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.

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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 Museum of the United States Air Force, Memphis Belle, and the Evolution of Air Intelligence

Recently I’ve started doing something that I’ve wanted to do for years: I’ve become a volunteer at the Museum of the United States Air Force, located in Dayton, Ohio.* Once or twice per month, I get to spend several hours within this fine institution, walking among the legacies of the men and women who created modern air power. It’s an incredible experience, and if you haven’t visited, you need to make time to do so. The museum is truly a national treasure, comparable to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

My time spent within the museum has spurred a number of article ideas and projects that I intend to pursue. But before I get into one of them, I’m going to highlight an exciting upcoming event: on 17 May 2018, the museum will unveil the Memphis Belle to the public, the storied B-17 Flying Fortress that became the first U.S. heavy bomber to complete 25 bombing runs over Europe.  The date selected for this is quite purposeful: it will mark the 75th anniversary of the final mission flown by the crew, on 17 May 1943. After months of careful restoration, the Memphis Belle will be presented amid a celebration from the 17th to the 19th.  Check out the official web page, and the flyer below:

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Upcoming/Boeing-B-17F-Memphis-Belle-Exhibit-Opening-May-17-2018/

Memphis Belle Flyer

Apart from this, I’ve started to outline a blog series on airborne (and eventually space-borne) intelligence capabilities. The series is directly inspired by my time in the museum. The collections on display are divided into four massive hangars: Early Years/World War I, Southeast Asia/Korea, Cold War, and the newest, Space/Experimental/Presidential aircraft.  With so much history within its walls, there are countless stories and themes one can explore. My interest in military intelligence has led me to start examining the displays that speak to the evolution of air intelligence capabilities. While there are many intelligence-specific exhibits, I hope to present a cohesive narrative of the milestones that have led to the breathtaking capabilities the US Air Force possesses today, starting with the humble balloon.

 

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US Army aeronaut mockup at Museum of the US Air Force.

More to come.

WEL

*This is a good time to emphasize that, although I am fortunate to volunteer at the Museum of the USAF, I do not represent them. Everything posted to this blog is my opinion and analysis, and in no way represents the Museum.

75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid

In early morning on April 18, 1942, a small Japanese vessel detected a large American

Doolittle Raid Takeoff
” Take off from the deck of the USS HORNET of an Army B-25 on its way to take part in first U.S. air raid on Japan.” Doolittle Raid, April 1942. 80-G-41196. National Archives Identifier: 520603

naval force powering toward Tokyo. That the Americans were intent on attacking the Empire was without question: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, scarcely 4 months prior, was still a recent, searing memory. However, the fleet was still 600 miles from the coast. Because of the limited range of conventional carrier-borne aircraft, detection at such a distance normally would have given the Japanese ample time to intercept the invaders. Yet this invasion was far from conventional.

 

Shortly after detecting the Japanese vessel, 16 highly modified Army Air Forces (AAF) B-25 bombers took off in rapid succession from the USS Hornet. Led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the aircraft skirted over Tokyo at mid-day, dropped their bombs, and egressed toward China without immediate loss. Unable to reach landing strips on mainland China, they were forced to ditch their aircraft. Eight airmen were ultimately captured by the Japanese, with three being executed. One crew, accidentally landing in Russia, were detained there. The rest returned safely.[1]

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17 B-25’s arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 17 April, 2017 as part of the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. They are on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force until 18 April.

April 18th 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of this most amazing military feat. As part of the commemoration, 17 B-25s touched down at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, behind the Museum of the United States Air Force, early this morning on the 17th. I walked among the restored aircraft, took pictures, and marveled at the thought of that daring, and highly symbolic, mission. Doolittle was well aware that the likely impact to Japanese warfighting capability would be limited. But what was important was to show America, her friends, and her enemies that even in the wake of such a disaster as Pearl Harbor, the United States could fight. In that, the mission was a powerful success. Doolittle and his Raiders were instant American heroes, and the commander would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the raid.

The 17 B-25s will be on display through the morning of the 18th. Weather permitting, they will then conduct a flyover of the museum, followed by a memorial service, and then a B-1 Lancer flyover. LtCol Richard E. Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider (he’s 101 years old) plans to attend.

 

[1] Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory, The Army Air Forces in World War II (New York: Random House, 1993) 150-153.).

One of the most frightening and humbling pictures I’ve ever taken (Thoughts on June 6)

The view at low tide, coming from the English Channel, of Utah Beach

I actually get choked up when I look at this picture and think on it. I took it at low tide, at Utah Beach, Normandy, France back in the early 2000s.

Some of you WWII historians might be able to correct me on some details, but the intent of the military planners of Operation OVERLORD was to hit the beaches at high tide. The Germans expected that, of course, so that’s why there were all the obstacles you see in the movies …the iron triangles and such, many of which were rigged with explosives. They were there to impede ingressing amphibious craft, which would find them difficult to detect when they were submerged under the water. So why would you want to hit the beach at high tide? Because otherwise your soldiers, marines, and sailors had this to look forward to: a long stretch of open, wet sand to cross on foot while the Nazis laid down withering machine gun fire, grenades, mines, etc from entrenched positions. Due to some delays, Allied Forces missed high tide, and had to hit the beaches at low tide.

So one day in late May, only a week or so removed from the anniversary date, I found myself in Normandy, France. I walked out at low tide, turned, and tried to imagine jumping off of my Higgins boat, and then racing toward the hardened defenses of Normandy. Take a look and imagine.

It was a humbling experience. God bless those men.

(Originally Posted on The Weathered Journal.)