Fixing Intelligence Analysis: From Specialists to Experts

Abstract: The U.S. military’s community of intelligence analysts has not been trained, manned, or resourced to adequately cope with an increasingly demanding set of responsibilities brought on by technological advances and the imperatives of fighting an irregular foe.  The result is a uniformed analytic community that, with some exceptions, lacks institutional expertise and struggles to provide commanders with meaningful intelligence products.  Correcting these analytical shortfalls requires the recognition that successful analysts possess a rare skill-set that must be sustained and nurtured over time.  The services should create a separate analytical career field with more rigorous selection criteria, tougher schools, and more rewarding billet assignments than those currently available.  Personnel with a talent for intelligence should be competitively selected and nurtured throughout their time in uniform.  While this will require a significant investment in time and resources, the result will be a highly-proficient analytic community capable of providing greater clarity to commanders and leaders.

Introduction

In 2010, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) published a now-infamous report entitled Fixing Intel, which charged that the American “intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate.” The report recommended the creation of fusion entities called Information Centers.  Despite a large pool of available uniformed intelligence personnel from all four services, Fixing Intel nevertheless called for the Centers to be manned by civilian analysts due to their perceived advantages in analytic skills and communications ability.  As evidence, the authors cited both their personal wartime experiences and a number of after action reports, including a damning judgment by the XVIII Airborne Corps leadership, which stated that “in an overall intelligence staff of 250…four or five personnel were capable analysts with an aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.”

Perceptions of shortcomings in the military’s analytical community, and the reasons for those shortcomings, are echoed elsewhere.  A 2011 assessment of Marine Corps intelligence conducted by the RAND Corporation found that “analysis, much more than collection or production, requires both training and something intrinsic to the Marine that cannot be trained.”  One respondent quoted in the study argued that most Marine intelligence specialists “can’t be full-on analysts.  They can do data-mining, they can do grunt work, but there needs to be more training and development to make them into true analysts” (p. 73). A senior enlisted Marine instructor at the Corps’ intelligence schoolhouse observed “a trend of deficiencies in regard to the ability of enlisted intelligence Marines to perform analyses, prepare written intelligence reports, conduct Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB), and provide support to planning. …[T]hese career intelligence professionals struggled to provide a realistic analysis of enemy capabilities and how these units might fight.”

Similarly, a monograph produced at the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) examined a variety of Army intelligence training programs and concluded that “analytic training at Huachuca does not produce an analyst with the knowledge competencies needed to fulfill the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s intelligence consumers. …[C]urriculum and doctrine are not on track to meet the needs of the force.”

Problems in the uniformed analytic community stem from an imbalance between what is being asked of analysts and what they have the capacity to deliver.  Technological advances and the imperatives of fighting an irregular foe have combined to expand analysts’ responsibilities dramatically without commensurate increases in selection, training, education, or resourcing.  The result is a military analytic community that, with some exceptions, lacks institutional expertise and struggles to provide commanders with meaningful intelligence products. 

From Specialists to Analysts

Correcting these analytical shortfalls requires the recognition that successful analysts possess a rare skill-set that must be sustained and nurtured over time.  The services should begin by acknowledging a fact long obvious to those working within military intelligence.  The basic tasks of an intelligence specialist— plotting positions, sorting message traffic, managing information, and collating raw information—are comparatively easily acquired.  Intelligence analysts, on the other hand, must meld experience, critical thinking, and data manipulation to yield multifaceted answers to complex problems.  This process resembles art more than science, and the necessary skills are difficult to acquire and maintain.  Rather than ask its basically-trained specialists to do the sophisticated work of analysts, as is done today across the services, the military intelligence community should create a separate analytical career field with more rigorous selection criteria, tougher schools, and more rewarding billet assignments.  (The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all currently utilize warrant officers as technical experts in the craft of intelligence analysis.  Although these officers possess significant knowledge and experience, there are relatively few serving in the operating forces.  Due to their seniority these low-density personnel primarily fill supervisory or managerial billets, which limits their ability to focus on analysis.  A new specialty for enlisted analysts would provide a much-needed intermediate step between the large population of basically trained entry-level technicians and the exceedingly small population of highly experienced warrant officers.)

