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Knowledge as Power

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

John Keegan.
Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to al-Qaeda.
Knopf. 387 pages. $30.00

John keegan may be the best-known military historian of our age. Certainly he is the most widely read. The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and The Price of Admiralty are classics, must-reads for anyone serious about studying the history of warfare. Probably every serious student of warfare has read his work and has benefited from the experience.

This is why it’s sad to report that his most recent book, Intelligence in War, is not a success. Its conclusions do not follow from his findings, and a fundamental flaw in the analysis undercuts his central thesis. As a whole, his arguments are not convincing.

According to Keegan, the common wisdom today is that intelligence is all-important in warfare. Keegan disagrees. He argues that intelligence is really just one of many factors that decide who wins and who loses on the battlefield, and usually not the most important one. His objective in writing this book “is to demonstrate that intelligence, however good, is not necessarily the means to victory; that, ultimately, it is force, not fraud or forethought, that counts.” Keegan goes on to observe:

That is not the currently fashionable view. Intelligence superiority, we are constantly told, is the key to success in war, particularly in the war against terrorism. It is indisputably the case that to make war without the guidance that intelligence can give is to strike in the dark, to blunder about, launching blows that do not connect with the target or miss the target altogether. . . . [T]he better informed will probably fight on more advantageous terms. Yet, having admitted the significance of the pre-vision intelligence provides, it still has to be recognized that opposed enemies, if they really do seek battle, will succeed in finding each other and that, when they do, intelligence factors rarely determine the outcome. Intelligence may be usually necessary but not a sufficient condition of victory.

As he puts it succinctly, “War is ultimately about doing, not thinking.” He dissects several battles from Napoleon’s time to the end of the Cold War to show how any number of factors — a new technology, tactical brilliance, or sheer luck — might have been responsible for the outcome of a battle. He argues that, had any of these factors been different, the battle might have ended differently. In some cases, commanders were brilliant in their use of information. But, more often than not, victory goes to the army that was stronger, more determined, or more desperate. There is no silver bullet.

If this is so, then why have so many officials — or, for that matter, military commanders — been so apt to say that intelligence is vital? The reason, argues Keegan, lies in the nature of warfare itself. War is so awful that commanders are always looking for an alternative to its most grisly form, war by attrition, where one army simply tries to wear down its opponent before it gets worn down itself. Intelligence often seems to offer an alternative, writes Keegan, and so commanders try to get as much of it as they can.

 

Some reviewers of Intelligence in War in the popular media have latched on to passages such as those quoted above and reported (in so many words) that John Keegan has demonstrated that intelligence is not as important as the common wisdom believes. One wonders, though, whether they have read the book carefully, because anyone who reviews Keegan’s case studies (which, as usual, are well written) could argue exactly the opposite.

For example, Keegan shows how Stonewall Jackson was able to elude and stall a much stronger Union force as long as he was able to exploit his superior knowledge of the local terrain. Eventually the Federals ground down the Confederates. Keegan offers this as evidence that intelligence does not overcome superior conventional military power. But this seems to miss the larger truth — the fact that Jackson overcame the correlation of forces, albeit temporarily, precisely because he had the intelligence edge. As long as he had better intelligence, he won. When he lost the intelligence advantage, he lost the battle. Isn’t this an argument for the importance of intelligence?

Similarly, Keegan devotes a chapter to the cruiser war between Britain and Germany in the southern oceans during World War i. He explains how radio — “wireless” — enabled the Royal Navy to transmit intelligence and other information to ships over vast distances. When intelligence was effective, the British were able to corner and destroy their adversary. When intelligence was ineffective, the Germans were able to evade their enemy. Keegan presents these facts, but they don’t seem to affect his overall conclusions about the importance of intelligence.

Keegan concedes he has not focused on intelligence previously. His resume includes a long stint as lecturer at Sandhurst, the British counterpart to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and as the defense editor of London’s Daily Telegraph. In his previous books, he benefited from living in a military environment and meeting many people who had taken part in combat. In this book, Keegan acknowledges that he is not an intelligence specialist and that his prior exposure to the intelligence profession was minimal.

Indeed, Keegan notes that because of his civil service status, his superiors discouraged him from associating with British intelligence officers. His meetings with intelligence officials as a reporter were through the so-called informal channels that were, in reality, officially sanctioned by both his editors and the intelligence services so that each could benefit from the other. To read his account, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer apparently tried one time to recruit him as an asset (i.e., a paid operative). Keegan declined the pitch.

Yet the largest problem with Keegan’s analysis isn’t a lack of experience in the field. It results from a failure of historical method, which makes it even more painful to point out. Keegan ends his case studies at precisely at the point in time when intelligence became more important than ever to warfare. Despite the book’s subtitle, it really ends with World War ii. The analysis of Cold War intelligence is brief, and the analysis of intelligence in the war on terrorism is briefer still.

