Actionable Intelligence

June 1, 2007

Operations. Intelligence. These two military activities interact in ways that constitute a critical dynamic for all forms of airpower. Still, it is a relationship marred by a long record of cultural and organizational conflict, occasionally interrupted by temporary and uneasy truces.

Now, the march of advanced technology and demands of countering terrorist and other asymmetric threats have once again upset the balance between these factors. USAF has embarked on a major restructuring of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities. The goal: Recast ISR to better support 21st century operations.

Under pressure of recent war experience, the ISR mission since the 1991 Gulf War has changed beyond recognition. Then, the air commander, Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, lambasted the intelligence community, charging, “They don’t predict; they just give you the rundown, like TV news anchors.”

Bomb damage assessment (BDA) brought constant frustration. Assessments trickled in slowly. Worse, they pegged conclusions to canonical standards of destruction that were out of step with precision air war.

In 1991, space systems and airborne sensors showed the potential of information dominance, but, in practice, there were “painful limitations,” said then-Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak. “For all our advances, … it still takes hours—even days—for target data to reach the crews that fight the air-to-mud battle,” McPeak said in a 1993 speech.

Horner and McPeak both blamed ISR deficiencies for airpower’s difficulties in destroying Iraq’s mobile Scud missiles and for the last-minute escape of many Iraqi Republican Guard forces at the end of the war. (See “The Great Escape,” March 2003, p. 38.)

“During Desert Storm, we developed some work-arounds” McPeak concluded. “We need to find permanent solutions.”

In the field, USAF needed to break down many of the “green door” barriers that kept operators away from intelligence officers, and vice versa.

“Back during Desert Storm, there were the operators and there were the intel pukes,” recalled Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a key Gulf War planner who is now the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (A2). “One wouldn’t share information with the other.”

As a result, the Air Force moved after the war to integrate intelligence and operations.

Air Force reorganizations in the 1990s sought to speed the flow of intelligence data by giving operators the upper hand. No more would analysts have an unquestioned right to hold back on sharing information. On the Air Staff and at the major commands, intelligence became a support function, driven by operators’ requirements.

It was a cultural change with many benefits—but also with some unforeseen consequences. The intelligence field lost many of its general officer billets. Air Intelligence Agency (AIA) was reconfigured and ultimately placed directly under the control of Air Combat Command. Many of the side effects were slow to emerge and were obscured by tactical-level improvements.

It’s an Art

Intel and ops integration couldn’t come fast enough. Precision weapons and network links led to a huge and increasing appetite for real-time intelligence, vital to the execution of time-critical strikes.

Operation Allied Force, the 1999 NATO air war over Serbia, showed how voraciously a precision-munition-equipped force linked to strong communications could consume intelligence. It also forced intelligence experts and operators at air operations centers to work together in new ways.

One mission was hunting for mobile SA-6 and SA-3 surface-to-air missiles operated by Serb forces.

Tracking SAMs was an intelligence art. Gen. John P. Jumper, then commander of US Air Forces in Europe, recounted the drill in the combined air operations center (CAOC) at Vicenza, Italy: “We looked at U-2s that we would dynamically retask to take a picture of a reported SA-6, beam that picture back to Beale Air Force Base [in California] for a coordinate assessment within minutes, and have the results back to the F-15E as it turned in to shoot an AGM-130.”

The campaign also gave airmen a taste of hunting for high-value individuals, processing Predator unmanned aerial vehicle intelligence data, dealing with dispersed, irregular forces, and providing highly refined “actionable” intelligence of a quality that could satisfy NATO leaders. The inadvertent bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade demonstrated the cost of failure in the intelligence game.

Then came Afghanistan. The campaign to unseat the Taliban and al Qaeda took intelligence requirements for air operations to an entirely new level. It was also, in many ways, a major improvement in coordination of the intelligence and operational functions. The culture change at the working level achieved a tight link between the two.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, which began on Oct. 7, 2001, military men and women inside the air operations center worked “as a true integrated team,” according to Deptula. He was one of the early AOC shift directors when the war began.

“There was ‘need to know’ in Desert Storm,” said Deptula. “Today it’s ‘you need to share.’?”

Much of US Central Command’s success in rounding up al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, or searching for insurgent leaders, has hinged on Air Force ISR products. However, the experiences of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars also revealed the need for major organizational changes in the Air Force ISR process.

Images from high-flying Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles flooded the Air Force’s processing systems. Tactical ground units found themselves inundated with e-mail. Bombers could receive target updates and communications while airborne. Transmission of data to most fighter aircraft was much less effective.

