Small Wars Journal

The Un-Tapped Potential of Aviation Intelligence

Mon, 03/03/2014 - 1:23pm

The Un-Tapped Potential of Aviation Intelligence

Jillian Wisniewski

Most aviators and intelligence professionals agree that something about tactical aviation intelligence just isn’t working. Aviators tend to think that intelligence analysts simply don’t understand how to assess the enemy as it pertains to aviation specific missions. Intelligence analysts tend to think that aviators know very little about how to employ intelligence analysts. Neither party is incorrect. Intelligence analysts do not learn about aviation missions in their fundamental training, and aviators do not learn adequate intelligence operations to be able to gainfully and efficiently employ an intelligence section.  I think both parties are seeking to answer the question: What is the best way to employ an intelligence section in aviation?

Aviators and Intelligence

I served as the S2 for 7-17 Air Cavalry Squadron, forward deployed to Jalalabad, Afghanistan as Task Force Palehorse in 2009, and as the Brigade S2 for 159th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB). In total, I served with aviation intelligence for the better part of five years. However, it wasn’t until I served two years teaching military intelligence to aviators in their basic courses and Captain’s Career Course at the US Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Ft. Rucker, AL, that I truly began to see the severity of the disconnect between these two fields.  Instead of interpreting aviation intelligence strictly though my experiences with Fort Campbell’s heavily air-assault focused mindset, I had the opportunity to work with students of diverse backgrounds representing practically every aviation unit in the active duty, National Guard, and reserve Army which broadened my perspective and deepened my understanding. From the first day of class to the after-action review, I witnessed a momentous shift in my students’ attitudes and perceptions. In earnest, it was astounding and disappointing to see that fewer than ten percent of the Aviation Captain’s Career Course’s (AVC3) students felt that they had good S2s in their previous units. In small group training, I spent twelve hours with each group, guiding them through practical exercises in building an intelligence collection plan from the ground up—that entails understanding a mission and enemy in depth enough to develop priority intelligence requirements then employing the systematic process of developing a plan to leverage collection platforms within various disciplines of intelligence. Most rewarding in that process is how meticulously it lead my students to identify named areas of interest—you know, those things S2s just “throw on the map.” Through this and more in-depth education on assessing an enemy’s capabilities, many students voiced or wrote on critiques that their perspective of military intelligence changed significantly, and they now believed they could have an in-depth conversation with their own S2 in the future. These conversations may be the start of a remedy for the ill-stricken aviation intelligence field.

In my experience out of the classroom, the most common question pilots asked my shop, usually after a post-mission debrief, was “What are you going to do with this information?” Unfortunately, few aviators have faith that the S2 will use their information for anything significant. When aviators return from any mission, they debrief the S2 on the entire experience, explaining and providing pictures of what they saw or did not see, what route they flew, what named areas of interest (NAI) they reconnoitered, what unit they supported on a specific mission, etc. When there is significant activity, like an engagement with the enemy, the pilot uses this time to piece together the experience from start to finish, consolidating all the details of the battle.  This requires a significant amount of time and mental effort from an often-exhausted pilot, so it’s no wonder they are curious about the results of their efforts.

The data trail of a pilot’s debrief shouldn’t end in the S2’s database. Frankly, what the aviator has to offer the intelligence community is actually more than even the pilot realizes. A knowledgeable intelligence analyst should treat a pilot like a sophisticated sensor: he can collect data in multiple locations through human and technological senses and provide a detailed view of the battlefield that an unmanned or remote sensor cannot replicate. No other sensor flies with the same frequency in a particular area and interacts with numerous ground units and personalities in a wide spectrum of operations across multiple areas of responsibility. Furthermore, no other sensor can truly incorporate the human factor of curiosity, which leads him to maneuver and view objects or activities in unpredictable ways that leads to a more in-depth understanding of human action-reaction chains on the battlefield. After about sixty days of routine flight, a pilot possesses a detailed, inherent knowledge of the battlefield environment and the adversary within it. It is up to the S2 to extract that knowledge from him and combine it with the multiple intelligence disciplines available to piece together a comprehensive view of the threat and environment. This extraction only begins with the debrief.

