Sunday, 9 February 2014

The #Russians are coming!

In Parliament this week the Secretary of State for Defence updated the House of Commons about the recent incident with the presence of Russian vessels off the Scottish coast line over the Christmas period. This was originally something which people tried to turn into political capital against the RN, suggesting that somehow the UK was no longer a relevant power because the nearest frigate was sent up from Portsmouth and not Faslane, and that because there was not an MPA anymore, it wasn’t possible to monitor the Russians effectively.(The link to the debate is HERE)

This week it was revealed that actually the Russian presence had been long anticipated, through a combination of liaison and intelligence sharing with our allies, and also through open source media, including Twitter. The Russian Navy apparently operates a PR feed through twitter and reportedly announced the vessels deployment this way (although Humphrey was unable to find the one most likely to be it). The reaction in the UK through some papers was one of ridicule and barely concealed amusement that the once mighty Royal Navy and UK was now reduced to watching Twitter to know when the Russians would be coming.

By contrast Humphrey is of the view that this sort of announcement is an excellent indication of the value of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) in helping to build a picture of our understanding of what is going on in the world, and in showing how the UK is able to adapt to changing technology. At its heart, intelligence is fundamentally about providing decision makers with an assessment based on the materials available to you, often of varying provenance and reliability, about the likely intentions or actions of another power. During the Cold War, the UK and other nations invested huge amounts of time, resource and risk in monitoring what was going on in the Northern Fleet. One only has to read books like ‘Hunter Killers’ by Ian Ballantyne (Kindle link here) to get an idea of what Royal Navy submarines may have done during the Cold War.

Let’s consider for a moment how thirty years ago the RN would have had to have found out about this deployment. Either through use of vessels observing discretely (and possibly in harms way), or through the use of other more covert assets like overhead imagery or maybe human intelligence. This would have been fused together to provide a judgement that the Kuznetzov was to deploy, and her likely course would have taken her close to UK waters .The resulting material would have been extremely highly classified as a result, reducing those who could see it, and also restricting the choices on how to react to it. One of the challenges of handling highly sensitive intelligence sources is that it is very easy to compromise them – if the RN had found out that a deployment was occurring and sailed to intercept, then the resulting Soviet (as was) investigation could have compromised the source of material and blocked future such results. In other words, even if we did know what was going on, our ability to respond to it and action it was itself often constrained.

How the game is traditionally played!

By contrast, Twitter and the internet have changed how the game is played forever. Suddenly it is possible to get a very open flow of usable reporting which can be used to build a baseline level of knowledge and information. It may not have the allure of being super-secret intelligence reporting, but arguably the sort of information that is seen daily on Twitter would thirty years ago have been classed as ‘TOP SECRET UK EYES ONLY’ and treated as the crown jewels of reporting. This is not to say that Twitter and other feeds should somehow replace the intelligence community, but it does allow a chance to find out valuable information, often that you would not otherwise have picked up on, and also to make it usable information that can make a battle winning difference. For instance, friends of the authors described how during OP TELIC they were able to get commercial satellite imagery provided to them on laminated maps. This may not sound like much, but at the time this was when imagery like Google earth was in its infancy and the ability to get up to date usable maps was very limited other than through scarce and highly sensitive overhead assets, which in turn couldn't produce material for use on the front line for fear of compromise. But, by relying on tasking commercial satellites, it was possible to get perfectly good imagery which provided an up to date and completely unclassified document for use by the troops. Similarly, Humphrey has come across websites built using Google Earth which provided a complete and completely unclassified breakdown of the Russian Air Defence network – something which a few years ago would have been impossible to do without relying on overhead imagery and which again would have been classed as TOP SECRET BURN BEFORE READING.

So, one key  lesson that should be drawn from this is that we should not perhaps be so dismissive of the value of things like Twitter or Google Earth. While it will never completely replace other, more traditional, forms of collection, it does provide a valuable means of corroboration and of allowing a legitimate response to developments without compromising more delicate sources of intelligence. This may come as a disappointment to those who feel that the only true intelligence is that gleaned via James Bond types, or through satellites hurtling in orbit, but it does reflect the world we live in. Additionally, in an era of constrained budgets and reducing manpower, the ability to draw on OSINT to provide an 80% solution is of real value – for instance consider somewhere like West Africa and the Francophonie, where the UK has a minimal historical interest and tiny diplomatic presence. The ability to draw on developments via the Internet means that it is possible to stay reasonably abreast of developments as they happen, in a way that would otherwise be impossible to manage. It is emphatically not a substitute for presence, but it is a valuable compensatory tool.

