Combining Three Tiers of Intelligence-Gathering Is Key to Keeping Russia and China at Bay


The U.S. and its allies today face two major geopolitical threats: Russia and China. A prominent U.S. think tank, The Atlantic Council, published a dire forecast in September 2016, entitled “Global Risks 2035” that predicted a Hobbesian world “marked by the breakdown of order, violent extremism [and] an era of perpetual war”. According to this report, the new enemies of “Western civilization,” especially the U.S. and its allies, were a “resurgent” Russia and an “increasingly aggressive” China. In response to these threats, the greatest build-up of American-led military forces since the Second World War is well underway. American and allied troops are currently stationed on the western borders of Russia, and in Asia and the Pacific, confronting China.

How do the U.S. and its allies strategically and effectively counter and defang these threats? Intelligence dominance over the enemy is the only way to adequately manage the threats that stem from China and Russia. Most importantly, implementing an appropriate “tradecraft,” the specialized techniques used in intelligence operations, to deter and dissuade Russia and China is essential.

Intelligence gathering is as old as warfare itself. Even in Biblical times, Moses sent spies to live with the Canaanites to learn about their way of life, strengths, and weaknesses (Num. xii.16 – xiii. 17a). Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese military treatise, The Art of War, dating roughly from 5th Century BCE, notes: “Secret operations are essential in war, upon them the army relies on to make its every move…An army without secret agents is exactly like a man without eyes or ears.” Many emperors starting from, Moses and Caesar to Churchill and Stalin, all have made use of spies to gather useful information about their adversaries, both at home and abroad. Today, in the 21st century digital age, nations are increasingly striking to subdue their opponents’ information systems – this is thus the era of intelligence warfare and information warfare.

In his article entitled “Winning with Intelligence”, analyst Gregory Elder from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, explores the role of tactical and operational intelligence in deciding force employment schemes and as a decisive element in five strategically significant battles— the First Battle of Bull Run (1861), Tannenberg (1914), Midway (1942), Incheon (1950), and the Israeli airstrike initiating the Six-Day War in 1967. Elder goes on to illustrate that “it was neither technology nor material superiority that won the day, but accurate, timely, actionable intelligence, combined with leaders willing to treat intelligence as a primary factor in deciding outcomes.”

At our disposal in the modern era, however, intelligence gathering and processing systems allow us to collect and produce intelligence in a timely manner more rapidly and accurately than ever before. From human sources to satellites, ultramodern aircraft, electronic systems, cameras, imaging, and electromagnetic devices, and a host of other systems, we are now able to gather intelligence on a scale and level of sophistication that was unheard of in the past.

Nevertheless, the following are the three tiers of fundamental intelligence collections methods that are relevant and effective even in our present day, the combination of which will be essential for the U.S. and its allies in the challenges to come.

Strategic Intelligence

The strategic tier of intelligence is virtually referring to the national, regional, and global scale. In its essence, the strategic intelligence is captivating a bird’s-eye view of bigger picture issues. This is the information that is needed to formulate policy and military plans at the international and national policy levels. This defines the hierarchical order of planning and strategizing vis-à-vis political and military objectives, often dealing with national, regional, and global security. In the military dimension, too, strategic intelligence has either national and global security or even foreign policy ramifications. By utilizing Open Sources, intelligence agencies can extract fantastic amounts of strategic intelligence. However, tactical intelligence depends on human intelligence (HUMINT), which refers to any information that can be gathered from human sources.”

George Friedman explains, strategic intelligence should enable the capacity to predict what other nations are capable of doing, militarily — economically, or politically. Forecasting other nations’ possible moves and what they are equipped of will eliminate imaginations and rhetoric from those countries’ maneuvers and future course of actions. Nations also need to recognize the intentions of their adversaries. This is imperative in the short run, particularly when intentions and capabilities match up. Moreover, it is essential for nations to distinguish what will happen in other nations that those nations’ governments did not anticipate the actions of their opponents. Strategic intelligence, therefore, vital to foresee or forecast another nation’s strategic dilemmas.

Tactical Intelligence

The paramount importance of tactical intelligence can be viewed in the area of operations. It involves gathering up-to-the-minute details of tribes, local villages, or a small town’s ongoing activities. In other words, tactical intelligence is a look at the terrain from an ant’s-eye view of specific details; either within one’s line of sight or nearby enough to affect them directly. This is the level of intelligence in which a spy, an informant, or a single soldier’s input has an effect, which is HUMINT. For instance, how a local terrorist group operates in the area of operation is of tactical intelligence value. Moreover, for law enforcement agencies, the information about local criminal activities are of tactical intelligence value. On a bigger scale, the tactical intelligence tier may be local, but it also applies to ongoing events and/or activities in a target country, which can also be of tactical intelligence value. One can also gather tactical intelligence from an area of operation and combine it with several other surrounding areas of operations and as a result, obtain a bigger picture of operational tiers. 

A good example of tactical intelligence is presented by Mike Giglio, a staff writer at The Atlantic: “In 2016, Kun Shan Chun, a veteran FBI employee who had a top-secret security clearance, pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of China. Prosecutors said that while working for the agency in New York he sent his Chinese handler, ‘at minimum, information regarding the FBI’s personnel, structure, technological capabilities, general information regarding the FBI’s surveillance strategies, and certain categories of surveillance targets.’” This illustrates to what extent the Chinese obtained the tactical intelligence of the FBI.

Operational Intelligence

Operational intelligence is required for planning and conducting campaigns and major operations to accomplish strategic objectives within specific theaters. This is where the combined operations and/or decisions of larger military units affect. For instance, information about a military campaign that is conducted by a nation’s armed forces is of operational intelligence value. The mobilization of military divisions, battalions, brigades, and regiments by commanders based on the strategic and/or tactical intelligence is of operational intelligence value. One can gather operational intelligence from multiple regions and nations and project or develop a strategic intelligence outlook.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO’s first Assistant Secretary-General for Intelligence and Security, Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, speaking about operational intelligence notes, that the organization needs to expand its intelligence division and its operations to focus on the wider world. Loringhoven emphasizes the need to extend the NATO’s new Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD) to collect operational intelligence far beyond from its current capabilities. Only a segment of NATO’s intelligence experts perform their operational duties at the JISD itself and the majority are spread throughout NATO’s Command Structure. Loringhoven’s talking about the need for dominance in the operational tier of the JISD argues: “A highly complex network of actors and structures also includes the NATO Intelligence Fusion Cell in Molesworth in the United Kingdom, Centres of Excellence in various fields, and a number of committees (military, civilian, security) representing nations’ intelligence services. The present landscape of NATO intelligence has grown ‘organically’ over the years without a common master plan. While this legacy is a rich resource, joint planning, and coordination across the enterprise is a challenge…” 

The setbacks in current intelligence-gathering efforts to counter the threats that stem from Russia and China necessitate the reinvention of tradecraft and intelligence gathering methodologies by redefining their nature. In other words, the U.S. and its allies need to rethink their current approach to intelligence gathering and analysis on the “resurgent” Russia and an “increasingly aggressive” China. Therefore, an effective strategy would be to combine strategic, tactical and operational intelligence collected by the Western intelligence agencies, such as the Five Eyes, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Intelligence and Security Division (JISD) of the NATO that would provide excellent new approaches and tactics for centralised intelligence fusion. If and when the U.S. and its allies resort to more belligerent and robust intelligence-gathering operations in favor of an all-source, holistic, fused approach based on the concept of unified and integrated military and defense intelligence analysis, this approach may provide just the winning edge they need to come out on top. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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