Small Wars Journal

Dumping Abraham Lincoln: Tactical Digital Intelligence Strategy Insights in Afghanistan

Sun, 04/07/2019 - 2:37pm

Dumping Abraham Lincoln: Tactical Digital Intelligence Strategy Insights in Afghanistan

Nick Rife and Josh Brown

Few things in life induce a greater sense of accomplishment than implementing a digital strategy that produces tangible results while serving as an intelligence Soldier at a US Army tactical echelon.  A rarely replicated degree of hubris consumes the self because ingesting data and extracting the right insights at the right time as a component of the Army mission command intelligence enterprise is indeed a strategic vision quest of herculean magnitude.  In the age of Tesla and Twitter however, the well of results seems to be running dryer than a Sonoran lake bed under summer’s heat. The underlying Army intelligence establishment, whose proponent coincidentally calls the Sonoran Desert home, is challenged in pacing with an evolving contemporary threat environment.  Complicating matters are the atrocious digital tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) adhered to by US Army intelligence Soldiers and technical leadership, immaterial of the phase of conflict or discipline of intelligence support.  Despite a community of high-octane stakeholders and well-intentioned do-gooders, tactical Army intelligence struggles to implement digital strategies, at scale, commensurate with the types of technologies available.

Dumping Abraham Lincoln will explore training, operational and implementation challenges observed by a senior Army All-Source Intelligence Technician. Taken holistically, these observations describe a facet of the slow erosion of credibility in tactical Military Intelligence (MI), reduced intelligence readiness rates force-wide, and an intelligence warfighting enterprise unprepared to confront or maintain pace with, let alone project rapidly modernizing technologies. Such observations reveal a widening gap in the Army’s intelligence readiness to support large scale combat operations following more than a decade of counter-insurgency operations.

Training for the Unknown

Devising a training strategy that scales with an MI professional’s career progression and is synchronized with military education and key developmental assignment timelines is no small task. The US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence (USAICoE), and various other Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) elements have made immeasurable contributions to ensuring a high collective state of doctrinal competency within the Army’s intelligence enterprise. The missing training theme to the Army intelligence career timeline is developing a comprehensive understanding of the digital component to warfighting. This component is responsible for attaining the appropriate pace and synchronization of data fusion efforts in support of combat operations. Executed at echelon, effective digital strategy bridges the gap between Soldier and machine and can effectively merge human thinking with computer automation to discover untold efficiencies.  As a factor of training, identifying and aligning intelligence warfighting efforts with Army mission command modernization priorities enforces effective promulgation of digital craft within Army MI.

With support and resources from US Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) and Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), the first in a series of strategic steps have been taken to account for the digital gap in technical training. The inception of courses like the Army Digital Intelligence Systems Master Gunner Course (DISMGC) is the type of innovative approach that bridges the gap between conceptual and practical application. DISMGC is more than a course, however, it is an Army MI talent management strategy and community of interest that transcends major commands in order to influence the Army at all echelons. Although proven invaluable as a strategy, there are components of it ripe for optimization.  The three week academic event is limited by the constraints associated with the typical classroom environment – lack of immersion.

Immersive implementation environments foster the creativity and provide the technical repetitions necessary to develop dynamic digital frameworks. The Army devotes copious resources to create the conditions necessary for such environments to exist, albeit woefully synthetic in some cases. From a digital standpoint, the ‘train as you fight’ mentality is not underscored as a critical requirement because the return on investment is not necessarily appreciated during individual and crew level training events; the results of which are a lack of depth in the tactical intelligence enterprise’s ability to see the enemy through multiple lenses, subsequently limiting impacts of intelligence support to operations.

Call it intelligence ‘infield practice’ that could unleash potential in some organizations. Instead of executing the reps and sets required to build a foundation of technical understanding, units historically shift to analysis and visualization via the trustworthy and proven Microsoft Office tool suite. This is a practice competent MI professionals should be loath to admit in 2019, but is easily corrected with some minor digital sleuthing and commitment to cross-functional digital immersion.

Operational Considerations

No matter where in the spectrum of conflict the Army is employed, the central objective behind tactical mission command intelligence remains consistent- find, know and never lose the enemy. What evolves over the years are the topologies and authoritative sources from which tactical MI draws its information, and thus, it’s power. One might call this concept the data Center of Gravity (dCoG). The problem with this central motif in 2019 Afghanistan for instance, is that the dCoG is different depending on which geographic area of responsibility one falls, or which major component one is assigned. It is manifested by lack of common data standards, no toolset consistency, and varying degrees of experience to drive common workflows. The ancillary effect of dCoG variability is a desynchronized intelligence picture; not only at the operational and strategic level, but from desk to desk in the same tactical infrastructure.

