Here’s an interview I recently did with a British military intelligence officer. We met last July in Las Vegas and talked for a few hours about military strategy, Iraq, Afghanistan, blogging, and many other topics. I thought that some of what we discussed would make an interesting blog post, so I suggested that we do an interview for my website, and he agreed.
At the time, I posted a forum thread to solicit suggestions for questions, which helped us piece together the structure of this interview.
It took quite a while to get the necessary approval to post this, which was granted on the condition that we don’t share his name. His rank is that of Major.
Let me start by saying that I’ve followed the thread with interest and enjoyed the debate and questions. My answers will be 100% honest, but circumspect, as you would expect.
You will all understand that the political neutrality of the military is essential in a democracy, and so it is not my place to contribute a political opinion. For those of you interested in a military perspective on some of the issues raised with regards to our future in Afghanistan etc. I would recommend the Small Wars Journal.
What is a typical day in the life of a military intelligence officer?
The short answer to this question is that there isn’t a typical day. In my career I have served in both my core role, analyzing the ways in which an adversary, or potential adversary might try and shoot down British or allied aircraft only three times, twice for short periods of a few months and once for two years. The first and longest period saw me serve as part of a large team undertaking this role in the UK. The second and third occasions were for 6 months and very similar to each other, albeit one was in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. I was one of just two people supporting an operational detachment of aircraft with warnings about who might want to shoot them down, how, and where. I have also served at Nellis Air Force Base (the reason I was in Las Vegas, to answer another question from the forum) with the 64th Aggressor Squadron. You can learn more about them here.
I’ve also served in two staff officer positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing senior officers with information on the situation in their area of responsibility.
Outside of my core role I deployed as a United Nations military observer with UNOMIG in Georgia. My “˜typical day’ here varied enormously. One day I might be patrolling towns and villages to discover locals’ concerns and ensure the ceasefire agreement (now irrelevant following the 2008 Russo-Georgia conflict) was being implemented correctly, on another, briefing a room of officers from all over the world on the situation across the area we patrolled.
How have your experiences in the military changed you as a person?
After my Initial Officer Training at RAF Cranwell I would have said that it had already changed me quite profoundly. Since then, that which was learned has been internalized, but I think I have retained much of the person I was before. I think this would be a better question to ask a close friend of mine who has know me throughout, rather than me, as it is difficult to say. I still have a strong sense of justice, a desire to help other people, and to make a difference in the world. I am as ambitious as I have always been, and am proud of my willingness to take on new challenges, fascinated by people and history and politics and love travelling. I feel privileged to be part of an organization that allows me to explore my interests, to be amongst people who share my desire to make the world a better place, and with whom, collectively, I am able to test my abilities in pursuance of my ambition while helping to make more of a difference than I ever could alone. Many of the questions on the forum seemed to imply that there was a conflict between positive values and military service. I fundamentally disagree, and could not do my job if I did not think they were compatible. So this is what has not changed, but let us move on to some things which I think have.
Military training instilled in me a deeper confidence in my own abilities. It provided me with training in how to balance competing priorities and to deal with demanding situations calmly and rationally. It gave me a better understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses, and improved my ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in others around me. I benefited greatly from the leadership lessons, and am more confident in positions of responsibility than I would have been otherwise.
The reporting system in the British military is designed to identify your strengths and your weaknesses throughout your career. A good commanding officer provides you with advice on how to overcome your deficiencies and to further develop those areas in which you are showing ability. Institutionalised personal development perhaps? For example, early on in my career I had a tendency to be over-confident, and as a consequence over-bearing. I have worked hard to be more humble, and, though of course some might disagree, I think I am sufficiently aware of this tendency now to manage it better.
The British military is encouraged to study past wars to learn the lessons for future conflicts, and part of that learning experience is seeing the mistakes others have made, and to note their successes, in order to avoid the former and repeat the latter. This is much like “˜modelling’ as practiced in the self-improvement world, where one notes the qualities and actions one admires in another person, and seeks to emulate them. This is something I have undertaken professionally as well, noting the qualities I admire in the men and women who serve with me and seeking to match their example.
The military also attracts some remarkable people, and this can affect you in lots of ways. They tend to be physically fit, which means that you have plenty of people to train with, a certain social pressure (and professional requirement) to maintain your fitness and, if you are competitive, as most of us are, you will have to push yourself that much harder if you want to be one of the fittest amongst your peers.
