Five Military Intelligence Successes that Changed the Course of War (Revisited)

I wrote an earlier version of this article for Yahoo! News several years ago. At the time, the media were reporting on some purported American intelligence failures in the Middle East. The appropriateness (and the conclusions being drawn) aside, I was motivated to  highlight some of the significant (acknowledged) successes that American and Allied intelligence agencies had accomplished over the past 75 years or so.

Today, with the Intelligence Community facing political assaults here at home, I thought it’d be a good time to dust off the article and share it again. The American Intelligence Community has a proud history, and while thorough scrutiny of that community is essential in a democracy, those who would undercut the professionals dedicated to the defense of the nation for political gain need to be rebuked at the ballot box.

But I digress.

When the public hears about the CIA, NSA or military intelligence, it’s often not a good thing. Often, we find ourselves uncomfortable with the very idea of secret intelligence, as it seems at odds with the ideals of an open democratic republic. So when questions about data collection against US citizens arise, a shadow is cast over the intelligence community as a whole. In addition, as I alluded to above, significant intelligence failures (e.g., the September 11 attacks), can shake public confidence in our intelligence apparatus. And frankly, questions about the scope of intelligence collection, and whether the IC is fully capable of meeting today’s evolving threats are right and proper. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the IC has a record of achievement second to none, and that’s just with what is known and acknowledged. Successful intelligence collection and analysis has been instrumental in turning the tide of war, and in some cases has aided in the shifting of the global balance of power.

I’ve collected here five success stories from modern history, each of which demonstrates the critical role that intelligence played in preserving national security. This list is, of course, subjective, and in no particular order. In every conflict, intelligence plays a vital role in victory. I chose these particular examples because of the relatively clear strategic impact these definable intelligence victories had. Also note that this is not a “top 5 of all time” kind of thing. I’ll work on that project sometime later.

Cracking Enigma (World War II): The German military‘s machine-based cryptographic system called Enigma had a ciphering capability that was theoretically unbreakable. And for the early part of the war, it was. Cracking Enigma took a combination of old fashioned spy work, signals collection (meaning the interception of radio transmissions), and cryptography.  Polish breakthroughs combined with a German traitor provided by the French resulted in the first successes against Enigma.  The British and Americans were able to expand this success into breaking the even more resilient Enigma machines used by the German Navy.

Enigma
German Enigma machine (Museum of the US Air Force, Dayton, Ohio)

Result: Deep penetration of Hitler’s military movements.  Cracking Engima helped save the vital support that the US was sending by ship to Britain by helping to counter the brutal German U-boat attacks.  According to Ms. Wilcox, many historians believe that the success against Enigma shortened World War II by as much as two years.

Further Reading:    There are many good books and articles detailing the story. For a concise telling, Jennifer Wilcox’s Solving the Enigma: History of the Cryptanalytic Bombe is a great read. The Enigma of Alan Turing, CIA, posted 10 Apr 2015. Also, Polish codebreakers ‘cracked Enigma before Alan Turing’, bySarah Knapton, the Telegraph, 17 February 2016.

The Battle of Midway (World War II): The U.S. Navy pretty much had one last chance to contain the burgeoning Imperial Navy, and that was at Midway. What transpired from roughly early March – June 4 1942 was a game of cryptographic cat and mouse. But through a mix of diligent signals collection and cryptographic analysis, the US Navy was able to forecast not only the timing of the impending attack on Midway, but also the direction it would come from.  In his book Intelligence in War, John Keegan cites a source that describes this as “the most stunning intelligence coup in all naval history.”

Result: Despite the shortcomings of intelligence collection, the U.S. Navy was able to crack Japanese encryption, enabling them to concentrate on defending Midway, giving American forces this most critical of victories in the Pacific Theater.

Further reading: Intelligence in War, by John Keegan.