Above all, the demand for ISR systems soared. Full-motion video from the medium-altitude Predator became a gold standard for tactical situation awareness for forces ranging from clandestine special operations forces to Army and Marine Corps platoons.

Early lessons learned from the war in Iraq prompted all the services to look again at their intelligence requirements.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, then Army Chief of Staff, selected the need for “actionable intelligence” as a major focus area for the ground service.

The Air Force saw need for improvement in other areas. For example, USAF was intent on speeding up target approvals.

“When we all talk about closing the sensor-shooter [cycle] to real time, there’s a physics issue here, but there’s [also] a command issue,” said Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF’s current Chief of Staff. “To close the sensor-shooter loop, you have to close the process that allows you to go do all that analysis, the collateral damage mitigation, … and the answers have to be satisfactory.”

Even if you “have a bomb on a Predator,” Moseley went on, “and you can strike [the target] immediately, you’re still going to have to go through the decision process, the validation process to make it legitimate.”

Major changes hit the intelligence community, too. Most notably, Congress adopted the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to appoint an overall intelligence czar. In October 2005, the Director of National Intelligence released a new strategy calling for “a far-reaching reform of previous intelligence practices and arrangements.”

Moseley had something similar in mind for the Air Force, and he set the major change in motion shortly after taking over as Chief in 2005. First, he upgraded the Air Staff’s ISR director to a three-star, stand-alone position and appointed Deptula, a well-known fighter pilot and operations planner. “There was no single [person] responsible for ISR capabilities,” said Deptula, by way of explaining the move. As a result, there had been a tendency to manage by individual program elements.

Air Force systems and people remained prime assets for the national intelligence community, but organization was awkward. For example, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, DOD’s prime producer of foreign aerospace intelligence, was working for an agency, which was in turn working for one of the Air Force major commands.

The structure was clearly in need of an update. When USAF formed its intelligence structure in the 1990s, said Deptula, “we didn’t have an A2. We didn’t have [a] Director of National Intelligence. We didn’t have an undersecretary of defense for intelligence.” The Air Force needed to give the wider intelligence community a single point of contact. Now, the A2 represents the Air Force in the national intelligence arena.

“Externally, we want to optimize the Air Force ISR structure so we can be responsive to national and joint users,” explained Deptula.

Moseley’s other thrust was to streamline the internal Air Force management process.

Seamless Integration

A new plan, unveiled in February, centered on a new corporate structure with more leadership vested in the A2. “I want to manage ISR from a capabilities-based perspective,” Deptula said, in order to “make intelligence an Air Force-wide enterprise, not just a sub-element of one of the operating commands.”

In the old system, “seams” between the various missions abounded. The new process gives the A2 greater control of systems and programs serving the whole ISR spectrum—collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination.

“There are some people out there who would tell you intel is just analysis, that’s all you should do,” said Deptula. “No. The role of organizations inside the Beltway is different from our combatant commands out there who are the executors. We need to think, ‘If I want to do effects-based assessment, what do I need to do that?’?”

According to Deptula, the A2 must be “intimately involved in driving the requirements for the panoply of systems in each one of these ISR capability elements.”

To streamline the system, the Air Force has removed the 12,000-man AIA from Air Combat Command, making it a field operating agency. It will report directly to the A2. This month it also gets a new name that reflects its role as the Air Force’s ISR center. Plans also call for broadening AIA’s focus beyond signals intelligence to all forms of ISR.

Driving the whole reform enterprise is the task of providing ISR that is a better fit with effects-based operations. (See “Firing for Effects,” April 2001, p. 46.)

A case in point is ISR’s most coveted product: actionable intelligence, which comes in myriad forms because the nature of actionable intelligence changes with the effect desired. Effects are no longer just about destruction—or even degrees of destruction. An airman can order an attack on a computer network or a low-collateral damage strike on the west corner of an insurgent’s house. The actionable intelligence needed would differ.

For example, one of the best-known examples of actionable intelligence is positive identification of a high-value person. The successful June 7, 2006 strike that killed al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came only after some piece of intelligence confirmed his identity and location to the satisfaction of those in charge. (See “Aerospace World: Persistence Paid Off in Killing Zarqawi,” August 2006, p. 18.)

When rules of engagement are clear, actionable intelligence often comes quickly—for example, in the form of an intercepted phone call. At other times, there is a great gulf between the gathering of data and production of actionable intelligence. Part of the A2’s job is to keep improving the ways to deliver actionable intelligence.

