How technology has changed intelligence collection

Advancements have enabled signals intelligence to supersede relying on human sources in the field, but progress has come with shortcomings of its own.

Global Hawk UAV

The Global Hawk is one prominent source of signals intelligence.


With the world becoming a more volatile place and certain high-threat environments becoming too dangerous to send personnel, the lack of human intelligence has placed a greater stress on signals intelligence to provide military commanders with greater knowledge of dangerous actors and potential threats.

Technology has allowed the military to rely less on human intelligence, or HUMINT, which puts the lives of spies and operators on the ground at risk, and procure aerial systems that provide myriad levels of intelligence. Unmanned aerial vehicles have been invaluable in gathering several types of intelligence from the air, such as SIGINT and image intelligence. 

The United States is continuing to invest in these proven platforms for intelligence collection.  The Defense Department said in February, when each branch released their budgets for the next year, that the Air Force would be purchasing 29 additional remotely piloted Reaper drones and the Army would be purchasing additional Gray Eagle drones, the service’s version of the Predator. Recent operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and continued operations in Afghanistan have forced Washington to continue to procure these vital systems for ISR purposes.

But the heavy reliance on machine-based intelligence gathering may have come at a cost in the quality of military intelligence overall. In an article for Global Securities Studies  (PDF) in 2013, Gabriel Margolis pointed out  that “[t]he technical affluence of the United States has permeated the intelligence community and continues to contribute to the intelligence failures of the CIA because of American reliance on technology over human sources.”

Advanced satellite and unmanned systems, both of which keep soldiers out of harm’s way, has allowed for the military and covert organizations to shy away from human intelligence gathering, or at the very least, rely on it less. Today, “UAVs have replaced satellites and manned aircraft as the favored platform for intelligence collection,” Margolis wrote. “UAVs are the ultimate intelligence platform.”

Tools of the trade

The reliance on SIGINT is understandable, considering the technology involved. Current aerial ISR platforms such as the Reaper and Predator drones (which also have lethal capabilities) and Global Hawk, as well as manned ISR aircraft such as the U-2 and the MC-12, enjoy a mix of electro-optical and infrared sensors, synthetic-aperture radar, LIDAR, electronic intelligence warning systems, and real-time video feeds and communications equipment, among other features. The U-2 is a relic of the Cold War era, and while it’s still in use, unmanned systems have become a lot more prominent.

But despite their ability to loiter around a target and operate virtually around the clock, unmanned aircraft fly lower and more slowly than the U-2, which makes them more susceptible to anti-aircraft capability. And there are limits to airborne surveillance that human intelligence could solve. Synthetic-aperture radar, for example, can penetrate through cloud cover, but there are few technologies that can penetrate walls.

Boeing’s new variant to the F/A 18F Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler, provides one solution to anti-aircraft vulnerability. An attack-strike aircraft capable of supersonic speeds, the Growler is also being developed as an advanced ISR platform. In fact, the Growler is being outfitted with sensors that can intercept frequencies from radars or even cell phones. If discussion between two individuals within a combat zone is picked up, two adjacent Growlers can listen into the calls to measure the transmission times from the air to the ground. This advanced intelligence collection method will allow pilots and those with communication access to the Growler to pinpoint a small area where a target might be located, preventing previous methods of evading older radar systems. The Growler is also capable of providing ISR data to other joint force aircraft.

And then there is the F-35. The highly anticipated Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive and advanced piece of defense equipment ever constructed, which has contributed to its long roll out process and continued delays, but manufactures say that the F-35 can fly ISR missions “with more sophisticated data capture than any previous fighter aircraft.” Like the Growler, the F-35 also has capabilities in electronic warfare (EW), such as jamming enemy communications and suppressing enemy radars. Information captured by the F-35 can be shared securely with units at sea, on the ground or in the air. Additionally, a core processor that is capable of executing more than 1 trillion commands per second enables pilots to view and identify enemy radars and EW emissions and can recommend to pilots which targets to attack and if kinetic of electronic means should be used. 

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said recently that the F-35 will be the last manned aircraft the Navy “will ever buy or fly,” echoing others’ projections that the military will eventually field an all-drone fleet.

For now, the combination of highly capable, remotely piloted aerial surveillance tools operating along with supersonic strike aircraft outfitted with state of the art surveillance equipment allows the military to conduct ISR missions in several theaters.

The human element

For all the technical prowess of these ISR platforms, however, human intelligence is still important.

The absence of HUMINT in areas such as Syria and Yemen, for example, has made it difficult to assess valid targets for military action and monitor developments for national security interests. In a paper published at Secu(Insight), Julien Babanoury contrasts the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, in which human intelligence played an important role, with the disastrous 1961’s Bay of Pigs invasion, undone in large part because of a lack of sources inside Cuba.

Babanoury writes that human intelligence accounts for only 10 percent to 20 percent of the information gathered by the U.S. Intelligence Community, but he concludes that it’s “due for revitalization” because of its importance in the war on terror, developing geospatial intelligence and cybersecurity. He said that the technical sophistication of SIGINT tools has “created a sense of overconfidence in [the United States’] technical intelligence gathering abilities.” The National Security Agency, he noted, made huge graphics of terrorist networks based on information from phone companies and ISPs, but the CIA agents who were supposed to use them found them to be useless.

The lack of HUMIT in certain areas has raised the importance of SIGINT, and vice versa. Drones and other technologies will continue to be essential tools in intelligence gathering, but the U.S. will have to find the right mix between automated tools and human intelligence.

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