Small Wars Journal

Back to Basics: Reenergizing Intelligence Operations

Wed, 01/16/2013 - 3:30am

The most frustrating moment for the J2 occurs when the operations summary contains more useful intelligence-producing data than the official intelligence reporting.  The common excuse, that the Counter Insurgency (COIN) environment moves too quickly and the real intel exists in the human terrain, acts like a soft landing for an unimaginative staff.  The intelligence infrastructure stands idly by and watches it unfold in reporting as teams conduct discovery learning at every turn. 

Granted, nothing replaces the intimate knowledge of village idiosyncrasies like boots-on-the-ground presence and weeks of political courtships.  There always exists a gap in knowledge until the teams share a cup of tea with a village elder.  But all too often, our Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams responsible for Village Stability Operations (VSO) walked into unfamiliar areas with limited or worthless reporting guiding their operations.  I know for sure it happens throughout the country.  To a point, intelligence teams can better prepare the SOF operators for the inevitable expansion into unknown areas.  Intelligence operations must find a way to get out ahead of the fight.

Our J2 team, at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A), created a comprehensive intelligence support package that increased baseline knowledge for VSO future operations.  This paper outlines our tested methods and shows how a developed Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) plan serves as a conceptual playbook for intelligence support to any planned operation.  With Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR) accurately reflecting the commander’s decision points and focus, a sustainable and candid four dimensional multi-INT collection plan, and means for discovery of consumable intelligence products, this outlined method for intelligence support to VSO expansion proves that intelligence still drives some operational decisions in a COIN fight. 

The Problem Set

Multiple articles, and even some YouTube videos, describe VSO quite accurately.  Captain Rory Hanlin’s 2011 article best describes the lines of effort, difficulties and specific examples of a team’s actions.  “The VSO methodology is a bottom up approach that employs USSOF teams and partnered units embedded with villagers in order to establish security and to support and promote socio-economic development and good governance.”  While CPT Hanlin stresses that his team’s approach represents the specific nature of the villages he encountered, the paper accurately reflects the concept of VSO country-wide.[1]

A quote floating through CJSOTF-A, “if you’ve seen one VSO, you’ve seen one VSO,” accurately reflects the amorphous nature of the operation.  Each Village Stability Platform (VSP) executes VSO to the specific situation of their area.  The team leader in the VSP drives the local situational development and expansion timeline.  From the intelligence perspective, it proves exceedingly difficult getting out ahead of the fight – facilitating intelligence driven operations – when the teams cannot effectively describe the problem, the timeline or the requirements.

With all the complexities of VSO, as it relates to the environmental constraints and requirements, the teams generally require intelligence support to three basic operations – force protection, force projection, and VSO expansion.  First, every VSP requires force protection related intelligence.  They need to know what’s going on in their area.  To that end, the teams, or the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) above them, proficiently submit collection requirements and subsequently produce accurate intelligence reporting.  The requests often call for Communications Intelligence (COMINT), imagery, Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and Full Motion Video (FMV), and there are rarely enough assets for country-wide requirements.  Regardless, the teams accurately identify and communicate the needs.

Second, each VSP conducts kinetic operations in nearby areas to improve local security and prepare for eventual expansion.  Planning for this force projection begins several days prior to the operation.  The teams and SOTFs retain responsibility for planning and executing those Concepts of Operation (CONOPS) while CJSOTF-A exists in a supporting role.  Every executed CONOP receives FMV and/or COMINT support but the teams’ and SOTF’s reliance on FMV as an operational overwatch and their generally casual avoidance of pre-op collection requirements unwittingly handicaps the insertion team.  Force projection operations could be supported better but that’s a separate topic for battalion level collection management issues.

Finally, expansion to uncontrolled areas and inclusion of otherwise under-considered villages defines the true success of VSO.  Expansion requires the most preparation and yet receives the least resources.  The teams do not submit collection requirements for VSO expansion as they do not know when they will expand and often cannot define a specific geographic area.  This unknown timeline, combined with units’ habitual reliance on the immediacy of FMV support, precludes forward thinking collection requirements.  In all fairness to the teams and the SOTFs, it was difficult to ascertain who held this responsibility.

After much discussion, the CJSOTF broke down the level of responsibilities.  Considering the OPTEMPO and the intimate operations at the VSP, a team generally will not consider operations beyond the next two weeks.  The SOTF, then, must take into consideration VSP expansion but only as it relates to their area of operation (generally corresponding to the Regional Command (RC) areas).  With multiple VSPs, ongoing force protection collection and dozens of supported CONOPs, the SOTF likely only considers intelligence operations for the next month with one eye on the VSO expansion horizon.  As Figure 1 shows, the teams maintained intimate situational understanding of their immediate area with focused knowledge of the village and local relationships.  The SOTF maintains excellent situational understanding of the multiple VSPs.  Their depth of knowledge directly relates to their access to the teams.  This allows the CJSOTF to maneuver assets to support future operations, free to rely on the intimate knowledge at the team level and SOTF analysis of the situations, and react to indications of issues spanning multiple SOTF areas of operation.  This leaves the CJSOTF intelligence team available for future expansion and subsequent intelligence support to help improve the SOTFs’ and teams’ situational understanding when the needs arise.  With a clear understanding of the opportunities available at the CJSOTF and the inherent obstacles for the SOTFs, our J2 team looked towards future VSO expansion. 


