Small Wars Journal

The Trajectory of Intelligence Practice from DESERT SHIELD to IRAQI FREEDOM to Today

Wed, 03/20/2013 - 3:30am

As a young captain in 1991 I served in the G2 section of the 2nd Marine Division (MARDIV) during Operation Desert Storm (DS). Following perceived intelligence shortcomings within the Marine Corps during that war a serious of programs were launched to reform the Marine Corps intelligence community and improve how intelligence was created and used within the Corps. These reforms became known as the Van Riper Plan.  I had the unique opportunity to witness the evolution of the intelligence field from a nearly identical perspective at Division-level combat operations. In the summer of 2001 I had returned to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) as the G2 of the 1st MARDIV and three weeks later the attacks in New York and the Pentagon took place. Within a month the Division had Marines in Afghanistan and 18 months later, in 2003, we invaded Iraq and captured Baghdad and Tikrit as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF I). In many cases the changes within the intelligence field were extraordinary and in some cases there was little improvement. In a number of areas there was a clear trajectory of growth that has continued from DS to OIF I to the current ISAF Operation in Afghanistan. This trajectory (1991-2003-2013) holds value as a guide for what we need to educate and train our Marines to do to be ready for the challenges of the next decade.    

From my experience here are ten trends worth examining:

Be Prepared to Dynamically Identify Opportunities and Exploit Success

Due to changes in both friendly and enemy operational capabilities we have to be prepared to think and operate further and faster than before.

In 1991, my Division (2MARDIV) attacked 60 kilometers in three days through an obstacle belt to seize the Mutlah Ridge west of Kuwait City.   We fought the war on a large 1:50,000 map.  Due to the success of the Coalition attack, a truce was rapidly negotiated to end the war; fortunately without the Marine forces having to move again.  It’s a good thing….because we had no intelligence assets poised with the capability to look any further north.  We had not planned beyond the initial fight to liberate Kuwait City.   

In 2003 my Division (1MARDIV) launched the invasion of Iraq and attacked 500 kilometers (using a series of 1:100,000 maps) in two weeks to attack and occupy the eastern half of Baghdad.  Unfortunately, we had not adequately planned and prepared for what to target once we reached Baghdad, having been assured that “people above you” were working the issue.    Little intelligence was forthcoming regarding the situation in Baghdad. We were dependent on locally devised battlefield information to drive operations. Imagine my unease when the Division was then tasked to send a task force another 300 kilometers north through unsecured territory to seize Tikrit. Our entire planning effort, collection plan and map stock reached no further north than Baghdad. I failed to think and plan in time and space beyond the immediate fight for Baghdad. I was not ready to exploit the operational success of the Division. There were no collection assets at my level that I could control to follow through the most likely outcome (success) of our actions.  Nor were we ready to focus our assets on the resultant instability within the population that we should have anticipated would naturally arise after the iron fist of Saddam was removed. 

Intelligence professionals need to think beyond the current mission to have resources in place to confirm or deny the most likely and most dangerous second and third order effects of the ongoing operation.  We had, and still have, a tendency to devote collection and analytical assets to the current operations, be it at the tactical (sweep of a village), operational (capture of Baghdad) or strategic (expelling the Taliban from power) level.   We saturate the target with assets and continue to stare at it until the mission is complete, and then move assets and attention to the next mission.  Doing business this way means giving the enemy a chance to regroup and recover.  It takes time to position assets, for them to collect, for the “take” to be processed, analyzed and disseminated. Moving collection assets off the objective while the outcome is not yet in-hand, means having to accept risk in coverage of the current op when moving the focus ahead.  It is easy to say, tougher to do. Dynamic intelligence is the name of the game. We must be able to focus ahead to be able to detect and exploit opportunity.   

You've Got A Lot On Your Plate

The intelligence professional today and in the future will be challenged by the need to provide information and analysis about a wide range of topics and issues beyond the traditional threat-based focus of intelligence work. 

During Desert Storm my Division’s concern was locating, closing with and destroying conventional Iraqi forces which wore uniforms, drove military vehicles and occupied fixed, defensive military positions. We were focused on the defensive belt constructed on the northern side of the Saudi- Kuwaiti border, the artillery positions that could provide fire support to the defenses and the armor units that could reinforce and counterattack against our assault.  These positions were for the most part in the open desert area of southern Kuwait.