Once the S2 analyst and aviator close out a debrief, the information contained there in should feed into multiple products. The S2 produces some of these products right away, such as storyboards or intelligence and reconnaissance summaries.  Some products, like reconnaissance photos, might require cross-referencing with human intelligence or signals intelligence reports that help confirm the activities captured in the image—to confirm or deny the presence of such things as an explosive device, weapons cache, illegal river crossing, or other illicit activity. When that occurs, the S2 should consolidate the pictures and reporting to produce and disseminate the all-source product to relevant units. Other products such as long-term assessments or targeting support products may take more time or require more information to complete. For example, if a pilot collects information in certain NAIs in support of answering priority intelligence requirements (PIR), his immediate data from a mission may hold little value by itself. However, collecting small details over a long period of time has momentous value in understanding complex enemy operations, like his logistics cycle or steady-state operational patterns, and aviation units are most capable of providing such data (because of the pilot’s aforementioned sensor capabilities and the scope of a task force’s daily operations).  It is in providing this long-term reconnaissance capability that makes the aviation unit integral to a ground force commander’s understanding of his area of operation (AO).

This potentially invaluable product of steady state aerial reconnaissance rarely becomes a reality in aviation intelligence for a variety of reasons. It is cumbersome, requiring a systematic approach such as bi-weekly data analyses to stay on task.  It requires an in-depth knowledge of data management or the ability to dedicate the majority of someone’s effort to maintaining and streamlining the database. It needs full support/enforcement from the unit commander and S3, especially in fostering a climate wherein the intelligence section and aviators work together. In short, it requires building a team with not only the knowledge and expertise to accomplish the task, but also the understanding to execute operations based on the results of the team’s analysis.

This steady state collection can be most frustrating to pilots. Often, they see no immediate gain for conducting the reconnaissance. This is especially true when they see an activity that could be nefarious, like people digging along a roadway when there is no scheduled construction, yet there is no ground element nearby to take action on it, relegating the pilots to do nothing more than report the activity.  Passive reconnaissance does not come naturally; it is counter to human nature. When pilots see a suspicious activity, they want to be able to do something about it. Aviators also voice frustration in having to provide detailed data to the S2 when there is nothing significant to report from the reconnaissance mission. Generally if nothing notable happens on a mission, pilots feel that they do not need to debrief the S2. For statistical analysis, that mentality is a fatal mistake, as each recorded data point assists in forming statistical significance and a degree of certainty to an overall assessment. Negative reporting helps analysts piece together activity patterns in context of time and space. If a pilot doesn’t report that he was present in a NAI at a given time and saw nothing, then it looks as if no one ever checked the NAI during times other than when positive indication of activity occurred.  More importantly, if pilots don’t understand the big picture or intent behind what they are collecting, they are not prepared to provide sufficient feedback to support a collection plan. Pilots must have some understanding of the commander’s PIR and how the collection plan supports it so that they can provide essential information and constructive feedback to the S2 about the experiences that they encounter. For instance, a pilot may have to look for “groups of two to three military aged males” in a certain NAI, which the S2 may have assessed as an indicator that a certain activity is occurring, yet the pilot may understand through his routine flights and conversations with the ground elements that this gathering in the NAI is actually a local group of farmers or other benign gathering of locals. If this exchange of information between the pilot and S2 never occurs, then the S2 may never adjust the indicator and will keep asking for the same information, thus perpetuating the cycle of frustration between the collector and analyst. Lastly, pilots rarely see the fruits of their labor. When developing the S2 and aviation team, it is supremely beneficial for the S2 to present assessments and findings derived or directly resulting from pilot feedback. Even if the pilots aren’t keenly interested in a detailed description of some aspects of the threat, occasional threat updates actively briefed at the company level or below will foster a trusting relationship. It is always reassuring to know that there are fruits to one’s labor and that the staff element is diligent in holding up its end of the bargain.

When the intelligence section and aviators understand and respect each other’s roles, they can be a truly effective team on the battlefield, doing much more for the ground unit than is typical in a single mission window.  The scope of aviation capabilities extends far beyond the rudimentary search for IEDs or providing a security escort. On today’s battlefield, ground units employ aviation assets more than ever to help them fight an increasingly elusive enemy.  Aviation can employ deception simply by being present, or absent, at key times in the battle. This can only happen with interaction among other intelligence platforms, which can tell the pilot in real time how the threat perceives his action. By listening, watching, and interacting with the threat, the pilot can gain instrumental knowledge about the adversaries’ responses to friendly forces’ tactics. Those friendly forces can use that knowledge in future operations to gain an advantage. However, this exploitation cannot occur if the pilot does not capture and archive this knowledge so that the staff can reference it in mission analysis. Similarly, because of the frequent employment of aviation assets, the aviator is the most consistent sensor on the modern battlefield and is thus the most economical sensor for steady-state collection of visual indicators. By capturing his reconnaissance efforts in a well-organized database, the S2 can incorporate the pilot’s data into the all-source analysis of the operational area. In a sense, the aviator allows the ground commander to see the forest beyond the trees.

