Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Telecommuting to war: Why we put an intel team at DIA HQ when we deployed

By CPT Joseph Holliday & CPT Chris Ardohain Best Defense guest columnists Commentaries about Afghanistan troop reductions tend to focus on the total numbers deployed, and few observers pay close attention to the types of troop formations that we send overseas. One major change the military made in the past year has been the creation ...


By CPT Joseph Holliday & CPT Chris Ardohain

Best Defense guest columnists

Commentaries about Afghanistan troop reductions tend to focus on the total numbers deployed, and few observers pay close attention to the types of troop formations that we send overseas. One major change the military made in the past year has been the creation and deployment of Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs). ISAF shifted its mission from combat operations to advising and assisting the Afghan military, and the SFABs are at the forefront of this effort. Rather than deploying as Light Infantry Brigades, these units are allowed to deploy fewer than half of their approximately 4,000 available soldiers, NCOs, and officers to advise and assist the Afghan security forces.

This presents an array of challenges for a brigade that is not doctrinally trained or organized to operate in this way, and units are adapting to the new paradigm by innovating new organizational structures. Brigades need as many boots on the ground as they can muster to remain operational, and this puts a premium on being able to conduct a wide array of combat support functions with the fewest troops possible. Some of these critical support roles — logistics and medical support, for example — require soldiers on the ground. You can’t drive a fuel truck or stabilize a wounded soldier unless you’re right there.

But what about intelligence support? Can soldiers ‘telecommute’ for intelligence work? The business world is witnessing a communications revolution, and the military’s top commanders have already incorporated classified video teleconferences into their weekly or even daily routines (of course, there’s an acronym for this: VTCs). As one of the first SFABs, Task Force Bastogne (1st Brigade, 101st Airborne) and the Defense Intelligence Agency decided to try it, and established a small intelligence team that could support the deployed brigade from inside the Washington Beltway.

These types of experiments in organizational structure are critical for the military to continue improving and adapting, but it’s no small feat to “think different” within the defense bureaucracy. The attention and efforts of senior leaders were necessary to bring Bastogne’s Washington-based team to life. It’s not free to fly soldiers out from Ft. Campbell, KY and provide housing for them. Of course, this cost is negligible in comparison to the cost of supporting a soldier in Afghanistan, widely cited between a half-million to a million dollars a year.

National-level intelligence agencies have been eager to “support the warfighter” for years — it’s always one of the top bullets on command briefings. Despite these stated efforts, most national intelligence agencies’ ability to contribute to the intelligence picture of deployed tactical ground forces has remained remarkably limited, largely because so many levels of command separate infantry units from national agencies.

Working out of the DIA, Bastogne’s team made sure that their brigade had access to relevant work done by national intelligence agencies. The reach-back team could capture off-the-cuff analysis from experts and analysts and get it straight to the field much faster than the production cycle in Washington.

Furthermore, many high-level intelligence products never make it down to conventional Army units, even if those products are directly relevant to their area of operations. Having part of the brigade in Washington makes sure this work gets to the people who need it most.

Bringing the voices of Beltway analysts to the brigade was particularly relevant during the first few months of the deployment, when the unit was new to the area of operations. There is an inherent loss of knowledge with the Army’s operational tempo, in which units deploy for 9-12 month increments, undergo complete changeover of senior leadership during training, and deploy into a new environment for another 9-12 months. This is less the case in national intelligence agencies, at which analysts look at the same intelligence problem sets for years at a time. Bastogne’s team was able to tap into these Washington-based analysts, mitigate the loss of information and context during the vulnerable unit transition period, and accelerate Bastogne’s understanding of their environment.

Putting members of an infantry brigade inside the DIA also drew tactical information up to the national-level. Directly integrated into the chain of command of the deployed brigade, the team could access information about major events on the ground that warranted national-level support, such as a downed helicopter, vastly improving the DIA’s ability to support ongoing operations. Bastogne’s team found that the DIA analysts lacked access to good information about the disposition and operations of U.S. and allied forces, which they were able to provide. Without understanding friendly disposition and operations, analysts in Washington could have great information about the enemy and still only see half of the picture. The team also helped DIA analysts learn what intelligence support tactical units actually need, which is very different than supporting national-level decision-makers with intelligence products.

Despite these many advantages, other aspects of tactical intelligence support were difficult to replicate from afar. For the first two months, the team was able to contribute meaningfully to the brigade’s operational picture, but after that they began to understand they would not develop the same depth of knowledge as the analysts in Afghanistan, deployed close to the action. Modern communications technology, however robust, can’t replicate the importance of being there and seeing the ground for oneself.

In order to add the most value for their brigade, the team began to shift its focus to nearby areas that impacted the brigade’s operations, such as Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), nearby Afghan provinces, and the transnational terrorist networks that moved between them. As the team began to focus more on the big picture than the specifics of the brigade’s area of operations, they found that they were less relevant to the DIA analysts who, as national-level analysts, also worked on the big picture. Therefore, recognizing this inherent tension and continually calibrating priorities has been critical to the team’s success.

Despite these limitations, Bastogne has learned that having a small team in Washington has let them take advantage of a much larger network of intelligence analysts. On more than one occasion, Bastogne’s team has sought advice from an expert in Washington, who in turn directed them to an analyst in Kabul that they knew personally to be the most expert on that particular subject. The team could then put the Brigade directly in touch with the Kabul analyst, close the loop, and flatten communication. These analysts — both in Afghanistan — would never have learned that they were working on the same issue unless this connection was made.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said “it takes a network to beat a network” and Bastogne’s intelligence team at the DIA has demonstrated the importance of establishing nodes to link friendly networks together. Networks of intelligence analysts in Washington and in Afghanistan work day and night to point our deployed soldiers toward the right path, but the links between the national and tactical levels have not been robust enough to make the vast U.S. intelligence network relevant to deployed military units.

This is a systemic problem within the U.S. intelligence system that requires a more systematic solution. Meanwhile, units like Bastogne and agencies like the DIA will figure out innovative ways to expand and flatten friendly networks within defense and intelligence.

Joseph Holliday is a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, where he writes on Syria, and served as a battalion intelligence officer during Bastogne’s last tour to Afghanistan. He still serves in the Army Reserves. Chris Ardohain, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, currently serves as Bastogne’s assistant intelligence officer and leads the brigade’s Washington-based intelligence team. They are developing a more detailed version of this case study for publication in a military professional journal. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, or Department of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1