Dilok Klaisataporn

America Needs Competitive Intelligence

Agencies ought to be thinking about how to bring U.S. capabilities to bear on adversaries’ vulnerabilities, in competition as well as in conflict.

The U.S. intelligence community, so long focused on reporting about other countries and global threats, would become even more valuable if it also sought to understand how the United States might gain advantage over its adversaries — in competition, as well as war.

Corporations have a term for this approach: competitive intelligence. Firms seek to constantly understand their competitors’ intentions, actions, and vulnerabilities; then to use that knowledge to develop and implement a corporate strategy that wins in the market.

In national security, intelligence agencies should, first and foremost, inform the formulation of policy on the strategic level and create the best conditions for decisive victory in conflict on the operational and tactical levels. But on top of that, they should practice competitive intelligence — that is, they should constantly identify competitors’ vulnerabilities, assess potential outcomes of actions to exploit these vulnerabilities, provide operational and tactical intelligence to degrade emerging threats, and assess when one’s own strategies and concepts of operations have become obsolete. This is an intelligence “mindset of campaigning,” similar to the military’s “mindset of campaigning” and “integrated campaigning” concepts.

Competitive intelligence should combine “anticipatory” intelligence, which seeks to assess the evolution of competitors’ intentions and capabilities; and “current” intelligence, which aims to provide real-time understanding of competitors’ actions and the implications of one’s own actions. It must provide tactical intelligence – such as targets for an airstrike – in a strategic context. It must provide strategic intelligence – such as assessing methods competitors use for the conduct of competition – and translate this into tactical and actionable intelligence. 

Above all, competitive intelligence should analyze which actions short of war may create a competitive advantage. Since deterrence and prevention of conflict are as important as victory in conflict itself, competitive intelligence should be considered a tool for risk management. This is true for force posture, employment, and design – which can all be considered as campaigns in the strategic competition, since they all affect the competitors and the environment. Competitive intelligence should therefore not just improve the ability to project power in a contested environment, but also enable actions – not necessarily kinetic or military – that make the environment less contested.

The strategic competition between Israel and Iran has some lessons for this discussion, though certainly the stakes and implications of the great-power competition between the United States, China, and Russia are much higher.

Israel has manifested the strategic competition with Iran mainly through its “campaign between the wars.” Since 2013, this doctrine has sought to counter Iranian influence and proliferation, deter adversaries from conflict, and ensure Israeli superiority should conflict erupt. For this, Israeli intelligence had to make sense of the complex and unstable strategic and operational environment in the Middle East. It also needed – among other things – to provide tactical intelligence for airstrikes in Syria after understanding that a “window of opportunities” with a low risk for escalation has opened; point at systemic vulnerabilities of the Iranian precision-guided missiles project that can be engaged; and reveal secret intelligence to publicly embarrass Hizballah.

This example also illustrates a few downsides of the “competitive intelligence” approach, some of them already discussed in Israel. First, allocating intelligence resources to competition can divert attention from enabling decisive victory in conflict itself. Second, intelligence for competition risks losing its objectivity and the ability to “speak truth to power.” This is because in order to be effective it practically becomes an integral component of strategy and operations, and since it acts on the verge of “net assessment.”

But these pitfalls can be managed. Intelligence for competition and intelligence for conflict are not mutually exclusive. “Competitive intelligence” is simply a mindset compatible for the era of constant competition, engaged below the threshold of war, while campaigning in the gray zone. In great-power competition, the lines between intelligence and policy blur – since competition is constant and reciprocal. This is quite different from the American approach to the interaction between intelligence and policy on the national and strategic levels. However, it is rather coherent with the integration between intelligence and operations on the operational and tactical levels. 

Competitive intelligence is therefore more of an evolution than a revolution for U.S. intelligence, compatible with the evolutionary nature of competition itself. It would complement the already implemented focus of collection and analysis on competitors, with a “competitive mindset of intelligence campaigning.” 

Itai Shapira is a retired colonel of the Israel Defense Forces and a Ph.D candidate at the University of Leicester.