Skope cells help dispel fog of war

Concept increases speed, accuracy of battlefield operations

Timely intelligence has been vital to winning wars since antiquity. However, today’s adversaries are often not aligned with a nation and have proven to be elusive targets. In response, the military requires a variety of information sources to quickly and accurately pinpoint enemies' location, something that traditional data-gathering methods have often been too slow to do.

A new type of intelligence-gathering operation, called the Skope Cell, combines experts and software to hasten and automate the analysis process. And it is challenging traditional methods of collecting and disseminating intelligence to warfighters in the field.


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The Skope Cell strategy was created to help the Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) deployed teams more effectively locate potential targets in Southwest Asia. The inspiration for the cells was finding a way to increase the speed and accuracy of battlefield operations by providing warfighters with efficiently synthesized and aggregated information, said Army Lt. Col. Alfred Di Leonardo, who commanded the group for five years until 2010.

Launched in late 2004 with a core support team, the Skope Cell idea initially attracted a great deal of skepticism and hostility from the intelligence and user communities. Di Leonardo said he took command of the group in 2005 with the goal of making the cells' data more useful. Under his command, Di Leonardo defined the main working aspects of the cells, determined their size — small nine- to 12-man teams composed of human terrain and geospatial intelligence personnel — and set expectations for how they conduct their tasks.

Crucial initial support for the Skope Cell concept came from Gen. James Clapper, who led the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at the time. Clapper saw cells as a way to develop new and innovative intelligence assessment ideas and import them into NGA, Di Leonardo said. But he emphasized the focus on giving warfighters useful information.

“There was a need to be able to find needles in haystacks,” Di Leonardo said. Although SOCOM is good at finding intelligence, there was still a need to refine those methods, he said.

Skope Cells operate by collecting, delineating and aggregating data. This information is sifted and prioritized before it is moved along to warfighters through a process known as aggregation automation. To help automate the analysis process, the Skope Cell program team developed software tools and repurposed commercial and military applications. For example, one of the the first applications that the team developed was a geospatial tool that helps warfighters highlight areas of interest.

That technology formed the initial core capability. Later, the team added commercial technologies deemed applicable for use in an intelligence environment. About 20 percent of the office consisted of technologists who supported the analysts, Di Leonardo said. Applications were developed for repetitive analysis tasks to help save time. The team also turned analysts’ ideas into applications. Those in-house tools became popular and were passed on to the Defense Department and intelligence community.

“We were very innovative in taking large volumes of data and making sense of it — layering it in ways that the intelligence community has talked about layering for a long time," Di Leonardo said. "But we were doing it with computers and software tools."

Rapid layering of information threads allows U.S. forces to quickly determine the location of targets, such as a meeting of insurgent leaders. But that was not always easy to accomplish through traditional intelligence-gathering techniques. In time, the cells were able to rapidly create actionable pictures of collected data — sometimes within seconds, Di Leonardo said. “We got known for narrowing the search space,” he said.

Creating the Skope Cell resembled launching a start-up company, Di Leonardo said. He made a point to select team personnel from outside traditional military intelligence circles to encourage unconventional thinking. Many team members came from private-sector firms, such as Google and Mitre.

The intelligence and operational communities eventually warmed to the cells' ability to paint a story of battlefield events with geospatial data and identify areas that needed more attention from forces on the ground.

“People started to realize that you couldn’t just play Whac-a-Mole out there and expect to win," Di Leonardo said. "You had to have the largest understanding of the area of operations so that you were making the most effective use of information to support the mission."

Although the Skope Cell design does not scale to large groups, the small analysis teams are a model for use across DOD and the intelligence community. Aspects of the group’s operations and structure have been borrowed by organizations such as the U.S. Africa Command and allied nations such as the United Kingdom, which applied some of the Skope Cell’s personnel structure for its intelligence teams.

“In essence, it’s not really that hard to do what we did. But it’s virtually impossible” to coordinate the logistics, Di Leonardo said. Although many fusion cells exist at DOD, he said, few if any had the combination of technical, organizational and leadership support that Skope enjoyed.

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