Monday, September 08, 2008

The Success of the "Fusion Center" Strategy by Douglas Farah

After a few years in the wilderness, the U.S. military and its allies in other parts of the world have honed the cutting edge of a significant series of steps that are yielding highly successful results in combatting non-state armed groups-including terrorists, not just in Iraq but in Colombia and elsewhere.

The Washington Post’s recent story on the “fusion cells” gets at the core of the program: The integration and blending of field intelligence (human and signal) with the ability to act rapidly on that information.

The NSA targeted its listening operations, the Treasury Department began tracing anything to do with money and Special Operations Forces, with the help of the latest technology and imaging capabilities, carry out the operations.

“To me, it’s not just war-fighting now but in the future,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the newspaper. “It’s been the synergy, it’s been the integration that has had such an impact.”

One of the keys has been the ability, over time, to force the sharing of a range of skills in a single unit, so that the traditional segregation and stove pipes have ended. The value of tracing even useless-looking information, particularly from the “pocket litter” of those captured or killed, has proved itself on many occasions.

While this is integration is a fact at the level of these small task forces, it remains far from accomplished on broad level. In fact, much of the upper tiers of the intelligence community are just as resistant to change and perhaps less inclined to share intelligence than 9-11.

But the success of fusing all elements of intelligence and force to capture often elusive enemies is not just evident in Iraq. In its own way, the Colombian military and policy have been on the cutting edge of the program in combatting the FARC.

Just as downward spirals become visible after years failure, so upward spirals in intelligence gathering and successful attacks on the enemy also take time to become visible and measurable.

The impact in Colombia, where such fusion centers have been experimented with since 2003, has suddenly been felt.

When he took office, president Alvaro Uribe met with the heads of intelligence from the three military branches and the National Police. His message was simple, according to participants in the meeting: “If I find that anyone of you has withheld a piece of information that could have helped anyone else, you will be fired.” And then heads started to roll.

The results were dramatic, as the elements fell into place. A systematic data base of FARC interrogations was established, interrogations were improved, and integrated intelligence units established. The U.S. provided the technical assistance to track an increasingly-wide swath of FARC communications. A major rewards program was developed to induce desertions.

If communications or other intelligence was actionable, special integrated units moved on it. The interrogations yielded the first serious look at the FARC and its operations the military had ever had, despite being at war for more than 40 years. Slowly the downward spiral, where the FARC had military defeated the military in major battles and controlled more than 40 percent of the national territory, was reversed.

This year, as a result of these and other factors, the FARC has lost two of its top seven commanders on the battlefield (and its overall commander to a heart attack), seen its high-value hostages rescued in a dramatic operation, witnessed the desertion of several hundred mid-level commanders, and been forced to ditch their satellite telephones in favor of couriers hand-carrying messages among the different fronts. Not an ideal way to run a war, given the distances among the fronts and high command.

In Iraq, one sees the downward spiral of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the model is slowly being transferred to Afghanistan and elsewhere. Afghanistan is a more difficult situation because of the NATO command structure and other elements.

It is clear that the terrorist and insurgent forces will adapt, they always do. But it seems likely that, for the first time in many years, the military has placed itself in the position to adapt and change almost as quickly.

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