Fixing Intelligence Analysis: From Specialists to Experts

Fixing Intelligence Analysis: From Specialists to Experts

September 21, 2012


Abstract: The U.S. military’s community of intelligence analysts has not been trained, manned, or resourced to adequately cope with an increasingly demanding set of responsibilities brought on by technological advances and the imperatives of fighting an irregular foe.

The result is a uniformed analytic community that, with some exceptions, lacks institutional expertise and struggles to provide commanders with meaningful intelligence products. Correcting these analytical shortfalls requires the recognition that successful analysts possess a rare skill-set that must be sustained and nurtured over time. The services should create a separate analytical career field with more rigorous selection criteria, tougher schools, and more rewarding billet assignments than those currently available. Personnel with a talent for intelligence should be competitively selected and nurtured throughout their time in uniform. While this will require a significant investment in time and resources, the result will be a highly-proficient analytic community capable of providing greater clarity to commanders and leaders.


In 2010, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) published a now-infamous report entitledFixing Intel, which charged that the American “intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate.” The report recommended the creation of fusion entities called Information Centers. Despite a large pool of available uniformed intelligence personnel from all four services, Fixing Intel nevertheless called for the Centers to be manned by civilian analysts due to their perceived advantages in analytic skills and communications ability. As evidence, the authors cited both their personal wartime experiences and a number of after action reports, including a damning judgment by the XVIII Airborne Corps leadership, which stated that “in an overall intelligence staff of 250…four or five personnel were capable analysts with an aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.”

Perceptions of shortcomings in the military’s analytical community, and the reasons for those shortcomings, are echoed elsewhere. A 2011 assessment of Marine Corps intelligence conducted by the RAND Corporation found that “analysis, much more than collection or production, requires both training and something intrinsic to the Marine that cannot be trained.” One respondent quoted in the study argued that most Marine intelligence specialists “can’t be full-on analysts. They can do data-mining, they can do grunt work, but there needs to be more training and development to make them into true analysts” (p. 73). A senior enlisted Marine instructor at the Corps’ intelligence schoolhouse observed “a trend of deficiencies in regard to the ability of enlisted intelligence Marines to perform analyses, prepare written intelligence reports, conduct Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB), and provide support to planning. …[T]hese career intelligence professionals struggled to provide a realistic analysis of enemy capabilities and how these units might fight.”

Similarly, a monograph produced at the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) examined a variety of Army intelligence training programs and concluded that “analytic training at Huachuca does not produce an analyst with the knowledge competencies needed to fulfill the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s intelligence consumers. …[C]urriculum and doctrine are not on track to meet the needs of the force.”

Problems in the uniformed analytic community stem from an imbalance between what is being asked of analysts and what they have the capacity to deliver. Technological advances and the imperatives of fighting an irregular foe have combined to expand analysts’ responsibilities dramatically without commensurate increases in selection, training, education, or resourcing. The result is a military analytic community that, with some exceptions, lacks institutional expertise and struggles to provide commanders with meaningful intelligence products.

From Specialists to Analysts

Correcting these analytical shortfalls requires the recognition that successful analysts possess a rare skill-set that must be sustained and nurtured over time. The services should begin by acknowledging a fact long obvious to those working within military intelligence. The basic tasks of an intelligencespecialist— plotting positions, sorting message traffic, managing information, and collating raw information—are comparatively easily acquired. Intelligence analysts, on the other hand, must meld experience, critical thinking, and data manipulation to yield multifaceted answers to complex problems. This process resembles art more than science, and the necessary skills are difficult to acquire and maintain. Rather than ask its basically-trained specialists to do the sophisticated work of analysts, as is done today across the services, the military intelligence community should create a separate analytical career field with more rigorous selection criteria, tougher schools, and more rewarding billet assignments. (The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all currently utilize warrant officers as technical experts in the craft of intelligence analysis. Although these officers possess significant knowledge and experience, there are relatively few serving in the operating forces. Due to their seniority these low-density personnel primarily fill supervisory or managerial billets, which limits their ability to focus on analysis. A new specialty for enlisted analysts would provide a much-needed intermediate step between the large population of basically trained entry-level technicians and the exceedingly small population of highly experienced warrant officers.)