The Cuban Missile Crisis (Cold War): Leading up to the discovery of the construction of Russian Medium Range Ballistic Missile installations in Cuba, U.S. intelligence had observed a rash of surface to air missile sites popping up at various locations across the island. While this Russian military build-up had been detected using various maritime and other intelligence methods, the smoking gun that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has even been was uncovered by American U2 imagery intelligence collection in mid-October 1962. Armed with this intel, President John F. Kennedy and his Administration took the evidence public a week later, beginning the tense confrontation that many feared would end in war.

800px-Cuba_Missiles_Crisis_U-2_photo
U2 Imagery of Soviet Missile Site (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, via Wikimedia)

Result: Caught red handed, the Soviets backed down and withdrew the missiles. This prevented the USSR from having the ability to reach the U.S. with its intermediate range nuclear missiles.

Further reading: Trust But Verify: Imagery Analysis in the Cold War, by David T. Lindgren.

Operation Desert Storm: From January 15 to February 24, 1991, Coalition aircraft hammered Iraqi Military and Command and Control targets. On some days, there were as many as 2,500 sorties. These attacks were not random, and except for military equipment found out in the open, were not typically targets of opportunity.  The attacks were designed to “cut off the head of the snake.” Logistics lines and Republican Guard command centers were destroyed or evacuated for fear of bombing.

Result:  When ground operations initiated on 24 February, it took only 100 hours to completely liberate Kuwait. But an even more far reaching impact wouldn’t become clear until December of that year.  Some historians believe that the complete routing of the Iraqi military, which was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, was the final nail in the USSR’s coffin.  Iraq’s overwhelming loss completely discredited Soviet air and ground defense doctrines and weapons systems.

Further reading: Heart of the Storm: The Genesis of the Air Campaign against Iraq, by Col. Richard T. Reynolds, USAF. Also, Desert Storm: The Military Intelligence Story, by Brigadier General John F. Stewart, US Army.

Eliminating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM): As the war in Iraq started shifting into sectarian chaos, the mysterious al-Zarqawi led the way. The leader of what would eventually be called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ), this brutal terror leader declared war on Western forces and Shi’a Iraqis in a bid to incite country-wide civil war. He also became one of the most wanted men in the country.  He eluded Coalition forces for some time, but eventually, through the work of the intelligence community and a special US military task force, this key leader of the Iraqi insurgency was eliminated on June 7, 2006 by a targeted air strike.

Result: While of course, Iraq continues to face instability and had to deal with ISIS in recent years, the death of al-Zarqawi delivered a body blow to the Iraqi insurgency, threw AQIZ off balance, and likely magnified the effects of the soon to come military surge.  It proved that the nascent Iraqi Government, the US-led Coalition, and reginal allies (Jordanian intelligence reportedly helped locate Zarqawi) were determined to oppose the ethnic warfare being waged by AQIZ.

Further reading: How Surveillance and Betrayal Led to a Hunt’s End, By Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and Richard A. Oppel Jr. New York Times, June 9, 2006. Also, JSOC and the Hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The End Game, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, DefenseMediaNetwork, May 26, 2013.

Of course, there’s so much more that we outside of this world don’t get to see.  But I think it does us good to see from time to time what kind of return out tax dollars are getting from our significant investment in national intelligence.

 

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The Royal Navy and the Fighting Instructions

The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)
The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)

European fleet commanders learned during the first Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54) that once close combat began between ships, effective control of large numbers of fighting vessels was nearly impossible. The Royal Fighting Instructions were intended to provide guidance to British admiralty and their fighting ships, effectively creating a command and control doctrine. With roots stretching back to the 16th Century, the overall objective of the instructions were to enable the “better ordering and managing the fleet in fighting.”[1] While the earliest forms of the Instructions (such as the Commonwealth Orders, 1648) scarcely provide anything more than broad guidance for a limited number of scenarios, we see some evolution as British Naval authorities attempted to standardize guidance for increasingly complex engagements over subsequent decades.

