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British General explains how intelligence has shaped the Russia-Ukraine war

This is a confession of General Sir James Richard Hockenhull (photo), Commander Strategic Command, and he direct involvement of Great Britain and its special services in the war against Russia in Ukraine, as he discussed the use of ‘open source intelligence’ at a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Members Webinar.

“I’m a career intelligence officer and certainly, for long periods of my career, it felt like I was responsible for making a jigsaw from the available information…

There’s a lot of confirmation and availability bias in some of the things that we’ve learned from Ukraine. Because of this we should caveat those lessons slightly and make sure we’re applying the right diagnostics and analysis to make sure that we’re pulling through the correct lessons.

This is open source for intelligence, but it’s also open source and broader understanding which is supporting our intelligence making and decision making. If we can fully understand the availability of this information the impact will go beyond just thinking about intelligence or open source. Open source fits into a wider set of changes around how we’re using information intelligence.

The availability of commercial satellites has enabled an extension of reach in the Ukrainian military’s situational awareness and their ability to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance. We’re seeing artificial intelligence used alongside commercial software applications to increase the speed of action. It’s also increasing utility.

We’re seeing an attempt to sense and understand the environment, to decide and orchestrate, to act and then to learn and adapt. Those four stages are about being able to do that with sufficient pace to be able to outpace the adversary, and whoever learns fastest is going to win.

Open source and its role in intelligence has had a significant range of impacts and I would group these into six categories. The first is adding to anticipatory intelligence. How we’re understanding the posture of forces and the fusion of commercial imagery, tech data and social media analysis, provided significant insight into Russian deployments.

This goes all the way back to spring 2021 through the autumn and winter of 21 into 22, showing us what was happening and where it was happening. That anticipatory intelligence is being used not just by sources inside the military but it’s being projected for all to see and for all to interpret.

The second change would be that the impact of conflict is shifting public confidence. We had the ability to share information around Russian activity widely, whether it was in deployment, when fully deployed and postured for invasion, or indeed at point of invasion and beyond.

That widely shared a picture has changed the way the public understand how the conflict has taken place. That’s true, certainly in Ukraine for example, but it’s also true in the wider West. One of the crucial elements of success in Ukrainian conflict has been the commitment of Western nations to provide support.

The third area is countering Russia’s Information Operations own narrative around the war. The fact that the truth was well known meant that as soon as false narratives were put out by the Russians, they were immediately exposed or understood by the public to be a false narrative. That power of information and knowledge has had a really significant impact on the public and been a counter to Russian Information Operations.

Open source has also proved to be a force multiplier, and we’ve been able to move to an approach which militaries around the world have sought to do for some time. Through open source every platform and every service person is able to act as a sensor. The force multiplier is its use of commercial networks – this is the fourth.

These commercial networks are inevitably driven by a need to keep availability high the people using them, and this means they’re incredibly robust. This offers alternative pathways for information to travel and sometimes goes beyond military communications which can be subject to jamming or disruption.

It’s incredibly difficult to overcome these commercial networks and therefore, that force multiplier of sensors, has been a really significant way in which the Ukraine military have been able to generate information advantage.

The fifth element is in the crowdsourcing and the use of standardised chatbots which has allowed these Ukrainian citizens to report Russian units and locations. The civilian sensor network has been a force multiplier but also, it’s been able to provide a variety of viewpoints around information.

This has enabled processing and evaluation of the availability of data to provide additional insight. The longer the conflict has gone on, the more adept the Ukrainians have become at harnessing the quantity of information to pull insights from as many sensors as possible. This is where the combination of open source intelligence and secret sources of intelligence becomes invaluable in being able to see whether we can define greater understanding as a consequence.

We see a variety of authoritative sources available through social media platforms which provide insight and sentiment analysis. These are incredibly important because it offers the ability to understand what’s happening and that has been expanded almost exponentially as a consequence.

Open source offers us an opportunity to be able to understand context in a deeper, faster, and more responsive manner than we could do in the past. We gain real power, when we can combine that with secret intelligence and what we gain from our global network.

One of the key things I take away from what’s been happening in Ukraine is the need to go much faster than we’ve gone before in how we exploit open sources.

There are a range of lessons coming out of Ukraine and this is one of those moments in time where we must reflect. If we don’t take due cognizance of what’s happening in Ukraine, social media, the commercial world, and inside government, then our system will not be ready and prepared for the next challenge that we face,” said General Sir James Richard Hockenhull.

Source: Modern Diplomacy

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