Small Wars Journal

America Needs Special Forces For Open-Source Intelligence

Sun, 02/12/2023 - 5:58pm


America Needs Special Forces For Open-Source Intelligence

How Hybrid Intelligence Operators Could Fill This Role


By Jeff Giesea

This is the second part of a series developing a concept I’m calling hybrid intelligence. In part 1, I defined hybrid intelligence as an agile and integrative approach to intelligence, positioned as a response to hybrid warfare. In this piece, I explore hybrid warfare as a special forces-like capability.

Imagine this scenario. A coup attempt is gaining steam in a Sub-Saharan African nation. The U.S. government’s level of intelligence about the situation is low… too low given potential ripple effects. The staff at the local embassy has as much of a handle on the situation as they can, drawing from all available agencies, resources, and partner governments. But it is not enough. Officials need to improve the way we monitor the situation as quickly as possible so leaders in Washington can make the smartest decisions possible. Where do they turn?

This is one of the problems that could be solved by building a hybrid intelligence capability. In practice, this could look like having a sort of special forces for intelligence — technical, innovative crack teams that rapidly innovate intelligence solutions drawing from any and all sources, including open sources.

Imagine having access to scores of OSINT-oriented hybrid intelligence operators trained specifically to address this type of situation. Imagine, in turn, a SOCOM-like center dispatching teams to surgically solve these types of challenges.

The mission of hybrid intelligence command could be as follows: to provide rapid, technology-driven intelligence gathering solutions that improve decision-making in pivotal situations, drawing from all sources and methods.

Elements of this capability may exist in different areas or under different names. I do not have a military or intelligence background, so forgive me if I butcher terminology or overlook existing resources. But my sense is that a resource for rapid OSINT+ intelligence gathering solutions could add tremendous value across a range of scenarios.

Not all of these scenarios are as James Bond-sounding as helping collect information amid a brewing coup in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many use cases are more business-like and technical.

Consider, for example, a government leader leading an anti-corruption effort. She wants to track specific indicators drawn from a range of sources, some open-source and others classified. She doesn’t like having to wait until information percolates up to her from her staff, and even then it is often incomplete, siloed, and dated. Instead, she wants faster, more complete information at her fingertips. She wants to see new patterns and insights.

Imagine another government leader managing a situation that requires tracking world-wide lithium as quickly as possible. Any single type of intelligence is not enough to provide the information that will help him make decisions. He needs a blend of human, commercial, and geospatial information from multiple sources, including open-sourced datasets and information from commercial services like Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Much of the data he needs is accessible, it just hasn’t been integrated into a useful tool or format.

These scenarios would be served by a hybrid intelligence capability with an OSINT flavor. Both scenarios involve integrating existing information from multiple sources into usable tools and formats, while identifying where more information could be collected and then getting it.

It might be tempting to view hybrid intelligence as an exercise in integrating technologies. It is true that hybrid intelligence operators should be expert at applying technologies to solve problems whether it is business intelligence software, analytics tools, drones, low-code/no-code solutions, or artificial intelligence-powered services.

But it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole hybrid intelligence as technical support. Hybrid intelligence is operational — a fast, flexible, and adaptive driving force for collecting new intelligence and building intelligence solutions. It is not a technical capability but a capability that uses technology.

By the same token, it would be a mistake to view hybrid intelligence as an extension of human intelligence. Don’t get me wrong, hybrid intelligence values human intelligence. But it is integrative and cross-disciplinary in the same way that Navy SEALs and Green Berets draw from multiple skill buckets. Hybrid intelligence surfs across all intelligence disciplines. It is closer to the spirit of OSINT, if anything, but not limited to open sources.

If there is a single defining quality of a hybrid intelligence operator, it is resourcefulness. Hybrid intelligence operators, as I imagine them, would be lateral thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers. They would create out-of-the-box solutions from out-of-the-box resources. They would have a relentless focus on gathering useful intelligence and building useful solutions that help leaders make smarter decisions. They would prefer lean, mean, and fast to big, slow, and perfect. Some might think of this as an SOF mindset but for intelligence.

Structurally, hybrid intelligence teams could be organized like special forces:

  • Small, tactical teams with expert skills
  • Guerrilla-like speed, focus, and blend of tactics
  • Highly agile, integrative, and surgical
  • Draw from any and all sources to solve problems
  • Trained to adapt, innovate, and get the job done

Training for hybrid intelligence might look like training for other special operators — intense training around different modules, followed by specialized training based on a specialty. Some hybrid intelligence operators may be highly technical engineers. Others may be skilled in human intelligence, open-source research, product management, or aerial technologies.

Three keys to success for hybrid intelligence include adaptability, flexibility, and technical knowledge. Just as adversaries learn and adapt recursively, seeking out the latest technologies to create asymmetric effects, so must hybrid intelligence operators embrace an innovator’s mindset. They must keep tabs on the latest tools and technologies.

A hybrid intelligence capability could live in any number of places within the U.S. government. For example, a hybrid intelligence capability could be developed as a center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). It could be developed within the special forces itself, as a new capability or MOD, or an extension of existing ones. Hybrid intelligence also fits hand-in-glove with proposals to create an OSINT agency, as a more robust version of OSINT. It could also be developed outside of government through a nexus of NGOs and private companies, and through training and credentialing. These ideas are not mutually exclusive and need more thought.

In today’s security environment, we depend on the unique qualities of Special Operations Forces more than ever. This is despite being only 3 percent of the joint force. The SOF model, including its truths and history, strikes me as directly applicable to the hybrid intelligence concept. Creating a special forces-like capability for open source-flavored intelligence could be a powerful way to up our game and help win the century.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Giesea (@JeffGiesea) is the founder of The Boyd Institute, a non-profit research institute focused on policy innovation.


There are many problems with intelligence, in general, and in various types of intelligence, in particular. This can be traced back to at least WWII.

Vietnam saw General Abrams, just prior the Easter Offensive of 1972, upset with the problems we were having with the latest variant of the SA-2.

Many SOG reports were first dealt with in the same manner as the 571st MI Detachment (a HUMINT unit and only intelligence unit in I Corps during the Easter Offensive of 1972) ones were, “In Saigon there was a hesitance to accept SOG’s warnings by minimizing and nitpicking intelligence reports, which came to a head during a briefing for General Abrams.” After “a MACV staff officer began demanding arcane details before the
intelligence could be accepted,” Abrams erupted and verbally ensured there would be no further challenges to SOG recon team reports. 

Both stove-piping of intelligence in presenting only one voice up command levels and relying on a single or few types of intelligence has remained a problem since WWII.