Keegan devotes just two pages to Operation Desert Storm. Many experts believe the first Gulf War was the first true “information age” conflict, in which Iraq fielded a classic twentieth-century army and the United States fought with a twenty-first-century army. Keegan brushes off the war as insignificant, saying that it was a case in which Iraq’s army, “more concerned to surrender than to stand its ground, cannot really be said to have given battle at all.”

That’s rewriting history. Has Keegan forgotten the warnings by congressional opponents to the war who predicted tens of thousands of body bags? Prior to the war, many experts feared that the U.S.-led coalition would suffer heavy casualties. Iraq had one of the largest arsenals of artillery and armor in the world, and Iraqi engineers were considered to be experts in fortification.

Yet the coalition won easily. Why? The most telling feature of the victory was that Iraq had just succeeded in wearing down its neighbor, Iran, to a stalemate in one of the most costly wars of the century. The U.S. edge over Iraq — and the most important difference between the U.S. forces and those of Iran — was its use of information technology, including intelligence.

 

To his credit, Keegan understands that what is commonly called “intelligence” is really just one of many components of a mix of information commanders rely on. Other forms of information include maps and weather forecasts, which have historically been so hard to come by that they have been put into the same pot as intelligence. For example, the National Geospatial Information Agency, the first intelligence agency totally devoted to digital intelligence, was until recently the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

Keegan, using his distinctive style to put the reader in the shoes of the combatant, does a great job of illustrating how for much of history military commanders have been in a virtual information vacuum. Warships rarely fought far from shore until the late 1800s, he reports, for example, because they simply would not know where they were. The British had good maps in the 1800s, but they were the exception. Tactical intelligence consisted of whatever information small, fast forces (on land, scouts on horseback; at sea, frigates sailing ahead of battle fleets) could collect when probing the enemy.

Because Keegan appreciates all this, it is puzzling that he does not see how the huge, rapid changes in information technology that changed industry and society during the 1980s and 1990s also made Desert Storm so different from wars that came before. For example, armies have used flanking maneuvers for centuries in attempts to turn the corner on their opponents. But it was satellite-based intelligence, satellite-based weather forecasts, and, most especially, satellite-based navigation information technology that made the coalition’s “Left Hook” feasible and effective.

All these advantages were in even greater evidence during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Operation Iraqi Freedom the following year. The ability to collect data, put it into digital form, and insert it into the electronic brain of a missile or bomb is today a decisive American advantage that has changed the nature of warfare. The numbers are irrefutable. Fifty years ago the probability of one tank destroying another tank with a single round was no better than 20 percent. The probable circular error of a bomb dropped from an aircraft flying at 25,000 feet hitting its target was measured in miles. Today the single shot kill probability is about 90 percent. Similarly, the probability of a gps-guided bomb hitting its target after being dropped from high altitude is about 80 percent, a laser-guided bomb slightly better.

With today’s weapons, hitting your target is a virtual certainty — that is, if you know its true location. That’s why intelligence is essential to the new equation of warfare. With intelligence, modern weapons are incredibly lethal. Without intelligence, they are impotent. In fact, digital intelligence is so important that usually the best way to neutralize an adversary is to destroy or disrupt his electronic information links.

Guerrilla warfare (such as we are seeing in Iraq today) may seem to discredit the modern approach to warfare, and thus the importance of intelligence, but this is not so. The new technology is at least as important in so-called low intensity conflict as in major war. The key to effective guerrilla warfare is to neutralize the advantage of a technologically superior adversary by evading its intelligence systems. Often high technology systems can be defeated with low technology countermeasures. And today guerrilla forces (like terrorists, rogue states, and other potential adversaries) can buy much of the technology for modern warfare off the shelf.

But that’s an argument for the importance of intelligence, not for the importance of brute force, and one can take the argument even further. Information technology has transformed guerrilla warfare even more than large-scale “major war.” In the past, guerrilla forces could operate only on their home turf (as in Vietnam, Algeria, and Palestine) or nearby (as when the Irish Republican Army bombed English targets in the early 1900s). Thanks to global information networks, today guerrilla forces can deploy worldwide and still have each cell able to communicate with all other cells. The cells can blend into the countryside, so usually the only way to destroy the network is to penetrate the information links — that is, by collecting intelligence.

Keegan can draw upon a lifetime of studying armed conflict, and the facts of battles from ancient times to recent times fall readily to his mind. Alas, Keegan’s strength is also his curse. His approach — deconstructing a big event into many small events — inevitably leads to a conclusion that is almost a tautology.

Because intelligence was always just one of many factors, it is hard ever to make a case that it was the most important one. No serious military analyst believes that for want of a nail a kingdom was lost, and using this method, no one is going to believe that for want of intelligence, a battle was lost (or won).