Army Reorganizes Training for Intelligence Units

By Sandra I. Erwin
Every day in Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. soldiers patrol through villages. In the process, they capture loads of information that commanders might consider useful intelligence. But soldiers don’t necessarily know what to make of the information, how it fits into the larger picture of the war or whether it’s really valuable.

That in essence is the “biggest gap” the Army now has in its intelligence-gathering efforts in Afghanistan, says Army Maj. Eric Butler, a military intelligence officer.

“The focus now is on getting soldiers used to identifying information that could be useful” to commanders, Butler says during a recent teleconference with military bloggers.

“That may take some time,” he says. Soldiers are trained to spot threats such as snipers or roadside bombs but they also need to learn how to capture information that typically soldiers wouldn’t care about, such as the ambiance of a particular area, the politics and the infrastructure, Butler says. That data is more difficult to capture but it can provide important clues about enemy tactics in a counterinsurgency war.

The Army’s top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, has been seeking ways to bridge those gaps. Much of the blame goes to the Army’s outdated and ineffective methods for gathering intelligence, Flynn wrote in a paper that was published in January by the Center for a New American Security.

“Many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth,'” said Flynn.

Credible intelligence is tough to come by in Afghanistan because the local culture — or "human terrain" in military-speak — is not well understood.

"Afghanistan is a complicated place," said Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith, senior spokesman for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

One problem with current intelligence gathering and analysis is that these functions are concentrated in the higher echelons of command and the information does not rapidly reach the small-unit commanders who lead the day-to-day fighting.

“The demand for intelligence analysis is at echelons below brigade,” said the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive, Ashton Carter. “But it is still the case that most of the analytical expertise is associated with the division and brigade levels,” he said at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference.

“In this fight, which is so local and so information intensive, soldiers are used to having information and acting on it,” Carter said.

In response to intelligence shortfalls, the Army has revamped the company-level command post. “It is not your company command post of 20 years ago. They’re all at laptops, expecting information. They know how to be effective with information,” Carter said. At the company level, “They need intelligence analysts who can tell them about good guys, bad guys in different towns,” he said. But they often don’t have enough analysts, or the ones they do have may not be producing the data that commanders need. “It’s important to get people down in the echelons where the analysis can be useful and you’re not just writing reports as they do in divisions and brigades,” Carter said.

The Army in recent months has begun to modify the training offered to company-level officers. As part of the so-called “Battle Command Training Center” program that began in 2003, facilities have been built at home-stations where officers practice for real-world operations. There are at least 30 BCTCs currently at Army bases, said Josh Hutchison, chief of collective training at the Fort Bragg BCTC, in North Carolina.

“Company commanders are scrambling for this type of training,” Hutchison said. “Because of the push for intelligence at the company level, the demand is high.”

The Army, however, has not formally included company-level requirements in its long-term training strategy.

The service on March 22 unveiled a new battle command training strategy but, surprisingly, it doesn’t deal with company-level training, said Hutchison. “It’s a vague strategy. It’s addressing what we needed for battle command five years ago. It really doesn’t address the reality.”

Training has to take into account that “information technologies have permeated every echelon of today’s Army formations,” said Hutchison. Training also has to reflect the team-based structure of a tactical operations center.

“Today’s battle command atmosphere within a digital tactical operations center can be very much like baseball. A decision will be made in a split-second, and execution of the play will decide the game.  Decisions in battle have the same sort of split-second timing,” he said. “The individual operators of battle command systems such as Blue Force Tracking, Command Post of the Future and the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System are the shortstop, 2nd baseman and 1st baseman.”

At the BCTC hub at Fort Bragg, staffs can practice those skills in a realistic “game environment” on a frequent basis, said Hutchison.

No matter how many deployments they have under their belts, officers and staffs need to continuously train between tours of duty because digital skills are perishable, Hutchison said.

The program for company-level intelligence teams has been one of the “greatest additions” to the BCTC, he noted. “It’s a relatively new concept for the Army.”

Company officers practice how to collect and analyze information, such as the contacts made by patrol leaders, who are the guys with the boots on the ground, Hutchison said. “All that information helps understand the human terrain.”

Soldiers nowadays use digital cameras and biometrics data readers when they go out on patrols. To capture the information when they return to the operations center, rather than type up old-fashioned intelligence reports, they use a digital map based system, called TIGR, where they can input audio, video and still images. “It’s a map based Wikipedia,” said Hutchison.

Once they capture all the data, they begin the analysis. That is the most difficult piece, said Hutchison. “You can certainly teach soldiers and leaders how to do ‘buttonology,’” he added. “They can run the heck out of those computer systems as individuals. Even when you talk about interoperability, we can teach them how to do that and they can do that all day long. But just because you have a synchronized system of systems does not mean that you have situational understanding.”

Soldiers have to grasp fuzzy concepts such as “knowledge management” and “common operating picture” in order to properly analyze the intelligence, said Hutchison. “That is the challenge in the current environment … producing knowledge, know what to do with the information, and understand why it is important.”

The fundamental notion of needing to know what’s going on in the battlefield has not changed despite the advent of computers, he said. “We’ve been fighting like this for ever.”

Flynn noted in the CNAS report that some intelligence officers still believe they can make up for the lack of substance in their data by producing flashy slide presentations. “Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do,” Flynn wrote. “Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts."

Butler, the intelligence officer, said he has seen some progress in the past several years. “The capabilities are there. We’re getting there,” he said. He credits the Army for slowly working to downgrade the classification of material that soldiers collect from the field. “We’ve always had a tendency to over-classify information,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten better at [discriminating] intelligence we can share with everyone.”

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Urban Warfare

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