The daily take from Air Force intelligence collection systems is “mind-boggling,” Deptula said. “We suck it up in terms of Sigint. We take multiple pictures with a variety of systems. We collect lots and lots of full-motion video. We’ve got so much stuff, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t exceed” the intelligence processing capability.

“Data that’s been processed and analyzed still doesn’t necessarily provide us with intelligence,” said Deptula. “More often than not, when you separate the wheat from the chaff, what you wind up with is information.”

Truly actionable intelligence is difficult to come by. Knowing that Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite insurgent leader, goes to the market every day at six o’clock is not actionable, said Deptula, “if we do not know which market he goes to.”

Never Too Good or Too Fast

The toughest intelligence cases are those requiring “discernment of intent.” For time-sensitive targets, “the bar is a little lower” than for other targets, Deptula said. Identification of a missile system on the move, or an enemy ground convoy, can pass the test even if it is only spotted by a single type of sensor.

“Intelligence is operations,” Deptula said, again citing the Zarqawi strike. The hit on Zarqawi did not come out of the blue: Setting it up took “300-plus Predator hours.”

Deptula went on, “I’m not taking anything away from the operators of the platform that delivered the weapon; the guy’s got to find it, designate, release the weapon. But all the information that went into it took much, much more time and effort than taking off, flying, dropping the weapon, and coming home.”

The Air Force still sees a need for many improvements to refine ISR for effects-based operations.

Battle damage assessment remains a tough challenge. Historically, to attack a command and control center, “you were looking at a civil engineering function,” Moseley said last year. “You drop a bomb on the facility and the bomb blows up and the facility goes away. That’s easy.”

In contrast, an effects-based attack on an enemy command and control center could have very different objectives. The goal might be to “either stop the ability to command and control, or you’re attempting to divert the signals information to another place so you can capitalize on it,” Moseley said.

Gauging the effect on some types of targets is easy, but on other types it’s not. Determining the status of fielded enemy military forces in bad weather remains tough.

“We spent the last hundred years in aviation endeavors trying to figure out how to target any location on the face of the Earth, rapidly, day and night, all weather, and we can do that today,” said Deptula. But then comes assessment, still a sticking point.

The 24- or 48-hour cycles of the 1990s aren’t good enough. “We have gotten so good with precision weapons,” said Deptula, that the Air Force can destroy targets “at a rate much greater than we can assess those effects using the traditional BDA techniques.” The service therefore needs to develop a better way to perform effects-based assessment.

For the Air Force, intelligence collection, processing, and distribution can never be too good or too fast.

Building Intelligence Leadership

A decade after the Air Force moved its intelligence community under the control of operational commands, USAF recognized that it was not developing future leaders in the ISR field.

“We need to reconstruct our bench of Air Force senior intelligence offi cers so we can viably compete for joint and interagency positions,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, Air Force ISR director.

The shortage of intelligence leadership was an unforeseen consequence of fusing operations and intelligence. Under a 1990s reorganization, the number of general officer billets in the intelligence fi eld declined. The old position of assistant chief of staff for intelligence was subordinated to the Air Staff’s operations director.

By 2006, the Air Force had just three general offi cer intelligence billets remaining.

These moves may have streamlined intelligence processing and improved the emphasis on the warfi ghter, but it also left the Air Force short in the joint arena. This eventually diluted USAF’s infl uence in joint operations. “Our combatant commanders need to be served by an air perspective,” Deptula noted.

By 2007, it had been more than five years since any Air Force officer filled one of the 11 “J-2” intelligence director positions at DOD’s unifi ed and combatant commands. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps intelligence offi cers always got the plum assignments.

During that time one airman, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, did become a dominant player on the national intelligence scene, however. Hayden led the National Security Agency, then was promoted to deputy director of national intelligence. In 2006, he was appointed CIA director.

Career paths for younger Air Force ISR offi cers are now being reshaped so that more colonels are promoted and groomed to compete for top joint and interagency assignments. Offi cials say they would like the number of general offi cers in the intelligence field to at least double over the next few years.

“I would like at the end of the day to be able to build a dozen Mike Haydens,” USAF Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley has said.

All of these changes will be needed to keep up with the battle zone’s demand for ISR, which is routinely described as “insatiable.”

Deptula suggested that one fi nal step might be smoothing away the old semantics. “The term ‘intelligence’ still carries baggage,” he said. “It would be nice to come up with a term where you could integrate ops and intel to get rid of some of these old barriers that existed between the disciplines,” because they are no longer separate disciplines.

“Intelligence does not support operations. Operations does not support intelligence. They are both required to achieve our national security objectives,” Deptula concluded.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for RAND, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “Twenty Missions in Hell,” appeared in the April issue.