Intelligence Activities in the Post-Ukraine War Era

Jun Nagashima

During World War II, the "unbreakable" German military code Enigma, which put the Allied forces in an operational predicament, was deciphered by a team of experts led by Alan Turing, the legendary father of the computer. Their feat is credited with hastening the termination of the war by more than two years. Coincidentally with the decryption of the Enigma code, the US forces succeeded in decoding the schedule of the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Isoroku Yamamoto, then on an inspection trip of the front lines, and the plane that he was aboard was shot down over Bougainville Island. These events have passed down to posterity as fierce intelligence battles over decoding. Originally, battles over intelligence were aggressive actions to gain relative superiority over the opponent and to grasp the key to victory. They involve the state and society and are considered as war itself as "an extension of politics," as Clausewitz argued. An enormous accumulation of facts encountered in daily life are given new values by expert analysis and evaluation to be turned into intelligence, which plays such a crucial role as a tool for decision-making and situational judgment.

1. "The Trap of Cain"

In the first place, intelligence serves as a compass for decision-making; however, if intentional and erroneous interpretations and judgments are attached, it will drift from facts and may due to distortion cause actual, direct harm. Distorted intelligence may sometimes even lead people into the "Trap of Cain" (a son of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament; he was the first human who lied), causing irreparable disasters.

In 2005, former US President George W. Bush, looking back on the Iraq war that began in 2003, expressed regret that the intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, which led the United States to launch the war, was based on misinformation, saying, "The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq." Undoubtedly, such intelligence errors seriously damaged the credibility of not only US intelligence agencies but also the US government. After the intervening 17 years, US Secretary of State Blinken, who seemed to recall the blunders the United States committed in the Iraq war as a "painful chapter of American history," stated at a recent UN Security Council meeting that the United States would proactively disclose intelligence to Ukraine and its allies to prevent Russia from invading the country. A "tiger team" headed by the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs is engaged in cross-agency intelligence analysis and continues actively sharing and disclosing intelligence to the parties concerned. The expert group has been successful in neutralizing the effects of disinformation and narratives disseminated by Russia, forestalling Russia's hybrid warfare, and keeping the international community's attention and focus on Ukraine.

This proactive disclosure of intelligence, known as "deterrence by disclosure," has had a significant impact on Russia's options for action and has led to restoring credibility in US intelligence among Western countries. Needless to say, it was not merely reflections and efforts on the US side but also the evolution of intelligence support technologies that made deterrence by disclosure possible. For example, using advanced dual-use technologies, several US satellite imaging companies actively provided and disclosed image information on the actions of the Russian military. 1 Such information turned into big data, which significantly helped improve the timeliness and quality of intelligence analysis and assessment conducted by the Ukrainian forces, the supportive Western nations, and NATO. 2 This indicates that commercial satellite imagery, which was previously not utilized for military intelligence purposes, has evolved due to its dramatically improved quality and versatility into a useful asset for intelligence sharing on the current status of the Russian military.

Another significant contribution has been made by private space communications companies, which have reinforced the cyber-attack vulnerability of information and communications, directly facilitating military operations. Starlink―SpaceX's satellite-based Internet service consisting of low orbit satellite constellation 3 and ground system terminals―has increased Ukraine's operational resilience. This communication system has reinforced the vulnerability of communication networks susceptible to Russian cyber and electromagnetic attacks and has enabled the sharing, transmission, and reception of information in the areas where no communication infrastructure is available. The Starlink system has awakened the world to the importance of space-linked communications and has contributed to the seamless sharing among the parties concerned of real-time "OSINT (Open Source Intelligence)" on Russian military activities, thereby enhancing the operational superiority of the Ukrainian military. There were concerns about Russia's electromagnetic jamming against the Starlink system. Reportedly, however, SpaceX avoided Russian jamming attacks through frequency conversion and system software updates; the system has turned out to be resilient against such attacks. 4

Furthermore, since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the transfer and deployment of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border have been filmed by non-military individuals and groups using smartphones and other information devices. Those videos and footage spread around the world through Facebook, Twitter, and SNS applications like TikTok, which are highly visual and instantaneous. Those vast numbers of imagery data were processed and fed back, in the process of transformation into big data, to the battlefields in almost real-time, improving Ukrainian combat efficiency. This means that ordinary citizens have become able to contribute to the collection and distribution of vast amounts of military intelligence data, thanks to the evolution of information devices and applications. The development of information and communication technologies (ICT) and information assets has enabled people around the world to witness the dire situation of Ukrainian battlefields beyond the constraints of time and distance, thereby improving the quality of military intelligence, regardless of whether those involved in such activities are aware of it or not. 5

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine leads us to look back upon a long history and relationship between intelligence and technology. Owing to the comprehensive analysis and processing of non-military satellite imagery data, OSINT, and chats on SNS, the status of hostile combat units has come to be accurately grasped, and a bird's-eye view of the entire war theater has also become available. In other words, intelligence activities about the deployment and position of Russian forces have visualized the battlefields, thereby generating a situation of "war in a glass box." In addition, the satellite communications system Starlink, provided by Elon Musk, compensated for the damaged command/communications functions of the Ukrainian forces and helped secure the security of data transmission channels that constitute the lifeline of military operations. Starlink has enhanced the resilience of ICT in warfare and emphasized the importance of communications technology for intelligence. Given these various changes, which make it practically inconceivable for any country to carry out intelligence activities alone, it is likely that coordination and division of labor in intelligence activities will further accelerate with an emphasis on partnerships and strengthening multilateral relationships.