A colleague once referred to this phenomenon as a veritable digital strategy Tatooine, a nod to the fictional planet from Star Wars with an assortment of outcast humans and odd ball alien life.  The homage to George Lucas was never as glaring as when elements of the Army’s 2d Security Force Assistance Brigade (2d SFAB) logged on to digital systems of interest in Afghanistan, and the first database record uncovered was ‘Abraham Lincoln.’  Immediately beneath the legendary 16th POTUS in the rows and columns database was an entity representing Alex Trebek. At least it was arranged both alphabetically and chronologically.  2d SFAB intelligence leadership mandated the database be purged, or colloquially known as ‘blowing out’ or ‘dumping.’ The Abraham Lincoln experience was the fulcrum event in what could only be described as theater-wide data indigestion.

2d SFAB’s tale is the rule not the exception.  It speaks to a wider trend among tactical organizations fighting [or advising] today: In an age where the most mature operational area is as old as some enlisted Soldiers in the ranks, the only data insights lurking in an authoritative Army Program of Record (POR) silo are a US President and a game show host. Other data silos are equally derelict. No understanding of data curation or object decay within the database drive such conditions and there is no strategy promise land to cure what ails the Afghan theater on the horizon.  Why though? How, despite millions spent on hardware and software, people and support infrastructure, do we still struggle to implement a strategy that integrates subordinate echelon combat information and theater unique data sources from higher in support of fusion?  The reasons are innumerable: scale of implementation, diverging chain of command requirements, systems and network integration challenges, training and access, end-user inexperience, etc.  The list could go on in perpetuity.

Compelling arguments behind leveraging the myriad digital intelligence solutions in modern operational environments are ubiquitous. Industry name brands like AIDE, Palantir, TAK, ESRI, FADE/MIST, AGILE, DCGS-A, iGEOSit and Google Earth are pervasive in every tactical operations center the world over. What is not pervasive is the technical understanding to provide elegant solutions to complex intelligence architecture problems, immaterial of the wider combatant command or theater network architecture. Additional friction ensues when identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the flagship digital capabilities. Some are stronger in the command and control space while others are strong in the intelligence space. Some are available on one security enclave with an abundance of user access. Still others are available in domain specific environments or on “the high side” where access is inherently limited. Few share records or ontologies for ease of integration or manipulation.

The consequences of the current digital capability Lord of the Flies dynamic are problematic. Users tend to take sides, which is counterproductive in a hyper-modernization period where proof of efficacy relies on staying synchronized with the strategy. Moreover, making the distinction between visualization solutions and analytic solutions is a crucial technical detail that is overlooked the vast majority of the time.

If You Build It, They Will Come: The Convergence of Technology and Capability

Transformational tech in support of tactical military intelligence operations is not a future possibility, it is here and now. What has not yet arrived is the strategic thought put into processes and support that could direct how it will be operationalized. In other words – how will it be implemented, trained, and governed? It is said that intelligence analysis and tech implementation are part art and part science. If modern day Afghanistan is any analog for the future, it appears as if the art of intelligence analysis and science of tech implementation are satisfactory. The art of tech implementation and science of intelligence analysis is where the collective challenges are most acute.

As configured, the Afghanistan Combined Joint Operational Area is a hodgepodge of intelligence silos and stovepipes satisfying disparate points of need in multiple enclaves. There is no rhyme or reason to what goes where, and every directive mandating data be ingested into a certain platform or database evaporates when it is discovered there are niche requirements that capability cannot reasonably satisfy. The same applies in Iraq, and ostensibly Syria. The Army’s first phase of its truncated intelligence tech procurement strategy, known as ‘capability drop’, will ease tactical intelligence systems integration, maintenance and usability to a degree, however, users are not absolved of the responsibility to understand basic data concepts and the native frameworks in which data is optimized.  

Tactical MI cannot be successful without a unifying strategy. Fundamentally, Soldiers will do what they are told with a little bit of training and some understanding of what sits behind the curtain – ensuring the convergence of the digital framework and the capability of the analyst.  In order to achieve this convergence, the analyst must be able to apply training against a unified digital framework.  This framework provides access to vast sums of data, yet enables the analyst to normalize like data and extract it. Once the information is extracted, the analyst must be able to visualize the information, regardless of the overarching network architecture. However obvious or pedestrian this may sound, it has thus proven an elusive end state for the Army’s multi-intelligence discipline tactical formations.  Army intelligence personnel would benefit from understanding what analytic and visualization capabilities provide and how they differ, something that is wholesale absent in Army MI career professional development.

Palantir is unmatched in its ability to support simple comprehension and visualization of complicated data. Part of the operational issue with Palantir as a strategy lies in “what data do you have access to versus what data do you need?”  If the analyst is not pointed to the jealously guarded Palantir server that houses required data, said analyst is out of luck.  The tech titan additionally has a knack for keeping its contractors on message, delivering a consistent drum beat of inane talking points at the most inopportune times; something that with any luck will vanish as Palantir is further integrated into Army Program of Record portfolios – although this is likely wishful thinking.

Google earth is accessible by all. With the addition of a keyhole markup language (KML) file, users may easily visualize and exchange data with nothing more than a network link. Moreover, it is free, and many coalition militaries are in a position to integrate it simplistically and rapidly into their workflows and processes.