Similarly, in Iraqi Freedom our initial priority intelligence requirements concerned conventional Iraqi forces as well as an intensive analysis of the difficult terrain of southern Iraq.   We were interested in the status and location of Iraqi forces in garrison, and the movement of Republican Guard Armor and Mechanized Divisions that could impede our assault to Baghdad. In the attack to Baghdad my Division’s most critical intelligence requirement was the location of large-caliber Iraqi artillery capable of firing chemical rounds.  Once we arrived outside Baghdad our focus shifted to determining what key features and nodes needed to be addressed to secure our half of a city of five million people. In a matter of days after capturing Baghdad and Tikrit, our work transitioned to an ad hoc effort to find the elusive weapons of mass destruction, track individuals of interest, determine political leadership and loyalties, assess infrastructure needs, determine governance gaps and gauge the attitudes of the population. These were tasks that national and theater level assets and analysts were completely useless at addressing.  It is a tribute to the quality of our Marines and their training that the same Marines that had been pinpointing T-72s and BMPs for destruction days prior were now collecting and analyzing governance and developmental issues.  

This is the same wide range of issues Marines in Afghanistan are dealing with today.  Afghanistan is not an anomaly. Power in the 21st century has spread increasingly to non-state and sub-state actors exploiting historic, economic or governance grievances. Some might argue that it shouldn’t be Marines looking at these requirements, that “someone else” should be doing it. Unfortunately, experience over the last decade has shown that in the places we go, there usually aren’t enough “someone elses” there with us to do this important work, nor have these “someone elses” been any better equipped at addressing these issues.     

Dissemination is Good and Can Always Get Better

Over the past twenty years the Marine Corps has made great strides in our ability to move intelligence throughout the battlespace.                                                                  

In Desert Storm the Division G2 disseminated intelligence via voice “push- to- talk” radio, making paper copies of our daily Intel Summary (INTSUM) and by having Lance Corporals make   acetate overlays by hand each night of the enemy situation that we gave to motorcycle couriers for delivery to the regiments and battalions. Our means to move intelligence around the battlefield was not too different from 60 years before in WWII or 130 years previously in the Civil War.  Our link to our higher headquarters was a single Trojan Spirit terminal in the Division CP which we used to receive and print out classified text messages from theater and national headquarters and agencies. The Tiger Brigade, of the Army’s 2nd Armored Division, was attached to our Division to provide an added offensive armor punch. They brought with them a field fax machine which was placed in the Division Command Post for us to send them our daily INTSUMs and other reports. We were like cavemen looking at fire.  

A mere 12 years later due to efforts by the communicators of the Marine Corps to align USMC practices with current civilian standards and capabilities there were huge improvements in our ability to communicate and move data.  Much of this capability came from purchasing commercial off the shelf equipment in the years immediately prior to OIF. According to the MEF G6, during OIF I, 80 % of the higher-level connectivity between the Marine forces was via commercial gear. We had the satellite bandwidth to send email with attachments and overlays to multiple units - a capability only just being introduced when I had joined the Division 18 months before.    Bandwidth enabled command group video teleconferences, sporadic streaming video feeds and the posting of a near real-time enemy common operational picture.  

Mobile Trojan Spirit II terminals located at the Division Main and Forward Command Posts (CPs) and with Regimental CPs gave us reliable connectivity and access to national and theater websites containing products, reporting and collection data. We had a limited capability to move those products between major units of the force, with a digital divide still existing between the Regiments and Battalions. Ironically this divide hurt higher headquarters (HHQ) the most. During combat operations, the flow of combat information up enables major unit success, while what HHQ pushes down is of little relevance to the unit in the fight.  It is an irony that once the fighting starts the  HHQ which is where the most senior and experienced officers and the best communications capability are, become reliant on the most junior officers with the worst communications capability to keep them informed.   

The Trojan Spirit also provided the ability to monitor a number of chat rooms which were being used to send real time information from collectors operating in the Iraqi battle space. To provide this level of Trojan Spirit capability entailed stripping the rest of the USMC of this capability.  Literally days before crossing the line of departure in March 2003 the Division was provided with the blue force tracker, an identification system that included an instant messaging system capability down to the battalion level. While we recognized the potential of this capability, and used it on several occasions for time-sensitive warnings of imminent attacks, we did not exploit this system to its complete capability throughout the Division.    

