The State of the Intelligence Warfighting Function in the US Army Brigade Combat Team
Guest Post by Brad Wellsandt
In early July, 1950, a Battalion task force was organized and deployed to Osan, South Korea to hold off the North Korean advance and allow 24th Infantry Division time to arrive from Japan via sea transport. On July 5, 1950, a numerically superior and better equipped enemy completely overran LTC Charles ‘Brad’ Smith’s unprepared element, now known as Task Force Smith. An all too familiar story of failure of readiness, the lessons of Task Force Smith serve as a rallying cry for increased readiness across the military, lest we lose another initial engagement.
However, as you comb through the reports of Task Force Smith’s actions in the Battle of Osan, can you honestly conclude that readiness is the true reason for Task Force Smith’s failure? Unequivocally, the answer is no. LTC Smith was given a mission he could not achieve, for reasons that one cannot explain. His chain of command knew that the North Koreans were advancing quickly south, with ten tank-heavy divisions, yet they decided to deploy TF Smith, an element with no tanks, and only 540 Soldiers total. What lesson can we learn from this colossal failure? Intelligence drives operations. Decisions must be made based upon knowledge and assessment of the enemy. When we stray from that time-tested model, incidents such as that which happened to Task Force Smith occur.
Lost in this whole story is that LTC Brad Smith did the best he could with the situation he was given. The Joint Chiefs and the 24th ID Headquarters, however, bear the responsibility for this historical loss. Unfortunately, their names are not recalled when reciting this battle cry for readiness. The blame incorrectly falls upon the leaders of Task Force Smith for unpreparedness, as opposed to the leaders who did not consider intelligence before ordering them into an unwinnable fight. Unfortunately, leaders must reconsider this lesson as commanders and their staffs at echelon within our Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) routinely display lack of interest in intelligence when planning operations. Time and time again, during rotations at the National Training Center, Intelligence Observer-Coach/Trainers (OC/Ts) observe Commanders and their staffs completely disregard their S2s assessment. Often, they issue a directed enemy COA because they think they know what’s going to happen, they think they know the best way to fight, and they prove unwilling to listen to contrary opinions. The intelligence warfighting function of our Army has much it needs to improve. Almost every aspect of it must improve, in fact. However, unless our Commanders and leaders consider intelligence before pushing forward, we, as an Army, are doomed to repeat the failures similar to Task Force Smith at the tactical level.
Although the story of Task Force Smith relates more to intelligence involvement (or lack thereof) in strategic-level decision making, the current state of tactical intelligence absolutely applies. As our Army transitions from the COIN era to one of Multi-Domain Battle, one cannot overstate the importance of intelligence at the tactical level. As Army Chief of Staff, GEN Milley, said regarding Multi-Domain Battle, “we have got to recondition ourselves to a different type of war…since 9/11, we’ve been doing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism against relatively lightly armed and low-tech foes…but there are many other types of war, and the one that is perhaps most difficult and challenging — and a very real possibility — is a larger war against a near-peer or a much more capable state adversary… in very rugged, urban, complex terrain. In that environment…if you’re stationary, you’ll die. Your logistics lines and your lines of communications are going to be under intense stress, (and) the electromagnetic spectrum is going to be at least degraded if not completely disrupted….and yet you’re still going to have to fight and you still have to win.” Because of this, the Military Intelligence Corps must take on a more tactical footing because delivering intelligence from strategic-level, digitally-dependent assets is nearly impossible in a Multi-Domain Battle environment.
As the Multi-Domain Battle concept alludes to, the nature of war changes about once every generation. Like it or not, the Military Intelligence Corps must lead our Army through the changing nature of war so our formations can avoid the same fate as Task Force Smith. Unfortunately, the writing is already on the wall. At no time in our history have emerging threats been so diverse, complex, advanced, and hybrid in nature. From the hybrid conflict in Eastern Ukraine, to extremist groups seizing large swaths of terrain in Iraq and Syria, to the near-imminent development of ICBMs by North Korea, our Army is likely to face a variety of threats simultaneously and across all domains - land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace.
Despite the ever-growing and ever-evolving threats we face, the Tactical Intelligence Officers that are so desperately needed to assess these threats are growing less important by the day. The current structure and equipping of tactical intelligence elements does not promote the production of relevant assessments against contemporary threats. As referenced above, the marginalization of intelligence officers is continuing on a dangerous path, and if it continues, our Army may be unable to recover.
