WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has amassed a drastically out-of-balance arsenal of intelligence capabilities that is overly dependent on drones, poorly understood by the Defense Department and ignored by commanding officers, according to a harsh new assessment by an independent Defense Department panel.

As a result, U.S. intelligence is ill-suited to support the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and unprepared to predict and react to conflicts like the recent Middle Eastern uprisings.

“DOD lacks a common understanding of COIN,” retired Maj. Gen. Richard O’Lear, co-chairman of the panel and former assistant chief of staff of Air Force intelligence, wrote in his lead finding.

That conclusion followed briefings with more than 100 defense, intelligence and nongovernment officials in the field of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, commonly known as ISR.

Some senior officials, the report found, had little understanding of battlefield intelligence beyond spying equipment aboard popular drone aircraft. Others in charge of intelligence planning and resources who briefed the panel did not know the difference between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

COIN is defined by the DOD as comprehensive civilian and military efforts to defeat an insurgency, while counterterrorism involves actions taken directly against a terrorist network.

“What we were so shocked by was the number of people inside the Pentagon at very senior reaches that didn’t understand any of this,” said one official familiar with the deliberations but not authorized to speak on the record.

The stinging critique comes from a six-month study by a task force of the Defense Science Board, a federal group that provides independent advice to the secretary of defense. Last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, ordered the study after the head of intelligence in Afghanistan in January 2010, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, issued an unusually public criticism in a Washington think tank paper, calling intelligence officers “ignorant” and “hazy.”

The group met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and other officials, including counterinsurgency architect retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who like several task force members and official briefers declined to be interviewed for this story. The group also met with dozens of officials from the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon’s futuristic research outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The study was completed in February but not released until last week because concerned officers and Pentagon officials wanted to see it in advance.

“DOD is now carefully reviewing the report and its recommendations,” said Defense Department spokesman Col. David Lapan.

For nearly a decade in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has expanded intelligence capabilities, but they have not applied them consistently, the group found.

In fact, while ISR gets “considerable lip service,” the report said, “most senior civilian and military” leaders they interviewed were primarily interested in popular drone aircraft — how many could be obtained, how soon, and how often could they strike at specific targets.

There is little support or funding for the necessary full spectrum of intelligence tools, which “demands a thorough understanding of historical, socio-cultural, economic, educational and environmental aspects of the area of operations,” according to the report.

“A commander needs information,” the official said, “and he needs to understand the story of what’s going on on the ground. And that is a massive, massive challenge that the intelligence community has fallen short on.”

Beyond drone-collected video of enemy movement, the report suggests other information is needed to understand the progress of a counterinsurgency, including: monitoring whether local officials sleep in their districts; tracking new business loan rates and percentages of people holding title to their land; monitoring exotic vegetable prices and the risk of trucking goods and cash along dangerous roads; knowing trucking company kickback fees and taxes paid to the government versus the insurgent shadow government.

For security forces, some metrics that intelligence officers should track include kill-to-capture ratios; insurgents’ health when taken into custody; guilty verdicts for detainees, and recruitment-to-desertion rates.

What has been in short supply in Afghanistan has received even less attention from the Pentagon outside of the warzones, where the intelligence apparatus was unable to predict conflicts in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere and was ill-quipped to understand them in real time.

“Instead we have this kind of fractured policy apparatus that, in theory, is supposed to know these things,” the official said.

While the most senior leaders like Gates, a former CIA director, and McChrystal, a former special operations forces commander, clearly understand the material and support the expansion of intelligence resources, the official said that in meeting after meeting lower-ranking personnel appeared not to understand fundamentals of how intelligence should be processed, analyzed, and used.

The group blamed Washington intelligence agencies for being too conservative and operating too reactively to requests from the field.

As a result, ISR is not a high priority for counterinsurgency planners across the services, combatant commands or defense agencies.

“The defense intelligence culture,” the report said, “is evolving slowly.”

The Pentagon has tried to balance the outsized emphasis on spy drones by spending more on data processing, exploitation and dissemination, known in the field as PED.

The panel found the term “ISR” had become little more than shorthand for unmanned Reapers, Predators and Global Hawk aircraft, which have overloaded the military with data.

After spending billions on collection platforms, an earlier study said the Pentagon should not buy any more drones until it’s better prepared to assess and use the information gathered.

There is “a crisis in PED,” the recent task force agreed, a phrase one official predicted could rankle the intelligence community.

Outside of the Pentagon, despite calls for a “whole of government” approach to winning the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, the panel determined there is no “effective overarching, interagency” strategy or coordination of counterinsurgency intelligence. The group is calling for the creation of a “national intelligence manager” to beef up contributions outside of the Defense Department and coordinate with those from within.

The group warned that key recommendations for intelligence needs made by a 2004 task force were not fulfilled and it will be harder to obtain new resources because the Pentagon is facing budget restraints.

“The enormous cost of not fielding these capabilities is clear today,” the panel said. “It’s a price the U.S. is paying in lives and in national treasure.”

This year, Gates repeatedly has called on Congress to speed up additional ISR funding for the warzones despite budget constraints.

“This is a seminal report,” the official said. “The question is whether it gets picked up.”


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