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The Role of the Intelligence Officer: Knowing the Enemy

The Role of the Intelligence Officer: Knowing the Enemy

Guest Post by Brad Wellsandt

"If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle."

-Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

The nature of warfare continues to evolve, to the point where we don't know much of anything regarding our next major conflict; where it will occur, when, or how it will be fought. Despite this unnerving period of ambiguity, the basics concepts of warfare endure. Chief among these concepts is Sun Tzu’s principle of knowing your enemy while also knowing yourself. Unfortunately, as our Army prepares for combat through execution of decisive action, we persistently struggle to know the enemy. This problem stems from struggles across the Army in understanding how to employ and integrate the intelligence warfighting function at the tactical level.

While conducting decisive action at the Battalion/Brigade level, Commanders and their staffs must thoroughly examine the role of the intelligence officer.  Is the S2 a conduit for information from higher echelons or is he the lead proponent for attaining knowledge - not just data, or information, but knowledge - of the enemy? Most would like to argue the latter, but in order to truly know the enemy, our current processes and behaviors must change.

To become an Army that knows our enemy, and how best to defeat him, we must execute three significant changes to the planning and execution of decisive action:

(1)   Staff intelligence officers must ruthlessly assert themselves as the proponent for all things enemy-related, present themselves as a tactician first and a technician second, and they must fight through any barriers placed between the S2 and the Commander to inform his decision-making. 

(2)   Reaffirm the primacy of priority intelligence requirements (PIR) as the vehicle for enabling the Commander to place maneuver forces into positions of relative advantage against the enemy.

(3)   Reevaluate planning processes, especially when under compressed timelines, to create venues for operations and intelligence (O&I) synchronization during the initial stages of planning.

“The Fighting S2”

 Under current conditions within a BCT, most intelligence officers lack an equal relationship with the battalion/brigade commander comparable to those enjoyed by their counterparts within the maneuver warfighting function. Battalion-level intelligence officers are arguably under-ranked and Brigade level intelligence officers do not face the same rigor of selection as their maneuver counterparts. To overcome this, successful BCT and below intelligence officers must display the tactical competence, aggression, and killer instinct required of an effective tactical leader. Each of these traits alone cannot guarantee a “seat at the table.” Therefore, effective tactical intelligence officers must team their aggressive spirit with tactical skills and knowledge that bridges the gap between intelligence and maneuver. To do so, one must first demonstrate tactical expertise to establish credibility, then take aggressive ownership of all things enemy-related.  BCTs possessing intelligence officers with said qualities are likelier to experience success in decisive action, as their intelligence warfighting function has a credible voice to the commander.  Beyond simply having a tactical mindset, the S2 must have strong tactical understanding, and employ it in the effort to know the enemy, while earning his commander’s trust in the process. If the S2 cannot fight his way into the 'inner-circle,' he stands liable to be marginalized, as other, more trusted officers will advise the Commander on matters regarding the enemy.  S2s must present themselves as tacticians first and technicians second, ruthlessly assert themselves as the proponents for all things enemy-related, and break through any barriers placed between intelligence and the Commander. 

The S2 is the  intelligence advisor to the commander and to no one else. Tactical intelligence officers must not fall victim to “working through the XO/S3” before briefing the Commander or making a decision, as those who do essentially reduce their standing to one of an information conduit.  Intelligence officers must not be intimidated by senior staff officers and must confidently and professionally present assessments and recommendations directly to the Commander.  To overcome any internal insecurities, intelligence officers must realize that despite their lack of maneuver experience compared to maneuver leaders, they make up for it in access to the vast intelligence infrastructure and a singular focus on the enemy - two advantages that nobody else in the unit possesses. They must fight to get their thoughts in front of the commander as soon as possible to ensure shared understanding of the enemy and maximum leverage of the commander’s expertise during subsequent planning. The S2 must understand what decisions the commander anticipates making and be prepared to leverage organic, adjacent, and higher systems to inform them rapidly and accurately. This cannot be done if the S2 fails to portray confidence and aggressiveness in all they do.