[Figure 1: Intimacy and depth of knowledge.  The teams maintain the depth of knowledge for the VSP, while the CJSOTF maintains the breadth of knowledge across the SOTFs.]

Defining the Requirement

Before considering adjusting intelligence operations, we asked basic internal questions about the Commander’s priorities.  Naturally, the Commander expounded his priorities daily, but the existing PIRs, while well written and doctrinally correct, centered on enemy activity and subsequent effects.[2]  If the Commander’s decision points reflected the PIR, then the commander would never make a decision based on economic, political or tribal circumstances.  Subsequently, we could hardly justify collecting against those issues or support his Lines of Effort[3] for that matter.  Unfortunately, daily reporting and weekly roll ups accurately reflected the command’s PIR, which proved a great disservice to the unit.  To correct the shortfall, the CJSOTF-A staff revamped the Commander’s PIR for a more accurate reflection of the mission and decision points.  Much like the 2009 article, by Z. Tenay Guvendiren and Scott Downey, recommends, our staff linked the PIR to the LOE.[4]  In the end, the staff wrote five simple PIR and the Commander quickly approved the holistic LOE-based priorities for his problem set (See Figure 2).  This afforded the newly focused staff a more comprehensive look at the intelligence support. 

[Figure 2: Priority Intelligence Requirements directly related to specific Lines of Effort.]

Recognizing the endless possibilities for over 5 dozen VSPs, the J2 team needed direction and a general area into which it could focus intel efforts.  Tyranny of distance and the vast expanse of terrain in Afghanistan precludes consistent coverage of all VSPs and potential focus areas.  Conversely, requesting a specific grid for VSO expansion months prior to a potential move proves impossible, unreliable, and foolhardy.  Therefore, we relied heavily on the CJSOTF-A J3 and SOTF Commanders’ discretion on general direction and prioritization of each VSP’s expansion plan.  Instead of “this team, will occupy this village on this date,” we more accurately received, “this team will probably go north into this valley but not until the current village is ready for the team to move on and only if we think there is a need in that area.”  With that general information fat fingered on a map, the intel team next determined a data starting point for the new focus area.

The analyst responsible for the first focus area led a group huddle with representatives from each section of the J2 designed to level the knowledge playing field.  She took the fat fingered outline, firmed up the geographic boundaries, and spoke to every nuanced detail available, followed by a rundown of identified knowledge gaps.  The sections followed, thinking aloud as they ran their pens over the map, identifying known capabilities, potential updates to the analyst’s points, and additional gaps.  For example, the HUMINT section identified sources who historically reported on the focus area and determined which ones would most likely provide information we required.  The SIGINT team identified ground capabilities that, once maneuvered into position, could best collect against that problem set. 

We included reachback analysis support representatives from the Counter-IED Operations Intelligence Cell (COIC), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC).  Following the meeting, each section translated the intel gaps into specific intelligence collection requirements complete with essential elements of information, justifications and special instructions. 

The ISR team compiled the intelligence collection requirements and developed a three phase sustainable collection plan (see Figure 3). The first phase, baseline phase, required the initial collection surge, spread out over the first 30 days, designed to fill the gaps and create a knowledge foundation.  Most importantly the first phase, by design, avoided wasting assets’ time and effort with duplicative collection against already known information.  It was, by no means, an ISR soak but rather a surgical collection plan.

The second phase relied on spot collections by specific assets across the spectrum of intelligence capabilities.  This phase drew on appropriate periodicity to maintain necessary sustainment of the knowledge baseline and continue answering newly discovered intelligence gaps.  The second, or sustainment phase, started approximately 30 days into the ISR plan and could last indefinitely as it did not rely on constant ISR coverage.  Niche capabilities, often overlooked by virtue of their very specific and often highly classified assets, featured prominently in this part of the plan. 

The third phase represented the potential worst-case requirements supporting a team’s expansion into a highly contested area.  As the situation continued to develop, and as new information continued to confirm and deny our thoughts, the final phase adjusted accordingly.  The overall collection plan’s requirements look like a reverse bell curve, which directly mirrored the influx of information as well.

[Figure 3: Simplified version of the phased collection plan.  Original classified collection plan identified daily and hourly requirements.]