Getting There from Here: Changing a Mentality

In order to build an S2 shop that is capable of performing the aforementioned tasks, it is up to the commander to determine who will lead the intelligence section, and one of the biggest debates is whether the S2 will be a 15C or 35D. Sometimes this decision is less about the military occupational specialty and more about the personality or competency. Before we embark on a discussion concerning who is more qualified to do what, let us just examine some of the common barriers, misconceptions, and essentials of an effective aviation intelligence section.

More than the SAFIRE Headquarters

What aviators (along with most of the Army) tend to think is that the aviation intelligence section is the Surface-to-Air Fire (SAFIRE) headquarters in any given theater.  While true, this function assumes that intelligence analysts who serve in aviation units should focus solely on air threats, while dedicating minimal time on the often more complex ground intelligence picture. While aviation intelligence logically should be the SAFIRE headquarters, it should not perform this duty at the expense of neglecting the ground threat. Aviation and infantry have intertwined roles. In some way, each aviation mission set supports the ground element. Logistical resupply, route or convoy security, aerial reconnaissance, transportation, air assault, and close combat attack are all aviation missions that directly support ground elements. I firmly believe that since aviation mission sets derive importance from a ground unit’s operational needs, air threat will follow ground threat. It is essential to know the threat from the ground perspective first, and that knowledge will serve as the backbone when deciphering the threats’ capacity to target helicopters.

When I taught the aviators in their basic and advanced courses, I would ask them, “If you are about to go fly on a mission, do you care who might shoot at you, or do you simply want to know whether you’re going to get shot?” In general aviation does not focus on personalities or high value individuals, simply because aviators are not on the ground, targeting individuals or influencing a population through face-to-face engagements. There are of course aviators who have interest in the overall intelligence picture to include key personalities, but the majority of students were curious to know why they should care about the who.

Knowing who, or what group, has a presence in a given area will help determine the specifics of what tactics they will employ against our forces. For instance, in many places there is a difference between the foreign or seasonal fighter and the local fighter. A foreign fighter tends to come to an area for a specific purpose, such as fighting against a particular group or target in order to help accomplish a higher objective. A local fighter may fight for various reasons as well, such as supporting an organization or cause, simply keeping a foreign adversary out of his village, or even to feed his family. The difference between the two is their history, or their roots. One is fighting in his own backyard near his family and community, and the other is not. For the fighter who is not invested locally, collateral damage is not his concern. He may employ more lethal tactics or decide to lead attacks toward population centers; he might take more risks at the expense of himself or the population in order to accomplish his goal. This may play out as attacks against aircraft over or within population centers. Conversely it is likely that a local fighter would concern himself with limiting the risk to his community and family. He may take the fight outside the population centers and be less inclined to engage in a lengthy skirmish that could threaten his survival and deplete his resources. He might be more inclined to use harassing tactics, like ineffective small arms fire, as if to tell our forces to stay away or assert/provide a reminder that our presence is not welcome. Many factors influence each of these fighters, but knowing the enemy personalities in depth allows an analyst to further pinpoint the potential outcomes based on the current threat conditions.

Staying abreast of power shifts is also an important component to understanding the threat. However, this type of assessment is an example of intelligence normally compiled by ground forces that air-threat minded analysts often overlook. If a local power broker changes from foreign to local fighters, or vice versa, then it is very likely that a tactic our forces have become accustomed to has significantly changed (e.g. new weapons systems, communication techniques, and/or engagement techniques), so our mitigation requirements or countermeasures may no longer be effective. Similarly, if the power brokers stay the same but succumb to the influence of another group or person, we might see a change in tactics against us as well. For instance, if these groups choose to fight together, a condition of that agreement may require local inhabits to move from one village to another for their own safety. If we see this event unfolding, we may be able to estimate that the size of a threat force is significantly larger than usual because there are multiple groups fighting together. They then have the capability to engage us more frequently, or worse, conduct well-coordinated attacks. If the analyst understands the enemy in-depth, he can apply this knowledge to his threat assessment of virtually any aviation mission that takes place in the AO. Knowing the ground threat in detail gives an analyst the best understanding of the enemy and optimal ability to predict threat actions against ground or air assets.