Perhaps more importantly it shows that these days what is even more valuable than good sources, is good analysts and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff. Unlike the Cold War, where accounts suggest that during much of it the intelligence take was highly limited, particularly in the early days, the challenge today is the opposite – there is a plethora of information out there via the internet, much of which, as seen in the case of the Kuznetzov, has potential to be of value. It is knowing what it genuinely useful, versus that which is merely reportage or dross, that is the new skill that matters.  One only has to look at the range of websites, ranging from some of the so-called ‘discussion forums’ which in truth are essentially overly nationalistic teenagers spouting random drivel at each other, through to some very quiet but often hugely informed sites where a great deal of valuable information can be gained. One only has to look at the sort of material available on things like the Type 45 to see that while not classified, it is easy to build up an 80-90% intelligence solution which can tell you what the vessel is putatively capable of, and more importantly what she may be doing next.

Now more than ever the ability to analyse hugely diverse sources of information and translate them into actionable valuable intelligence which helps policy makers is a key skill. This in itself is a fascinating area of study, as the resources available now to the average private individual to conduct open source analysis easily rival those that were previously limited only to Government for many years. The ability of private companies to effectively act as intelligence analysts and brokers, arguably in some cases with more resources and better connections than some Governments, and the ability to provide an easily releasable and often timely and valuable feed of reporting is of huge long term significance. If nothing else, the challenge for Government is perhaps to hold onto its analysts, many of whom are relatively poorly paid and suffer from hugely limited career prospects, when they can earn significantly more in the private sector.

Shot from the superb MOD Online Security campaign

The final thought on this is that OSINT is a two way street and that the current and next generation of recruits in the military will perhaps have to learn the hard way that their Facebooks, Twitters, Snapchats and other social media represent a real security risk and intelligence bonanza. Having grown up in a world where social interaction is instantaneous, and sharing one message across a broad spectrum of friends is taken for granted, trying to explain to them that tweeting locations, or messaging about what they are doing on board a vessel can be a dangerous thing to do, is perhaps a very challenging task.  One only has to do a cursory look at most social media sites to find it possible to build a profile of what many Western military units are doing simply by following the Twitter and Facebook profiles. In the 1970s onwards, personal security was about having as anonymous a presence as possible on the streets. Today we need to ensure that our next generation of military personnel understand that this also must translate into as anonymous an online presence as possible when it comes to talking about what their work or unit is doing.

This is perhaps a major cultural challenge facing most Western militarys in trying to explain to a new generation of linked in individuals that careless talk can easily cost lives. Posting when you come alongside and are planning a run ashore, or linking photos of your child’s first day at school to your open account places a huge personal security risk on the individual and their family. The MOD has done an absolutely superb campaign highlighting the risks of too much information sharing online, but it may take some time for people to realise just how much they are giving away. The irony is that people who take their jobs so seriously, and are passionate about protection of classified material at work see nothing inherently wrong in talking online about their units activities or ships forthcoming programme.

The recent news from the Ukraine, where taped conversations between US officials were leaked highlights that the collection threat has not gone away, and that even very high level communications are open to interception. Perhaps more intriguingly, the fact that a foreign Government was willing to sacrifice the particular source, intentionally denying itself future collection from what was presumably a valuable source is very interesting and raises further questions. What is does show though is that the threat has not gone away, and that publicising locations, deployments, expected return dates and information like pictures onboard ship will help hostile powers build a much better picture of intentions, capabilities and help them take actions that may not be in our interests.

So, while there is without doubt a wider debate to be had on the importance of possessing a maritime patrol aircraft capability in the UK, and indeed, the Secretary of State seemed to admit as such when he answered questions in the House when he seemed to suggest that SDSR 2015 would look again at this issue. But, when you look back at the situation in 2010, given how badly over budget Nimrod was, and how out of control the wider equipment budget was at the time, the cancellation seems to make regrettable but understandable sense. Ultimately given the financial situation, one has to ask what else would have had to have been cancelled in order to keep Nimrod on track for entry into service, and at what cost.

But, while there is recognition of some kind of need for a surveillance capability, we should be wary of mocking the efforts of the RN to make best use of material available online. The internet provides the world with the ability to monitor ship movements in practically real time, and glean valuable raw intelligence material which was previously unthinkable. Mock all you want that it seems foolish to rely on something as mundane as twitter, but frankly if it is doing a job that in previous years would have required huge amounts of high risk collection efforts to uncover, then that is surely not a bad thing? 