 Communication in real-time via text messaging with instantly uploaded  pictures and images to handheld devices and shared portals are now the norm in civilian society.  We need to consider how we move intelligence among the force. Is it unrealistic to think about a handheld, satellite - based, network with  intelligence image and text messaging capability to the platoon level?  Would that lead to information overload? Surely, filters and tagging can overcome that problem. Should Intel reports be produced with no more than an initial 140 characters that can fit a handheld screen with links to additional data, images or situation maps? Can we consider a roll-on/roll-off secure cellular network?   Is there a role for webcams? Since the trajectory of civilian best practice (fax-email-text-chat) has been our model for the last 20 years we should be looking at civilian best practice today to see what we should be tracking and exploiting for the future.   

Learn Your Tools, Know Your Collectors--Then Be Creative  

During Desert Storm in 1991, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) was a new capability that the Marine Corps had not worked with previously. The JSTARS is an airborne platform originally designed to collect and target movements of Soviet armored forces in Europe, and was deployed to Desert Storm to give early warning of Iraqi vehicle movements in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. Unfortunately without a JSTARS ground station co-located with the Division, we missed an opportunity to learn firsthand about the system’s capabilities and limitations. All of the threat warnings that the Iraqi forces were on the move came via voice radio calls from higher headquarters.  There were frantic warnings of movement nearly every night, but only one was an actual deployment of Iraqi T-62 Battalions deploying to attack us. We had no one we could learn from about the limitations of the platform. After a number of false alarms, with no one to teach us about the limitations of the platform, we wrote off the JSTARS and ignored whatever capabilities it may have had.

Early in the planning phase for Iraq Freedom the Division had a JSTARS Common Ground Station (CGS) from the Army’s 513th Military Intelligence Brigade attached to the G2. The ability of the Division G2 Marines to work and learn from the CGS operators improved our understanding of JSTARS capabilities and resulted in the G2 being able to  use the system to not only track movements of Iraqi units but also to use the system in unconventional ways to fulfill vital intelligence requirements. The JSTARS team’s efforts allowed 1st MARDIV to validate that the unfinished Highway 1 construction corridor was a suitable avenue of approach for the Division’s main attack to Baghdad. The use of this unexpected and undefended route allowed the division to bypass numerous garrisoned, urban choke points until crossing the Tigris River.   Similarly the JSTARs operators were able to give us a real-time assessment regarding the status of bridges across the Tigris and Diyala Rivers as the Division approached Baghdad.   The JSTARS GCS would have not been as useful and responsive if it had been located hundreds of kilometers away in some distant headquarters. It pays to locate collectors with the units they support- it allow for a valuable mutual exchange regarding capabilities and requirements.   This mutual exchange allows tools to be adapted for a wide variety of contingencies.       

Plan to Share

Intelligence in the 21st century has to be produced with the understanding that at some point it may need to be shared outside of US-only channels to be relevant and useful. 

During Desert Storm my division had Syrian and Egyptian armored divisions on our left flank. On our right flank, 1st MARDIV was operating with forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). We had no mechanism to share intelligence with them…. in fact we didn’t even consider the possibility. As a result we were blind to enemy actions on our flank; it was hours after we launched our attack that we realized the Syrians and Egyptians had not attacked simultaneously with us as had been planned, leaving a huge vulnerability the enemy could have exploited.

In March of 2003 the day after the 1St MARDIV attacked across the Iraqi border we conducted a passage of lines and relief in place with the 1st UK Armored Division which moved north to secure Basra as we turned west towards Baghdad. In August of 2003 1ST MARDIV was replaced by a Polish-led coalition division that included a wide variety of NATO and non- NATO nations including Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Guatemala and El Salvador. We obviously needed to share intelligence with these forces, yet had no formal, approved mechanism in place to do so.  

Marines in Afghanistan in 2013 face an expanded challenge; not only the need to share with the other 49 nations in ISAF (22 of which are not in NATO), but with the wide variety of civilian organizations and agencies working in Helmand. It is also imperative that the Marines be able to share with the Afghan forces they are training and mentoring to provide security for the Afghan people.    

Our operations now routinely are within an international, interagency team. We must rethink how and why intelligence is classified and move towards sharing. If identifiable damage isn’t likely or it doesn’t reveal sources and methods – it should be shared with partners. Maintaining our current close-hold, instinctively NOFORN business practice undermines the mission, prolongs the operation and puts Marines at risk.  

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Can Be Awesome--When Used Properly

UAVs are a tremendously effective and versatile tool. Initially slow to exploit the emerging capabilities of this tool, the Marine Corps has made great strides in the past decade. 

