While the basic nature of war remains constant, the means and methods of warfare evolve continually.1 From Greek fire in antiquity to the precision-guided munitions and stealth technology of the present age, technological innovations provide military advantages for their adopters. Although a new weapon system is seldom decisive on its own, it can give one side a distinct battlefield advantage.2 For this reason, nations have long recognized the need to acquire foreign matériel and equipment for exploitation—through espionage and, during war, battlefield collection—“to prevent technological surprise, neutralize an adversary’s technological advantages, enhance force protection, and support the development and employment of effective countermeasures to newly identified adversary equipment.”3
Battlefield exploitation of foreign matériel is normally performed by a captured matériel exploitation center (CMEC), which can also be joint (JCMEC) or combined (CJCMEC), depending on force composition.4 Joint doctrine provides guidance for establishing a JCMEC, but it does not address operating in the environments envisioned in the naval warfighting concepts of distributed maritime operations (DMO), expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), or littoral operations in a contested environment.
Joint doctrine organizes a JCMEC around a single Army Reserve military intelligence battalion (the 203rd MI Battalion), which has a wide breadth of expertise in various technical intelligence disciplines among its more than 50 military occupational specialties. However, the Army’s only technical intelligence battalion lacks expertise in naval weapon systems, afloat operations, and the maritime domain. Moreover, no Navy unit is currently manned, trained, equipped, and organized to establish a JCMEC in a maritime theater to develop technical intelligence in support of naval and joint maritime operations. The lack of a CMEC capability for the maritime environment and focused on naval weapon systems is a Navy (and joint) capability gap.
Benefits of Navy CMECs
A modest CMEC capability would significantly expand the Navy’s capacity to produce technical intelligence in support of fleet and joint operations. It would link the collection capability of fleet units, the Navy expeditionary combat force, and naval special warfare with the extensive exploitation capabilities of the Navy’s systems commands, national labs, and service intelligence centers. Some deployable exploitation capability does exist in the Navy. For example, Expeditionary Exploitation Unit One (EXU-1) is aligned under Naval Sea Systems Command and operates forward-deployed exploitation labs under the operational control of Navy expeditionary task forces in multiple theaters, working with fleet, special operations, interagency, and international partners to counter emerging threats. EXU-1’s capabilities, however, pertain primarily to ordnance exploitation and identity intelligence. It is not resourced for advanced exploitation of ships and aircraft, documents, medical technology, construction material, optics, sensors, and other matériel.5 Were it deployed as a CMEC, EXU-1 would require augmentation with technical experts from other fields.
Deploying expeditionary labs to rapidly collect, process, exploit, and analyze matériel provides theater commanders with immediate technical information and expedites the transfer of matériel of interest for further exploitation by science and technology centers and the intelligence community. Recently, after a never-before-seen naval mine washed up in a semipermissive operational environment, EXU-1 specialists exploited it in the field using industrial radiography and other advanced techniques. Exploitation identified a previously unknown mine threat and led to the rapid development of render-safe and disposal procedures, as well as fleet countermeasures. Navy exploitation labs in Iraq and Afghanistan were critical to countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), targeting threat actors, and developing countermeasures such as electronic jammers. Deployable labs such as these—augmented with additional command and control, communications, logistics, and analytic resources—could form the core of a fleet-focused CMEC aligned to DMO and EABO concepts.
In competition below the level of armed conflict, technical and forensic exploitation can be used to attribute malign behavior, which can reinforce diplomacy or “set the conditions that enable potential combat operations.”6 The exploitation of IEDs in Iraq in the mid-2000s, ballistic-missile components collected in Yemen in 2017, and limpet charges recovered from oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 demonstrate a range of Iranian malign activity in the Middle East. Furthermore, exploitation can expose violations of international norms or treaties, such as Iranian use of drifting mines during the 1984–88 Tanker War, or acts of war, such as a North Korean submarine’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in 2010.7
Exploiting adversary weapons also allows the fleet to characterize threats and develop the countermeasures and tactics needed to maneuver effectively in a contested environment. For example, when a Japanese Type 93 Mod 2 “Long Lance” torpedo washed ashore at Cape Esperance, Guadalcanal, in 1943, exploitation proved that Japan had fielded the world’s first oxygen-powered torpedo, a novel technology that gave the torpedo extended range and a reduced wake.8 Indeed, even though human intelligence from the interwar years reported the innovation, it was discounted by Office of Naval Intelligence and Bureau of Ordnance analysts as an impossible technological development. Had there existed an in-theater exploitation capability to recognize and prioritize exploitation of this never-before-seen torpedo, commanders might have been warned earlier to alter their tactics given the weapon’s longer range and diminished wake. Moreover, the Navy might have adapted Japanese technology from the Type 93 to improve its own submarine torpedoes, which were plagued with problems that made them unreliable, including poor depth control, a faulty magnetic exploder, and a defective contact detonator.
Exploitation also can shed light on the state of the enemy’s war resources, such as shortages that force a shift to inferior materials or novel manufacturing processes.9 In the Pacific, the Navy established the U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan for a postwar effort to examine Japanese advances in warship design, gun performance, metallurgy, electronics, and other naval technology.10
Weapons, of course, are not the only things to exploit. Examining Japanese winter clothing captured on Attu and the discovery of German waterproof fabric led to improvements in U.S. outer garments. The United States adopted the well-designed German entrenching tool and the German gasoline container known as the “Jerry can.”11 The Jerry can’s clever design included welded seams, a gasketed lid, and a snap-on spout that eliminated the need for a funnel. It was flat-sided for efficient storage and had an air chamber at the top that allowed it to float. Its three handles made it easier to carry by one or two people or for a working party to pass hand-to-hand.12
Exploiting matériel in theater gets intelligence to warfighters faster, expedites the shipment of matériel to U.S. labs for thorough analysis, and ensures fleeting opportunities are not missed. In joint operations, a Navy CMEC capability would complement the Army’s limited capacity. The Navy would benefit from an organic CMEC capability to support naval and joint maritime operations and should man, train, equip, and organize exploitation forces, develop doctrine, and conduct exercises to make it a reality.