2. Evolution of the "Five Eyes" Intelligence Alliance

To minimize the impact of the Russian military's hybrid warfare, which combines military and non-military forces, the smooth sharing of information among NATO and partner countries supporting Ukraine, as well as the rapid provision of intelligence to disprove falsehoods propagated by Russia, was of critical importance. Yet, these were not achieved overnight. Intelligence operational support for Ukraine in the ongoing war would not have proceeded as smoothly as it does without various aids offered chiefly by NATO members since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014―the continued provision of equipment and support for the education and training of Ukrainian military personnel. Also notable was the fact that a comprehensive support system associated with cyber defense, command/communications, and logistics, along with providing intelligence on commercial satellite imagery, had been established before the Russian invasion through the efforts of the NATO liaison office in Kyiv. The system was very effective in enhancing Ukraine's intelligence resilience. Given this situation, building and maintaining intelligence partnerships in peacetime will undoubtedly be the key to the success or failure of response to hybrid warfare that will recur in the future.

The recent Russian invasion has extracted intelligence support for Ukraine not only from Western countries directly concerned with European security. The intelligence alliance Five Eyes has also allowed partial access to its stock of satellite imagery, drone footage, radar information, and intercepted communications―all related to the combat zones. Its Pacific members, Australia and New Zealand, directly provided intelligence assistance to Ukraine, transcending the physical barrier of distance. The Five Eyes came into being at the end of World War II when British Prime Minister Churchill held a summit meeting with US President Roosevelt, the leader of the Allied powers, aboard the HMS Prince of Wales; they agreed to share sensitive intercepted cryptographic information. The alliance, comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, shares political and military intelligence. In the post-WWII era, the Five Eyes substantially contributed to the Western victory in the Cold War through sharing HUMINT. Since the turn of the 21st century, the international environment has been undergoing rapid changes, and ICT, such as the Internet, is evolving apace. To enhance its raison d'être and functional effectiveness, the Five Eyes is endeavoring to increase its flexibility to adapt to those changes.

Since June 2020, the Five Eyes has been increasing its presence on the diplomatic and economic fronts. According to a released summary of its defense ministers' meeting, the member states confirmed strengthening common security policies and relationships with partner countries. They discussed economic challenges posed by COVID-19 at its finance ministers' meeting and demonstrated resoluteness on the Hong Kong issue to not flinch from confrontation with China. Meanwhile, a sense of crisis prevails among the members that processing technology will not be capable of dealing with the massive flow of intelligence, because intelligence will further increase in amount and variety and virtual and real space will merge due to technological development. Consequently, the Five Eyes is now actively incorporating emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT), such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum mechanics, into its intelligence assets. It is also activating the framework for external technological cooperation and is proactive in prioritizing and accelerating adaptation to the evolving technological environment.

3. Intelligence in the Future

Clausewitz argues to the effect that the battle itself will never change, but the center of gravity of the enemy force to be neutralized in war shifts over time, suggesting the universality of warfare and the importance of precise responses to changes. The center of gravity of intelligence activities will also continue to shift between real and virtual space in response to changes in the world strategic environment, where cross-domain operations (including cyber, space, and cognition), as well as hybrid warfare combining military and non-military means, are becoming dominant. Under such circumstances, intelligence experts, who must engage in both intelligence warfare chiefly employing analog intelligence based on HUMINT and one that emphasizes technology-intensive intelligence incorporating EDT, are required to flexibly adapt to the strategic environment accordingly as situations change.

In this context, we should keep it in mind that the value of analog intelligence will remain intact while the importance of digital intelligence increases. In recent years, US intelligence agencies have been subject to criticism for underestimating the importance of HUMINT at the time of the seizure of the Afghan capital by the Taliban and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reportedly, the US military and intelligence agencies estimated that the Afghan government and its forces could hold their ground for at least six months after the US withdrawal while also assuming that the Russian forces would capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv within two days. If these are true, their analyses were based problematically on a misjudgment about HUMINT on the Taliban's will to fight and on the determination to fight of the Ukrainian government and citizens. These indicate that even if hybrid warfare becomes dominant, we need to handle analog human intelligence attentively alongside digital intelligence.

There is no doubt that the attributes of intelligence will continue changing with time and technological development. We may have already entered an era in which decision-makers are required to select and combine, according to the objectives of war and operations, components of contrasting sets of values related to intelligence warfare―"analog and digital" and "disclosure and secrecy"―in the most appropriate way and to work out the optimal solution. Undoubtedly, such a capability is one of the vital qualities required for next-generation policymakers and military leaders to preserve their countries as sovereign states, even in the rapidly changing time and environments.

Thus, the environment surrounding intelligence activities undergoes significant changes. Since the importance of intelligence in warfare is universal, practitioners engaging in intelligence activities must endeavor to keep pace with political, economic, social, and technological changes instead of clinging to the present state by worshiping precedents. In the famous English children's novel "Alice in the Land of Mirrors," the protagonist Alice is admonished by the running Red Queen, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." If we wish to keep up with incessant changes in the global security environment and to survive new modes of war, including hybrid warfare, intelligence activities that provide the foundation for decision-making and judgment should be at the forefront of such endeavors.

(Research Advisor, Nakasone Peace Institute, Retired Air General)

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