The Language Barrier

I gave my first intelligence brief for an aviation mission during training at JRTC. I had no idea where to start with intelligence products, so I broke out my intelligence doctrine from my basic course and began fitting the models as best as I could. I was extremely nervous, to say the least. I made it all the way through my Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) products to the most dangerous course of action before one pilot had a question. “This brief sounds really detailed and everything, but what are each of those red icons on the map?” He was referring to the red enemy icons, diamond-shaped with various details denoting a specific type of enemy capability or weapon system. I felt immediate relief. In that moment it became blatantly apparent to me that perhaps we, the aviators and intelligence personnel, were indeed speaking different languages. I barely understood a word of what they were saying and apparently many of them only understood a little of what I was saying. So, as long as we were all starting out on relatively even ground, we could now begin our lesson in communication.

Language immersion is probably the best solution for this ailment. Learning a language takes practice and experience. The S2 simply needs to interact with pilots, fly with pilots if possible during training, and suffer through the give and take that comes with the steep learning curve of any new position. In a task force, the S2 will need to learn the lingo applicable to each of the airframes. Each airframe wants or expects different information form the S2. All of these things derive from the purpose that the aircraft serves. Chinooks carry people and things from place to place, so they are big, making them huge targets, and powerful, making them capable of flying at higher altitudes and taking off at practically a vertical lift. Knowing these unique elements helps an intelligence analyst think about how the enemy might target the aircraft, what weapons and tactics are more lethal than others. Conversely, Apaches are attack helicopters, so they are capable of quick maneuver, pinpointed targeting, and can carry quite an arsenal of weapons. Apache pilots aren’t as concerned with what the enemy will do to them (unless the enemy has sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons), they want to know how to best protect the forces on the ground or in the air, which means, how to find and destroy the enemy. It might take a while for the S2 to understand that giving a grid coordinate for a target reference point or targeted area of interest is not as good as giving the Apache pilot the grid plus the altitude so that they can best employ their systems in battle. Only interaction will teach these small lessons and many more, which means the S2 section should incorporate into as many training exercises and relevant pilots’ classes as possible.

Know What an Intelligence Analyst Can Do

As a fledgling young analyst running my first intelligence shop, I tried to produce helpful products, but I was pretty sure they were garbage, or at best sophomoric. Like I said, I was fledgling. Generally someone would say to me, “Good job!” or “Looks good!” or my favorite, “What’s the weather going to be like?” I started to wonder if my aviation leaders knew what I learned in the Military Intelligence Basic Officer Leadership Course, hoping that they could push me further. I have learned that most aviators tend to think we know IPB very well (we do), that we know weather (we kind of do), and that we know physical and personnel security incredibly well (we do not).  An analyst fresh out of his basic course will know much more than IPB. He will also know how to build a targeting packet, the targeting process, how to create a comprehensive collection plan, what each of the seven intelligence disciplines can do and how to leverage them in his collection plan, how to assess a friendly mission, how to write PIR, and how to use intelligence reach-back capabilities (that is, leverage stateside intelligence agencies to help answer his commanders intelligence requirements). He should know a little something about the weather, although he is not qualified to give the official weather brief to pilots.  An analysts’ weather training teaches him how to look at a forecast and determine the effects of weather on friendly and enemy capabilities, which helps him determine whether friendly or enemy forces have the advantage. If he was paying close attention, he should also know how to further his own education through Project Foundry, which is intelligence training for intelligence personnel that doesn’t require unit funding. We do not spend very much time on physical or personnel security, and truth be told, those aspects of our job do not take the majority of our time when completed in accordance with the regulations, as they are shared tasks with other proponents and staff sections. How a unit chooses to employ this skillset will determine what caliber of products their intelligence section produces.