During Desert Storm UAVs were a new capability. At the time they were called RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles) and were organized as a company within the MAF’s SRIG (Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Intelligence Group).  The Marine Corps along with the Navy flew the Pioneer aircraft, a modified Israeli system, which primarily was tasked by the fire support coordinator for artillery and naval gunfire target spotting and fire direction. RPV platforms were few and far between and in the three years prior to Desert Storm the Division G2 section had little experience operating with them. During the war, mission planning, coordination and the conduct of the RPV flights were done by the MAF HQ.  If the RPV picked up information of value to a ground unit the RPV ground station operator would relay it to MAF G2, which would pass it to the Division G2 who would then finally relay it to the appropriate tactical unit. Once or twice during the war we were able to coordinate with the flight of the RPV with ground operations to provide overwatch of the ground units. While we recognized the tremendous potential of the tool; limited numbers, centralization of control & tasking and an indirect and slow reporting chain frustrated the ability to take full advantage of the RPV capability.

When I returned to the Fleet Marine Force in 2001 the same Pioneer platform was still in use and by 2003 they had been renamed UAVs and were organized in two squadrons within the Marine Air Wing, VMU s 1 and 2. Prior to deployment to Iraqi Freedom the division had an opportunity to become acquainted with the capabilities of the UAV and meet the VMU squadron leadership to learn firsthand the capabilities of the system and to coordinate the concept of operations.  Marine air-ground coordination at its best!

The MEF provided the majority of the VMU sorties in direct support of the division during most of the operation. The VMU placed its handful of remote receive stations within the division, which allowed live video feeds to the division and at times a regimental combat team. This relationship allowed the intelligence sections of the division, and at times regiment, to steer the UAV to the point of relevance in support of the tactical commander. This decentralized control led to a minimal gap between sensor to shooter with intelligence and fires personnel sitting shoulder to shoulder identifying targets, shooting missions, adjusting fire and conducting damage assessments within minutes.  Chat rooms enabled simultaneous coordination and sharing or reporting between numerous headquarters down to the regimental level. Limitations of the UAV included its range and time on station, the move and setup time and the fact that the video feed was line of sight and only available to a limited number of remote receive stations.

   In late 2002 just prior to deployment the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab provided the 1ST MARDIV with several prototype Dragon Eye tactical UAVs. The Dragon Eyes became the battalion commander’s organic eye in the sky without the need to engage the collection bureaucracy.  Advances in UAV receivers in the past decade have now made UAV feeds available across the battlespace to multiple, simultaneous users instead of the video being sent back only to the home station of the UAV. The Marine Corps now operates a family of tactical and operational level UAVs and is supported by a number of theater and national level platforms.  UAV missions and capabilities will continue to evolve rapidly, paralleling the airplane’s curve of evolution following WW I. Pushing control of the UAV down is the key to the relevance of this asset. We can give a Marine a fish… or give him a fishing pole.  

Our Need for HUMINT Exceeds Our Ability to Produce It

During Desert Storm the division had a handful of Interrogator Translator Teams (ITTs) attached to us from the SRIG.  The mission of these Marines was to do hasty, frontline interrogations of enemy prisoners of war (EPWs) for exploitable tactical information. The thousands of EPWs anxious to surrender to the division rapidly overwhelmed the interrogators available. In several cases EPWs had tactical intelligence of value to frontline units, but time constraints and the volume of interrogations provided no opportunity for interrogators and supported tactical units to pass EPW intelligence to higher headquarters. The vast majority of the thousands of prisoners were never interrogated.  The resources to adequately conduct basic field interrogations and a capability or methodology to disseminate perishable tactical intelligence to the force was lacking.          

A similar situation existed in 2003. Seven Human Exploitation Teams (HETs) were provided to the Division by the MEF’s 1ST Intelligence Battalion. These HETS were a combination of interrogators and counterintelligence Marines. The HETs were pushed forward to provide the supported battalions with the ability to do on-the-spot interrogation of EPWs and other persons of interest. While front line units received time sensitive intelligence that could be exploited for tactical gain, the large number of persons of intelligence value encountered by the battalions once again rapidly overwhelmed the ability to process and report the information.  There was little ability or opportunity to collaborate, confirm or disseminate the reporting. HETs were confronted with the need not only to conduct traditional EPW interrogations but were also inundated with the need to interact with dozens of local sheiks,  powerbrokers and government officials who were potential sources of invaluable intelligence. Compounding the challenges faced by the HETs was the fact that prior to the attack into Iraq there had been little opportunity to train with, and establish habitual relationships between, supported infantry commanders and the HETs. Supported commanders weren’t always aware of the capabilities and limitations of the HETs and HET members were not familiar with the operational tempo and intelligence needs of tactical commanders.        

