There May Not Be A Next Time

Part 2: America’s Human Intelligence Capabilities And The Need For Reform

This is the second installment in a three-part series of articles on the state of human intelligence and the necessity for reform.

On July 9, 1755 General Edward Braddock, commander of a British expedition sent to capture Fort Duquesne, a French fortification located on the site of modern-day Pittsburgh, suffered a catastrophic defeat. His army was cut to pieces a matter of a few miles from its objective by a much smaller force of French and Indians, and only the heroic efforts of a young George Washington, Braddock’s aide de camp, prevented an even greater slaughter. The British had suffered a crushing defeat in what came to be known in North America as the French and Indian War, a titanic struggle for supremacy between Britain and France.

Analysis of Braddock’s defeat ever since has tended to skew heavily to the overly simplistic. The French and Indians hid behind trees. The British were fools and stood in the open wearing red. Case closed.

The truth is much more complex and much more illuminating. Braddock was no fool. He was a highly experienced professional British Army officer. He was commanding a force composed overwhelmingly of line regiments of the British Army. This army had fought all over the planet for generations and vanquished any number of foes. Braddock was not on holiday. He knew what he was about, and he was proceeding as he been taught to do.

He was also, unfortunately, in a brand-new world, where the old rules did not apply and where adherence to them could be deadly.

Braddock’s men fought in ranks, in tightly packed formations, because that was how they had been taught to fight. They did not aim their muskets. They fired in masses depending on the volume of fire at close quarters to kill the enemy. What’s more they were incapable of individual action. They responded as groups to the commands of their officers. When the French and Indians began to pick off the British officers systematically during the battle they in essence severed the nervous system of the British force.

The British soldiers that remained in the fight were incapable of coordinated or effective action on their own. They panicked. They fired in all directions killing many of their comrades rather than the enemy. They fled.

What’s more, Braddock’s entire approach to the campaign was inappropriate for the world in which he found himself. He spent the months leading up the battle having his men cut a two-hundred-mile-long road over the Appalachian Mountains, so he could haul siege cannon into the wilderness. The French, armed with intelligence provided by their native allies, lay in wait preparing to strike at a column now strung out over many miles and exhausted from its own efforts.

Finally, Braddock fell for deception. The night before the battle Indians allied with the French came to meet with officers from Braddock’s army and suggested that the French were preparing to abandon Fort Duquesne, and a fight would not be necessary. Braddock, believing the French were leaving, separated his already scattered army once again, sending a force ahead to Fort Duquesne.

Pickets were called in. Security procedures were dispensed with. Flags were unfurled, and the regimental band began to play.

Then the slaughter began.

Braddock’s defeat is, of course, not an isolated incident. It is a common human tendency to continue to apply old rules and to follow old procedures and processes until such time as the cool, hard reality of catastrophe forces us to do otherwise. People behave this way. So do nations and institutions.

Almost seventy-five years ago the United States of  America crushed Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan. Ever since, from Korea, to Vietnam, to Afghanistan, we have been looking to duplicate that success, acting apparently on the idea that if it worked at Normandy it must work in Helmand Province.

Similarly, for fifty years following the end of the Second World War we “fought” a largely static, worldwide, economic, political and sometimes military, battle with the Soviet Union. In the course of that conflict we developed large, slow moving intelligence bureaucracies focused on the collection of intelligence on Moscow and on helping us gain victory in a war that would last generations.

We won the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Now we face the challenge of adapting to a new reality, because like Braddock we find ourselves today in a brand-new world.

Great power rivalries have not gone away. Russia and China remain threats of the first order. That does not mean that the ways in which they threaten us have not changed.

Russia, in particular, has adapted to its loss of territory and loss of military might by adopting and perfecting a form of hybrid warfare. Where once our primary concern was massed formations of Soviet tanks coming through the Fulda Gap, now we face an adversary that deftly blends cyber-attacks, economic blackmail, sabotage by special operations teams and proxy forces into a lethal witches brew. Satellite imagery and signals intelligence tell us virtually nothing about these kinds of attacks, which can be carried out by small units with almost no warning. From the Baltics, to Georgia, to Ukraine this kind of hybrid warfare has proved devastating and, again and again, we have found ourselves caught completely off guard and struggling to catch up with events.

