The Oxymoronic Concept of ‘NATO Intelligence’

In 2008, a FOIA request resulted in the release of a (redacted) version of a 1984 CIA article: NATO Intelligence: A Contradiction in Terms.

The report is pretty scathing:

“Since its inception, NATO has essentially opted out of the intelligence business. The command structure is almost totally innocent of any inherent capability for detecting or analyzing what is really going on. An almost pathetic aspect of the situation is the occasional effort by well meaning national officers to find ways to feed the very life blood of a viable defense system (intelligence) into a virtual corpse.”

The report places most the blame for the failure of NATO intelligence on the compartmentalization of national intelligence services — that is, an institutional structure that relies on each state serving its own intelligence needs rather than relying on coordinated intelligence gathering. “[W]hile it may have made sense in the late 1940s to designate intelligence as a national responsibility because of broad similarities in intelligence gathering capabilities among the nations, the matter is much less clear today. The United States, with its global systems, backed by an intelligence budget exceeding the total defense expenditures of most of the other members, has developed systems for supporting its tactical forces that the others can never hope to match. And still they must all be prepared to fight a common enemy on a common battlefield.”

The report describes the failure in NATO intelligence as a failure to apply the concept of relative advantage to the realm of multinational intelligence gathering. With the U.S. supplying 90% of all of NATO’s intelligence, with the rest of NATO combined making up the remaining 10%, “NATO’s practice of treating intelligence as a national responsibility—as though each of the members could serve the needs of its own forces in war as well as in peace” appears to be a gross misuse of resources. By operating under compartmentalized national intelligence services, the coalition forces are simply adding their individual efforts together, rather than allowing states to benefit from strengths of the others so as to improve the quality of each nation’s military capabilities. Such an approach to NATO lies upon “the very dubious proposition that the combat effectiveness of Dutch forces, for example, served by Dutch intelligence, is the best we can expect from the Netherlands.”

This failure to coordinate intelligence strategies is, of course, ultimately not just a problem for spooks, but a very real dilemma on the battlefield, when multinational forces are employed. By not sharing intelligence information with other national forces, we either maintain “rigid adherence to the integrity of national formations at the corps level, which could mean collapse of a front while units of a different nationality stand idly by,” or else put U.S. troops at unnecessary risk by depriving them of the of vital U.S. intelligence whenever a U.S. division serves subordinately to the command of another NATO nation’s military.

In the 25 years since the article was published, its primary arguments have not become outdated. Despite attempts to achieve greater cooperation between NATO members regarding intelligence resources, compartmentalization remains the default rule. NATO’s failure to coordinate intelligence services neutralizes what could be the alliance’s most significant contribution, particularly with today’s ‘war on terror.’ Asymmetrical warfare is also asymmetrical in the sense of the relative amounts of intelligence vs. brute force required. During the Cold War, large amounts of both multilateral intelligence and multilateral military force were necessary. Today, the amount of physical military force required to attack targets is, comparatively, exceedingly low — a single nation’s forces are more than capable of taking out a terrorist base. The capabilities of NATO’s combined military force are of less practical use, therefore, than NATO’s combined intelligence gathering capabilities could potentially be.

This asymmetry, however, is also why achieving an efficient division of labor in the intelligence field is close to impossible, even if in theory it would increase net military ability. It is because the power to shape world policy is not divided equally among the various roles to be carried out: “As the result of the ‘revolution in military affairs’, [PDF] the United States will find itself unable to interoperate with lesser forces, and NATO will find itself providing various forms of follow-on support, from medical services to military policing. In other words, the information and technology gap will relegate NATO to washing the dishes.” Because a single country has the ability to fulfill most or all of its force requirements (to the point where multilateral forces are carrying out a political strategy of avoiding unilateralism, rather than any military strategy), the gains to be had from sharing intelligence with other nations accrue overwhelmingly to the state that is using the intelligence to carry out military operations. The states specializing in “dish washing” will improve NATO’s ability to carry out its objectives, but forfeit much of their ability to decide what NATO’s objectives should be. This is not a trade-off most if any will agree to:

“Some might argue that in military terms such a transatlantic division of labour could make sense. European states have been proud of their specialist skill-sets right across the field of low-intensity conflict, counterterrorism, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. All these activities are accompanied by specialist types of intelligence support and intelligence cooperation. Human intelligence, as much as technical systems, is at a premium in these situations. When the British troops arrived in Kosovo, Richard Holbrooke exhorted them to do what they had done successfully in Northern Ireland. More recently, in Afghanistan, the United States has done most of the invading while the Europeans have been bequeathed the task of nation-building. Yet while this arrangement may be pragmatic, such a stark separation of roles will quickly corrode transatlantic solidarity.

Specialization of services when it comes to joint military operations does not, unfortunately, promise the same benefits for national security as trade specialization does for the global economy. It is much easier (though not easy!) for states to agree to a common goal of ‘increasing net economic gain for everyone by specializing in particular goods’ than it is for states to agree to ‘increase net intelligence capabilities of NATO forces by letting the U.S. control the show and having everyone else provide background support.’ So although NATO intelligence is a contradiction in terms, greater integration of NATO members’ intelligence resources in unlikely to be achieved.