ICEWS. Most of the programs I am familiar with are still at a fairly high level, and might for example try to predict which states are under threat of collapse. But there is a lot that can be done at a much more immediate level with the heaps of data collected every day by U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, beyond threat-specific efforts like JIEDDO COIC.

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