A good portion of the aforementioned aggression must be devoted towards determining exactly what the commander requires of his senior intelligence officer. After 15 years of counterinsurgency, there are well established perspectives of what an intelligence officer does or should do, held by both maneuver and intelligence branches. Many commanders do not feel the intelligence officer has the experience, knowledge and training to offer much in the way of analysis of enemy tactics. Given the wide range of skills different stakeholders expect of intelligence officers, this perspective is not out of line at all. In a garrison environment, staff intelligence officers have minimal contribution to the daily activities of an organization. Then, once in a tactical environment, S2s are suddenly expected to contribute to every aspect of the organization, from leading IPB against near peer threats, participating in targeting meetings, counter-IED working groups, attending KLEs, and assisting with establishing the unit's upper-tactical internet. While all these activities provide value to the unit, the S2's primary focus area must be dictated by the Commander, depending on operational and mission variables. In a decisive action environment, the priority must be attaining knowledge of the enemy, which requires an in-depth focus on tactics that many S2s do not attain due to lack of expertise and general distraction due to competing priorities.

All too often, these competing priorities and unclear roles and responsibilities for the S2 within the battle staff leads to frustration regarding the greater intelligence warfighting function. This potentially leads to marginalization, as Commanders and S3s/XOs take it upon themselves to assess the enemy. When faced with this dilemma, commanders and senior leaders must ask themselves, what does an S2 bring to the fight, acknowledging that he has less experience than his commander?  The answer lies in the attainment of knowledge regarding the enemy.  The Commander, nor his XO/S3 has the time and/or access to generate said knowledge.  Knowing this, S2s can move out to achieve their mission with confidence, undeterred by insecurities and barriers placed in front of them by anyone other than their Commander.

Understanding that S2s have much to contribute, despite tactical experience deficits, they must still prioritize closing the tactical expertise gap. As highlighted in the recent Armor magazine article “Maneuver and Intelligence: Bridging the Gap for Unified Land Operations," maneuver commanders require MI officers who are prepared to bridge the gap both doctrinally and practically between intelligence and maneuver.” Much needs to be done to produce MI officers who understand tactics, both enemy and friendly. As the authors point out, a redesign of professional military education curriculum is necessary, but it can't end there. S2s must possess a thirst for tactical knowledge, and not be afraid to ask questions to learn more. No maneuver officer worth his salt will chastise an intelligence officer for seeking greater understanding of tactics, and if they do, their counterpart intelligence officer has a larger problem on his hands. Many argue that the S2 has enough on his plate as it is, but out of all areas, the S2 needs to know tactics. In a decisive action environment, an S2 that can discuss the socio-cultural ramifications of high intensity conflict, or an S2 that can devise an efficient means of employing digital systems does nothing for a Commander if they can't rapidly assess the actions of the mechanized infantry battalion that is shooting at them. Therefore, the development of tactical expertise amongst intelligence officers must take priority, to establish credibility within their unit, and to do their job.

Priority Intelligence Requirements: How we know our enemy

Over the course of any battle, Commanders on both sides must make decisions. These decisions, how they are made, and when, decide who wins, who loses, who lives, and who dies.  Knowledge lies in the heart of these decisions - knowledge of friendly forces and knowledge of the enemy.  Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR) remain the primary vehicle for attaining knowledge (not just data, or information, but knowledge) of the enemy. As such, tactical units must resolve to prize PIR more highly than they currently do. The battlefield described in the Multi-Domain Battle Concept is dominated by units that possess the ability to conduct organic reconnaissance, battlefield visualization, and rapidly transform analysis into action. To execute this vision, operations and intelligence cells at the Brigade and Battalion level need to refocus their efforts away from unwieldly briefings and pristine products and towards the creation of ‘winning conditions’ by truly knowing and out-deciding the enemy.

