By David R. Lands
Read Time: 10 minutes
The information age represents both challenges and opportunities for the Intelligence Community (IC). Access to data via hand-held devices and personal computers has increased the amount of information available to all who possess the means to retrieve the vast amounts of data; social media, text messages, images, news, government reports, scientific and technical research, blogs, academic information, and video that are shared publicly. This paper intends to increase awareness of what publicly available information (PAI) is, and what it is not, within the Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) Enterprise and determine its value to enhance our ability to solve our most challenging problems. PAI’s value will be realized by incorporating unclassified data into existing dynamic collection management processes, and when combined with classified information, will increase confidence of ISR fusion analysis. Considering PAI is unclassified data that resides primarily on the internet, we cannot assume it is accurate. We must also consider the challenges posed by deception and disinformation campaigns of adversaries who recognize data as a US center of gravity. Acknowledging PAI as foundational data that potentially leads to valuable open sources intelligence (OSINT), the IC, Defense Intelligence Agency and Air Force ISR Enterprise need to work together to raise awareness and prepare analysts to take advantage of the opportunities PAI presents.
PAI Enables AF Operations
All Air Force ISR analysts, regardless of intelligence specialties, should be exposed to PAI and open sources as complementary to each of our prevailing disciplines. OSINT as an intelligence discipline should receive more attention during initial skills training and all mission specific initial qualification training (IQT) and mission qualification training (MQT). PAI as foundational data that enables OSINT is an important distinction and must be included in OSINT curriculum. A genuine lack of quality training time and pressure to quickly transition trained Airmen from the school house to the field has been continuously debated for years. The opportunity costs associated with increased initial classroom training means analysts spend more time in student status, directly reducing their availability for practical on-the-job training and experience required to achieve combat mission ready (CMR) status. Awareness training will illustrate the value of PAI and OSINT to collection management and justify its role as fundamental to fusion and all-source analysis. We should consider this an investment in capability. Additional classroom training is a small investment that will pay large dividends as our analysis capability matures and our intelligence portfolio expands with the inclusion of PAI.
Many classified examples exist that illustrate the benefit PAI and open sources provide to the collection process and fusion. Using real world examples and vignettes are important for promoting initial awareness and demonstrate utility to all analysts. Awareness must start with the initial skills training level at all Intelligence Air Force Specialty (AFS) awarding schools. This will enable our newest generation of analysts to begin their careers with basic knowledge about PAI and open sources. Continuation training, monthly unit level training that occurs continuously throughout an analyst’s career, should include PAI and open source awareness and skills training. AF ISR leadership must also be trained and aware if we are to succeed at prioritizing incorporation into our analysis tradecraft. Intelligence officer developmental training courses, ISR200 – Intelligence Intermediate Skills Course, and ISR-300 – Intelligence Master Skills Course must also revise existing curriculum to incorporate PAI and open source training opportunities.
The USAF operations most likely to directly benefit from incorporating PAI into the fusion process are Intelligence Preparation of the Environment, Threat Warning, Unit Level Intelligence, Mission Planning, Personnel Recovery / Combat Search and Rescue, Targeting and subsequent Battle Damage Assessment, Force Protection and Anti-Terrorism. PAI fused with traditional AF ISR classified information represents an emerging ability to effectively provide intelligence that will enable most AF operations. In a December 2017 lecture at the United States Air Force’s Air War College, USAF Deputy Director of Global Operations Brigadier General Alexus Grynkewich expects that the fusion of PAI and classified information will provide the necessary intelligence to build AF target packages in the future. Our historical response to the insatiable appetite for more / faster / better information has been to field additional collection platforms and/or sensors, or recruit and train more analysts. Our current and fiscal climate will require more effective use of our most important asset, Airmen.
PAI as a primary source of information provides a solid foundation for establishing and prioritizing classified collection requests. Encouraging analysts to consider PAI first will help refine the request for information (RFI) process and result in a more efficient use of existing platforms, sensors and Airmen. Over reliance on classified information, as opposed to a more stable approach that incorporates more unclassified information, has inhibited the IC from providing balanced intelligence analysis to US decision makers. Including more open sources in intelligence assessments would improve the relevance of the IC in todays complicated security environment.
