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Intelligence Dominance and Population-Centric Warfare

The US needs to adjust its defense capabilities to 21st century, population centric conflicts, according to a new think tank report.

In the 2009 Academy Award-winning movie The Hurt Locker, a Baghdad butcher holds a cell phone as he stands near the site of an improvised explosive device (IED). A squad of US soldiers shouts at the Iraqi to put the phone down. He smiles and waves, reassuring the soldiers he is not a threat. Then he presses a button on the cell phone and detonates a bomb, killing one of the soldiers.

Such an incident would be rare, according to the authors of a new report from the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington-based think tank, if their recommendations were to be implemented by the US military.

The report, titled Adapting America’s Security Paradigm and Security Agenda, posits that the population-centric warfare being pursued in Afghanistan and Iraq is here to stay for decades to come, and that the US needs to adapt its military thinking and its capabilities to meet that challenge.

The risk of an incident portrayed in The Hurt Locker could have been mitigated, according to the report, by achieving intelligence dominance, a technique originally developed by the British during World War II, and since also practiced by Israelis, Australians and others.

Information dominance involves developing deep local knowledge by assigning agents or operatives to relatively small geographical areas of responsibility. The report argues that the US needs to develop this kind of capability together with its host nation partners in current and future population-centric conflicts.

The Legacy

Intelligence dominance is not unknown to the US. A secretive Department of Defense program called Legacy recently received enhanced funding by the House of Representatives in its fiscal year 2011 defense authorization act. "Legacy assisted with the development of an indigenous capacity to infiltrate and disrupt local terrorist networks," noted a report on the legislation, released in May by the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

But the committee also commented, "many innovative programs for mapping complex and social landscapes, understanding relationships among key actors in insurgencies, identifying the key goals of marginalized groups that could lead them to be recruited by terrorists, and integrating approaches to reduce the appeal of terrorist groups have failed in the past for lack of institutionalized support."

It is just such institutionalized support that the National Strategy Information Center is advocating in its report. "The US did much of this in a very effective but ad hoc fashion in Iraq, before and during the surge in 2006 and 2007," said the NSIC report.

The persistence of population-centric warfare is related to the proliferation of weak, failing and failed states, Roy Godson, president of the National Strategy Information Center and professor emeritus at Georgetown University, told ISN Security Watch. States in that category comprise around half of all states worldwide, he said.

"They are looking for leadership and support from the United States," said Godson. "We have opportunities to work with them and build coalitions against the coalitions that are working against US interests."

At a high level, intelligence dominance enhances US forces present in a region, whether in an advisory or combat role, by "systematically mapping local power brokers and communication networks, and the underground and above-ground infrastructure of armed groups," said the report.

That activity, coupled with "effective strategic communication...would weaken the hold of armed groups on the minds of the population, and strengthen those opposed to authoritarian, corrupt, and violent elites." The US could then "take advantage of these favorable conditions to identify and cement relationships between US and foreign local civilian elements and security forces."

Intelligence ‘grids’

The system could work, in the case of operations in an urban setting like Baghdad, by breaking up the city into a grid and assigning intelligence teams for each element of the grid, explained Godson.

"Someone would be responsible for each violent act on the grid," he added. Ideally the operative "should know about it before it happens. If he missed it he'd better find out who is responsible" for the violence, and pronto.

A second element would involve the availability of skilled interviewers familiar with the environment who would arrive to interrogate suspects detained after violent incidents within minutes after they are captured.

In the case of the incident portrayed in The Hurt Locker, an intelligence officer would know whether neighborhood bystanders were friendly or unfriendly, allowing the IED squad to adjust its behavior accordingly.

Godson credits intelligence dominance techniques with allowing the Israelis to virtually stop terrorist attacks in its territory.

"Experience has shown that many of these relatively inexpensive techniques can be embedded in a host nation’s security force," said the report. "Developing the capability to do this in fragile and new democracies will be an effective tool in strengthening democratic governance in these societies."

Cost effectiveness

The US and its allies can help build this type of capability in host nations by providing mentors, developing a two- to -four-year phased plan to implement the capabilities, and continuing evaluation and adaptation of the plan as it is implemented.

Godson is gratified to see more support in the Defense Department and Congress for intelligence dominance programs like Legacy. He noted, however, that, while the defense authorization bill passed the House of Representatives, "the question is, 'Will the Senate go along?'"

Godson also touts the cost effectiveness of intelligence dominance. The NSIC report estimates efforts would cost between $20 million to $100 million per year per country for four years.

"It is cost neutral at worst," he said, "and it and may even save money from the defense budget in the long term."

That would be good news to beleaguered Pentagon budgeters, who are under the gun to chop whatever they can out of bloated defense appropriations.

By. Peter Buxbaum

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  • Anonymous on July 15 2010 said:
    This is a blatant lie. The defense budget is not bloated, and by consequence, neither are any of its specific components. The defense budget ($534 bn, a historically small figure) constitutes only 3.65% of GDP, which (excluding the Clinton era) is the lowest level of defense spending since FY1948. The defense budget constitutes only 14% of the federal budget. The blood libel that the defense budget is bloated is a lie deliberately spread by anti-defense liberals to induce the American people to demand defense budget cuts, and by politicians to excuse defense budget reductions.

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