Analysis today is viewed by many as occupying the bottom rung of the military intelligence hierarchy, an entry-level specialty that does not require the hard skills or specialized training of the other intelligence disciplines.  (Neither the Navy nor Marine Corps refer to their enlisted analytical personnel as analysts, preferring to call them “specialists.”  They are expected, however, to be able to conduct and supervise analysis—of the 13 training and readiness tasks mandated for USMC Intelligence Specialists with a few years of experience, 9 involve some form of analysis—so for the purposes of this essay they will be referred to as analysts.) The products analysts produce—primarily PowerPoint presentations and written reports—seem pedestrian in comparison to Full Motion Video (FMV), satellite images, SIGINT reporting, and other more high-tech material.  This perception is exacerbated by analysts’ frequent unfamiliarity with the technical aspects of the various collection assets operated by the IC.  Although they are charged with the conduct of “all-source fusion,” analytical training on collection methods has not kept pace with the rapid growth of advanced intelligence technologies.  As a result, analysts are frequently viewed simply as PowerPoint builders who combine the finished products of other, more technically-adept intelligence personnel.  Too often they find themselves biding their time endlessly tinkering with slides or being farmed out to working parties while their peers in the other ‘INTs’ receive advanced training and preferential treatment.

Fixing the current deficits within the military’s analytical community requires a wholesale change in how analysts are selected, trained, and sustained.  Accession into the analyst career field should be selective and competitive.  Proficient analysts combine a variety of disparate traits that are rare in the general military population.  At a minimum, they must be excellent writers and briefers with very good reading comprehension skills and computer literacy.  They must also possess a certain degree of intellectual curiosity, a desire to immerse themselves in research and minutiae sufficient to produce expertise.  This curiosity cannot be taught and it is not a product of higher education—although pursuit of higher education is perhaps indicative of a certain intellectual propensity—but it is essential to the success of an intelligence analyst.  These traits are more essential, certainly, than the factors the military traditionally uses to track and select for job specialties, such as physical fitness and aptitude test scores.  Finally, as with certain other intelligence specialties, an analytical career field should primarily be open only to non-commissioned officers and up.  Rare exceptions may be made for those with particular qualifications, such as junior enlisted with relevant college degrees, but restricting most accessions to NCOs would help to ensure new analysts possess both maturity and experience when they begin their assignments.

Analysts should be given the opportunity to gain true regional expertise.  In proposals, assessments, and various future planning documents, the military often gives lip service to the imperative for regional specialists.  Too often the proposed solutions involve offering specialists some meager combination of classes and certifications, provided in small increments so as to minimize the impact on the Operating Forces.  While some good may come of these efforts, they will not create regional specialists.  There is only one path to genuine area expertise: time spent on the ground in a foreign country.  If the military wants area specialists in its intelligence ranks—and it should—then it must make this necessary commitment.  Like Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) and Olmsted Scholars, analysts chosen to gain regional expertise should be offered the opportunity to build proficiency in a target language and, just as importantly, be allowed to live abroad for a period of time in a non-military setting.  The knowledge they will gain during their hiatus for education will be invaluable.  Critical too will be their ability to fill more meaningful billets at other intelligence community (IC) agencies, most of which would not consider adding a regional specialist without a high degree of linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Analysts who do not develop regional expertise should be allowed to specialize in other areas, such as weapons systems or pertinent academic disciplines.  School seats for advanced training, knowledge-enhancing temporary duty assignments, and trips to IC conferences and seminars should all be made available to ensure analysts remain current on the latest developments in their fields.  Just as with regional experts, analysts with other specialties must be allowed to concentrate on a single area for a considerable portion of their career. 

While analysts should be provided educational and training opportunities matching their specialties for the duration of their careers, they must not be restricted solely to performing operational billets in line with their given specialty.  The imperatives of military manning, and the necessity to respond to unforeseen contingencies, will dictate otherwise.  Even when analysts are placed in billets unrelated to their specialty, however, they will benefit from the skills and knowledge acquired through their focused training and education.  Just as it is easier to learn additional languages once you’re already bilingual, the process of building expertise in a specific subject is made less difficult with practice. An analyst who is an expert on air-defense systems will be better suited to understand an insurgent network than an analyst who has never built expertise in any subject.  The most important thing is to ensure analysts understand and are given access to the process for gaining expertise, an opportunity most intelligence specialists today are not afforded.