“Machines don’t fight wars. People do, and they use their minds.”
Colonel (ret) John R. Boyd, USAF
As we continue to navigate the information age we will encounter an ever-increasing abundance of data. The value of PAI will increase as our ability to synthesize data and fuse what may initially be considered disparate information. Its value will be realized by enabling us to more swiftly respond to analysis requirements while increasing confidence of intelligence assessments. PAI represents an opportunity for the IC to improve analysis and the efficiency of processing, exploitation and fusion of data into actionable intelligence. We don’t need additional planes, sensors or analysts. PAI represents an ability to tip and cue traditional ISR sensors, dynamically request additional information, and generate collection requirements for emerging threats and requirements. Rather than continued reliance on classified data to determine how we establish and prioritize intelligence requirements, PAI’s unclassified data should be our first consideration before leveraging classified collection assets. We don’t have persistent ISR in every corner of the globe. Considering Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) environments, PAI represents more than our primary “look here first” source of potential intelligence data, it likely represents our only source.
An Example of PAI Value
Our ability to understand the strategy and intent of adversaries is vital to military success. PAI is the most available source of data on our Cold War nemesis, Russia. Russian irregular warfare, propaganda and information operations offer good examples of intentional deception techniques directed toward the international community. There is an abundance of recent media coverage and reports of Russian influence and meddling in electoral politics of several countries including the US, Germany, France and Great Britain. The Washington Post acknowledged a US Congressional Report that utilized interviews and open source information to confirm Russian meddling techniques. The Cold War may have ended, but Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues their ideological battle with the West. Russia has formally expressed concern and considers North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion in Eastern Europe a threat to their national security. Russia’s National Security Strategy of 31 December 2015 identifies NATO as “…a threat because the alliance is expanding its military infrastructure towards Russian borders.” In an effort to delay or prevent former Soviet republics from joining NATO, Russia has utilized hybrid warfare tactics to create border disputes in Ukraine and Georgia.
Insight into the tactics used in Ukraine is publicly available in what has become internationally known as the Gerasimov Doctrine. Published in February 2013 in Russian Military-Industrial Courier, Gerasimov’s article states “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. …All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.” Rather than overt force-on-force military engagement, anonymous armed men in military uniforms without distinguishing features or markings began appearing in Crimea. Widely reported in the media as “little green men,” their presence in Ukraine is a good example of Gerasimov’s military means of a concealed character concept. Russian information operations, propaganda and public denial of military presence in Ukraine made it difficult for the international community and NATO to determine what was, or was not, actually occurring. “The purpose of such a narrative has been to consistently deny Russian military interference and characterize the war as a conflict between Kiev and a group of local, homegrown rebels rather than Russian forces.” PAI has been used to confirm Russian military presence in Ukraine.
Bellingcat, who self-identifies as “the home of online investigations,” has effectively used PAI to verify Russian military equipment and personnel presence in Ukraine, even though Russia publicly denies military involvement. One specific report, “Bellingcat Investigation – Russia’s Path(s) to War,” confirmed the movement of Russian forces and military equipment into eastern Ukraine. Previous reports include analysis of “the presence of Russian equipment in Ukraine, documenting cross-border artillery attacks, and demonstrating the participation of active Russian servicemen in the conflict.” Bellingcat confirms their sources when stating “This report, which primarily focuses on events in the summer of 2014, is solely based upon open source information; the identification and verification of border crossings was performed relying on publicly available satellite imagery.”
An online search of the term “Ukraine” on Bellingcat.com returns 17 pages of articles, guides, case studies, images, videos and posts. The site contains an extensive assortment of PAI enabled investigation and research materials ranging from military equipment and personnel locations to extensive analysis of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on 17 July 2014. One of the most useful functions of their site are the guides providing detailed instructions for publicly available open source collection and analysis techniques. Included with the guides are multiple sites and tools that enable visitors to learn from Bellingcat analysts experience and immediately put their lessons into practice. The guides provide sufficient details, instructions and perspective that could efficiently enhance existing AF ISR PAI tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).