The complexity of the problem and its rate of evolution are taxing all intelligence professionals to adequately sustain its proficiency in the numerous missions for which an average Brigade Combat Team is expected to prepare. There is a cultural inclination within the military intelligence community to focus training on strategic, real-world situations as opposed to honing tactical skillsets. This inclination, coupled with reduced training opportunities and rapid personnel changeover has resulted in lagging abilities of tactical-level intelligence. As this ineffectiveness shows itself during training and operations at combat training centers (CTCs), maneuver commanders begin to rely on their own understanding of the enemy and experiences without information from timely collection and well-structured analysis. As marginalization increases, frustration plagues intelligence Soldiers resulting in greater ineffectiveness. Company-grade officers witness ineffectiveness and senior leaders’ marginalization of intelligence sections during training likely carries this forward into major combat operations. The outcome of this continuous cycle between ineffectiveness and marginalization has the potential to spiral dangerously out of control and therefore the intelligence warfighting function finds itself in a crisis of relevance at the tactical level.
The results of this cycle are witnessed nearly every month at CTCs. Maneuver commanders do not align reconnaissance forces with intelligence enablers to inform decisions. While the rotational units arrive at the CTC with more armor and aviation platforms, they are consistently out-maneuvered by an OPFOR with inferior equipment and disadvantageous numbers. While it is fashionable to say this has more to do with the repetitions and ‘home-field advantage’ provided to the OPFOR units, this reflects reality. Potential adversaries are getting more repetitions than United States Brigades and most foreseeable conflicts will be ones where the US Army does not have ‘home-field advantage.’ In order to better understand why this outcome consistently occurs, examination of the root causes is required.
1. Maneuver vs. Intelligence Friction: Significant friction exists between maneuver and intelligence warfighting functions and this is the most significant root cause for the aforementioned cycle of ineffectiveness and marginalization. There is a definitive lack of understanding and clarity on the roles of key personnel impacting the intelligence fight. Recently, a member of a rotational unit stated, “There is no one who is synthesizing information…the MICO does not deal with ground based collection.” This is an attitude relatively common during a typical CTC rotation. There is a lack of understanding for what intelligence Soldiers in the Brigade Combat Team are doing and what they are capable of doing. It is common for a staff to develop a course of action prior to any input from Battalion or Brigade S2 sections. While uncommon, Commanders and operations officers sometimes direct enemy courses of action. Alteration of IPB products to better align with a friendly plan occurs at an alarming rate. The burden of this marginalization does not primarily fall upon maneuver officers, as they have timelines to meet and expertise to employ. Marginalization of intelligence is self-inflicted. The intelligence branch has become excessively focused on digital systems and overwhelmed by expanding requirements for expertise the tactical level. Further, doctrine regarding responsibilities in reconnaissance is unclear and intelligence officers and Soldiers have become overly comfortable with ambiguity. There is evidence that maneuver and intelligence leaders believe reconnaissance and intelligence collection are separate efforts and this is evident in the construction of IC plans of BCTs. Commonly, there is a cavalry squadron plan, a plan for echelons above Brigade (EAB) assets, and the semblance of a plan for ground sensors within the Brigade’s MICO. Rarely are these plans mutually constructed or mutually supporting. The cavalry squadron commander constructs his plan with guidance from the Brigade commander while the Brigade collection manager (who is never the same person or same position) files requests for EAB collection against PIR developed by the Brigade S2, frequently independent of Brigade S3 or commander feedback. Further, the MICO commander delivers an equal slice of their multi-function teams to each maneuver Battalion before solely focusing on employing the only sought after MICO asset, the Shadow UAS. A lack of understanding of communication procedures and equipment leads to inconsistent and disparate reporting from each different collection plan. Additional factors exacerbate this friction and contributing to the ineffectiveness and marginalization of tactical intelligence include culture and training.
