Military intelligence

From New World Encyclopedia

Military intelligence (abbreviated “MI” or “int.” in Commonwealth countries; “Intel” in the U.S.), is a military discipline that focuses on the gathering, analysis, protection, and dissemination of information of both strategic (long range actions intended to destroy military potential) and tactical (smaller operations of immediate significance in the field) value. This includes information about the enemy, terrain, and weather in an area of operations or area of interest, as well as information about political decision-making, military intentions, and dissidents. Intelligence activities are conducted both during peacetime and in war.

Most militaries maintain a military intelligence corps with specialized intelligence units for collecting information in specific ways. Intelligence officers and enlisted soldiers assigned to military intelligence may be selected for their analytical abilities or scores on intelligence tests. Although many technological advances have ensued as a result of military intelligence operations, as human society has advanced the possibility that all people can cooperate to accomplish shared goals offers a valid alternative.

Military Intelligence in History

Attempts to gather tactically important information are seemingly as old as war itself. Spying is mentioned in both Homer’s Iliad and the Bible. The Romans had a network of spies and embassies that they used to collect valuable information, including the environment and socio-political information about neighboring states and peoples.[1] Theoretical works on information gathering were written around 500 B.C.E. in ancient China, and reconnaissance was used to gather information by the Carthaginian general Hannibal (c. 200 B.C.E.), and Alexander the Great (c. 340 B.C.E.).[2]

As governments became more organized, so did their militaries and military intelligence systems, eventually evolving into the complex and multi-faceted organizations of today. Technological advancements such as radio led to advancements in areas like cryptography, as well as more advanced systems to intercept and decode messages. MI has fueled many technological advances; the first world-wide computer network, for example, was not the internet, but the international network connecting surveillance stations.[3]

The Intelligence Process

Intelligence is conducted on two levels—strategic and tactical—both of which are intended to allow decisions to be made in the most effective manner. Strategic intelligence is used to formulate long-term policies on the national and international scale and is concerned with broad issues such as economics, military capabilities of foreign countries, and political assessments. Tactical intelligence is more focused on the specific objectives and situation of military commanders in the field. These types of intelligence basically consist of the same type of information, only differing in terms of scope.


A great deal of information that MI agencies collect is publicly available. The population, ethnic make-up, and main industries of a region are examples of publicly available information that has great military significance. The tonnage and basic weaponry of most capital ships and aircraft are often publicly available, and their speeds and ranges can often be reasonably estimated by experts using this information in conjunction with photographs. Intelligence libraries (many of which are now contained on a vast computer network) contain a vast amount of information including the ballistic range of common military weapons. Information is also routinely gathered from newspapers and radio. Intelligence agencies often study the main newspapers and journals of every nation, as well as local television and radio programs.

Most intelligence services maintain or support groups whose sole purpose is to keep maps. Since maps also have valuable civilian uses, these agencies are often publicly associated or identified as other parts of the government. Some historic counter-intelligence services, especially in Russia and China, have intentionally banned or placed disinformation in public maps.

In addition to the collection of publicly available data, MI agencies also use specialized information gathering techniques and equipment to acquire data. High altitude and satellite pictures are examined by photointerpreters, often to keep tabs on munitions shipments and inventories. MI operatives also eavesdrop continuously on the entire radio spectrum, interpreting it in real time. In addition to public broadcasts, local military traffic, radar emissions, and even microwaved telephone, telegraph, and satellite traffic are monitored. One of the most famous telecommunication traffic monitoring programs is the United States' "Echelon" system, part of an international system that monitors mobile phones and international long distance, among other things. Analysis of bulk traffic is normally performed by complex computer programs that parse natural language and phone numbers looking for threatening conversations and correspondents. In some cases, undersea or land-based cables have been tapped. In addition to mass monitoring systems, surveillance devices are often used to bug foreign embassies and dignitaries.

