A New Trinity May Be the Future of Intelligence

September 1, 2016
By Michael Del Vecchio and Aaron Moore

Big data, sensors and cyber could help the United States recapture its information superiority.

The emergence of cyber as a battlespace domain has changed the formula for intelligence gathering as well as warfighting. No longer can any form of the traditional intelligence architecture guarantee national security superiority. Just as weapon systems needed to accommodate new technologies, the intelligence community now must leverage the trinity of sensors, big data and cyber. 

Global networks supporting commerce and government have shifted quickly to agile, mobile, network-based technologies and applications as cyber has transitioned from cable-bound actors to radio frequency (RF) free-rangers. Unfortunately, current and planned intelligence acquisitions will not deliver the capabilities the United States needs fast enough to tackle rapidly emerging cyberthreats. A new intelligence strategy is required to achieve global information dominance. This strategy must converge multiple dimensions of the Internet to detect global changes for indications and warning and to exploit, correlate, track and target threats in real time in both cyberspace and the battlespace. Only this will enable the United States to maintain its superpower edge and reverse adversaries’ asymmetric advantages in cyberspace. 

The industrial base’s knowledge can help develop and create a new technology-converged intelligence enterprise in the next decade that will re-establish U.S. information and intelligence superiority. The country must act immediately and in earnest to advance the national intelligence mission or risk losing the diminishing margin of dominance it now has to prosecute national interests.

A national effort will be needed to tap these advances in intelligence. The ability of emerging forms of intelligence to perceive the environment appears to be neither constrained by time nor circumscribed by distance. Every lightwave, every thermal and sound wave, every frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum, the most delicate of vibrations and even the movement of photons and particles at the quantum level do not escape its notice. It can digitize matter, store data and perfectly recall every piece of information it gathers. It can make decisions at a rate approaching the speed of light. 

Any national effort must mandate leveraging breakthroughs in cyber, network and sensor technologies in a converged environment. The goal is supremacy in global information dominance to support foreign policy and the military lever of national power that can be used to political or kinetic advantage. Achieving asymmetric superiority has strategic implications for the United States should the country embrace it. It could establish the measure of U.S. intelligence dominance for the next generation, provide the functional underpinning of the Defense Department’s third offset strategy—which aims to outmaneuver adversaries through technological advances—and perhaps provide a modern definition of superpower.

The rapid convergence of control, communications and statistical theory—the three major tributaries of the digital age—has raised the technical maturity and sophistication of other nations’ military and intelligence services and created a watershed moment for U.S. national security. Open source development, hyperconnectivity, ubiquitous access to high-performance computing, widespread knowledge of information system vulnerabilities and inexpensive storage have eroded the protective levees—such as proprietary solutions and intellectual property protections—that the country once relied on to maintain warfighting dominance and to create sanctuaries for its most fragile intelligence sources. The proliferation of sensors and the realization of a global Internet of Things (IoT) threaten the capacity to project national power surreptitiously and decisively. Deep and dark web resources accessed by criminal gangs and intelligence operatives using darknet technologies have undermined the United States’ ability to covertly prosecute interests around the globe. 

The inexorable force of this evolutionary technological current is formidable, and the nation is powerless to change its course. To secure its future, the United States will have to harness its power. The trinity approach aims to leverage the trends of big sensor, big data and big cyber to boost national power projection. 

Big sensor refers to the U.S. investment in sensors, sensor platforms, national technical means and the extension of the global concept of the IoT into 3-D space. Outer space contains about 1,100 active satellites, both government- and privately owned, and growing. The OneWeb project alone envisions a constellation of approximately 700 satellites and is expected to provide affordable global Internet broadband service to individual mobile consumers as early as 2019. Samsung has proposed a constellation of 4,600 satellites orbiting at about 1,400 kilometers (900 miles) that could bring 200 gigabytes of Internet data per month to 5 billion people. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) SeeMe program aims to give U.S. warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond-line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will allow small squads and individual teams to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite with the press of a button—something that today’s military or commercial satellites cannot do. Many of these systems also will provide other sensing capabilities. 