Analysis today is viewed by many as occupying the bottom rung of the military intelligence hierarchy, an entry-level specialty that does not require the hard skills or specialized training of the other intelligence disciplines. (Neither the Navy nor Marine Corps refer to their enlisted analytical personnel as analysts, preferring to call them “specialists.” They are expected, however, to be able to conduct and supervise analysis—of the 13 training and readiness tasks mandated for USMC Intelligence Specialists with a few years of experience, 9 involve some form of analysis—so for the purposes of this essay they will be referred to as analysts.) The products analysts produce—primarily PowerPoint presentations and written reports—seem pedestrian in comparison to Full Motion Video (FMV), satellite images, SIGINT reporting, and other more high-tech material. This perception is exacerbated by analysts’ frequent unfamiliarity with the technical aspects of the various collection assets operated by the IC. Although they are charged with the conduct of “all-source fusion,” analytical training on collection methods has not kept pace with the rapid growth of advanced intelligence technologies. As a result, analysts are frequently viewed simply as PowerPoint builders who combine the finished products of other, more technically-adept intelligence personnel. Too often they find themselves biding their time endlessly tinkering with slides or being farmed out to working parties while their peers in the other ‘INTs’ receive advanced training and preferential treatment.

Fixing the current deficits within the military’s analytical community requires a wholesale change in how analysts are selected, trained, and sustained. Accession into the analyst career field should be selective and competitive. Proficient analysts combine a variety of disparate traits that are rare in the general military population. At a minimum, they must be excellent writers and briefers with very good reading comprehension skills and computer literacy. They must also possess a certain degree of intellectual curiosity, a desire to immerse themselves in research and minutiae sufficient to produce expertise. This curiosity cannot be taught and it is not a product of higher education—although pursuit of higher education is perhaps indicative of a certain intellectual propensity—but it is essential to the success of an intelligence analyst. These traits are more essential, certainly, than the factors the military traditionally uses to track and select for job specialties, such as physical fitness and aptitude test scores. Finally, as with certain other intelligence specialties, an analytical career field should primarily be open only to non-commissioned officers and up. Rare exceptions may be made for those with particular qualifications, such as junior enlisted with relevant college degrees, but restricting most accessions to NCOs would help to ensure new analysts possess both maturity and experience when they begin their assignments.

Analysts should be given the opportunity to gain true regional expertise. In proposals, assessments, and various future planning documents, the military often gives lip service to the imperative for regional specialists. Too often the proposed solutions involve offering specialists some meager combination of classes and certifications, provided in small increments so as to minimize the impact on the Operating Forces. While some good may come of these efforts, they will not create regional specialists. There is only one path to genuine area expertise: time spent on the ground in a foreign country. If the military wants area specialists in its intelligence ranks—and it should—then it must make this necessary commitment. Like Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) and Olmsted Scholars, analysts chosen to gain regional expertise should be offered the opportunity to build proficiency in a target language and, just as importantly, be allowed to live abroad for a period of time in a non-military setting. The knowledge they will gain during their hiatus for education will be invaluable. Critical too will be their ability to fill more meaningful billets at other intelligence community (IC) agencies, most of which would not consider adding a regional specialist without a high degree of linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Analysts who do not develop regional expertise should be allowed to specialize in other areas, such as weapons systems or pertinent academic disciplines. School seats for advanced training, knowledge-enhancing temporary duty assignments, and trips to IC conferences and seminars should all be made available to ensure analysts remain current on the latest developments in their fields. Just as with regional experts, analysts with other specialties must be allowed to concentrate on a single area for a considerable portion of their career.

While analysts should be provided educational and training opportunities matching their specialties for the duration of their careers, they must not be restricted solely to performing operational billets in line with their given specialty. The imperatives of military manning, and the necessity to respond to unforeseen contingencies, will dictate otherwise. Even when analysts are placed in billets unrelated to their specialty, however, they will benefit from the skills and knowledge acquired through their focused training and education. Just as it is easier to learn additional languages once you’re already bilingual, the process of building expertise in a specific subject is made less difficult with practice. An analyst who is an expert on air-defense systems will be better suited to understand an insurgent network than an analyst who has never built expertise in any subject. The most important thing is to ensure analysts understand and are given access to the process for gaining expertise, an opportunity most intelligence specialists today are not afforded.


In 1777, George Washington wrote, “the necessity of producing good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged.” Some two centuries later, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf made a similar statement in the aftermath of the first Gulf War: “The great military victory we achieved in Desert Storm…can be directly attributed to the excellent intelligence picture we had.” The necessity for good intelligence has endured throughout history, and accurate analysis will continue to be essential for commanders hoping to succeed as the U.S. transitions from large-scale counterinsurgency to counter-terrorism and ‘AirSea Battle.’ The military’s current system for producing and sustaining analysts, however, has struggled to invest personnel with the skills, training, and opportunities necessary to become world-class in their profession. Those individuals who excel do so in spite of the military’s policies and programs, not because of them.

The creation of a new intelligence analyst career field would help close the gap between the analysis the armed services currently receive and the analysis they seek. Personnel with a talent for intelligence should be competitively selected and nurtured throughout their careers. Significant investments in time and resources will yield a military analytical corps on par with any in the world. The troops on the frontlines, and a nation that implicitly trusts its intelligence professionals, deserve nothing less.