Transforming HumInt

Defense News ‘Social Intel’ New Tool For U.S. Military ($) [p. 21 today’s print edition]

The term “social intelligence” – an in-depth knowledge of local culture and customs – is emerging as a new buzzword in U.S. military transformation circles.

This kind of intel is key to sorting out friend from foe on a battlefield without lines or uniforms. Combat troops are becoming intelligence operatives to support stabilization and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, and the phenomenon will become more common as the U.S. military adapts its forces to fight terrorist organizations and other nonstate actors.

“The locus of violence has moved over the years from the global great power war venue down through smaller states and sub-state constructs to the individual,” said retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, director of force transformation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Conflicts occur along fault lines within society, not between countries, and intel is increasingly concerned with relationships among individuals.

“Warfare is changing. In our lifetime, we’re seeing it,” Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, deputy chief of staff for Army intelligence, told reporters in early April. During the Cold War, “we looked at the Soviet Union as the enemy and we built our forces around that specific target set. And the problem with that symmetric approach is it also biased how we do intelligence.”

In the past, the Army could use its arsenal of communications, signals and electronics intelligence technologies to locate adversaries’ armies, Alexander said.

But “now we’re not looking for an armored division. We’re looking for people – people who want to kill us, people who want to change things in their world and see us as the enemy,” Alexander said. “That war and that problem set that we have is a far different intelligence problem set than what we had going into the Cold War with the Soviets.”

Finding individuals or terrorist cells demands troops on the ground as much as, if not more than, advanced technologies.

“The threat now requires that kind of collection,” Alexander said. “How do you get down to finding one person in Baghdad? How do you do that? This person doesn’t have a … radar on them that you can put the [electronic intelligence] system up there and collect them.”

Now, social intelligence is quickly becoming a trait the military wants organic to combat units. As a result, conventional forces will take on more of “special operations force-like characteristics,” Cebrowski said.

The Pentagon will finalize in the next few months its plan to reform human intelligence, the broad umbrella under which social intel falls. In its plan, the department will “greatly increase our capability in the ‘humint’ arena,” Alexander said.

This is a daunting task indeed. To some extent, it’s something that is going to happen naturally as troops are exposed to stability operations environments. But the goal is to get them in the proper mindset before deployment.

Since there’s no link, here’s the rest of the article:

Intel Training

To meet growing intel needs, the military services will need to change the way they educate and train their troops, Cebrowski said.

“If you’re going to observe at the social level, then you have to have some skills at that level, just like with technical intelligence you need certain technical skills,” Cebrowski said. Foreign area studies, and studies that highlight culture, political systems, languages and social structure will become increasingly important to troops.

“It’s teaching people as we did on combat patrols. What are you looking for? What do you expect to see?” Alexander said. “How do you teach a policeman to say everything is OK on a street? A policeman who’s been there for 10 years can look down a road and say everything is OK. The new guy looks at everything. … How do you teach people to get to that 10-year standard quickly?”

Within the Army, the service’s intelligence center and school will continue to be vital, with courses on intelligence support for counterterrorism and tactical questioning. Troops also will be better prepared to file intelligence reports, Alexander said.

Meanwhile, the Army’s massive desert battleground at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., has been updated to train troops to fight and stabilize societies in urban environments. And the Army is applying lessons learned from terrorist interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to conduct interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the best training occurs in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We now have a very large number of soldiers and Marines who have had this experience. As a consequence, those are the people who form the core of the Army and Marine Corps,” Cebrowski said. “These are the people who have seen actual operations and have had to deal with these things. Therefore, they have become the elites.”

Every Soldier a Sensor

The ultimate goal is to turn every soldier into a battlefield sensor capable of working seamlessly within the services and across the military and civilian intelligence communities, Alexander said.

To do that, the military not only needs to train its troops, but it also must tie them together through a vast network that provides a single, joint, common operating picture updated instantly. Alexander offered the human body’s own sensors as the ideal network of human intelligence, image intelligence, signals intelligence.

“Let’s say we start to disconnect [a person’s senses] so what you know from our feeling side, call that your ‘humint,’ and what you know from your seeing side, call that ‘imint,’ and what you know from your hearing side, call that ‘sigint,’ are all disconnected and coming in at different times,” Alexander said. “Think how hard that would be to operate [and try] to figure out what’s going on.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jem says:

    Guess the old standard of Army Intel personnel spending half (or more) of their time looking up at the underside of a truck may go by the wayside….

  2. Boyd says:

    Fear not, Jem. My son tells me that the Marines continue that fine tradition.

  3. Jim says:

    You forget the fine tradition of cleaning up little spots of oil at 1730 on a Friday….