Throughout counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the development, resourcing, and satisfaction of PIR became an afterthought. Targeting working groups, targeting cycles, and synchronization matrices replaced the need for commanders to obtain immediate decision driving information. The nature of the COIN conflicts allowed senior commanders a plethora of time to make decisions as simple as raiding a single house or conducting a single KLE.  Many might recall the development of PIR which sat posted in a dusty corner of the Brigade Intelligence Support Element (BISE) or in huge posters in the Brigade Command Posts. These were rarely re-visited and even more rarely satisfied. It can be debated elsewhere if this was appropriate, but regardless, the attitude towards PIR must be altered immediately. The battlefield participant who knows his opponent first and acts aggressively first will almost certainly attain his end state.

Frequent misconceptions exist regarding the development and satisfaction of PIR. First, neither the intelligence section nor the operations section strictly ‘owns’ PIR. The commander likely has an idea what he is concerned with and what decision he intends to make, therefore the commander must own his PIR. Both sections, in concert with one another, must aggressively seek the commander’s vision on decision points at the earliest stages of planning. With equal aggression, the approval of PIR must be sought once developed. Once approved, the resourcing of assets and establishments of processes to satisfy these PIR must be a priority.

At the brigade and battalion level, more PIR does not equal better PIR. Given the issues of intelligence lag, inevitable communication challenges, and general lack of organic information collection (IC) assets, a few quality PIRs handily trumps copious quantities of PIR. The axiom “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority” absolutely applies in the instance of PIR.  PIR should only hold the title of ‘priority’ if they allow the commander to place his limited resources at the right place, at the right time. Developers of requirements must ask themselves: What will my commander do with this information when received? If the answer drives no decision-making by the commander, the PIR must be removed.

The discipline related to the limiting of PIR also must come in all intelligence reporting issued to the Commander.  The Commander must not be inundated with incomplete data, because if he is forced to analyze data, his intelligence officer is of no use to him. The staff intelligence officer must diligently work to generate information based on bits of data from countless sources (spot reports from subordinate units, intelligence reports from organic assets, observation from higher-echelon assets, etc.) to then feed to the Commander in a holistic manner.  All too often, S2s can’t “see the forest for the trees” as they become inundated with plotting 10-digit grids for enemy positions and fail to put the pieces together to generate information, much less knowledge.  Too many PIR, too much data, and not enough knowledge clouds the mind of commanders and decision-makers, and increases self-inflicted wounds in the already messy “fog of war.”

The price of poorly developed PIR cannot be overstated. Ultimately, if one were to list everything that an intelligence officer does, answering PIR must be viewed as the ultimate end-state of the S2’s job. Everything the S2 does during MDMP and execution of major operations sets the stage for understanding which intelligence gaps must be closed in order to destroy the enemy, and then, simply, closing the gaps. If the PIR focused upon happens to be irrelevant to the Commander’s decisions, the S2 essentially takes him/herself out of the fight. In these unfortunate instances, running intelligence estimates become little more than white noise in the already confusing nature of decisive action. As a result, the mildly relevant data put into the Commander’s mind only increases the time he needs to make sound decisions. Because of this, S2s must work diligently to determine what the Commander specifically needs and when he needs it. Only when these conditions are met can the S2 enable the unit to know the enemy.

Lastly, PIR are only valuable if the answer can be defined clearly and disseminated rapidly. It does no good to suggest a PIR if there is no way the answer can be determined before the latest time information of value (LTIOV) and disseminated in time to allow for a follow-on action. To do so, commanders and staffs must emphasis the identification of circumstances that allow friendly or enemy forces to achieve their end state. As these are developed, the intelligence officer must work in concert with the operations officer to develop indicators of these circumstances, and what actions would prevent enemy forces from setting conditions or allowing friendly forces to set theirs.   