Challenge the S2, Early and Often

The Army is refocusing its training and education on the basics as it regroups from its current conflicts to prepare for a diverse set of potential conflicts in the future. In all, even a junior officer fresh out of his basic course is very capable of performing intelligence tasks, and I would argue that he knows his craft best, right of the schoolhouse. Even if the analyst isn’t straight out of school, he might be new to aviation. Instead of attempting to assimilate the young analyst to methods that have long since disconnected with doctrine or perhaps never were part of any doctrine, mentor him to apply his doctrinal models so that he develops an in-depth understanding of the aviation mission. By exploring problems using systematic approaches, the bi-product is often a detailed understanding of the mission at hand and the analytical methods applied. Only after becoming an expert at applying his basic craft should the analyst be ready to branch out into other non-traditional methods. While many would argue that doctrine does not hold all of the essential solutions, I would offer this quote from Henry Adams to provide one perspective on learning fundamentals:

At the utmost, the active-minded young man should ask of his teacher only mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may be thrown away.

In addition to taking advantage of the initial period in which an analyst is new to aviation, it is also essential to give the analyst time and space to think. I have often joked with students that if you see your S2 reading or thinking, you shouldn’t immediately assume he is doing nothing. Analysis requires education and thought, and the more proficient an analyst becomes at those tasks, the better he will perform assessments in a time-constrained environment. 

Finally, whether the S2 is a 35D or 15C, it is best to define the limits of his influence in the cockpit. The S2 should identify the threat and possible courses of action and then let each airframe employ their individual Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) package and defensive flying techniques in accordance with their standard operating procedures. It is not necessary to attempt to make an S2 proficient at employing survivability equipment and evasive maneuvers for each airframe—aviators don’t employ an S2 to tell them how to fly their aircraft. Tactics and techniques used by each aviator to best employ their ASE should be left up to the newly renamed Aviation Mission Survivability Officer (formerly the Tactical Operations Officer) to direct in concert with each Company’s chain of command. This officer could help the S2 become familiar and conversant with these systems and techniques in order to assist the S2 in understanding the threat from an aviator’s perspective.

Perform a Self-Diagnosis

Every aviation unit is unique, as every commander will have his or her own perception of what the aviation intelligence should provide. Some will prefer a 15C, some will prefer a 35D, some will simply prefer a specific personality type. It is up to each unit to perform a self-diagnosis of how to get the intelligence section up and running to meet the commander’s intent. If the S2 is a 15C, does he have adequate knowledge of the intelligence field? Sometimes the career course isn’t enough because it spends less time on the basics and more time on more in-depth analysis techniques and intelligence capabilities. The six-month course simply cannot replicate the knowledge that intelligence experience and networking provides. If this is the case, there are many Project Foundry Courses that can help build a network as well as enhance one’s knowledge of basic intelligence concepts. Aviation officers serving in intelligence positions may go to such training without using unit funds. The courses include specialized intelligence agency familiarization and intelligence collection courses that provide knowledge and resources for employing or understanding tactical and national level intelligence systems. If the S2 is 35D, does he know enough about aviation? Can he learn on the job with the unit, or does he need more intensive, formalized training? Currently no such training exists, but it might be possible for him to piggy-back off of relevant courses taught at Fort Rucker or attend various aviation threat conferences that occur periodically in the aviation intelligence community. An alternative solution, which requires no time away from the unit would simply be to augment the S2 shop with aviators if possible. My squadron commander did this with our S2 shop, so I had two grounded aviators (medically or otherwise) who were able to answer many questions and provide the aviator perspective during the analysis and production aspects of the intelligence cycle. Another solution would be to institute a mentorship program, wherein aviation leaders mentor intelligence analysts to guide and develop them into the type of analyst that best suits the unit. Surely there are other options out there; the solution simply depends on the outcome of the self-diagnosis. 


As I reflect on the time I spent teaching  (May 2011 to June 2013), I tend to think that I only imparted a small amount of my knowledge of the intelligence field, but even this small amount seemed to make a remarkable difference in the attitudes, perceptions, and overall willingness of my students to think as an analyst. Only time will tell whether this education made a difference. It is my hope that those captains become commanders, S3s, XOs, or staff members who strike up a conversation with the S2 to exchange knowledge and set the conditions for a seamless integration of aviation operations and intelligence.

About the Author(s)

Jillian Wisniewski is a US Army Captain who served over seven years as a Military Intelligence officer in the aviation community and recently transitioned to Operations Research and Systems Analysis (ORSA) branch. She currently is earning her Master’s Degree through Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s System Design and Management program, jointly offered by the Sloan School of Management and the MIT School of Engineering. After earning her degree, she will teach Systems Engineering at the US Military Academy.