  1. Yay for 140 words of updating.

  2. Humphrey as usual has to be the flunkie of the MoD even when there wasn't any serious criticism in this case. Keep pissing away your credibility and being an MoD mouthpiece!

    1. Thanks for your deeply insightful comments. Very much appreciated.

    2. Sir Humphrey, would you be so kind as to share the websites providing breakdowns of the Russkies air defence network - I would be interested to peruse.

      Many thanks in advance

      P.S. to the previous 'Anonymous' - consuming a breadth of perspectives on an issue is always wise; allowing one to come to a more informed opinion on a subject. Sir Humphrey is entitled to his perspective and it is up to you to act like an adult and take from it what you will. Good luck with that.

    3. Thanks for thatThe site in question is here - It's not currently got the map on it but browse it as it's got some great stuff lurking there. Also take a look at some of the links to get a idea of how easy it is to do high quality analysis these days with purely public material.

    4. 'Anonymous' you aren't obliged to read Sir H's posts, so if you don't like them then i'm sure you know what you can do!

      I for one find Sir H's site always interesting and often insightful and most of the commentators are adult enough to have a constructive difference of opinion on certain points and not resort to petty, childish insults.

      Keep up the good work Sir H!

  3. “This was originally something which people tried to turn into political capital against the RN” – I don’t think this is quite true! – possibly against the government, but not against the RN.

    I read the transcript of the debate but sadly I couldn’t find any definition of the phrase “ the UK’s area of interest” – I wonder what this means?

    As a “very retired Pongo” I find that I am inclined to the media approach that the UK is no longer a relevant power – While I can agree that it is inconvenient to have to send a warship from the south of England all the way to the north of Scotland so that it can monitor( show the flag ) because we have nothing else available. It does rather send out the wrong signal to the bad guys( potential ) that the Brits are a spent force.

    I wonder what the Jocks would have done if they were independent?

    We haven’t got much – so we can’t do much – so we bluff – I just hope that nobody calls our bluff.

    1. The UK is still a very capable military power, the problem with many defence articles in the media is they are generally written by people who only have a very superficial knowledge of the UK Armed Forces, and probably no knowledge at all of the military capabilities of other nations, even other European ones, so they are not able to put the UK's military capability in any sort of context. Forexample the UK is one of only three nations that can deploy a brigade from the sea, and one of only two that can deploy a division sized force overseas (even after the cuts). The UK also has some very capable platforms, I can't be bothered to write a very long post, so I will just list them: T45s probably the most capable AAW destroyers in any fleet, or they will be when fitted with 48 - 64 quad-packed CAMMs to supplement their Aster 15/30 missiles, T23s & Merlin HM1/2 the best ASW combo in any fleet, same applies to the Mine-hunters, very capable ATG, larger sealift & replenishment capability than all but the USN, decent airlift & ATA Refuelling: C-17s, C-130s, A330 Voyagers & A400Ms on order, AEW, ISTAR & Sig intel platforms: E-3D Sentry, Sentinel R1, Shadow R1, Air Seeker, UAVs: Reaper, Watchkeeper, Hermes, Scan Eagle etc, very capable SSNs T boats and the new Astutes, two 70,000 strike carriers in build & 4 new large tankers, 3 Soild Support Ships (hopefully with RoRo deck & well dock) & 3 corvette sized OPVs planned, also 13 T26s with land attack capability either Sylver A70 or Mk 41 with 16 - 24 strike length cells, so with the 7 SSNs the UK would eventually have 20 TLAM/SCALP capable platforms, new or refitted helos entering service Merlin MK2, HC4 & Wildcat, also 14 HC6 Chinooks to give a total fleet of 60 heavylift helos, Taranis UCAV in development, F-35Bs planned/on order to resurrect the RN's carrier strike capability, Typhoon fleet finally reaching it's potential with new weapons systems being integrated etc.
      That's a muddled list, but there are few nations with as broad a spectrum of military capabilities, or with the UK's ability to project force over distance.

  4. Hi Sir H. Re: the example you give of stopping a young sailor posting to facebook the moment he disembarks alongside, the other part of the equation are the spotter websites that post photographs and link to the MARSAT location of air and ship movements. I shudder to think of the consequences of the intelligence they will reveal during the next frantic build-up.

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