Conclusion

In 1777, George Washington wrote, “the necessity of producing good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged.” Some two centuries later, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf made a similar statement in the aftermath of the first Gulf War: “The great military victory we achieved in Desert Storm…can be directly attributed to the excellent intelligence picture we had.” The necessity for good intelligence has endured throughout history, and accurate analysis will continue to be essential for commanders hoping to succeed as the U.S. transitions from large-scale counterinsurgency to counter-terrorism and ‘AirSea Battle.’  The military’s current system for producing and sustaining analysts, however, has struggled to invest personnel with the skills, training, and opportunities necessary to become world-class in their profession.  Those individuals who excel do so in spite of the military’s policies and programs, not because of them. 

The creation of a new intelligence analyst career field would help close the gap between the analysis the armed services currently receive and the analysis they seek.  Personnel with a talent for intelligence should be competitively selected and nurtured throughout their careers.  Significant investments in time and resources will yield a military analytical corps on par with any in the world.  The troops on the frontlines, and a nation that implicitly trusts its intelligence professionals, deserve nothing less.   

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Comments

Intel could use a fix, I am not sure it is the intel and analysis that need the fix. We are expert at collecting, and churning out slide after slide of info... I think like alot of our other problems this goes back to our aversion of risk. If something bad happens, the intel guys don't want to be in the seat because, they had the info but didn't think it was important... So they give the commander every single thing they have got... What needs to change is how intel is reported and recieved. The intel guys need to do their analysis and come back with, this is "this is whats going on and why", "this is what we think is happening and why", "This is what we think the enemies most likely COA is and why" and "this is what we think the enemies most dangerous COA is and why". Not just the pile of information that we currently are getting. Yep sometimes they are going to have to go on a gut feeling, or a theory... And sometimes it going to be wrong. But we already have that. Intel has got to be turned into something the commander can use, not a pile of info. Next, non-intel types need to butt out. Don't second guess, your not the intel guy.

I was a cold war Army 96B (35F); There is/was very little institutional interest in selecting (enlisted) personel capable of becoming even Subject Matter Experts, forget the delicate tasks of predictive intelligence and analysis. Far simpler to look for the person who can Max his PT test, or at least whip out a really spiffy power point presentation.

An interesting observation I've seen at the tactical level (BDE and below) is the superiority of intelligence products, planning and operations by those that have previously served as infantrymen or in combat arms specialties.

Not taking anything away from the author's points. Just adding an observation.

Having over 20 years experience as an active, reserve and Marine Corps government intelligence officer / specialist (plus many years in the defense private sector and of course what I do here at SWJ) I have to agree with Major Rod that previous combat arms experience makes for a more competent intelligence analyst and supervisor. Full disclosure I was assigned as an intelligence officer as a 2nd Lt though I do cherish my time as a Scout/Sniper Platoon Leader in an infantry battalion (while also serving as the S2) as probably my most satisfying assignment. That said, whilst "red teaming" during the planning process I strongly recommend using combat arms and combat support bubbas to fill their counterpart's role on the red team. It greatly reduces the BS factor.

Great article with some well thought-out points.
My main critique is this: how much duplication of effort do we really need in the IC? We already have so many analysts doing nearly the same job throughout the alphabet soup - many of whom are truly subject matter experts in their field. I agree completely that many entry-level intelligence specialists will never acquire the ability to think critically, and in fact the 0231 (intelligence specialist) field is saturated with NCOs and SNCOs of dubious quality and analytical ability. Enhanced screening would go a long way towards weeding out many of these non-performers, many of whom play a major part in the perception of intelligence specialists being only Powerpoint builders or "professional plagiarizers".
Traditional intelligence analysts are not expected to be jacks of all trades – they tend to specialize in one area. A Marine intelligence specialist can find himself developing a collections plan, managing junior intelligence specialists as well as imagery and topographic analysts, coordinating with HETs/RADBN dets, organizing a village census and any other number of tasks. This is where the apparently lost art of all-source fusion comes into play - a capable, intelligent Marine with a well-developed understanding of all the intelligence disciplines, knowledge of the greater IC, critical thinking abilities and solid written and verbal communication skills is a far greater force multiplier than a single analyst due to their wide breadth of experience, flexibility, and ability to leverage outside resources to accomplish the mission.
Your suggestions for building a professional cadre of true intelligence analysts are excellent and would undoubtedly be effective, and I agree wholeheartedly that greater standards for written and verbal communications should be established, but I would argue that instead of creating a largely redundant capability that is already met by the greater IC we should instead focus on improving the ability of our intelligence specialists to conduct all-source fusion and weeding out the non-performers.
One final nitpick: You cite Marine Warrant Officers as experts in their field, but my experiences with them have led me to conclude that the Corps' Intelligence Warrant Officer program is deeply flawed - we accept Marines from the 0231, 0241 (imagery analyst) and 0261 fields (topographic analyst), send them to an 8 week course, and then call them a "master analyst" - which often results in someone that has only been analyzing imagery for their entire career being expected to perform all-source analysis and failing miserably. This flawed concept combined with limited duty station choices have made the Warrant Officer program unattractive to many experienced, driven 0231s who enjoy a wide range of duty station options and career opportunities as opposed to 0241s and 0261s who have far fewer options.