No doubt ten years of constant combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone a long way towards breaking down these barriers of misunderstanding among Marines regarding the tactical capabilities and role of HUMINT. The focus of HUMINT operations has moved deeper into the local society beyond interrogation of EPWs. The decision to admit women Marines into the HUMINT field is a correct decision, given the fact that half of the population of the globe is female and women are much more effective and appropriate, depending on cultural backgrounds, at collecting information from women and often times men. There is no doubt in my mind that the Marine Corps will continue to be challenged to source and train adequate numbers of HUMINT Marines to fulfill the global deployment needs of our Corps.   HUMINT capabilities and networks of sources are not built overnight; we need to take advantage of opportunities to build relationships and expertise overseas through foreign capacity building programs, training, professional engagement and exercises.   

Improvements in Imagery Support and Dissemination

Desert Storm revealed huge problems in the ability of the Marine Corps to provide imagery support to tactical units. Planes flying from the United States brought hundreds of copies of paper products of images that we disseminated to the Division’s battalions that provided a picture of where the Iraqi units had been several days before. The Division via the Trojan Spirit received text reports of what theater and national imagery analysts had seen at specific places in the Kuwaiti desert the day before.  We had no capability to see or receive the actual images. Which locations were imaged was directed by higher headquarters. We received what other people thought would be of value to us. During the extended air phase of the operations hundreds of planes conducted sorties over southern Kuwait but whatever images they may have taken for bomb damage assessment (BDA) purposes were not passed to us.  Only a handful of RPV sorties were flown and the video feed only went back to the ground station at the RPV’s home airbase.  Imagery support once we were mobile and had crossed the line of departure was non-existent.  Operations outstripped Intel’s ability to support.

By 2003 some great improvements had been made in imagery production and dissemination support.  The Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA) did a fantastic job at providing us with imagery-based studies of Iraq for our planning purposes. The Falconview 3D terrain visualization software and associated stored imagery data was invaluable. UAVs, when available, did a great job and were extremely responsive.  As previously discussed, the challenge was limited time on station, limited ability to receive the video and the small area coverage of the UAV’s camera. 

The huge disseminations improvements previously discussed allowed us to move national and theater sourced images around the battlespace – once headquarters were stationary and had set up the appropriate communications. Trojan Spirit gave us the ability to search the websites of external theater and national organizations to pull down classified images and analysis of their latest sorties. Intelligence support finally transitioned from archaic "analog / hardcopy distribution" to an orchestra of systems that enabled digital file transfer processes between units on the battlefield or while underway aboard amphibious shipping.  We saw the change first hand –from DS to OIF huge strides were made.   This transition was enabled by the coincident technology revolution of the 1990's.  The Marine Corps was fortunate to reap these benefits of the new computer and internet age. Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC), Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC), and Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) did a magnificent job also in allowing units to get systems to facilitate taking advantage of this technology.  These Supporting Establishments (MCCDC, MCSC, MCIA) actually did what they were supposed to do – take advantage of commercial technology and provide the Operating Forces with the combat multiplier of images, finished intelligence, and data dissemination.   

Additionally, secure chat and voice communications gave us the ability to speak directly with national imagery analysts and develop habitual relationships. Hours before 1ST MARDIV attacked across the Iraqi border I was able to talk to the NGIC analyst who had only minutes before read out the latest satellite image of the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division, our immediate foe north of the border. What was frustrating throughout the war was our lack of visibility into what was being imaged and when. Images were usually taken of units and places we cared about - but we had to hunt to discover them among the numerous websites of dozens of organizations.  At the Division level I had the manpower and bandwidth to do this. Lower headquarters did not.    

Our ability to influence which targets were imaged was limited. We were dependent on higher headquarters to advocate for our requirements in a complicated and complex collections bureaucracy in which any organization higher in the chain could, and usually did, trump the requests of a lower unit.  We possessed no organic ability to see the status of our requests or even to confirm whether or not they were going to be shot. An irony we noted in our division  after action report was that those commanders with an immediate need for the highest resolution of the battlefield are those least able to influence the collections architecture. 