It is in regard to smaller rogue states, terrorist groups and criminal cartels, however, that the world has changed most dramatically. Small nations, like North Korea or Iran, would once have been regarded as inconsequential on their own. No more. North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and stands on the brink of being able to use those weapons against American allies like South Korea and Japan. In the not so distant future, it will likely be able to put those weapons on a submarine and park it off the coast of Southern California.

In that reality it will not necessarily matter that we know that we can crush North Korea in a conventional war. It will not be enough that we know the locations of North Korean tank formations and air bases. What will be most critical will be the mindset and intentions of the man or men in charge in Pyongyang. We will not have decades to figure that out. We will need to know in real time and with precision.

Iran has created a worldwide web of terror. Via Hezbollah, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and a host of Hezbollah clones it has the capacity to switch on and off, as it sees fit, sabotage actions and terrorist attacks virtually anywhere on the planet. Stumbling along behind them attempting to play catch up and identify the people who blew up an oil tanker last week is a losing game. If we are not inside of the Iranian networks and preempting their attacks before they occur, we are losing.

Similarly, terrorist organizations, particularly, radical Islamic groups, have become a major threat to American national security. This will not change anytime soon. As fast as one group is destroyed another will take its place. All across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa there are huge and expanding swathes of territory outside the control of nation states. In these lawless regions terrorist groups hold sway, gather strength and prepare to strike.

Increasingly, the attacks these groups carry out will not simply employ conventional weapons. They will include chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. We will be looking not at hundreds of dead or even casualties on the scale of 9/11. We will be looking at events that can force the evacuation of entire cities.

This is not science fiction. ISIS has carried out dozens of chemical attacks already, and if that tactic has not yet been widely adopted it is only because terrorist groups are still working out how to kill more people with gas than with Semtex. The world is exploding with biotech firms. The lab skills required to grow the plague are not that sophisticated. It is only a matter of time before a city experiences an attack with a true biological weapon.

Radiological sources are ubiquitous. They are used for a host of medical and industrial purposes. They are lost and stolen all the time. A terrorist group in possession of the right source and marginally competent in the building of explosive devices can have a “dirty bomb” overnight. Use of such a weapon could happen at any time.

Nuclear weapons are based on technology that was fully realized seventy-five years ago. Pakistan is building nukes faster than any country on earth. North Korea has them. Iran is moments away. The line that separates terrorist groups from the possession of the atomic bomb is vanishing. One group of rogue officers in Lahore with radical Islamic sympathies can erase it tomorrow.

Terrorist attacks will also inevitably begin to move into the realm of cyber-attacks. This does not mean the theft of credit card numbers and denial of service. This means attacks, which crash power grids, shut off the cooling systems at nuclear power plants and leave airliners in mid-flight without contact with air traffic control. This means attacks, which kill people in large numbers.

We should be prepared for large-scale criminal organizations to join terrorist groups in these kinds of actions whenever they judge it to their advantage. Mexico is only a couple of steps away from becoming a full-fledged narco-state on our southern border. To the extent that cartels avoid striking us today, it is purely because they consider it would be bad for business. When and if that calculus changes, we will face a confrontation with a massive, well-armed, superbly financed hostile force with the capacity to move across our borders at will. The result will be carnage.

All of these threats are amorphous and hard to detect. There will be no images of tank divisions massing nor reports of increases in radio traffic. A handful of individuals inside very secretive, very dangerous organizations will make decisions and take actions that will change the world. We will either have the sources in place to warn us and stop attacks before they occur, or we will be doomed to cleaning up afterward and struggling to catch up.

Braddock was mortally wounded during the fighting on July 9, 1755. His dying words, when he succumbed to his wounds later, were purported to have been, “We shall know better how to fight them next time.”

We may not be so lucky. If we do not get this right there may be no next time for us .

The third and final installment in this series will explore the changes to human intelligence collection capabilities necessary to allow us to deal with this new world.

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