This is a really good addition to the discussion of the problems of current military intelligence, but it is just scratching the surface. There are a lot of issues regarding the deficiencies of military intelligence as well as potential fixes that I could address, but, out of respect to those before me, I am waiting for more actual experience before making additional recommendations. I am simply a Second Lieutenant in the Army, so I can relate to LT Sloman's point of view, but I also understand the uphill battle I will be fighting not only against my rank but the Army and military community in general.
That being said, the majority of this article I fully support, but one section in particular I would like to provide another perspective.
There are several great points LT Sloman makes in this article, but his discussion about the difficulty of finding Soldiers that can actually perform analysis and not just SIGACT tracking is a constant challenge. True analysts are hard to find, regardless of the rank or position. To further complicate the issue, even finding a true analyst does not fix the problem since his or her garrison job usually ends up having nothing to do with his or her job once deployed - it is like having an infantryman not fire his rifle until he is on a live-fire range.
As I said earlier, I definitely enjoyed this article, yet I had one strong disagreement when it came to the conclusion to the essay. When stressing the importance of military intelligence, LT Sloman used a quotation that contradicted previous arguments; General Schwarzkopf's compliment regarding the success of the Gulf War to the intelligence does not reflect the pressing need for better analysts, nor does the reference to the future of “AirSea” battle demonstrate the difficulty of an analyst's job. The type of “intelligence” General Schwarzkopf needed while fighting a conventional force was incredibly simple compared to what is needed to successfully fight a small war. Answering intelligence gaps during a conventional war for an intelligence analyst is relatively simple (where is the enemy's artillery?) compared to a small war (where is the enemy influencing the local populace?). The first question can be answered with little to no doubt and provide the commander with a definite course of action, but the second provides no definitive answers and usually does not provide a specific course of action to address it. For reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, the Army is constantly trying to shift its training focus back to large-scale, conventional wars, regardless of the fact that small wars are much more common and more difficult to fight; fighting large-scale, conventional wars is easy compared to fighting small wars, and basic tactics such as reacting to contact don't change based on the size of war the Army is fighting. This directly impacts the intelligence analysts as they are not afforded the time to adequately train for what is required of them during an actual combat deployment. This lack of training only amplifies the problem of assigning Soldiers to be analysts that do not have the capacity to think critically and instead spend their time providing pretty pictures that showed what happened instead of providing analysis that predicts what will happen.
I am hoping to expand on the topic of fixing shortfalls of Military Intelligence as I gain more experience, but until then I look forward to hearing more about what can be done alleviate the problem as well as what is going well for the Military Intelligence community.

While the author brings up a good point by identifying the lack of adequate training for entry level military analyst. I have to disagree with restricting analyst positions to encompass primarily NCOs. While NCOs are for the most part more mature, many times they are set in their ways and are more bias when introduced to new environments because of past experiences. I am an All Source Intelligence Technician in the U.S. Army and I actually prefer younger, junior analyst. Junior analyst are eager, they have a hunger and drive for knowledge and they are non bias (for the most part) and you can mold them into true professionals.

The paper did highlight the gap between DOD analyst and other agencies throughout the IC. What it did not highlight is that the majority of analyst in non DOD agencies started in the DOD and are required at least five years experience before they can take their jobs. They are also not soldiers, which allows them to focus on their particular area and skill sets.

As intelligence professionals and leaders it is our responsibility to take those new analyst, diamonds in the ruff if you will, and turn them into finished well rounded intelligence professionals.

I've been briefing the IC and DOD on foreign state cyber warfare capabilities since 2008 and I've witnessed a notable difference regarding intelligence analysts' training and skillsets between the three-letter agencies and DOD. The author has done a great pointing out the need to bring constructive change to DOD in this critical area.