The YouTube Effect: Intelligence Operations Move Out of the Shadows

U.S. Army soldiers move through Qayara West Coalition base in Qayara, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Kurdish peshmerga forces continued their push on the town of Bashiqa, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) northeast of Mosul.

Associated Press / Marko Drobnjakovic

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U.S. Army soldiers move through Qayara West Coalition base in Qayara, some 50 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Kurdish peshmerga forces continued their push on the town of Bashiqa, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) northeast of Mosul.

The U.S. military’s intel chief describes a shift from “secret wars” to “low-visibility wars.”

In an age when threats are proliferating and once-secretive military operations often are broadcast in real time across a range of social media, the nation’s integrated intelligence community must be “agile and adaptive,”  the Pentagon’s intelligence chief said Thursday.

Speaking at the Defense One Summit in Washington, Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre said the “YouTube effect” had profound implications for the way special operations forces and intelligence officers work together. The United States has gone “from secret wars to low-visibility wars,” he said.

In intelligence-driven operations, U.S. forces have a “decades-long history of not talking about what successes we might have had,” Lettre said. But the Obama administration has been characterized by a “strong sense from the president that need to be able to have transparency into the work we’re doing to defeat threats from terrorism.” As a result, the Defense Department is more likely to inform the media and the public about key operations.

One such campaign is the ongoing effort to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul. Lettre was circumspect about potential intelligence gains from the operation. “We expect … that we’ll be able to pick up lot of information” from devices left behind as forces retake the city, he said. Operators, he added, always “hope to find the crown jewels in terms of an intelligence treasure trove.” But in reality, more often “what you see is much more piecemeal process.”

Looking ahead, Lettre said, intelligence community leaders “need to think creatively about innovation and where we build the next generation of intelligence capability.” That means exploiting advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and human-machine teaming, he said.

In the future, Lettre said, U.S. forces will need to “take on near-peer adversaries and operate in denied spaces in deep, penetrating kind of way.” Current intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts are centered around a fleet of 60 combat air patrols of Air Force of Predator and Reaper drones — soon growing to 90, including some from the Army.

Now, analysts examine video from the aircraft to do precise targeting. But in the coming years, Lettre said, the military will have to do that on an “industrial scale,” involving “multiple hundreds of targets.”

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