SAN ANTONIO — Sharing of satellite and other intelligence information among coalition partners fighting in Afghanistan has improved in the past two years but still falls short of what is needed to permit them to work and fight as effectively as possible, U.S., British, Canadian and Australian military officials said Oct. 18.
The problem, they said, is not just on the U.S. side. Other coalition partners have stove-piped information flows, effectively prohibiting information from being shared among solders fighting shoulder to shoulder.
Despite a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, coalition partners’ classification practices are still an obstacle that hobbles the effort — so much so that field commanders are sometimes forced to sidestep their military procedures in the interest of getting things done.
“Intelligence sharing is one of the top two requests all the time,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, assistant director of national intelligence for partner engagement in the office of the director of national intelligence. To get approval for release of data, requests need to be made to the U.S. National Security Agency or the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which own the data, he said.
“We are causing people in the field to bend the laws,” Flynn said here during the Geoint 2011 symposium. “We have to make adjustments. … We cannot win unilaterally, so just get over it.”
J.H. Vance, director of staff at Canada’s Strategic Joint Staff and a former commander of coalition forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, said it took him four months to get a U.S. Defense Department Secret Internet Protocol (SIPR) account.
“And he’s commanding U.S. forces!” Flynn said.
“Yes, like 8,000 of them,” Vance responded.
Brig. Nick R. Davies, commander of the Intelligence Collection Group at the British Ministry of Defence, said the United Kingdom still has “a lot of policies that stop multilateral cooperation.”
Access to some systems is restricted by nationality or by agency. “It should be based on your requirement as an individual” in the coalition, he said.
“There is no reason for any intelligence to be given a national designation. We should be specific in making classifications by mission group. Instead of ‘Top Secret U.K. Eyes Only,’ it should be ‘Top Secret Eagle Strike Operation Only.’ If we can crack these issues, [coalition operations] will become infinitely easier,” Davies said.
Brig. David Colin Gillian, chief Australia Defence Force liaison officer to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said intelligence services have had trouble changing their culture to adapt to a coalition.
Gillian said documents and images are often stamped “U.K. Eyes Only” or “Australia Eyes Only” by individual intelligence analysts who have not thought through the consequences of doing so in a coalition environment. “And there forever it will stay” classified, he said.
Sharing started to improve measurably around 2009, when the Afghan campaign adopted counterinsurgency as its strategy. Gillian said British forces were taking so many casualties from improvised explosive devices that British participation in the war was placed into doubt.
That helped break down intelligence walls, he said.
Flynn said the simplest solution to permitting the coalition nations to all have access to the intelligence they need is to empower the senior U.S. commander in a given combat zone with decision-making authority on intelligence.
“The commander should be given godlike authority to decide to share information,” Flynn said. “A four-star commander today in a combat zone does not have that power. Second, combat commanders — Southern Command, Central Command, European Command — should have authority for any military intelligence and whether to share that information. They should have that authority today. They don’t.”