Knowledge Is Power for INDOPACOM
A broad range of intelligence information would be available to nontraditional customers.
Making more intelligence available to a wider range of customers, including the general public, is a major goal of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s intelligence directorate. This represents a bit of a departure from the traditional role of limiting intelligence information to only decision makers and warfighters, and it acknowledges the strategic importance of information in the public realm.
This move would transition intelligence from a supporting role in the military world to a direct weapon in the unclassified domain. With China moving more aggressively in international affairs, information operations fueled by sanitized intelligence material could bring public opinion to bear against surreptitious moves that China seeks to keep hidden until they bear fruit.
Meanwhile, the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) continues to face traditional intelligence challenges against a rogue’s gallery of threats ranging from peer competitors to terrorist groups. Those threats are not fading but instead are honing their expertise to try to disrupt the U.S. security and economic growth model that has brought increasing prosperity throughout most of the vast region.
Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, USN, is the director for intelligence (J-2) at INDOPACOM. He describes his primary thrust as making the command’s intelligence more available to a broader audience. This will require protecting methods and source material so the intelligence will be actionable in the information domain, “where it can have powerful effects,” he says. “As we deal with our biggest strategic challenge, the intelligence community needs to be more comfortable operating in that unclassified information domain to be able to actually share with the public, in many cases to expose the truth, about what China is doing and put checks on its behavior and condition it to operate within a rules-based system.”
He continues that it is necessary to adopt a macro view of intelligence sharing for INDOPACOM to be able to compete. “This means getting in the arena, getting dust and blood on our faces, and actually contributing to the struggle for what we believe in—our values and the rule-based system that allow people to prosper all over the planet.” China and Russia both are propounding a different worldview, and countering it will require “a little more risk-taking” for how INDOPACOM uses its information for immediate effects.
The admiral says he believes the command has the authorities and the ability to modify some aspects of its processes so the directorate could release a significant amount of intelligence. This information would have plausible cover from other sources so it could be shared quickly enough to make a difference, he offers.
“In some cases, the information could be used for quiet conversations with key influencers in key places,” Adm. Studeman suggests. He notes that intelligence provided to officials in El Salvador helped derail Chinese efforts to plant an economic foothold in that country through access to El Salvadoran bases. The public debate generated by the ambassador applied pressure that eventually led to the Chinese effort being thwarted.
“We need to intensify intelligence support to messaging and influence in general,” he declares. “That’s one of the areas that will receive increased emphasis from me—what we are doing to make sure we can actually engage whomever we need to to describe and expose what pernicious actors are doing—and then to be able to ensure that the truth of what’s happening is something that people are aware of, and then they can respond too. It’s not just Americans, it’s others that we need to enable to make good decisions to deal with the national security environment out here.”
Adm. Studeman relates that intelligence experts have been following China’s rise closely since the late 1990s. Many in the community read Chinese writings and knew that events would lead to the current environment, although it took a lot of convincing to bring others along to this view. He notes that the command did not have the equivalent of a post-9/11 overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding source for significant upgrades beyond baseline resources. Some additional resource support is coming to INDOPACOM, he allows, but the command must significantly upgrade “across the board” if it is to pursue the goals of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.
“The intelligence mission always had the China account robustly followed,” the admiral asserts. “But the sheer number of demands on intelligence today vastly exceed what our baseline is, and so we’re in the process of looking at a number of different things, including manpower, to re-envision how we ought to be operating our J-2 JIOC [Joint Intelligence Operations Center] out here.”
An increasing number of U.S. partners are “rightly suspicious” of Chinese power and how the country is exerting it, the admiral warrants. China’s increasingly frequent use of coercion and interference in others’ sovereign matters are examples of “a new form of arrogance and the use of a combination of soft, hard and sharp power” that have created more intelligence sharing opportunities in the region for INDOPACOM.
“We have been able to have very open conversations about the naked use of power, whether on the economic, military, diplomatic or informational fronts,” the admiral relates. “So the good guys are coming together as a result of very clear dangers that are posed by the Chinese way of governing and how they like to see the world order shift. The Chinese are driving partners into our arms,” he declares.
This is happening from Pacific island nations all the way west to India, and he describes it as a function of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. A lack of patience on the part of the current Chinese government coupled with a misassessment of international conditions has contributed to this drive, he says. Chinese leaders misapprehended the dynamics of the 2008 financial crisis by believing it was evidence of a permanent U.S. decline. “They were rushing history,” Adm. Studeman charges.