The J2 knowledge management team identified a plan that prevented overwhelming the SOTF and teams with the anticipated deluge of information.  We sought an alternative to an endless pit of semi-pertinent data.  The plan required making all the data readily available (discoverable) while keeping the amount of data manageable given the OPTEMPO (consumable).  A random word in the dictionary, for example, is discoverable, but the dictionary itself is not consumable – an analyst will never read the entire dictionary.  Instead of 15 images of a village showing the construction of a farm house from beginning to end, the database would show the first image and last image and describe briefly the events in between each.  We also found a means for displaying the information internally.

The J2 knowledge manager created a portal site dedicated to the focus area with an index page identifying the intelligence gaps as well as the structure of the data found in the portal, including naming conventions and latest date time group of the intelligence.  Analysts consolidated duplicate files and deleted unnecessary data points.  As per the standard, the original reports posted directly to the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE), which facilitated discovery via the common analytic tools.  How our portal site differed from the raw data in CIDNE is that we captured the gist of the raw data in a tailored consumable fashion.  With the plan in place for the collection, analysis and back-end discoverability, the next step required actual collection, and that required outside approval.

Selling the ISR Plan

The focus area collection plan, augmented by the few organic collection capabilities, required national, theater and corps level assets.  The pieces fit together loosely in the collection management realm and herding the ISR cats requires a centralized office.  Only the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC) can fit the pieces together for all of Afghanistan, but they will not prioritize collection for an unnamed operation.  The IJC collection management process is an outdated method, relying too heavily on the individual task in support of D-Day operations vice the purpose of a dynamic collection plan.  As Capt Jaylan Haley put it, the IJC operates on “impractical and constrictive tasking procedures rooted in doctrine and inflexible theater guidelines that detract from the gains in hardware.”[5]  As a fact of the situation and despite being an ISAF Command priority, VSO was not a named operation and would receive prioritized allocation.

Fearing our phased non-kinetic collection requirements, taken individually, would go uncollected; the J2 ISR team briefed the plan in its entirety to the IJC Collection Managers (CM).  The briefing flowed from the operational macro view of CJSOTF-A’s mission to the tactical micro view of a VSP, followed by the comprehensive collection plan as it related to the phases of VSO expansion and meeting the LOO-based PIR.  Linking the purpose of the collection plan to the individual requirements proved highly productive and informative.  The IJC CMs recognized the overall long term phased collection plan as both sustainable and feasible. 

Staggering the execution of each focus area helped disperse the requirements for niche capabilities and allayed the IJC CMs concerns about overtaxing the assets.  This staggering method also provided flexibility in the collection timeline.  Instead of demanding a specific asset at a specific time, the plan called for a specific capability within a period window.  Moreover, our ISR team’s proficient grasp of collection management created a mutual trust with the IJC ISR planners.  Over the next few days, our two teams worked hand-in-hand towards a theater-wide effort supporting the original purpose of the focus area collection without disrupting the IJC priority collection plan for ongoing named operations.  At the successful conclusion, CJSOTF-A walked away with a phased collection plan mirroring the original requirements. 

With the collection plan in place, propagating the effort to the processing and exploitation analysis teams ensured tailored support.  For every collect, there exists a Service Member or Civilian designing their analysis of the captured data.  Sometimes, these exploitation cells operate in a vacuum unaware of the original purpose of the collect; conducting their analysis based off the short cryptic paragraph in the collection requirement.  Clarifying the requirements through a simple phone call to the Air Force DGS-2 analysts in California, for example, or over dinner with the Afghanistan Regional Operations Cryptologic Center (AROCC), helped not only ensure increased attention to detail but also ingratiated our analysts with the many analysts supporting our effort from around the globe.  The mutual trust between the services proved essential to the overall successful supporting relationship. 

Other stateside agencies, namely the COIC, DIA and NGIC, provided additional all source support as well.  Including forward representatives in the initial phases of the focus area development increased the sense of teamwork, improved fused analysis and decreased the pushback regarding our Requests for Information (RFI).  The improved effort put forth by the reachback community directly reflected the amount of effort the CJSOTF put towards sharing our purpose with the larger intelligence community.


Three weeks into the first phase of the original focus area, the J2 team updated the SOTF and CJSOTF Commanders.  The information enabled clearer situational understanding as the SOTF Commander immediately turned to his S2 and S3 directing increased attention to certain topics, movement of organic assets to support the VSP SOF team’s expansion and asked additional questions to help center the sustainment phase collection.  Finally, the intel team operated out ahead of the fight. 

The focus area collection plan required several adjustments to long-held standard operating procedures but the effort proved highly lucrative.  Recreating the method does not require access to special operations capabilities.  The assets and method for allocation and prioritization exist in the conventional realm and can easily support any operation in the planning or conceptual phases.  The following steps allowed our team to focus efforts and paved the way for intelligence to help drive operations.

