We should hold on to the knowledge and corporate memory so painfully acquired, across all the agencies of all the Coalition partners, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And should we find ourselves (by error or necessity) in a similar position once again, then the best practices we have rediscovered in current campaigns represent an effective approach.
David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla:
Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One
The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) make it clear that the United States, its allies, and its partners are in an era of great power competition. China and Russia are executing security strategies that contest traditional U.S. advantages, with the goal of changing the international order in their favor.1 To support U.S. national security interests, the Sea Services are developing strategies to check the aggression of these belligerents, deter them from escalation, and defeat them should war break out. Incumbent on this discussion is the role of U.S. naval intelligence.
Previous discussions on this topic have centered on providing intelligence that will help win high-end fights against great power adversaries. Proposals have included achieving maritime information superiority by increasing naval command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability—a laudable goal, as information warfare is increasing in relevance in all domains.2 Another school of thought focuses on ensuring maritime information superiority in approaches to the homeland, which directly supports the first priority of the 2018 NSS.3
But while much attention has been dedicated to figuring out how to win potential wars with peer or near-peer adversaries, much less energy has been devoted to winning the wars being fought in the maritime domain now. It is no secret that China is waging a maritime insurgency in the South China Sea, terrorizing civilian mariners and foreign navies alike in a campaign to claim international waters as Chinese sovereign territory.4 Russia, not content with the annexation of Crimea, is conducting its own insurgency in the Sea of Azov, both by building a bridge over the Kerch Strait to disrupt shipping to Ukrainian ports and by attacking Ukrainian vessels without provocation.5 These insurgencies are effective and allow aggressors to achieve their goals without risking conventional war.6 China, Russia, and other hostile actors will continue to prosecute these campaigns of self-interest unless they are meaningfully checked by a coalition dedicated to upholding the rules-based international order.
While not perfectly applicable, a plethora of intelligence doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures were refined across nearly two decades of COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan. Intelligence professionals mastered their craft against live, agile, determined enemies for the highest stakes, where the smallest intelligence failure could mean death for coalition members, civilians, or both. By repurposing these hard-won practices from the land for use at sea, naval intelligence will arm commanders to defeat maritime insurgencies. For the Sea Services to win today’s wars, naval intelligence must directly support maritime COIN.
Intelligence Preparation for Maritime COIN Operations
Because intelligence doctrinally drives operations, intelligence professionals are tasked to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB).7 This is a systematic process of analyzing and visualizing the threat, terrain, weather, and civil considerations in a particular area to support a mission.8 This process gives commanders information needed to maximize operational effectiveness at critical points in time and space.9 While IPB is conducted in advance of any operation, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, demonstrates IPB considerations unique to COIN.
Specifically, COIN IPB must analyze both the insurgency and the population within which it is being waged. Naval intelligence must understand the culture of both the insurgent and the local population, transforming what might seem to be random activity from a U.S. perspective to predictable (or at least likely) acts when seen from the insurgent’s or local’s perspective.10
In the South China Sea, for example, intelligence professionals must build an understanding of the motivations and patterns of life for members of China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), an armed fishing fleet operating directly under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).11 While its size is unknown, the PAFMM is able to rapidly swarm, harass, and dominate targets to impose the will of the PLA across the South China Sea without firing a shot. Among its other illicit activities, the PAFMM has been instrumental in helping Chinese fishermen conduct illegal fishing and has blocked legitimate fishing attempts by other nations’ civilian mariners across the region.
While illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing might seem relatively inconsequential, IPB analysis reveals that, economically, IUU is far more damaging than piracy, undermines the economic security of affected nations, distorts markets, and increases tensions within and between affected countries.12 IUU has led to violent altercations between Chinese and Japanese, Philippine, and Vietnamese forces and fishermen. What compels Chinese fishermen to join the PAFMM? How are they networked and what is their command structure? How do they operate? Whom do they target? What training and equipment do they receive, if any? If challenged, what support will they receive from the PLA Navy (PLAN)? Naval intelligence must answer these questions.
