A Brief Overview of Military Intelligence


“Intelligence is crucial to the development of understanding” (MOD, 2011, p1-1).

Military intelligence, also known as Defence intelligence, is a military discipline that uses information collection and analysis approaches to provide guidance and direction to commanders in support of their decisions.

Is Military Intelligence the king?

Military intelligence includes information on other countries’ military forces, plans, and operations gained through a variety of collection methods. Both military and civilian organisations analyse this intelligence to:

  • Help civilian policymakers and military leaders understand political and military trends around the world;
  • Establish the sources of potential regional conflict;
  • Identify emerging threats to the global security environment; and
  • Provide recommendations on how best to employ information-gathering techniques and technologies.

Ultimately, intelligence should enable commanders to understand their enemy and environment
and then exploit that advantage.

What is the Purpose of Military Intelligence?

The purpose of military intelligence is to develop insight and foresight to interpret and anticipate the various challenges that political and military leaders may face now or in the future, in order that they may deploy the appropriate military (or political) capability at the appropriate time.

From a military intelligence perspective:

  • Insight (or comprehension) combines situational awareness and analysis, and is knowing why something happened or is happening.
  • Foresight (understanding) combines comprehension and judgement, and is about being able to identify and anticipate what may happen.

Why Maintain a Military Intelligence Capability?

Most governments maintain a military intelligence capability to provide analytical and information collection to aid in decision-making.

Although intelligence can be collected from virtually any source, many military organisations have specialist personnel (for example, the British Army has the Intelligence Corps) who will undertake the Intelligence Process (discussed below).

In general, military and civilian intelligence capabilities collaborate to inform the spectrum of political and military activities.

What Does Military Intelligence Encompass?

Areas of study may include:

  • The operational environment:
    • Not just land, air, sea, and space but also the topography (i.e. the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area).
  • Hostile, friendly, and neutral forces.
  • The civilian population in an area of combat operations.
  • Geospatial information.
  • Cultural information.
  • Linguistic information.
  • Other broader areas of interest.

Military intelligence activities are conducted at all levels:

  • From tactical to strategic;
  • In peacetime;
  • The period of transition to war; and
  • During a war itself.

Where Can I Find/Source Military Intelligence?

Military intelligence can be found using a range of methods, some being highly protected (such as a military database) and others freely given (such as a website). Sources include (not an exhaustive list):

  • Trade journals.
  • Military books (specific-subject books (i.e. on Tanks) and auto/biographies).
  • Websites.
  • Newspapers and radio (e.g. journalists reporting events).
  • Television documentaries.
  • Academic papers.
  • Chatting to a person/people.
  • Maps.
  • Clothing.
  • Trade fairs/events.
  • Diplomatic personnel.
  • Captured personnel, both civilian and military.
  • Captured equipment.
  • Space-based systems (e.g. satellites).
  • Airborne systems (e.g. military and civilian aircraft, and drones).
  • Ground-based systems (e.g. vehicles).
  • Surface and sub-surface systems (e.g. warships and submarines).
  • Special Forces, special operations forces, or specialist reconnaissance units.
  • Covert passive surveillance, which can be defined as the covert systematic observation of a person, place, object or activity from a covert static observation post or by use of foot, vehicle or aircraft, in order to gain or develop intelligence.

There are a number of methods to collect the above information and understanding the difference between intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is important.

What is the Difference between Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance?

Intelligence1. Refers to the intelligence collection capabilities and to the analysis of information by the collecting organisation(s).
2. For example the collection and analysis of HUMINT collected by human intelligence units or SIGINT collected by signals intelligence units.
3. It is the intelligence staff who lead on target development in conjunction with the operations and plans staff.
4. Intelligence is a constant activity.
Surveillance1. Defined as the systematic observation of aerospace, surface or subsurface areas, places, persons or things, by visual, aural, electronic, photographic or other means.
2. It is conducted against adversaries and can be passive or active, covert or overt.
3. It can be ‘coarse grained’ to provide early warning of activity over a wide area, or ‘fine grained’ to cover a particular location or facility.
4. Over extended periods, it enables patterns and habits to be identified which leads to deeper understanding of other potentially threatening activities or behaviour.
5. Surveillance is an enduring activity for a specific period.
Reconnaissance1. Defined as a mission undertaken to obtain, by visual observation or other detection methods, information about the activities and resources of an opponent or potential opponent, or to secure data concerning the meteorological, hydrographical, or geographic characteristics of a particular area.
2. It is a focused method of collecting information about specific locations, facilities or people.
3. Although military organisations may have specialist reconnaissance unit, it may be undertaken by other force elements in the course of their duties.
4. Reconnaissance is a mission specific task usually of relatively short duration.