1. Developed PIR that accurately reflect the Commander’s decision points and priorities.  The enemy is only one factor on this battlefield.

2. Freed up analytic man hours.  On our team, we fought against and discontinued daily reads that regurgitated reporting already displayed by our subordinate units.  Our argument contended, “What value are we to the organization if the only audience is the Commander and his staff?”  We were dangerously close to being a self-licking ice cream cone.  Instead, we consolidated the subordinate units’ reports and added analysis only as it related to country-wide issues.  Removing these types of roll- ups freed up over 45 analytic man hours per day.

3. Defined the focus area geographically.  It took more than one try to get the operations cell or a Commander to outline operational areas. 

4. Determined our current base of knowledge.  We let one or two analysts deep dive into that area, pulling every resource data base they could to determine what was already known as well as what they wanted to know.

5. Pooled our gaps.  We brought in the whole team to discuss what we, collectively, did and did not know.  We included reachback representatives as well as the Public Affairs Office, Information Operations team, Linguist Manager and Deputy J3 in our initial discussions.

6. Developed our collection plan.  We turned our intelligence gaps into collection requirements complete with all the essential elements of information and special instructions.  We took the requirements and built a three phase collection plan consisting of a baseline phase (designed to meet the initial intelligence gaps), a sustainment phase (designed to maintain situational awareness while continuing to build situational understanding) and an execution phase (designed to ramp up last minute collection to support the operation).

7. Designed our marketing campaign.  We determined our audience and developed a briefing that displayed, from macro to micro, how the operation worked.  Most importantly, we presented the collection plan as Phase 0 or I in the overall scheme of maneuver – linking requirements to specific operation maneuvers. 

8. Sold the plan.  Every stakeholder, support organization, and decision maker needs to know how the collection plan sets the stage for the successful completion of the mission.  For example, “If we don’t get hyper spectral collection at point X NLT D-5 to deny activity, we have to commit forces to that area, which pulls from the main effort.”  With this method, we showed how the operation’s execution hinged on certain intelligence functions.  This increased non-unit ownership and cooperation throughout the community.  We cannot underestimate the sense of duty inherently present in the people associated with the mission.  Knowing how they fit in the larger picture makes people very focused on mission success.  Putting a face to our requirements ensured their successful accomplishment. 

9. Planned the wave of information.  We had no illusions that the amount of data coming in would overwhelm the number analysts available; therefore, we planned ahead for parsing the raw data, storing the reports, and displaying the pertinent intelligence products.  For us, it was all about making the data discoverable as well as consumable.  Too much data can actually reverse the desired effect.

10. Maintained the momentum.  These collection plans took weeks to months to truly mature.  We could not lose the momentum by waiting for the 100% perfect answer before briefing the status.  Standing before the man and telling him, “We thought we knew this…now we know this…we’re still waiting to confirm this…if you let us maneuver ground assets to here, we can figure it out.”  Maneuver commanders tend to operate on a 24 hour cycle.  If they asked for it on Monday, they expect it no later than Tuesday.  Developing the intelligence support for operations can take time.  Keeping the command and staff informed of the progress kept our plan in motion. 

11. Following up. We did not allow OPTEMPO to excuse our team from writing a quick sentence or paragraph explaining how a collection, report, or even administrative support made the mission a success.  I designated Sunday afternoons (when deployed) as our time to write at least two organizations that I felt made a difference for us recently.  I know each product is supposed to receive feedback but that’s not feasible when analysts peruse 700 pages of products on a daily basis.  We set a realistic goal to provide honest feedback to the people supporting the mission.

The CJSOTF-A J2 team developed a method to get out ahead of a highly ambiguous COIN fight.  The teams argued, broke through the quagmire of long standing traditions, and accomplished something that is expected of intelligence teams everywhere.  A senior member on our team remarked, “I’ve been lectured on it, I’ve read about it, and I’ve memorized the steps, but I’ve never actually seen the intelligence cycle in practice until now.” 


[1] Hanlin, Rory. “One Team’s Approach to Village Stability Operations.” Small Wars Journal, September 2011.

[2] Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIR): JP 1-02 describes PIR as a priority for intelligence support that the commander and staff need to understand the adversary or other aspects of the operational environment.

[3] Line of Effort (LOE): JP 5-0 describes an LOE as multiple tasks and missions using the logic of purpose – cause and effect – to focus effort towards establishing operational and strategic conditions.

[4] Guvedndiren, Z. Tenay and Scott Downey. “Putting the PRIORITY Back into PIR: PIR Development in a COIN Environment.” Small Wars Journal, April 2009.

[5] Haley, Jaylan. “An Evolution in Intelligence Doctrine.” Air & Space Power Journal, September-October 2012.


About the Author(s)

Major John M. Ives served as the Director of Intelligence, J2, at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan in 2011/12.  He deployed multiple times to both Iraq and Afghanistan.