Hybrid Intelligence As A Response to Hybrid Warfare?
How To Make Intelligence Collection & Verification Cheaper, Faster, and Better Using New Technologies
By Jeff Giesea
The last two decades have seen many changes in the security environment. New technologies have given rise to asymmetric opportunities. The costs of all-out war have pushed conflict into the grey zone. The lines separating state and non-state actors have blurred. So-called hybrid warfare has combined conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, and even business activities to achieve meaningful geopolitical effects.
In a sense, it has never been easier to be a bad guy seeking low-cost, high-impact methods to shape the world. Perhaps no group better illustrates these changing realities than the Russian paramilitary corporation, the Wagner Group.
While all of this may seem like bad news, there is a flip side to these trends: Just as new technologies have reduced the cost and increased the impact of warfare, they have created new possibilities for cheaper, better intelligence collection and verification.
But have we taken advantage of these possibilities? Have intelligence professionals evolved their methods as quickly as political technologists and warfare entrepreneurs have? What is the intelligence equivalent of hybrid warfare anyways?
I want to propose a concept called hybrid intelligence. I don’t know if hybrid intelligence is the right term (agile intelligence?), but I’d like to suggest that a new, lighter-weight approach to intelligence is not only possible but necessary to address threats in the contemporary security environment.
Hybrid intelligence, as I am calling it, is cheaper, better, faster, and more agile than traditional intelligence. It combines multiple sources of intelligence in a lightweight manner. It uses the latest technology to leapfrog old methods. It leans forward and gets within the innovation cycle of adversaries.
While traditional intelligence relies heavily on signals intelligence (i.e., eavesdropping) and proprietary technology, hybrid intelligence combines human intelligence with aerial intelligence, open-source intelligence (OSINT), and other technology-enabled forms of intelligence. And it isn’t afraid to use off-the-shelf commercial technology. Hybrid intelligence, like hybrid warfare, is fundamentally an entrepreneurial endeavor centered around innovation, adaptation, and technology.
Hybrid intelligence offers significant potential in several areas. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has evolved from newspapers to something much broader in recent years, mining the exponential growth of publicly available information. The OSINT revolution has been underway for several years now. This trend is best illustrated by outfits like Bellingcat. But really, an entire industry has emerged around OSINT.
Overhead intelligence has incredible upside potential as well. Advancements in Earth Observation, UAV technologies, and AI-enabled surveillance and collection over the last decade have been mind-boggling. Costs have gone way down, while capabilities have blossomed and improved. We have barely scratched the surface of the possibilities of these technologies.
Advancements in robotics, AI, facial recognition, and big data present opportunities as well. Even police technologies like those currently used in Beverly Hills can be deployed for hybrid intelligence.
I’m less familiar with trends in human intelligence, but the upside here may be twofold: to do more of it and to better integrate it with other forms of intelligence.
To see what hybrid intelligence might look like in action, let’s consider the challenge of tracking opium production — and the groups behind it — in the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle refers to the mountainous region where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar meet.
The majority of the region’s opium is produced in Myanmar, where production of opium has reached a nine-year high. Production doubled in 2022 from 2021 following the military coup, which plunged Myanmar into a civil conflict that is still underway.
The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently released its 2022 report on opium production in Myanmar. Their methodology combined the use of satellite imagery with field verification and yield surveys.
If a hybrid intelligence team was assigned to monitor and track opium production, and identify the groups behind it, how might they do it? What could that look like?
It might look like a forestry group taking an inventory of every tree or resource in the region using satellite remote sensing, and in turn identifying every poppy field. It might look like using human intelligence to identify major processing and distribution locations. Then using camera-equipped drones to track and identify the people behind these centers, capturing their faces using facial recognition.
OSINT can be used to build a more complete picture of the opium trade and the players behind it — their interests, families, and networks — as well as the geospatial and financial picture. An OSINT group might even be the sponsor of the hybrid intelligence effort, much as CityLab and Bellingcat have undertaken investigations.
A decade ago it would’ve been technically complex and very expensive to persistently monitor the Golden Triangle using high-quality aerial intelligence via satellites and drones. Today not so much. Thus, part of the hybrid intelligence operation could involve building or buying GIS analytics specifically tailored to persistently monitor the region’s poppy production, then harvesting images regularly produced by drones and satellites.
This may be the most fundamental shift made possible by new surveillance technology: persistent monitoring. These capabilities allow for improved intelligence gathering and verification at a fraction of the cost and in near real-time.
Bad actors may have many dangerous asymmetric opportunities at their fingertips, but they can never hide once identified. Hybrid intelligence makes it possible to deny them operating space.