Intelligence : GeoInt Essential for Special Operations

Intelligence : GeoInt Essential for Special Operations


The changing face of warfare has necessitated the need to build Special Operations Forces (SOF). These forces are capable of carrying out missions which are beyond the capacity of conventional forces. For the successful conduct of such missions, SOF require actionable intelligence

While the necessity to move forward quickly on establishing a tri-services special operations command or controlling headquarters that would be responsible for all SOF is inescapable, there is also an urgent need to fully comprehend the capacities required to be developed simultaneously that will ensure our SOF are fully capable of undertaking missions successfully. In this, geoint capabilities are of utmost importance given not only the vast spectrum of operations from counter terror to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) neutralisation that they may be required to undertake but also the time critical nature of their employment.

Before focussing on the requirements of the SOF in this regard, it is best to understand what geoint implies. It has been defined as “actionable knowledge, a process, and a profession. It is the ability to describe, understand and interpret so as to anticipate the human impact of an event or action within a spatiotemporal environment.” In more simplistic terms, in context of the military professional, it is an analysis of data, information, and knowledge gathered about enemies (or potential enemies) for a specific purpose that can be referenced to a particular location on, above, or below the earth’s surface.

SOF carries out high risk high impact missions that are beyond the capacity of conventional forces. These missions can lead to extremely high payoffs and can be game changers if successful. However, they are not only time critical but also require specific and specialised intelligence inputs that are not of critical concern either to in SOF carries out high risk high impact missions that are beyond the capacity of conventional forces. These missions can lead to extremely high payoffs and can be game changers if successful. However, they are not only time critical but also require specific and specialised intelligence inputs that are not of critical concern either to intelligence agencies or political and military hierarchies under normal circumstances. It is axiomatic therefore that the more extensive the availability of ‘actionable intelligence’, the more accurate and detailed the planning process and higher the chances of success. This also enables the SOF and military leadership to better understand the consequences and implications of the mission being planned so that the political hierarchy can make reasoned judgments and give executive decisions within the required time frame.

SOF and the US

To understand how geoint capability has become essential in SOF operations, it would be illuminating to focus on the US capability as it is undoubtedly the best in terms of funding, technology and mission profiles. The least known and most classified unit within the realm of the US Special Operations is the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), a small, highly trained and capable intelligence unit that operates under the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This secretive unit tends to regularly change its designation, it was known as ‘Gray Fox’ till the Iraq invasion and is now reportedly known as ‘Ranger1’. Despite very limited information on the subject available in the public domain, some historical and operational details have emerged that give some idea as to their organisation and tasking. The ISA’s origins are in the Field Operations Group (FOG) that was set up within the US Special Forces in the 1979 (after Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown) for the purpose of surveying the US embassy. Operators from the unit entered Nicaragua using false passports, and proceeded to photograph the embassy from every angle, record the types of locks on all doors, inside and outside, record the number of exits and windows, and finally drew up the internal layout of the building. The survey was successful, which led defence officials to create an ad hoc Special Forces unit to survey US embassies in hotspots around the world so as to ensure suitable data was available if any counter terror intervention was ever required to be undertaken.

After the abortive rescue attempt during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, a second operation was set in motion. However, in order to deal with the intelligence failures noticed in the earlier operation and to ensure sufficient actionable intelligence was available to the SOF, FOG was expanded and made into a 100 man unit, with USD 7 million budget under Colonel Jerry King. In view of its growing importance, it was renamed as the ISA. It has subsequently been involved in a number of missions that have involved SOF led actions worldwide. It is rumoured that the ISA has played a key role in a number of high profile operations over the years such as the assassination of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1989, the abortive attempt to capture Farah Aidid in Somalia (the famous Black Hawk down incident), the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and also in the recent killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. There are unconfirmed reports that state that in ‘Operation Neptune Spear’, its team members were in a safe house down the street from the Osama compound. They were the ones who figured figured out that the house had no telephone or internet connection and also confirmed his presence in the house. They cut the power to the neighborhood, disabled the phone lines, and jammed all cell phone communications while SEAL Team 6 was inbound to carry out the mission.

The unit is presently organised into administration, training, SIGINT, HUMINT and direct action elements. The force is supposedly around 250-275 operators, who excel in intelligence gathering, languages and electronic surveillance. It is said to operate in three components of which one is embedded with the US Rapid Deployment Forces under XVIII Airborne Corps, the second component is embedded with the US Special Operations Command and the third component meant primarily for ‘black’ operations functions either independently or in conjunction with the CIA’s paramilitary Special Operations Group or Delta Force. The direct action element reportedly trains with Delta Force and DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6) to maintain their skills. It also has its own air assets for ELINT and EW operations and is directly linked to the NSA and the DIA which provide embedded elements real-time electronic and satellite information. The effectiveness of this organisation has resulted in the UK establishing a similar organisation, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) and the 18th Signal Regiment.

The Indian Scenario
In the context of India’s SOF, the unified headquarters apart from being responsible for the range of military units that it has such as the Parachute Brigade, PARA, PARA (SF), MARCOS and GARUD along with special operations air assets belonging to the army and the air force must also be responsible for counter terrorism operations. In this context, the elements of the National Security Guard (NSG) other than the Special Ranger Groups (SRG) should also be placed under command of this headquarter. The SRG’s should be located regionally under respective State Police so that they are able to respond and provide the outer cordon within an acceptable time frame. Their selection and training can however continue to be organised at the NSG Training Centre at Manesar.

In addition, a suitable composite communication and intelligence unit with the requisite capability to not only provide secure communications to units and detachments but also to carry out signal intelligence, cell phone interception, tracking and jamming along with direct access and linkages to the NTRO and DIA must be established on lines similar to what the US and UK have. It must also have suitable geoint analysts on its rolls. Such a capability will enable our SOF to be provided with specific actionable real-time intelligence of the type they require to carry out their missions effectively. Such a suitably tailored geoint capability with a responsive chain of command capable of providing advice to the political and military hierarchy at the highest levels will help develop an environment in which critical politico- military decisions can be taken with confidence and executed successfully in a timely manner.

1. Bacastow, T.S, and Bellafiore, D.J; Redefining Geospatial Intelligence; American Intelligence Journal, Fall 2009, Pp 38-40
2. Schroder, Ed; Duty Honor Country: Kill Capture or do Nothing; Damnation Books LLC; 2013