Setting the conditions for Knowing the Enemy: Operations/Intelligence integration in the planning phase

 Due to time constraints, decisive action operations are often planned, briefed, and rehearsed without full, or even any input from the S2. As noted by observer-controllers at JRTC during 3rd and 4th Quarter FY16, “Brigade and Battalion S2s struggle to complete IPB with enough detail to support MDMP within the time-constraints of the DATE scenario. Specifically, S2s struggle to produce a detailed enemy SITEMP, distinguishable ECOAs, or an EVENTEMP that depicts the enemy in time and space. These deficiencies contribute to incomplete Information Collection (IC) management and poor support to COA Development and targeting.” Many may assert that timelines are too rapid for any measure of MDMP to occur in full. However, examination of timelines from the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrates timelines in execution of decisive action at CTCs are likely quite generous. Often, units received orders only three to six hours before expected execution. Units must examine if their processes truly allow for all sections to conduct appropriate analysis and production in timely manner. Current doctrine indicates PIR are refined to align with decision points during wargaming . Unfortunately, wargaming is the first sacrifice at the altar of expediency. Complete IPB is usually the second one under the knife. These processes are simply not rapid enough to allow for development of the enemy situation to be commonly understood and for units to develop likely decisions and plan how to determine the emerging circumstances requiring those decisions to be made.  Coincidentally, IPB and wargaming also happen to be the two primary ways in which the S2 helps shape the plan during MDMP.

Thinking back to the aforementioned Sun Tzu quote, the price of planning a mission without thoroughly considering enemy actions cannot be overstated. When well-intentioned and rushed staff officers develop courses of action (COAs) without S2 input, the unit is led down a road towards inflexibility. An unwillingness to consult the S2 early on is indicative of a larger mindset that fails to admit that the enemy has a vote. Instead of a flexible COA that accounts for a variety of enemy actions, COAs without intelligence input inherently expect very specific circumstances, and when those circumstances inevitably change, the unit sticks to 'fighting the plan and not the enemy.' It is for these reasons that S2s must aggressively inject themselves into any planning, regardless of whether he received an invite to plan. Since it's not the S3’s job to analyze the enemy, the S2 must aggressively voice it as a priority for planning.

In light of the shortcomings of planning in a time-constrained environment, S2s must force themselves into any planning sessions, to ensure the enemy’s vote is thoroughly considered.  To do so, shared understanding must take precedence over digital product generation.  While digitally-oriented products provide value to the organization, its utility declines if maneuver planners don’t consider intelligence in their COAs.  Focus first on ensuring maximum enemy understanding with the Commander and staff (analog products), then generate digital products, with subordinate units as the primary consumer.  When organized correctly for planning efforts, S2 sections can maximize efficiency to inform a broad audience of commanders and decision-makers.

During MDMP for decisive action, the S2 has myriad tasks to accomplish and key individuals they must inform. By conceptually organizing these tasks into 'priorities of work' based on MDMP timelines, S2s can ensure intelligence is implemented into unit COAs. At the earliest stages of MDMP, S2s must prioritize the completion of IPB and informing the S3/maneuver planners of assessments regarding the enemy. After completion of these tasks, the S2 must then orient his focus on informing the Commander of holistic enemy assessments, and forming a collection plan aligned with the Commander's anticipated decision points. As MDMP nears completion, S2s must then orient their focus on the execution of the collection plan, keeping the Commander informed on evolving situations, and informing subordinate units of the enemy situation at large.

The above model is no more than 'a way' for an S2 to focus themselves in the planning process to ensure intelligence is considered in the MDMP, and throughout execution.  Regardless of time available, all focus points can be achieved, provided the S2 remains organized, aggressive, and tactically-oriented.  Failure to achieve any or all of the aforementioned tasks will reduce the unit’s ability to know the enemy, thus reducing the flexibility of their plan, and their overall ability to win.


In decisive action at the battalion/brigade level, intelligence officers must clearly understand their role, embrace it, and execute with extreme prejudice.  Nobody should expect the S2 to have a better grasp of tactics than the Commander, but the S2’s singular focus on the enemy, access to intelligence information, and analytical abilities serve as a significant combat multiplier when applied correctly.  To ensure correct application of intelligence at the tactical level, development and satisfaction of PIR must be prioritized across the unit, at all echelons.  The S2 must take on the mindset of a fighter, one who fights the enemy, fights for information, and fights to get knowledge to his Commander.  Additionally, the S2 must fight to inject intelligence into the planning process, lest the enemy gain the upper hand.  The intelligence officer must not be timid in fear of failure, because inaction on his part will surely result in failure.


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