2. Culture: Intelligence culture is an underrated culprit in the current status of the branch throughout the tactical force. Consistently, intelligence officers at all levels seem willing to ingratiate themselves to maneuver officers. Observers have repeatedly witnessed the alteration of enemy courses of action to be more in line with a maneuver officer's plan. Rare objection is given to a BDE or BN staff when blue courses of action completely discount the enemy situation, which the planner frequently finishes prior to seeking the input of the S2. Infantry and armor battalions do not seek to employ ground sensors and even abandon them when they are provided as enablers. If a tactical level intelligence leader or Soldier is willing to take such actions to gain credibility with their maneuver brethren, they have lost the ability to positively impact the battlefield, which will likely be dangerous in future operations or conflicts.
An all-too-common event occurs when officers or NCOs refer to members of the MI branch in such derogatory terms as ‘intel weenies’ or ‘ nerds’. If MI leaders and Soldeirs are publicly accepting of these titles, then why should members of other branches take the branch seriously?
To repair the culture, lower levels of the branch have to stop acting in a manner that supports these stereotypes. The general sense observed from MI officers, NCOs, and Soldiers is they see themselves as akin to either Jason Bourne or Alan Turing. Both of those attitudes are detrimental to the branch and limits its prospects of receiving the respect it needs to have to be able to function at the tactical level. We need our BN S2s, MICO commanders and BDE S2s thinking more like hunters of our enemies than the aforementioned characters. There is an attitude of suffering through tactical-level assignments in order to gain an opportunity to do ‘cool shit,’ a phrase so common among junior MI officers it might as well become an HRC term. The branch needs to shed the ‘leaf eater’ concept and start acting like what they are: the hunters of top-tier military systems from whom our adversaries cannot hide. They need to have the attitude so prevalent in cavalry formations that no enemy, conventional or otherwise can outrun, out-hide or out-think the hunters of the military intelligence branch. It starts with developing and fostering that attitude in MI training curriculum and in the words of senior MI leaders. That is not enough, the branch needs to also train itself to be able to function effectively as hunters of our enemies.
3. Training: Although not officially published, the commonly understood standard for tactical intelligence training is known as MI Gunnery. While extremely well-intended and generally beneficial, the central focus of MI Gunnery is technical competencies and systems employment, as opposed to tactical competencies and field craft. The technologically advanced MI systems available to a BCT provide an outstanding capability, but only if used by a tactically competent Soldier in a permissive communications environment. Unfortunately, the current MI Gunnery model does not produce tactically competent Soldiers and our next conflict will almost certainly occur in a communications-denied environment. Therefore, our training model must change.
The customer is always right, and regardless of digital system availability, MI Leaders and Soldiers at all levels, especially the BCT and Battalion-level must deliver timely, relevant, and accurate intelligence to the warfighter. In order to do this, intelligence analysts must understand enemy tactics before they begin to understand the computer system they use to analyze the enemy. Intelligence collectors must understand how to integrate and operate with maneuver elements before they can ever expect to operate an unwieldy collection system alongside their maneuver brethren. In short, the intelligence warfighting function at the tactical level must be comprised of tacticians, not technicians. In order to provide value to, and have credibility with our tactical customers, we must change the way we approach training, and moving away from a reliance on digital systems towards a reliance on tactical proficiency.
Our country faces threats previously unseen, and even unknowable until recently. Yet the warfighting function responsible for understanding these threats is in the midst of a crisis of relevance at the tactical level. Maneuver and MI leaders within BCTs must work together to smooth out friction between themselves, while leaders should consider doctrinal updates to address vague roles and responsibilities for IC planning. The required outcome is a thirst for intelligence amongst maneuver leaders and an intelligence warfighting function capable of quenching said thirst. Further, MI leaders at all levels must, through their actions, reject the stereotype of the 'intel weenie.' This begins through embracing the importance of delivering intelligence directly to warfighters and not viewing it as a stepping stone to preferred assignments. Brigade Combat Teams are the tip of the Army’s spear and therefore its intelligence officers are the tip of the MI spear. Lastly, MI leaders must change the approach to how we train ourselves. Doing advanced country studies and sitting through 80-hour blocks of computer software training does no good if we cannot develop an enemy SITTEMP on acetate or communicate intelligence assessments over a radio. Not all is lost, but unless leaders at all levels implement radical changes soon, the crisis of relevance is doomed to continue on the road to permanence.
CPT Brad Wellsandt is a Military Intelligence officer in the US Army and currently serves as a Military Intelligence Company trainer. Previous assignments include Military Intelligence Company Commander and Combined Arms Battalion S2.