While a vast amount of information is collected through electronic means, human intelligence, gathered by spies, remains an essential part of MI. Spies who are able to infiltrate an organization and get close to the decision makers are often able to provide information about an individual's motives, rationales, and thought processes, information that is uniquely valuable to the successful negotiation of diplomatic solutions. It is also common for intelligence agencies to use diplomatic and journalistic personnel to collect and disseminate information. Oftentimes, journalists may have useful perspectives or analyses of international or political situations, even if they are not privy to classified information.[4]

Analysis and Dissemination

Simply having information is not enough; information must be assessed and verified. A great deal of collected information may be inaccurate. "Counter-intelligence" agencies routinely work to prevent and control the dissemination of information, and often spread disinformation in order to confuse or mislead the enemy. For example, during the Cold War both American and Soviet agencies used journalists to disseminate "exclusives" containing doctored and misleading information.[4] In other cases, greed or revenge may drive sources to divulge false information.

Once information is verified, it is assessed in order to determine another's capabilities and vulnerabilities. In many cases, enemy capabilities are analyzed on a set schedule. Imminent threats, such as those between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, may be continually monitored, while munitions depots may be monitored on a less frequent cycle.

Critical threats are usually maintained in a prioritized file, with important data, places, or situations analyzed on a set schedule. For example, nuclear threats between the USSR and the U.S. were analyzed in real time by staff working round the clock. In contrast, analyses of tank or army deployments are usually triggered by accumulations of fuel and munitions, which are monitored on slower, every-few-days cycles.

Packaging threats and vulnerabilities for decision makers is a crucial part of military intelligence. While intelligence agents do not develop policy or plans of attack, a good intelligence officer will often work closely with decision makers to anticipate their information requirements and tailor the information needed. The quality and amount of information intelligence provides can mean the difference between a successful decision and a disastrous one.

United States

While spies and information gathering processes were heavily used during conflicts like the American Revolution and the American Civil War, there was no official organization devoted to military intelligence until May 1917. Called the MIS (Military Intelligence Section), it grew from a mere three officers and two clerks at inception to 282 officers and 948 civilians by the end of the first World War. MIS produced daily and weekly intelligence summaries covering military, political, social, and economic topics, which were distributed to high level positions like the army chief of staff, the secretary of state, and the president.[5]

The modern-day U.S. intelligence community is made up of many organizations, including the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency, and organizations within each military branch. Military intelligence is primarily the responsibility of the DIA and intelligence groups within the armed services, but other agencies provide valuable support. Each agency has its own primary function; for example, the NSA is responsible for collecting, processing, and reporting SIGINT (Signals Intelligence), a type of intelligence derived from transmitted signals, including electronic and communication intelligence.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, there are also a number of agencies devoted to different aspects of military intelligence, including the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the Security Service, and the Defense Intelligence Staff (DIS). The SIS, also referred to by its historical name "MI6" (Military Intelligence 6), originated in 1909 as the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau, responsible for gathering intelligence overseas. After World War I, it became a separate agency and began to be referred to as the SIS. The Security Service, also known as "MI5" (Military Intelligence 5), also originated in 1909 as part of the Secret Service Bureau, and was responsible for domestic intelligence.

For much of the twentieth century, The Security Service dealt primarily with subversion and Soviet espionage. After the end of the Cold War, the primary focus was changed, and the Security Service considered international counter-terrorism its primary priority. The DIS, part of the Ministry of Defence, was created in 1964, merging the separate intelligence staffs of the armed forces as well as civilian intelligence staff. The primary purpose of the DIS is to analyze intelligence gathered and provide assessments and strategic warnings to the armed forces and other decision makers.

Russia and the Soviet Union

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had one of the most well known groups of MI and security agencies: the KGB. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia restructured much of the KGB, and, in 1995, formed the FSB (a Russian acronym for "Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation"), responsible for much of Russia's military counterintelligence. The GRU ("Main Intelligence Directorate") is one of the only organizations to retain most of its Soviet-era organization and approach. The main source of Russian military intelligence, the GRU engages in worldwide espionage and intelligence gathering. Other organizations include the SVR ("Foreign Intelligence Service"), a civilian intelligence collection agency which grew out of the KGB's First Chief Directorate, and FAPSI (Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information), created from the KGB's Eighth Chief Directorate, Eighteenth Administration, and Communication Troops. FAPSI's main objective is similar to the United States' NSA, and focuses primarily on electronic intelligence and counter-intelligence, or SIGINT.[6]


Like many other countries, France utilized spies long before the advent of a modern intelligence community in the nineteenth century. Spies were used during the Middle Ages, and military intelligence played an important role during the Napoleonic era and the Age of Empire. When World War I began, France had one of the most organized and skilled intelligence forces in the world.[7]