Mapping and Visualization

During Desert Storm the 2MARDIV’s mapping needs were met by a British NCO attached to our HQ with a lorry (truck)  full of maps arranged in a tubed storage system, similar to a mobile multiple rocket launcher. Whatever map you needed, somehow he had it. The maps were not very current, we had not planned on fighting in southern Kuwait - other parts of the world took priority for mapping during the Cold War. There was no capability to make or print more detailed or specialized products or to make updates incorporating changes that had occurred since the map was originally produced decades before. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) were in their infancy and only a handful existed in the Division.  So we maneuvered and navigated over a relatively featureless landscape with outdated maps of unknown accuracy.

Huge improvements in this field had been made by 2003. Southern Iraq had been an area of concern since the end of Desert Storm and the mapping stock was up to date.  Huge gains had been made in the national capability to produce updated, scalable maps based on satellite imagery. The Marine Corps had their own topographic capability which could deploy to the field to make maps and products using computer based image files to meet the needs of local commanders. Throughout the planning phases of the operation the Division received terrific support from the 1st Intelligence Battalion’s Topographic Platoon which produced high volumes of useful studies and graphics. Once on the move the Division HQ had two topographic Marines who were able to produce on-demand, tailored products within hours to meet the needs of tactical consumers on the battlefield. This on hand capability had a tremendous impact. Access to the data was half the challenge, the other half of the challenge was access to the mind of the commander reacting to the dynamic battlefield so that tailored products could be made that influenced his decisions.

Advances in technology meant some mapping needs could be met by electronic displays in vehicles and command posts. The Marine Corps Systems Command provided the Division with a handful of laptops with added memory and storage capacity to store the maps and image database for Iraq and run the Falconview 3D terrain visualization software. This basic battlespace visualization capability allowed battalion commanders to conduct detailed mission planning and rehearse video “fly-throughs” of their objective area. Today this capability is quite common in civilian systems like Google Earth… in 2003 we considered it revolutionary.  Surely it isn’t a step too far to envision Google Earth on a smart phone enabled with GPS.  Could the national community create and maintain its own overlays to Google Earth, updated in specific zones by the minute in direct support of key operations.

Despite these “revolutionary” technologies in digital mapping we still needed to put paper maps in the hands of Marines for planning, visualization and navigation. As previously mentioned when the Division received the order to send a task force 300 kilometers from Baghdad to Tikrit we had no maps on hand of the area north of Baghdad.  Heads-up Marines at our higher headquarters ordered pallets of maps for us from the map depots in Bahrain that were pushed forward  via C-130, loaded into a CH-53 helicopter and unloaded in an LZ outside Baghdad. They were then sorted and distributed by hand to the Marines of Task Force Tripoli for their historic mission to secure Saddam’s home town.   

Help is Great--But No One Cares More than You

Improvements in dissemination capabilities have led to a belief that collection and analytical tools and manpower should be centralized for efficiency at higher echelons.  Given the volume of collection and reporting and the demand for rapid dissemination to meet the short time lines of commanders it is unrealistic to expect any centralized system to be successful or useful to those who are truly at the tip of the spear. Centralization is certainly efficient in peacetime, but it isn’t effective in combat operations. A scalable family of intelligence tools and analytical capabilities is required at each level in the chain of command.

During Desert Storm the 2nd MARDIV was dependent on outside agencies and organizations to provide us the intelligence picture of the Iraqi forces.  The division had no SIGINT teams deployed out to the regiments, only a handful of interrogators for EPWs and no way to receive the feeds from the occasional RPV sorties in our sector. Imagery was at least a day old before we received it. We were feed intelligence from the assets of the SRI Group located at MAF headquarters.  The manning of the division G2 had recently been halved in order to provide manning for the standup of the SRI Group.   Our higher headquarters tried the best they could to support our requirements, but they were focused on the needs of their commander and staff.  It is human nature and understandable, intelligence officers focus first on meeting the needs of their immediate boss….. the guy who puts his finger in your chest.  Once we crossed the border our higher headquarters was largely irrelevant to us and we were dependent on our tactical units to collect and report combat intelligence.