We also have “˜Officer’s Development Days’. I have been taken to London on one such day, where we were required to visit various art galleries and “˜brief’, i.e. give a 10-20 minute talk, without notes on three paintings at each gallery, which we had researched beforehand. This not only improved my public speaking, but gave me an interest in, and understanding of, art. It would be fair to say that before this my interest in art was minimal, I had always preferred theatre, literature and poetry. I was so enthused by the experience of learning about this new subject that I took a civilian friend of mine, James, who now runs a personal development website, round the same galleries a few weeks later.
As you can see from the length of the answer, being a part of the military has helped to make me who I am. I suspect that the person asking the question wanted to know how serving overseas had affected me. The answer is much shorter. It has made me more broad minded, and only made me want to understand people, from all cultures, more completely.
Why did you decide to join the military? How did you become a military intelligence officer? Why do you work in this field?
I think I have already answered the first part of this. Joining was relatively straightforward, if demanding, I applied through an RAF careers office, passed through a selection weekend, initial officer training and my trade training and, well, here I am.
My job is an extension of my interest in people, politics and international relations. I am intensely curious about the world, and in my job I get to study it continuously, and travel around it often.
What role does the study of military history play in modern warfare? How relevant is the past in terms of present and future military strategy?
I could not do my job without an understanding of history. Winston Churchill said “˜the further back we can see, the further forward we can look’. Modern warfare strategists build on centuries of human thought on the subject. Military colleges in every NATO country, and I suspect everywhere, teach the ideas of Clauswitz, who wrote in the early 1800s, and Sun Tzu, who wrote his theories on war 400 years before the birth of Christ. As we in the RAF look to the future of air power in an age of budget cuts and a possible lack of appetite for large scale military operations after Afghanistan, we are studying British experiences across what was the British Empire between World War 1 and 2 and the post-World War 2 period. History is central to everything we do.
How does the media affect the practice of modern war, including mainstream media as well as irregular sources such as WikiLeaks? What consequences does this have for military strategists?
The advent of 24 hour global news is forcing the military to accelerate a process that was well underway anyway. We are learning, as Gen Petraeus wrote this week, that we have to get our story out first, that we have to tell the truth, to ensure we are treated as credible, and that winning the media war, or the war of ideas, is perhaps as important as defeating insurgents “˜on the ground’. I think (and this is just a personal view) that Wikileaks is also nothing new really. The phenomenon of books being published which reveal rather more than they ought to has been around for some time. All Wikileaks does is accelerate the process when someone breaches the trust placed in them by their nation.
“Military intelligence” is sometimes referred to in jest as an oxymoron. What forces inside or outside of the military get in the way of intelligent decision making? What can be done to compensate and make better decisions?
There has been so much written about this subject, and professionally of course it is a highly relevant question that we must ask ourselves whenever we make a judgement upon which military decisions will be based. I think it is vital when presenting an argument or assessment to highlight and describe a competing hyphothesis, i.e. an alternate argument, that would contradict the one you are making, giving evidence for it and showing, at the end, what has led you to discard it. One should also make clear what information would alter your conclusion, and finally highlight any information that you consider to be an “˜intelligence gap’, weakening your argument. This should allow you to make clear to whomever is making the decision, as to how confident you are in your judgment.
Is torture a valid intelligence gathering method? To what degree is it currently employed? How effective is it?
No it is not valid. It is not practiced in the British, U.S. or allied militaries, nor is it condoned or supported. Nor, from what I’ve read of historical examples, can if be considered effective. More importantly, as a French official wrote when considering the use of torture in the Algerian war when “˜efficacy has become the sole justification…illegality has become justified’.
Who is the “enemy” in Afghanistan? What is their agenda? What do they seek to accomplish, and why?
In short, the Taliban are not homogenous, they represent a range of grievances and political opinions, from those wanting greater autonomy for the Pashtun regions through to those that seek an Islamic State that rejects all innovations to Muslim society that have developed since the time of the Prophet i.e. they are the extremists who want a strict interpretation of Sharia law, and a literal translation of the Koran to be the guiding constitution of their state. Then there are those that fight for personal reasons, financial reasons, nationalistic or patriotic reasons. It is wrong to see all the Taliban as the same. Just as within the major political parties in Britain and the US there exist a range of opinions, with areas of overlapping agreement and areas of disagreement, so there exist divisions with the Taliban.
Why are coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan? What are their goals?