Simultaneously, IPB must take into account the culture and patterns of life of the populations and friendly militaries operating in the same area. When and where do Vietnamese fishermen ply their trade? How do Philippine naval forces police illicit PAFMM activity? Are the affected populations sharing information with each other, and if not, what obstacles are preventing information exchange? These are the kinds of questions that naval intelligence must answer during IPB.
It’s About the Population
In the case of the South China Sea, China is not seeking to persuade the populations of neighboring countries to abandon their governments in favor of being ruled by Beijing. However, they are seeking to win acquiescence to Chinese sovereignty over waters and islands these populations have a legal right to use and occupy. Russia is doing the same thing in the Sea of Azov, even firing on Ukrainian vessels to deter the Ukranians from using waters they have a legal right to access. The population is the decisive objective, and population-centric strategies are historically the most successful for either side.13 It is a fight for the will of the population, first and foremost.
To that end, naval intelligence must identify how the will of these populations to resist illegal insurgent influence can be reinforced. While U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) serve a symbolic function and provide international messaging that rejects unlawful insurgent territorial claims, they do little to reinforce the will of a population. The people and the militaries of allies and partners know the U.S. vessel will soon depart, and insurgent ships will return and continue their illicit activities. During COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this phenomenon was seen again and again. Coalition forces would patrol through an area to deter insurgent activity; while the patrol was present, insurgents hunkered down and waited; as soon as the patrol departed, the insurgents returned. Iraqi and Afghan civilians were hard-pressed to support the side they knew would soon be gone.
If FONOPs are ineffective in reinforcing the will to resist, naval intelligence must identify what kinds of naval operations will galvanize our allies and partners to stand up for their sovereignty and for international law.
Naval Intelligence for Coalition COIN
Successfully using intelligence to support COIN requires rapid, efficient collaboration among all involved parties.14 Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest hurdle to conducting naval intelligence operations in a coalition environment is overclassification and releasability. Maritime insurgency by its nature affects several nations, and if naval intelligence is to inform meaningful operations, its professionals must be able to easily and rapidly share intelligence with allies and partners. However, the default releasability criteria are based on a “need to know” principle, a risk-averse approach that sets a high—and often misused and overapplied—bar for intelligence sharing.15
The stand-up of the Afghanistan Mission Network (AMN) in 2010 provides a useful model for information sharing in support of COIN. AMN is the primary C4ISR network for NATO-led missions in Afghanistan. It was established in support of a shift in information-sharing posture from “need to know” to “need to share.”16 Prior to the AMN, commanders in Afghanistan were hamstrung by red tape and network security boundaries. Even if the intelligence itself was immediately shareable, the mechanism or the network on which it originally was processed might automatically have classified it. The time delay in making information shareable meant it was often useless to allies and partners on delivery. AMN, while assuming greater risk to information security, maximized the coalition’s ability to share and collaborate, accelerating the tempo of COIN operations.
The AMN was so successful that it led NATO to institutionalize the approach under the Federated Mission Networking (FMN) initiative. The FMN model allows for the rapid creation of mission networks, capitalizing on the lessons learned from the AMN.17
Advocating for a similar approach, naval intelligence professionals must be prepared to champion the creation of networks that will enable them to rapidly share intelligence with allies and partners participating in maritime COIN. Failure to do this will impose an untenable handicap on naval operations, handing a decisive advantage to maritime insurgents.
Understand the COIN Adversary
Finally, while intelligence for maritime COIN must maintain a fundamental orientation on the population, it also must dedicate significant resources to understanding the adversary. Because maritime COIN is being waged as an alternative to conventional war, gauging adversary response to friendly action is key to allowing naval intelligence to provide commanders with informed response options.