In 2003 we received very good support, during the planning phase of the operation, from national level agencies, MCIA and our higher headquarters. National level agencies did a great job at providing intelligence on the terrain, fixed facilities and conventional forces. The communication advances discussed previously gave us near real-time access to imagery and other relevant data of units in southern Iraq.  Prior to crossing the line of departure we were successful at persuading MEF to provide us a variety of SIGINT, HUMINT and IMINT collection teams and tools to operate in direct support of our maneuver units. Because of our planned long-range, rapid advance we anticipated that we would outrun the ability of distant headquarters to support us. Once combat operations began, the rapid pace of operations did indeed outstrip the ability of distant organizations to provide timely, accurate and relevant intelligence to our commanders on the move.  The centralized theater intelligence did a good job at providing us a picture of the strategic picture and a fair job of describing the operational picture. We knew where the Iraqi Divisions were and which ones were on the move. But the centralized architecture was too slow and focused at the wrong level to be tactically relevant. Our rapidly moving units found the enemy in much the same way that mounted units have found the enemy for centuries- by contact.

 Intelligence like politics is all local.  The focus of detail and what is important and relevant to a battalion commander is entirely different from what an analyst or intelligence officer supporting a Division considers important and actionable. Despite my best intentions, I too was guilty of taking care of the man with his finger in my chest first and foremost.  Providing collection assets in direct support of the regiments was my attempt to ensure they weren’t dependent on division HQ to provide the intelligence they needed to augment their hard won combat information. There was certainly a gap between the number of assets available and the number we needed. A clear need was demonstrated for a continued need for a decentralized organic collections capability at the division, regimental and battalion level to augment the support provided by theater and national assets and organizations.  

The nature of warfighting has changed between 1991 and today.  Intelligence – both tactical and strategic – has also changed dramatically to adapt to this evolution.  Today our requirement is not only to be able to find and destroy a conventional foe, but to see, understand and anticipate where, when and what the capabilities of the next asymmetric threat will be.  From Operation Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom to Afghanistan intelligence has made impressive incremental advances over the past twenty years. Continuous combat operations have been the key driver of this innovative intelligence evolution. Intelligence professionals today have earned a level of professional credibility, access and impact on decision-makers that we only dreamed of in 1991.  Commanders today expect and rely on “their 2” to know their needs before they state them…..  like a nurse in an operating room who anticipates and has the correct scalpel ready when the doctor’s hand starts to move.   

To have been a witness to the great strides the Marine Corps made following the intelligence shortcomings identified in Desert Storm has been an extraordinary experience.  The Marine Corps’ reforms and enhancements to improve intelligence have been truly remarkable and largely successful. We must build on these hard won lessons learned, focus on decentralized tools to address decentralized threats and find ways to continue to innovate in order to ready to defend our nation against the threats and challenges of 2023.    

About the Author(s)

James Howcroft serves as the Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center. Professor Howcroft retired as a Colonel after 30 years as an Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in a wide range of Marine Corps tactical and operational intelligence billets, from Infantry Battalion up to the Marine Expeditionary Force level. His combat tours include duty with the 2nd Marine Division in Operation Desert Storm and tours of duty as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G2) with both the 1st Marine Division and then the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.



Mon, 03/25/2013 - 5:41am

In reply to by MIKE.S

Thanks Mike for the comments. You provide a great example of creativity and adaptive people overcoming slow, dysfunctional processes that make sense in peacetime and look good on paper but don't support those who need the best most timely intel the most!

I'm a young intelligence officer in the Air Force and I recently returned from a deployment working ISR at the tactical level with Army units. It was great to read your narratives on how the intel system has progressed over the years to where it is now. I'm happy to say that many of the issues you identify - including making the collection management cycle more tailored to tactical users and better aligning collection with tactical movement (to prevent finding the enemy with contact) - are currently being worked by a group of Air Force personnel called ISR Liaison Officers that embed with other services and nations to improve Air Force ISR support. Knowing some of the history behind the current system and how the Marines were able to overcome similar issues in the past was very enlightening. Great article.


Wed, 03/20/2013 - 12:23pm

Another excellent article by James Howcroft and I expect to learn more when read again another day. There are some interesting parallels with intelligence in UK law enforcement, with this example as a reminder 'It is an irony that once the fighting starts the HHQ which is where the most senior and experienced officers and the best communications capability are, become reliant on the most junior officers with the worst communications capability to keep them informed'.

SWJ gains from other experiences and viewpoints so I offer this British article on the 2003 war, which appeared yesterday: 'The US army's initial assault on Iraq was meant to be a show of superior intelligence and overwhelming force. But the reality on the ground was very different, writes documentary maker Richard Sanders'.