PAI and OPE / the Fine Line for Military Commanders

Written By: CENSA Editorial Board

In an earlier post, Publicly Available information: The Digital Battlefield, the CENSA Editorial Board referenced critical House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence (HPSCI) report language attached to Fiscal Year 2017 authorization bills that encouraged the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve its thinking, training, and operational capacity for digital support to military objectives and missions. Given the evolution of digital warfare over the past decade, this is a significant step in the right direction. The digitally-focused OPE mission remains too often ignored, shortchanged, and under-resourced.

In addition to urging greater capacity for focusing on the military’s operational matters, the recent HPSCI language also resurrected a long-standing committee concern “that many intelligence and intelligence-related activities continue to be characterized as ‘battlespace awareness’, [or] ‘situational awareness,’ and – especially – ‘operational preparation of the environment’”,[1] thereby further blurring the distinction between the intelligence and non-intelligence requirements of U.S. combatant commanders.  The HPSCI understandably prefers more clarity and precision in these characterizations by the DoD, with perhaps too strong of a bias toward re-classifying many (or most) of these activities as intelligence-related.

The current threat environment and related online activity is evolving at an unprecedented rate and in ways unseen little more than a decade or so ago. And because of the explosion in digitally-based PAI, the intersection between non-intelligence and intelligence activities is less distinct and more intermingled than ever before. Terrorists and insurgents have embraced numerous online methods to not only recruit but to communicate and direct near-term operations. As such, forward deployed U.S. military commanders are faced with making difficult real-time decisions with limited – and often inadequate – resources; the enemy’s digitally-enabled acceleration of operations has extremely challenged military personnel and renders useless even the most compressed intelligence assessment cycle. To be sure, time is an increasingly rare commodity on a modern digital battlefield with unclear boundaries and indiscernible adversaries. The need for improvements in digitally-focused OPE, force protection, and situational awareness capabilities is therefore real. Simply put, combatant command (COCOM) staffs need more training and tools to be minimally proficient and to initiate both offensive operations and effective countermeasures online.

While a more clear and consistent standard is needed to characterize and justify the online requirements, initiatives, and actions of the U.S. COCOM community, an accommodation also must be made for the operational realities of today’s digital environment. In short, the intelligence-centric perspective that has traditionally driven such policy and resourcing decisions produces little more than a passive ability to monitor and track the actions of our adversaries and too often produces a report long after situations and geopolitical conditions have inalterably shifted to a new reality. This approach is adequate no more. To advance our national goals and achieve ultimate success, we must update our means of operations (and train for it) to effect change on the new battlefield.