What are the Levels of Military Intelligence

Intelligence operations are carried out throughout the hierarchy of political and military activity, and include (Table 1):

Strategic1. Strategic intelligence is concerned with broad issues such as economics, political assessments, military capabilities and intentions of foreign nations (and, increasingly, non-state actors).
2. Such intelligence may be scientific, technical, tactical, diplomatic or sociological, but these changes are analysed in combination with known facts about the area in question, such as geography, demographics and industrial capacities.
3. Strategic Intelligence is formally defined as “intelligence required for the formation of policy and military plans at national and international levels”, and corresponds to the Strategic Level of Warfare, which is formally defined as “the level of warfare at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) strategic security objectives and guidance, then develops and uses national resources to achieve those objectives.”
It also provides support to:
a. Horizon scanning;
b. The development of situational awareness; and
c. Policy and strategy formulation as well as contingency planning.
Operational1. Operational intelligence is focused on support or denial of intelligence at operational tiers.
2. The operational tier is below the strategic level of leadership and refers to the design of practical manifestation.
3. Formally defined as “Intelligence that is required for planning and conducting campaigns and major operations to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or operational areas.”
4. It aligns with the Operational Level of Warfare, defined as “The level of warfare at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.”
5. The term operation intelligence is used within law enforcement to refer to intelligence that supports long-term investigations into multiple, similar targets.
6. Operational intelligence, in the discipline of law enforcement intelligence, is concerned primarily with identifying, targeting, detecting and intervening in criminal activity.
7. The use within law enforcement and law enforcement intelligence is not scaled to its use in general intelligence or military intelligence, being more narrowed in scope.
Tactical1. Tactical intelligence is focused on support to operations at the tactical level and would be attached to the battlegroup.
2. At the tactical level, briefings are delivered to patrols on current threats and collection priorities. These patrols are then debriefed to elicit information for analysis and communication through the reporting chain.
3. Tactical Intelligence is formally defined as “intelligence required for the planning and conduct of tactical operations”, and corresponds with the Tactical Level of Warfare, itself defined as “the level of warfare at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces”.

What are the Intelligence Disciplines?

There are a range of military intelligence disciplines, also known as intelligence operations or types of intelligence, and include:

  1. Acoustic Intelligence (ACOUSTINT or ACINT).
    • Considered a sub-discipline of MASINT.
  2. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT).
  3. Imagery Intelligence (IMINT).
  4. Human Intelligence (HUMINT).
  5. Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT).
    • Disciplines: Electro-Optical; Nuclear; Radar; Geophysical; Materials; and Radiofrequency.
  6. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
  7. Cyber Intelligence/Digital Network Intelligence (CYBINT/DNINT).
    • CYBINT can be considered a subset of OSINT.
    • Cyber Threat Analysis.
  8. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), incorporating:
    • Communication Intelligence (COMINT).
    • Electronic Intelligence (ELINT).
    • Foreign Instrumentation Signals Intelligence (FISINT).
  9. Material and Personnel Exploitation (MPE), incorporating:
    • Technical Intelligence (TECHINT), which also encompasses exploitation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and can support counter-threat efforts.
    • Medical Intelligence (MEDINT).
    • Linguist.
    • Weapons Intelligence.
    • Forensic and Biometric Intelligence (FABINT).
    • Chemical Exploitation (CHEMEX).
    • Financial Intelligence (FININT).
    • Seized Media Analysis (SMA).
  10. Operational Intelligence (OPINT).
  11. Counter-Intelligence (CI), incorporating:
    • CI Activity.
    • CI Analysis.
    • CI Advice.
    • Counter sabotage.
    • HUMINT activities often occur alongside those involving CI and many of the skills and capabilities are common.

What about Tasking?

Military intelligence should respond to the needs of leadership (both military and political), based on the military objective and operational plans. The military objective provides a focus for the estimate process, from which a number of information requirements are derived. Information requirements may be related to – for example – terrain and impact on vehicle or personnel movement, disposition of hostile forces, sentiments of the local population and capabilities of the hostile order of battle.

In response to the information requirements, analysts examine existing information, identifying gaps in the available knowledge. Where gaps in knowledge exist, the staff may be able to task collection assets to target the requirement.

Analysis reports draw on all available sources of information, whether drawn from existing material or collected in response to the requirement. The analysis reports are used to inform the remaining planning staff, influencing planning and seeking to predict adversary intent.

In the US, this process is termed the Collection Co-ordination and Intelligence Requirement Management (CCIRM).

What is the Military Intelligence Process?

In UK doctrine, the process has four phases:

  1. Direction (includes internal and external).
  2. Collection (includes exploitation of sources and delivery to appropriate processing unit).
  3. Processing (includes collation, evaluation, analysis, integration, and interpretation).
  4. Dissemination (includes a mechanism for feedback).

