Harnessing Army’s intelligence capability for contingency

The week begins: regional unrest sparks, and a commanding officer directs yet another intelligence update brief on emerging threats. By the following morning, intelligence personnel have scraped together a basic knowledge of developing strategic themes and presented sufficient intelligence to satisfy the request. Unfortunately, adjacent intelligence elements have duplicated this preparation, presenting briefs on the same topic. Although the primary function of intelligence staff is to provide reliable intelligence to their supported commander, this replication underscores the current intelligence inefficiencies in Forces Command. Why do we conduct analysis in isolation, restate strategic assessment from other agencies, and fail to develop useful tactical intelligence to inform commanders in the event of contingency operations?

The Defence White Paper 2009 confirmed Australia’s primary operating environment (POE), an area that extends from the eastern Indian Ocean to the island states of Polynesia, and from the equator to the Southern Ocean. The POE guides intelligence staff on the Australian Government’s areas of interest. As the ADF withdraws from operations in Afghanistan and postures to conduct contingency activities in the POE, the dilemma for intelligence staff is becoming more obvious. Contingent operations are, by nature, short notice and unexpected; this limits the scope for strategic and operational collection once a deployment is announced. Opportunities for tactical analysis will be even more limited, particularly if the responding element is the Amphibious Ready Group, and will be hindered by bandwidth and physical limitations (pdf p.59) once afloat. Given the strategic challenges of Australia’s POE, it would be unwise to neglect the contribution Forces Command intelligence personnel could provide to the ADF’s collective knowledge when they are not required for unit/formation training.

Each Army combat brigade is equipped with numerous qualified intelligence personnel, all of whom could contribute analysis to the ADF’s cumulative awareness of the POE, if coordinated appropriately. This analysis would be a secondary function and would not detract from support to unit/formation training. Forces Command intelligence staff would therefore not provide consistent coverage of the POE; rather, they would support the shared understanding of the POE when opportunities allowed.

Building a useful intelligence system within Forces Command relies on at least two factors – a focus on tactical analysis, and a centralised and coordinated approach.

From the outset, any contribution from Forces Command intelligence personnel should be tactically focused. Although other intelligence agencies in the Australian intelligence community have the remit to provide strategic analysis, many do not conduct tactical analysis. They are therefore not best placed to answer the likely tactical intelligence requirements of a contingency operation, such as the military load classification of the bridges from the sea point of disembarkation to the closest hospital or evacuation point, or the composition/disposition of local threat groups. Answering these questions will likely take time — an improbable luxury once embarked for contingency.

A focus on tactical analysis is important, as concentrating on strategic implications makes it difficult to predict the tactical commander’s intelligence requirements. A dedicated focus on tactical analysis in the POE will not degrade the ability of Forces Command intelligence staff to support unit/formation commanders; in fact, their skills are more likely to improve.

Coordination is equally as significant. Understanding the POE at a tactical level is complicated and challenging. A standing Forces Command intelligence support plan would be required to establish the architecture for a federated approach to analysis. Within Headquarters Forces Command, a senior intelligence officer should coordinate the efforts of Forces Command intelligence elements and ensure that the contribution from Forces Command is nested within the wider intelligence framework established by the Australian Government.

In building Forces Command’s contribution to the collective understanding of the POE, one solution is to establish brigade areas of responsibility within the intelligence support plan that can be subsequently divided into unit areas of responsibility. Units and formations will therefore ‘own’ the production of tactical intelligence for their specified region. Importantly, Forces Command intelligence personnel should have direct liaison authority with the relevant Australian intelligence community desk officers to promote a collaborative approach to national intelligence production. Such liaison will likely improve strategic analysis by increasing the number of intelligence staff dedicated to examine an area of interest.

Tactical analysis of the POE will only be useful if it is reliable and accessible to necessary customers. Peer-review of intelligence products developed by unit intelligence staff would increase confidence in the assessments provided by Forces Command personnel. Additionally, intelligence personnel must be smarter in the storage and transfer of intelligence. A live nationwide database and appropriate software, such as DCGS or Palantir, is essential if Forces Command is to contribute to a wider intelligence enterprise.

Furthermore, if a commanding officer of a pertinent tactical unit, such as a ‘ready’ battle group, required an update brief on a country of interest, they should liaise with a subject matter expert rather than stretching the capacity of organic staff that are not regularly analysing an issue in detail.

As Australia re-adjusts to the region, an in-depth understanding of the POE is not a ‘nice-to-have’ for contingency operations — it is a necessity. Although Forces Command intelligence personnel primarily serve the requirements of their unit/formation commanders, there is an opportunity to harness their residual intelligence capacity to build efficiency in the national intelligence architecture and improve the collective knowledge of the ADF.

Captain Nicholas Barber works within 6th Combat Support Brigade, part of Forces Command.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.