Leveraging the experience and expertise of our joint partners will decrease AF ISR’s learning curve and enhance current operations very expeditiously. A recent site visit to Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) Joint PAI Troop provided perspective into their mature processes of utilizing PAI to support joint operations. They have developed a very comprehensive training program that provides foundational knowledge and exposure to validated TTPs. We should take advantage of their proven capability to train AF ISR Airmen in how JSOC operationalized the use of PAI to support joint operations.
The training investment we make to equip AF ISR analysts with the capability to utilize PAI effectively should be recognized by designating a Special Experience Identifier (SEI) to illustrate their new skills. An SEI process of identification will provide AF manpower the ability to distinguish PAI capable analysts from those that haven’t been formally trained or possess the requisite experience. An additional benefit will be the ability to track the level of PAI capability that resides within our force and facilitate training and capability goal setting and achievement. Should this recommendation be executed, we should be extremely careful not to relegate PAI trained and capable Airmen to a lifetime / career sentence of exclusive PAI analysis, without the possibility of parole.
Do not recreate the wheel. Utilizing existing successful programs that consider PAI an important source of information such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and JSOC’s PAI Troop, will minimize our learning curve. UNODC is a global leader in the fight against illicit drugs and international crime. UNODC uses PAI in their efforts to analyze criminal activity, cybercrime, and corruption. Translating their approach into AF ISR practices represents a potential opportunity to quickly identify and implement successful TTP that align with effective use of PAI.
Convene a stakeholder summit that will bring resources together with a common purpose. Brigadier General Grynkewich simply explained the value of the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT) when stating “Bring the right people together and put them in the same room, not at their respective Air Force bases.” Air Force ISR should bring analysts, trainers, industry, Air Force Cyber, DIA, NASIC, MAJCOMs, COCOMs, and working group members together to chart the way forward and determine a flight plan for how we will use PAI to reach next generation ISR dominance.
Utilizing USAF Col (ret) John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) process theory to determine where the AF ISR PAI effort is positioned, this research concludes we are transitioning from Decide to Act. Arriving at the final phase of the OODA process is important. How we choose to Act and the speed with which we execute, will determine our level of success. AF leadership has gathered a team of experts who are passionate about PAI and excited by the challenge to incorporate the enormous amounts of information it represents into our quiver of data weapons to improve analysis. The important decision to Act has been made. We will learn from sister services, successful PAI programs like the UNODC and JSOC, the joint community and the IC. Utilizing emerging and effective tools will allow us to develop new TTPs and refine existing ones to ensure effectiveness and efficiency.
“Let’s not try to tell them (Airmen) how to do everything. Let’s tell them what to do, and let them surprise us with their ingenuity.”
Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force
As vigorous debate and discussion continues to determine how best to enable AF ISR analysts to utilize PAI, Airmen are encouraged to find their place within the OODA process. If this is your first consideration of PAI, I recommend you begin with Observe, paying close attention to the information and data that surrounds you every day. How big is your digital footprint? Is your digital signature Times New Roman or Arial? The importance of your answers are less about font style, but in this case, size does matter. Minimize your signature, minimize your risk. Ask your wingmen what they know and if they have any experience with PAI and its use as a data source for analysis, or how it may be used against us. If we are to succeed, and collectively define success as reaching the “Next Generation of ISR Dominance,” AF ISR Airmen will be the major determining factor. Our youngest airmen are digital natives, curious and innovative. All Airmen should challenge each other to explore the unknown and discover the information that will produce knowledge necessary to propel us to reach next generation ISR dominance. PAI is more than just additional data, it is foundational information capable of enhancing our search for knowledge that will enable our ability to find solutions to our most challenging problems.
Lieutenant Colonel David R. Lands is an intelligence officer for the Virginia Air National Guard. Lieutenant Colonel Lands has commanded 204 combat missions as an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Mission Commander in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and INHERENT RESOLVE.
Elliot A. Jardines, “Open Source Intelligence,” in The Five Disciplines of Intelligence Collection, ed. Mark M. Lowenthal and Robert M. Clark (Los Angeles, CAL CQ Press, 2016).
Barnard Marr, Big Data: Using Smart Big Data, Analytics and Metrics to Make Better Decisions and Improve Performance (West Sussex, UK: Wiley, 2015).
Agnia Grigas, Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or any organization of the US government.