The initial war in Afghanistan was launched to deny al-Qaida a safe haven in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But after this was achieved there was a need to build the Afghan state sufficiently that it would not be vulnerable to threats or blandishments from such groups in the future. We are fighting in Afghanistan to hold off those that would reverse many of the reforms the Afghan state has undertaken, and to leave Afghanistan stable and democratic.
Can coalition forces realistically achieve their goals in Afghanistan? Are they on course to get there? Otherwise, what must change to ensure a resolution in their favor?
There is to be a formal review of the current Afghan strategy in December 2010. It is for those more highly qualified (and ranked!) than I to determine this.
What would likely happen if coalition forces pulled out of Afghanistan now? What consequences would there be for those involved?
Again, this is a question for senior commanders to answer. You can get an insight into their thinking at blogs like the Small Wars Journal or from Foreign Policy Magazine or Foreign Affairs.
How has the military adapted to what General James Mattis refers to as “irregular warfare” as opposed to conventional war? What are some key lessons learned and/or changes that have been made? What still needs improvement?
One of the most remarkable military developments of recent times is the transformation of the US Army in Iraq. This is still an ongoing process in Afghanistan, we, the coalition, are still training linguists in order to improve our ability to communicate with Afghans, yet in Afghanistan there is a huge number of languages spoken by different groups, which complicates things enormously. I think it is possible to overestimate the differences between irregular warfare and conventional conflict. What we are seeing is an evolution of tactics by our adversary to maximize his strengths to our weaknesses. I think that in any prolonged conflict, there is a need to be adaptable, open-minded and to be clear about the desired end state, maintaining a single minded focus on the aim whilst continually reassessing the best means to achieve it in light of the enemy’s adaptations. In Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 we fought the war we had trained for, against an enemy that tried to hold ground and prevent our advance, and the Afghan and Iraqi forces did not have time to adapt to our strengths and our tactics. In the aftermath of both of those remarkable victories, those that opposed the coalitions’ aims were forced to recognize their shortcomings and adapt. Likewise the coalitions then had to be pushed to the point where defeat seemed to be looming before they adapted. The US Counter-Insurgency Field Manual makes clear that the organization that learns and adapts fastest in counter-insurgency wins. I would argue that the same is true in prolonged conventional warfare too. We could talk technical details: training, the increased use of intelligence, the need to work more closely with civilian agencies, etc. But I think the more fundamental point is that we must ensure that our militaries learn faster than their enemies. We do so by empowering our personnel to challenge judgments and to question policies, not easy for any military organization to do, but essential.
How is the current global economic situation affecting the war in Afghanistan? With surging public debt, will the military be able to sustain the war effort long enough to achieve its goals? What is the risk that a weak economy will eventually necessitate an early withdrawal? What role, if any, do such economic factors play in military strategy today?
There is nothing new under the sun. In the aftermath of the Great War and World War 2 Britain faced similar problems, and switched strategies to enable a continuation of the policies of resisting insurgent movements without incurring the huge costs of nation-building. I think that the next decade will require our militaries to be ever more conversant in the language of economics, and an understanding of the economic pressures that governments are under will be essential if we are to speak credibly in military strategic terms. I think that as far as Afghanistan is concerned there will be little change in policy. It was always the aim to withdraw as soon as the country is stable enough for us to do so. I don’t think the economic situation will change that.
Claims of secret agendas, false flag operations, and other conspiracy theories can be found abundantly on the Internet these days. As a military intelligence officer, what advice could you give concerned citizens about how to discern truth from falsehood when they encounter such information? How can we get closer to the real facts and avoid succumbing to fiction? How can we deal with so much uncertainty?
I have always felt that conspiracy theories were a product more of our desire for mystery than from reality. Joining the military has done nothing to change that. The trend towards greater openness in both government and the media should encourage those that are genuinely concerned with getting to the truth. Conspiracy theorists tend to rely on the building up of one hypothesis upon another until one small discrepancy in the narrative of events is used to justify a far larger claim. As analysts we are encouraged to use Ockham’s Razor, a technique which requires the discarding of extra hypotheses and the retention of the simplest explanation. For example, the widespread theory that it couldn’t have been an aircraft that hit the Pentagon on 9/11 relies on the fact that the hole the aircraft created is not aircraft shaped, and from there the conspiracy theories flourish. Is it possible that the impact might not leave a cartoon-like cut-out hole in the shape of the aircraft? Of course it is, so the simplest explanation is likely to be the truth.
What are your plans for the future? What’s next?
I’m now back in London undertaking a study for the RAF at University before a probable re-deployment to Afghanistan.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights with us, Major.