The outcome of the conflicts that the American military is likely to fight in the decades ahead will increasingly depend on tactical success and the empowerment of small unit leaders. Recent advances in technology have the potential to improve the intelligence collection and dissemination capabilities of tactical military units. Unfortunately, perceptions about who "does" intelligence and the role and responsibilities of intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination threaten to limit the warfighting potential of intelligence technology on the battlefields of the 21st century. A mindset change is required to maximize the evolving capabilities of modern technology.
Cold War Intelligence Paradigm
During the Cold War, much of our intelligence collection was centralized at the national level and focused on strategic targets, which were seen as the key to victory against conventional armed forces. Cold War targets were generally static sites, such as headquarters, missile silos, airfields, or railroad marshalling yards. Intelligence collection was prioritized to provide accurate targeting data and follow-on bomb damage assessment on these targets for manned and unmanned airborne weapons platforms. The requirements of ground-based tactical and operational level intelligence consumers were only of secondary importance; units at this level were not critical to success. Victory was won or lost at the strategic level.
Strategic level headquarters naturally determined the target sets for this Cold War intelligence collection. Units at the operational or tactical commands could input collection requests, but these requests required validation by every headquarters in the command hierarchy prior to arrival at the national tasking level. The requirements of a unit lower in the hierarchy could be trumped by anyone higher in the chain. In this process, tactical units had little or no visibility. Transparency did not exist to allow a tactical consumer to determine easily when or if his requirement would be collected.
Ironically, the tactical commander who had the most pressing need for the greatest resolution of the battlefield had the least ability to access or influence the centralized intelligence collections architecture. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq and the capture of Baghdad and Tikrit, the 1st Marine Division in its official after-action report noted, "The Byzantine collections process inhibited our ability to get timely responses to combat requirements.... The existing hierarchical collections architecture is wildly impractical and does not lend itself to providing timely support to combat operations." (1)
Sadly, much of this Byzantine bureaucracy is with us still today. In addition to the burden of competing with every unit above him in the collections chain, the tactical consumer must depend on a collections hierarchy to push critical intelligence down to him rapidly in an accessible, relevant format. The tactical consumer is dependent on those above him in the distant headquarters who carried out the collection and analysis of the raw data to understand and appreciate his specific information needs. If the tactical consumer were successful at precisely describing his requirements days ahead of time and in a manner and method that were understandable to the analyst conducting the "readout" of the collection data, he might just be fortunate enough to receive a useful product.
While Service-centric intelligence is a step in the right direction, the military consumer is still U.S. Central Command or U.S. European Command headquarters in Tampa or Stuttgart, respectively (at least in the eyes of the distant national level intelligence agencies), not an infantry battalion on the Syrian border. The distant analyst often has little visibility or understanding of exactly why the tactical consumer is asking for the information, the impact of the data, or how to package the information so it is actionable for the ground commander. …