There are MI divisions within each of France's military branches (Army, Navy, and Air Force), as well as within the Ministry of Defense; all are coordinated by the SGDN (National Defense General Secretariat). The DSGE (Directorate for External Security), an agency under the Ministry of Defense, was formed by merging various agencies after World War II, and is responsible for military intelligence, strategic information, electronic intelligence, and counterespionage. The DPSD (Directorate for Defense Protection and Security) is primarily responsible for military counterintelligence and other military securities issues. The BRGE (Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Brigade) was created in 1993, and deals primarily in SIGINT intelligence, operating a number of monitoring facilities.[8]


Historically, the Communist Party has controlled much of the military intelligence in China. Before the communists took power in 1949, they used intelligence provided by the Central Department of Social Affairs, enabling them to emerge victorious on the battlefield. Once the Communist Party came to power, the Central Investigation Department was formed. During the 1950s, the Central Investigation Department had an office in every Chinese embassy. In 1977, intelligence officers were recalled from Chinese embassies, instead to be later sent out posing as businessmen, scholars, and journalists. In 1983, the Central Investigation Department was merged with counter-intelligence elements of the Public Security Ministry, and renamed the Ministry of State Security.[9]

Global Impact of Military Intelligence

Military intelligence operations have had an obvious impact on world history. Not only has the acquisition of intelligence, both accurate and inaccurate, influenced the outcome of wars and political negotiations, but it has also greatly influenced the development of technology, particularly in the area of signals intelligence. Without worldwide pressure to develop better and more secure methods of communication (as well as the means of intercepting each newly developed technology), it is unlikely that such advances in the world's communications systems would have occurred as quickly if at all.


  1. D. F. Buck, “Review of A.D. Lee, Information and Frontiers: Roman Foreign Relations in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, ISBN 052139256X),” Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.04.08. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  2. Wojciech Pieciak, “History of Intelligence: The World's Second-Oldest Profession,” World Press Review (April 2004). Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  3. Duncan Campbell, “Inside Echelon,” Telepolis (July 25, 2000). Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 “Tinker, Tailor, Journalist, Spy,” Hardnews (August 2006).
  5. “Winning Smart: A Brief History of Military Intelligence,” The University of Military Intelligence at Fort Huachuca. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  6. Victor Yasmann, “The KGB has spawned a large set of offspring, but the central purpose of the Russian security services remains the same—the defense of the Russian political elite from domestic and foreign challenges,” PRISM 1(4) (May 26, 1995). The Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  7. Adrienne Lerner, “France, Intelligence and Security,” The Thomson Corporation. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  8. John Pike, SGDN - National Defense General Secretariat, Federation of American Scientists: Intelligence Resource Program. Retrieved August 28, 2007.
  9. John Pike, Ministry of State Security History, Federation of American Scientists: Intelligence Resource Program. Retrieved August 28, 2007.

Further Reading

  • Austin, N. J. E. and N. B. Rankov. 1995. Exploratio: Military and Political Intelligence in the Roman World From the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415183014
  • Caesar, Julius. The Civil War. Translated by Jane F. Mitchell, 1967. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.
  • Dio, Cassius. Dio's Roman History. Translated by Cary, Earnest. 1916. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Dvornik, Francis. 1974. Origins of Intelligence Services. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813507642
  • Fuller, J. F. C. 1987. A Military History of the Western World, Vol. 1: From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Lepanto. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306803046
  • Gabriel, Richard A. and Karen S. Metz. 1991. From Summer to Rome; The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313276455
  • Harris, Charles H. and Louis R. Sadler. 1988. The Border and the Revolution: Clandestine Activities of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1920. HighLonesome Books. ISBN 0944383076
  • Keegan, John. 2003. Intelligence in War. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0375400532
  • Landau, Henry. 1937. The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons.
  • Mashbir, Sidney F. 1953. I Was An American Spy. Vantage.
  • Miller, Nathan. 1989. Spying for America: The Hidden History of U.S. Intelligence. Dell Publishing. ISBN 1557781869
  • Sayer, Ian and Douglas Botting. 1989. America's Secret Army: The Untold Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps. Franklin Watts Publishers. ISBN 0531150976
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. 1958. The Zimmerman Telegram. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345324250

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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