The world is flooded with image-producing sensors. In 2014, more than 245 million professionally installed video surveillance cameras were active and operational around the globe. In 2013, the United Kingdom boasted one camera for every 11 people, and Asia is projected to account for 68 percent of the installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) base by the end of the year. Many of these cameras have active and/or passive infrared (IR) capabilities for low-light video capture. Some are motion-triggered, wireless and accessible online. Add to that the billions of iPhones, GoPro cameras and other nonprofessionally installed, networked cameras or drones moving annotated and geotagged high-resolution, full-motion color video around the Internet. 

The big sensor concept is that the world, from the bottom of the sea to the vast reaches of outer space, is being instrumented by us and for us and that those devices are moving information in an ever-more-networked environment to data ingest points. It is at this juncture where the idea of big data comes into play.

In the trinity, big data is much more than the cloud and cloud analytics. Big data attempts to capture the transcendental nature of data as illustrated by the creation of new forms of imagery. These range from geotagged tweets to the use of humans and wearable technology in measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT). Big data extends the idea of cognition in a machine sense to enable selection of the optimal decision maker in a cyber-human team. It can determine which activities and responses are done best by automation and those where human deliberation is necessary. Then, it can create a synchronized reasoning and action chain that extends the human’s objectives and turns a cyber-human response into a set of instructions relevant to a picosecond environment. Big data can orchestrate data from sensors and actuators in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operation to enable a nonkinetic effect or to thwart an adversary’s ability to make decisions. Above all, big data is the intelligence that drives big cyber. 

Big cyber is about control and effects. It takes the intelligence created by big data and encapsulates the appropriate control mechanisms to influence what happens in the physical, temporal and logical domains for entities on the Internet. It influences U.S. opponents by creating perceptions through the controlled manipulation of what their sensors collect, the data they produce and the time it takes to deliver that data to their discernment systems. Big cyber manages the command and control sequences required to change the physical environment and mitigate the barriers to using ISR devices and enhancing their sensitivity. It leverages sensors and big data to institute a global software-defined supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system—trinity. 

The trinity approach, through a combination of indigenous commercial and national or Defense Department systems, will provide real-time intelligence support to the warfighter. It will synchronize nonkinetic capabilities with operational objectives precisely and on a global scale at a fraction of the cost of current acquisitions. It will provide the most advanced commercially available technologies to decision makers without having to wait on the defense procurement process. Its leveraging of commercial technologies is inherently resilient, and as a result, its technical baseline and capabilities never will become obsolete. Much of its operations and maintenance tail is borne by the end users of data and sensor devices, making this methodology easy on the budget. 

The convergence of cyber, network and sensor technologies at the heart of the trinity approach establishes asymmetric superiority and exploits multiple dimensions of the Internet—at net speed. It would provide the United States a clear edge in asymmetric qualitative and quantitative intelligence and information dominance that even the most sophisticated adversary could not match for another generation. In war, and before a conflict even erupts, such capabilities would permit real-time situational awareness; provide indication and warning of adversary intentions and actions; exploit adversary networks; compress the time between policy and action to affect an adversary’s perception and will; and sow friction, confusion and operational paralysis to blunt adversary offensive capabilities or influence intent so that it aligns with U.S. policy without hostilities. 

Such convergence would give the United States unprecedented agility in both cyberspace and battlespace by eliminating the adversary decision cycle, enabling a precise, streamlined, instantaneous U.S. response to shape perception or act broadly with maximum effect. As it diverges from a singular strategic emphasis on kinetic-based action, the United States must prepare to win the coming cyber wars and the cyber- and sensor-enabled kinetic wars of the future. It can do so only with superb semiautonomous intelligence built into its informational and operational foundation.


Michael Del Vecchio is corporate director of intelligence programs for Northrop Grumman Corporation. Aaron Moore is a cyber and intelligence solutions architect for Northrop Grumman. The views expressed here are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Northrop Grumman.

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