 Distributed Common Ground System- Army (DCGS-A), with the occasional acrimony, provides robust analytic tools and object-based production environments with access to multiple-theater data sets, albeit with significant scaling problems at tactical echelons. DCGS-A is unrivaled in the Army mission command interoperability domain. Provided purpose-built configurations, users can exchange data between adjacent warfighting function programs of record with ease, ultimately increasing situational understanding and decreasing localized workflow and data exchange timelines – achieving depth and tempo in the digital domain.

The strength of Automated Information Discovery Environment (AIDE) lies in the menu of operations and intelligence-based widgets on a single interface, providing a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to workflow development. AIDE is also strong in the ‘devops’ camp; maintaining an agile development posture where creative solutions might be engineered in a matter of days. Naturally that caliber of service is neatly linked with a significant and no doubt unsustainable price tag.

The INSCOM Cloud Initiative (ICI) is a hybrid of all of the above. It takes best of breed Army implementations and lessons learned and integrates on trend software as a service capabilities to optimize workflows and create efficiencies.  ICI is also centrally managed by INSCOM, an Army organization. ICI is the only web-based capability that allows users to conduct browser based synchronization disconnected from the network.  The offline option optimizes user workflows in disconnected environments without expensive or resource intensive software.  Its developmental priorities and operational initiatives are consistently in line with tactical formations and of zero cost to the supported units. Finally, perhaps the most attractive aspect of leveraging ICI as a strategy is the lack of mousepads, hats, and other wasteful throw away memorabilia that comes along with vendors vying for influence in an operational theater.

This is not an all-inclusive list of digital capability implementations to support the Warfighter but provides amplifying context to the different levels of capability on offer.  Some of these strategies are browser based, and some are application based. Some provide browser-based access to the data served up in their application environments in support of on-the-move productivity. Some can output data to a proprietary production environment but ingest all the data output from the others.  All are accredited to operate on some enclaves, few can operate on all. None of these digital capabilities enables them to rule the proverbial roost in support of large-scale combat operations – a reality too few have the experience or technical understanding to adequately appreciate. Experience is unteachable, but technical understanding is squarely not.

In Sum

In the ageless words of Jack Nicholson, “what if this is as good as it gets?” Maybe by some stroke of miraculous Irish luck, tactical intelligence will win the next conflict despite itself. Maybe none of this actually matters, and when the red balloon goes up, the Army can Hail Mary its approach to tactical intelligence fusion.

MI leaders at all levels must understand the central ethos and objectives behind why it is critical to maintain common understanding through a visible, accessible, understandable, trusted and interoperable intelligence picture. There are indeed microcosms of such nirvana where no single solution is the answer, rather it is a complementary environment where multiple solutions are applied within the same architecture.

What is clear is that as the military writ large continues to heap technological capability on top of its formations, little attention is paid to mastering the craft it takes to integrate and leverage that capability in order to extract the insight required to gain and maintain decisive advantage.  Without a holistic digital strategy, these issues are likely to become more aggravated before they subdue.  Technology will improve at a more rapid pace than the Army is able to integrate it.  Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and augmented reality introduce exponential complexities to processing and synchronization vis-à-vis edge computing. Such concepts are integral for tactical MI to maintain tempo with operations and more importantly, the enemy.

The reality is intelligence support to large scale combat operations requires a pace of rapid and consistent results; a dynamic inconsistent with Iraq or Afghanistan.  High velocity, high variability and high-volume data returns are not necessarily synonymous with the global war on terror.  No matter how much the Army sheds those layers operationally, tactical Army MI continues to take a limiting approach to harnessing the power of data analysis driving workflows and processes.

Digital modernization is necessary to win in the next conflict.  Being an expert in Python script, full motion video digital data links, or GIS platforms is certainly not critical to tactical success, but as a community of professionals we must understand why and where they exist in the architecture.  Digital strategy and governance are concepts the commercial tech sector lives and dies by.  As defense priorities shift to great power competition, the Army would be well served to live by those concepts in order to win, because losing is not an option.

The views presented in this article are those of the authors’ and not necessarily those of the US Department of Defense or US Army.


About the Author(s)

Josh Brown is the Senior Signals Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer for the 2d Security Force Assistance Brigade, and is currently forward deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence fusion and collection platform integration Non-Commissioned Officer. Josh has previously supported strategic signals intelligence operations in Australia, Colorado and Korea. In addition Josh has experience in the intelligence collection management space with two previous tours to the Afghan theater of operations  in that capacity.

Nick Rife is a US Army Intelligence Warrant Officer stationed out of Fort Bragg, NC. He is currently forward deployed to Afghanistan with the 2d Security Force Assistance Brigade where he is the brigade senior intelligence technician. Nick has extensive experience as an intelligence tech in the tactical intelligence space.  He spent five years in the 82d Airborne Division supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve and Global Response Force Activity. Most recently he served as principle author and instructor of the US Army’s Digital Intelligence Systems Master Gunner Course for two years.