Naval intelligence must answer the question: What will the maritime insurgent do in response to resistance? Generally, China continues its aggression when its actions meet no remarkable opposition, but does not escalate when it meets significant counterpressure.18 Russia has yet to face significant counterpressure when bullying non-NATO countries, but it generally avoids aggressive maritime action that would risk escalation with NATO. However, naval intelligence must assess responses at the tactical level. If U.S. naval vessels order PAFMM boats to depart from a partner nation’s exclusive economic zone, will they comply? If a coalition ship attempts to query a China Coast Guard ship that is harassing civilian mariners, will it meet resistance? If a NATO ship orders a Russian ship in Ukrainian territorial waters to withdraw, what will that Russian ship captain do? Mapping the human terrain becomes even more critical in these areas. Naval intelligence should endeavor to understand the personalities and decision trends of individual commanders of adversary fleets, strike groups, and ships to give friendly commanders greater confidence in their response options.
Leverage Naval Intelligence to Defeat Maritime Insurgents
Renewed great power competition demands much of naval intelligence. Because a conventional war at sea would have grave consequences, naval intelligence activities remain focused on deterring adversaries from escalating to war and defeating those adversaries should war occur. However, naval intelligence must not prioritize potential conflicts to the point that it shortchanges the real maritime insurgencies being waged by its adversaries today.
Naval intelligence can repurpose those COIN intelligence principles used for years in ground-based insurgencies to better support maritime COIN. COIN IPB can provide commanders with an understanding of the operational culture of their adversaries, of allies and partners, and of the populations residing in the area of operations. A fundamental orientation on the population allows naval intelligence to leverage population-centric strategies that have proven the most reliable in COIN across time. Establishing C4ISR networks will maximize intelligence sharing and collaboration with allies and partners. Finally, a granular understanding of adversary response actions will ensure commanders are assuming risks that reliably achieve results. By working these lines of effort, naval intelligence can directly support maritime COIN to win the low-intensity conflicts being waged today.
1. The White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, 2017), 27.
2. CDR Mike Dahm, USN (Ret.), “Needed: A Design for Achieving Maritime Information Superiority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145 no. 11 (November 2019), .
3. LCDR James Landreth, USNR, “Naval Intelligence and Information Warfare in the Gray Zone.”
4. Hunter Stires, “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 5 (May 2019).
5. “Russia-Ukraine Tensions Rise after Kerch Strait Ship Capture,” BBC, 26 November 2018.
6. John Vrolyk, “Insurgency, Not War, Is China’s Most Likely Course of Action,” War on the Rocks, 26 December 2019.
7. Department of the Navy, NDP 2: Naval Intelligence (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1994), 31.
8. Marine Corps Combat Development Command, MCWP 3-33.5, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Marine Corps, 2014), 8–2.
9. Marine Corps Combat Development Command, MCRP 2-10B.1, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Marine Corps, 2014), 1-1.
10. Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, 8–2.
11. Derek Grossman and Logan Ma, “A Short History of China’s Fishing Militia and What It May Tell Us,” The RAND Corp., 6 April 2020.
12. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing (Washington, DC: ODNI, 2016).
13. Bureau of Political Military Affairs, Department of State, U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide (Washington, DC: Department of State, 2009), 14.
14. Matt Calvin, “People, Partnerships and Collaboration: Understanding and Improving Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” Josef Korbel Journal of Advanced International Studies 1 (Summer 2009): 65.
15. House Hearing, 108th Congress, “Too Many Secrets: Overclassification as a Barrier to Critical Information Sharing,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations of the Committee on Government Reform, 24 August 2004.
16. Chad C. Serena, Isaac R. Porch III, Joel B. Predd, Jan Osburg, and Brad Lossing, Lessons Learned from the Afghan Mission Network: Developing a Coalition Contingency Network (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corp., 2014).
17. NATO, Federated Mission Networking.
18. Abraham Denmark, Charles Edel, and Siddharth Mohandas, “Same As It Ever Was: China’s Pandemic Opportunism on Its Periphery,” War on the Rocks, 16 April 2020.