All of the Fighting Instructions provide guidance on actions to take upon encountering an unknown fleet. Initial contact directives evolve somewhat into a more orderly process over the years. In 1653, general guidance is given that “they” are to approach the fleet and determine size and intent. Apparently these early instructions did not specify whether one, some, or all of the fleet would be involved in this action. Subsequent revisions specify “two frigates” will be responsible for this task, and ultimately that “one frigate appointed out of each squadron” were responsible.[2] Once the Admiral ordered an attack, the Instructions dictated how the King’s fleet should respond to various situations or specified commands. As with the initial contact orders example, we see some adjustments between the 1653 instructions and the more complete instructions from the mid to late 1700s. For example, the 1653 Commonwealth Orders state that any enemy vessel captured was to be burned immediately so that “our own ships be not disabled or any work interrupted by the departing of men or boats from the ships.”[3] By 1665, this order was replaced with instructions to leave the vessel if fighting was still ongoing, allowing for action against the disabled vessel afterwards.[4]

This demonstrated a maturation of the Fighting Instructions to provide better control over time, as the aforementioned lead-in sentence indicated. Perhaps the original guidance to immediately burn the enemy ship was breaking the commanding admirals’ lines, and so modifications were given to ensure that ships in the line did not unexpectedly depart to sink now nonthreatening vessels while firepower was needed elsewhere. We see a similar evolution in regards to caring for a disabled British frigate. Supplementary Instructions from 1650 ordered that when a friendly ship was “distressed or disabled” or in danger of sinking that the ships next to it should immediately make toward the vessel to assist.[5] However, again perhaps because this order to aid resulted in unexpected and/or unnecessary breaks in the order of battle, this command was made much more specific. The Fighting Instructions of the Duke of York in 1665 clarify that if a royal ship is “not being in probability of sinking nor encompassed by the enemy, the following ships shall not stay under pretence of securing them…”[6]

Following the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Fighting Instructions slowly evolve in order to achieve a balance between the admiral’s need to know where his vessels are and how he should expect them to respond, with an individual captain’s need for flexibility in the midst of combat. For example, the Commonwealth Instructions from 1653 state that, once fighting commenced, “ships of every squadron shall endeavour to keep in a line with the chief.”[7] Similarly, the Duke of York’s Additional Instructions of 1665 repeat this: “In all cases of fight with the enemy the commanders of his majesty’s ships are to endeavour to keep the fleet in one line.”[8]

The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)

But despite the value of maintaining the order of battle, by 1740, Admiral Vernon’s Additional Instructions allow for some decentralized flexibility: “And as it is morally impossible to fix any general rule to occurrences that must be regulated from the weather and the enemy’s disposition, this is left to the respective captain’s judgment that shall be ordered out of the line to govern himself by as becomes an officer of prudence, and as he will answer the contrary at his peril.”[9] So while the Instructions may have been somewhat cumbersome, we do witness a maturation in this attempt to codify an admiral’s ability to control his fleet in combat.

Within these documents, there appears to be an expectation that naval officers, particularly captains, are familiar with the Instructions. In several instances, severe punishment is promised for any abrogation of these rules. Even the earliest Supplementary Instructions from 1650 state that commanders and masters of “small frigates, ketches and smacks” were to know the disposition of enemy fireships, and to prevent them from engaging the fleet. If unsuccessful, they were to fight them directly, “the neglect thereof strictly and severely called to account.”[10] This warning is repeated throughout the years. Even a death sentence is threatened specifically for commanders who fire cannon over friendly vessels.[11] This expected knowledge in indicative of a growing naval professionalism quite separate from land forces.

Sources: Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816: Publications Of The Navy Records Society Vol. XXIX (Archive.org)

[1] This opening line is present on several iterations of the Instructions. Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, from Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816, ed. Julian S. Corbett (Naval Records Society, 1905) 1.

[2] Ibid, 2, 3-4, 9.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6] Ibid, 11.

[7] Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 18.