One of the biggest security challenges the U.S. faces is how to share intelligence in a world where it’s been at war at one point with some of its closest friends, you never know who tomorrow’s enemy will be and espionage, even among allies, is a fact of life.
U.S. Special Operations Command, for instance, faced that it built out what is now known as the J3-I, an international special operations coordination center inside Socom’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base. It required a new system giving members secure communications that not only allows international partners to reach out to their commanders, but also allows access to certain layers of U.S. classified information to fully leverage the special operations ethos of quick, decisive action.
The need for a close working relationship among allies will come into sharp focus later this week, during the 2014 NATO Summit, a gathering of world leaders who have plenty to discuss, from the ongoing threat posed by the Sunni insurgent group Islamic State, to the increasing bloodshed in Ukraine to the calm-for-now war between Israel and Hamas.
The situation in Ukraine is of particular concern, given the proximity of the battle zone and the fear of a widening conflagration.
Last week Sen. Bill Nelson, who just returned from a trip to Turkey and Ukraine, said that the biggest need expressed by Ukraine’s leaders was intelligence to help them in their battle against rebel forces in eastern Ukraine and their Russian sponsors, which NATO imagery shows had combat troops inside Ukraine last week.
Then after Nelson spoke, I asked Col. Vitalii Nazola, Ukraine’s senior national representative to the international coalition at U.S. Central Command, about his military’s needs.
“We need intelligence, urgently, especially satellite data,” he said, adding that Ukraine also needs drones that provide reconnaissance.
The trouble with sharing too much with Ukraine, says Nelson, is that Ukraine’s military is “riddled” with Russian spies.
Nelson is not alone in that assessment.
“Of course Russia infiltrated its agents for a long period,” says Nazola. “Not just the beginning of this campaign. The most dangerous thing is they infiltrated the upper level of our command.”
The result, says Nazola, “is too many losses connected to having Russians in high levels, providing information to the enemy. About our movement. About our intent.”
So sharing intelligence is risky, lest those Russian spies bring hard-earned American tactics, techniques and procedures back to Mother Russia for immediate use against Ukraine and potential later use against the U.S. and its allies.
So what can be done?
Nelson offered an acceptable middle ground.
Give Ukraine the tools to spot and track the rebels and Russians, something the military calls tactical battlefield intelligence.
There’s a risk said Nelson, “but one we are going to have to take.”
Intelligence sharing of any type is something that needs to be built on significant trust and confidence, says Keith Masback, CEO of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. The USGIF is a nonprofit group geared toward furthering the art and science of, in the simplest terms, finding stuff anywhere in space, on earth or undersea and creating maps and other displays to put that stuff into context.
Masback agrees with Nelson that tactical battlefield intelligence is the least risky to share.
“It is granular, but extremely perishable,” he says. “In sort of tongue-in-cheek way, I’ve always said that I support sharing tactical intelligence because the worst thing that could happen if it’s compromised is that the enemy would find out where they are!”
Masback suggests providing “older, but still effective, tactical intelligence systems and training to the Ukrainian forces so that they can develop the tactical intelligence picture themselves.”
Then the Ukrainians “can develop their own skills, and there would be little/no risk should the equipment fall into Russian hands ... and it will insulate our tactics, techniques, and procedures from compromise.”
Aside from those systems, usually involving smaller, hand-launched drones, Ukraine can also rely on commercial satellite and other imagery, says Masback.
Aside from geospatial intelligence, called “GEOINT” in military speak, there are several other “INTs” Ukraine can and should rely on, says Masback.
Loose lips still sink ships, says Masback, and can be pretty devastating against tanks, armored personnel carriers and other enemy equipment and forces as well. Especially in the age of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media.
“Some of the most valuable insight will come from human intelligence (HUMINT) and open source intelligence (OSINT),” says Masback. “The sheer numbers of press reports and videos posted to YouTube, as well as social media postings, are overwhelming, and there are really useful nuggets in that data and information.”
The trick, however, is having the resources to pour through the OSINT.
HUMINT will remain critical, he says.
“Their ability to communicate effectively with people who have eyes on the ground is also going to remain critically important to them, and this is the type of information that can provide not only data and information about troop and equipment status, disposition, movement, but also intent, based on conversations with separatists/Russian troops who are careless in what they are sharing (as we’ve also seen demonstrated on social media).”
Intelligence isn’t Ukraine’s only need, says Nazola.
“The situation is constantly deteriorating,” he says. “More and more Russian forces are involved in this. We have a very difficult situation, especially near Donetsk city, closer to the Russian border. There are many losses.”
The Russians, he said, “are using all heavy weapons. Multiple rocket launchers. Artillery.”
Nazola says Ukraine needs direct military support, antitank weapons, air defense systems, large vehicle like Humvees, fixed and rotary wing aircraft and aviation fuel.
He seemed most interested when I told him that Nelson, prodded by my question about whether there is a role for U.S. SOF in Ukraine, suggested perhaps commandos be used to train Ukraine’s military, far from the battlefield. Nazola declined comment, saying he first had to talk to his own government to see what their interest might be. As for ours, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby on Friday told reporters that he’s “not aware of anything inside of Ukraine” when asked about U.S. trainers in Ukraine.
But there is also a great need for non-lethal support as well, like helmets, body armor and uniforms. And Nazola says medical assistance is needed, either on the battlefield, or in U.S. hospitals where wounded troops can recover.
Thousands have been killed and wounded, he says. Many have suffered horrific burns.
“Some of the systems are using napalm,” he says.
Nazola says he hopes that the NATO Summit offers some good news for Ukraine.
“We are expecting some decisions in favor of Ukraine,” he says.
But Nazola is a realist.
“Of course, many countries in Europe have refused to give Ukraine support,” he says, glumly.
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I took some time off, so there was no column last week. Since then, the Pentagon announced two deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, including one soldier whose mom lives in Ruskin.
Sgt. Christopher W. Mulalley, 26, of Eureka, Calif., died Aug. 22, in Gardez, Afghanistan, as the result of a non-combat-related incident. The incident is under investigation. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew I. Leggett, 39, of Ruskin, died Aug. 20, in Kabul, Afghanistan, of injuries received when he was engaged by the enemy. He was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
There have now been 2,332 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.