Meatball, Lineup & Angle of Attack

The House Intelligence Committee is looking into the apparently surprising Russian response to the crisis in the Ukraine.  I’m only a junior assistant policy wonk (one tour on Joint Staff as a policy guy) but as I heard this news on the radio this morning, a few random thoughts popped into my head which I thought I would share.

The first thought that came to mind is the similarly between intelligence analysts and meteorologists.  In the end their forecasts are just a guess…albeit an educated one.  It seems as though regardless of the accuracy of their reports, they seem to get a pass because, after all, “It’s just a guess.”  I grew up on a farm and I remember my father hanging on every word the weather guy on TV had to say because he had to make  some big decisions based on their forecast. If the weatherman said it was going to happen, my father believed him.  If it turned out he was wrong, my dad shrugged his shoulders and said “You can’t control the weather.” As a Battle Group Commander at sea, the first thing I wanted to hear in my morning briefing was the weather forecast so I could keep my ships and crews out of harm’s way and still accomplish the mission we were assigned.  I think the same thing is true in the intelligence world.  We can only make educated guesses into what may or may not happen, because in the end, we just don’t know. Given that we spend lots more money on intelligence (probably over $80 Billion a year) than on meteorology (NOAA’s FY 14 budget request was around $4 Billion), I would expect a higher degree of accuracy and more “education” (and coherence)  in the intelligence community’s guesses.  I expected my weather guesser to begin his briefing each morning with what he predicted yesterday and to give himself a grade on how he did.  Guess what?  The quality of his forecasts improved.  I would expect the Intelligence Oversight  Committees to do the same thing.  Otherwise the intelligence community is an “out of control” system with no accountability.  To be fair, Intel community leaders say they provided lots of information on the situation to the leadership, albeit conflicting in some cases.  I don’t know what I would have done if I had two meteorologists giving me conflicting information.  It’s gonna rain!….No, it’s gonna be sunny!    NO, it might be a hurricane!   Isn’t that part of the problem though?….Too many people with too much information, presenting confusing and often conflicting analysis?    My one take-away is that given the amount of money we spend on intel, it seems that we have more surprises than we should:  9/11,  Arab Spring, Russian intervention in Ukraine, etc.

So the big question on the Hill relates to the previous paragraph: How is it that given our vast intelligence resources, we are still surprised?  Despite the unpredictability of world events, I think it comes down to what we would refer to in the aviation community as a “breakdown in the scan pattern.”  The week I reported to my initial training in the A-6 Intruder at Oceana Naval Air Station in 1975 an A-6 crashed right next to the airfield in an area now known as Lynnhaven Mall.  It seems that they ran out of gas while trying to get their landing gear UP!   The gear worked fine in the “down-and-locked” position and they could have landed anytime. But they ran out of gas, orbiting 2000 feet overhead the field and all the while taking to the Skipper, OPs Officer and the Safety Officer.  How did that happen?  The crew, both airborne and in the Ready Room, were so focused on the gear problem, they forgot to check the gas….despite warning lights and alarms… and they flamed out.  I would suggest that the Intelligence Community also had just  a bit of a “breakdown in scan.”  We have become so focused on al Qaeda and the strategic “Swing to the Asia-Pacific” that we lost focus on other potential hot spots. Intelligence is all about expecting the unexpected…….the expected information comes from open sources.  I would hope that we use this latest surprise as an opportunity to re-examine our intelligence scan to make sure we don’t focus excessively on any one area.  Ask any carrier-based Naval Aviator and they will say a successful carrier landing is all about scan: “Meatball, line-up and angle of attack!” (and a little luck doesn’t hurt).

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