Consequently, China initiated a fear spiral. Southeast Asian nations are arming themselves, and many U.S. allies and partners that cannot agree with the Chinese view of shaping the future are demonstrating more backbone. “What you’ll see is a number of friends and partners that will be clustering for warmth with the United States and our allies as we move forward,” the admiral predicts. “The Chinese have made a big strategic error, all driven by Xi Jinping and the superhawks in Beijing.”
Adm. Studeman emphasizes that the INDOPACOM J-2 has not traded other areas for a focus on China. The command remains vigilant for problems with the Korean peninsula, Russia and terrorism. “Those accounts haven’t gone away,” he asserts.
The recent dispute that led to South Korea’s decision not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan has not stopped intelligence sharing among the two nations and the United States, Adm. Studeman says. Trilateral arrangements ensure continued cooperation among the three, he emphasizes. “We are continuing on with high-fidelity sharing in a timely fashion on everything that is happening on the [Korean] peninsula, including the latest [short-range ballistic missile] tests and what they mean.”
In the Philippines, U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific is advising and assisting the government in counterterrorism, and this effort includes “pretty exquisite intelligence sharing,” the admiral offers. INDOPACOM strongly supports efforts under development at the Counterterrorism Information Facility (CTIF) intelligence fusion center in Singapore, a multinational facility that emphasizes greater sharing on a variety of foreign terrorist movements and activities in the Indo-Pacific region. Several Southeast Asian nations will contribute to CTIF, he adds.
When it comes to intelligence collection and sharing, Adm. Studeman describes the command as “delighted at times, but never satisfied” with either area. His office must spend “a significant amount of time” working in both areas. Issues include the intelligence target and the challenge to information sharing.
In terms of the overall threat picture—North Korea, China, Russia, terrorism—time is of the essence, Adm. Studeman offers. Preventing a fait accompli requires being able to sense, maneuver and act in time to alter an outcome in favor of the United States and to the disadvantage of the adversary, he relates. “So, speed is everything.”
This becomes all the more vital with the vast distances posed by the Indo-Pacific region. The command has many intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and it must provide as much lead time as possible, both to major decision makers and to individual warfighters. “If there is a successful military offensive that China, for example, expects to be quick-flare short-burn, resulting in a change of facts on the ground that may represent an inability of the United States and its allies to respond in time to protect what we’ve sworn to protect, then that erodes our strategic credibility and changes dynamics here in ways that may affect us for many years to come,” he posits. “The stakes are much higher with some of the contingency scenarios that we have to plan for and be ready to deal with.”
Overall, the most daunting challenge facing the INDOPACOM J-2 is to be able to collect necessary data, process it at speed and deliver it to the right customer—whether for decision making or shooting, the admiral states.
One issue that concerns the J-2 is the directorate’s readiness to continue fulfilling its mission in stressful environments, the admiral admits. “If we had to deal with the worst-case situations, are we fully ready to transition into crisis in combat?” he asks. “That requires you to think differently and prepare differently, and we have done some of that here.” While that preparation has been ongoing for several years, the directorate must ensure that it is ready at a moment’s notice and can imagine where great-state friction can lead—and is prepared to deal with it, he asserts.
This new age, with adversaries possessing high-end, modernized militaries, requires the ability to move intelligence data through a system comprising slow legacy pieces and faster new capabilities. “Moving data quickly, aggregating it using cloud technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be important for us as we move into the future,” he states. The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center is performing good research, he notes, but the front end piece requires a lot of work.
“It is not easy to take diverse data sets and to be able to normalize that data, mash it up and be able to derive meaning through its connectedness to other dots for us to make good decisions from a variety of different sources out there,” the admiral points out. “That element of our business line needs to evolve very quickly to meet our needs on the front end here.”
In addition to technologies that will enable rapid data processing and dissemination, the directorate wants a condition in which it has a person on the loop rather than in the loop. Describing this as a critical need, Adm. Studeman explains it also requires data scientists and behavioral experts that understand various dimensions of the environment. “We don’t tend to grow folks that have anthropological behavioral expertise, but it’s in great need,” he says.
Also needed are economists who can foresee security threats from economic issues before they emerge, he continues. This entails understanding how which investments are being made in which areas, along with the types of contracts and their features that are being signed. These trends usually are leading indicators of Chinese interests and strategies, especially with regard to debt diplomacy. “Those are increasingly important areas to understand,” the admiral states. “They allow us time to be able to respond across the board.
“So I wish I had a cadre of folks who are more steeped in the economic side of the house,” he concludes.