Expert Commentary

U.S. Defense Science Board: Counterinsurgency, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations

Report by the U.S. Defense Science Board on emerging strategy to combat violent insurgents and stabilize societies

As U.S. forces have faced increasingly complex challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, military leaders have pushed for a more sophisticated and integrated approach. Known as “COIN,” this idea of counterinsurgency involves coordinating efforts on a variety of fronts — economic, political, social, military, legal, psychological and more — to combat insurgents, strengthen the governments and guard civilians. The idea ultimately puts less emphasis on direct combat — the traditional focus of counterterrorism efforts — and more on population security.

A 2011 report by the Defense Science Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Defense, “Counterinsurgency (COIN), Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations” (PDF), looks at the implementation of these ideas by the U.S. military and government, surveys the effectiveness of the coordinated effort and makes recommendations with a view toward Afghanistan and future potential conflicts. More than 100 officials at a variety of levels and outside policymakers were interviewed.

The report’s findings include:

  • Officials across the Defense Department lack a “common understanding” of counterinsurgency doctrine and goals. Indeed, there is no “authoritative definition.”
  • Intelligence resources that might be used for achieving counterinsurgency goals continue to be tilted heavily toward counterterrorism operations and protecting U.S. forces.
  • Responsibility for COIN — which requires a “whole-of-government” approach — has been assumed by the Department of Defense “by default.” Other significant actors in the U.S. government have not contributed sufficiently: “Indeed, apart from being a signatory to the 2009 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide, the Department of State has shown little evident interest in building or supporting the partnership.”
  • Military and intelligence personnel “tend to focus narrowly” on airborne technical systems, often aerial drones, for gathering data to help decision-making and inform tactics. This observation is “supported by the fact that technical collection platforms command larger portions of the budget and produce more immediate effects rather than longer term, foundational information for population‐centric operations.”
  • The volume of data that is being acquired by technical means is becoming unwieldy: “The insatiable demand for information and emphasis on collection is … overwhelming the ability to provide useful, actionable intelligence in a timely manner.”
  • The U.S. government is not acquiring the kind of information required to achieve counterinsurgency goals. “Good intelligence on COIN exists outside the traditional intelligence organizations. Anthropological, socio‐cultural, historical, human geographical, educational, public health, and many other types of social and behavioral science data and information are needed to develop a deep understanding of populations.”

Tags: technology, security, terrorism

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