However, the military intelligence process can be further distilled into six phases:

  1. Planning and Direction:
    • Sets the parameters for the intelligence requirement and the intelligence objectives.
    • It includes:
      • The determination and prioritisation of intelligence requirements/objectives.
      • Planning the collection effort.
      • The issue of tasks.
      • Requests for collection of information.
      • Liaise with internal or external actors.
      • Progress of the intelligence process.
  2. Collection:
    • What collection activities need to be conducted and by whom?
    • Dedicated ISR assets and/or non-dedicated ISR assets.
    • Informed by point 1.
  3. Processing and Exploitation:
    • The conversion of information into intelligence through collation, evaluation, analysis, integration, and interpretation.
    • In this phase of the process, an analyst would be thinking comparison, reliability, accuracy, credibility, understanding what they see or hear, and re-processing of current intelligence (if new/updated information).
    • Grading of intelligence would also occur in this phase, and some form rating system would be used.
  4. Analysis and Production:
    • Analysis of intelligence to provide insight or foresight.
    • Should aid predictive analysis (but prediction can be the most demanding part of analysis), and everyone should abstain from hindsight analysis.
    • Also need to consider avoiding deception (the analyst must, by nature, be suspicious and not jump to conclusions).
    • Production of Intelligence products, assessments, and advice.
    • Intelligence products reflect their intended use and include periodic intelligence summaries, specific intelligence reports, and threat assessments.
  5. Dissemination:
    • The timely conveyance of intelligence – in an appropriate form and by any suitable means – to those who need it.
    • Disseminated products, assessments, and advice guide decisions on policy, maintenance of operational commitment, inform defence procurement decisions, and support military operations.
    • May also be provided to other military organisations, intelligence organisations and government departments (both domestic and foreign).
  6. Evaluation and Feedback:
    • Intelligence can provide an evaluation of progress, based on levels of subjective and objective measurement to inform decision-making.
    • Intelligence contributes to an assessment of whether planned activities are successful by conducting battle damage assessments, accessing HUMINT and open sources, and analysing the actions of adversaries over time to see if they have changed their approach because of the organisation’s actions.
    • In addition, intelligence can provide an assessment of the psychological effects of military activities and can support assessment and measurement for other civilian agencies.

The above is an iterative process. For example, feedback or evaluation may identify uncollected/missing information or units not given disseminated intelligence.

What is the Role of Civilians in Military Intelligence?

Military intelligence personnel will liaise with a variety of military/civilian personnel who perform a variety of functions within military intelligence, either directly or indirectly, for example:

  • Directly:
    • Defence/military analysts employed to provide analysis and reports on intelligence that has been collected (see below).
  • Indirectly:
    • Consultation with subject matter experts (SME) and specialists, both within and outwith the area concerned (refer to Table 2 below).
Type of SME/SpecialistOutline
Anthropologists and Sociologists1. Can provide assistance in understanding tribal dynamics and human factors.
2. They can also support key leadership engagement or the building of relationships.
Geographers, Academics, or Other Government Departments1. If they have a detailed or long-standing knowledge, can provide advice on a particular region or country.
Industry Experts1. Can provide insight into particular industrial processes that underpin an adversary’s capability.
Economic/Financial Experts1. Are able to give advice on the movement of funds as well as the processes for tracking and identifying such movements.
Historians1. Can provide information that is invaluable when attempting to understand the lineage, background, cultural or tribal issues and their historical allegiances, including the way that the various actors conduct war.

What is a Defence Analyst?


  • A defence analyst uses their analytical skills to review information associated with global and domestic security threats.
  • This job also refers to someone who performs analysis of criminal justice law and its administration in defence of an accused individual (not discussed here).

In Depth

  • A defence analyst works with policies and programmes that concern national safety and security.
  • In general, a defence analyst will be employed at the national government level, although there may be a variety of different branches within government/military agencies that may need to hire such an individual. With most of these types of positions, job applicants must have a great deal of military experience in order to qualify.
  • It is, by its nature, a technical and analytical role, and the individual may require a considerable amount of military/security knowledge in order to fulfil the role.
  • The role includes detailed analysis of topics or situations that deal directly with security policies and procedures on the national or international level.
  • In the United States, defence analysts may work directly for branches of the military or the US Congress, but, for the most part, they usually work for the Department of Defence.
  • Experience in quantitative analysis is useful as the role involves dealing with ‘heavy loads’ of information that must be evaluated and catalogued.
  • For many positions, at least in the US system, an individual will be expected to have an advanced degree in engineering, statistics, economics, the physical sciences, or mathematics.
  • The role, again by its nature, involves working with highly sensitive/secret information, and the individual will require top secret government security clearance (generally clean criminal records and impeccable credentials).
  • The individual must be able to communicate well with others, both verbally and in writing, using a variety of communication media.

References and Further Reading

  • Literature:
    • JP 2-0: Joint Intelligence (26 May 2022): keystone document for joint intelligence in the US military.
    • JDP 2-00: Understanding and Intelligence Support to Joint Operations (2011) (Third Edition, Change 01): describes the increasingly cross-governmental nature of intelligence and the need to work collaboratively, including with partners and allies.
    • NATO Allied JP-2: Joint Intelligence, Counter Intelligence and Security Doctrine.

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