07 October 2020

Naval Intelligence Essay Contest Winner—First Prize: “Embrace Analog Tools in a Digital Intelligence Age”

Commander Christopher Nelson, U.S. Navy, and Andrew Rhodes, “Embrace Analog Tools in a Digital Intelligence Age,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146.10 (October 2020).

  • Naval Intelligence Essay Contest Winner—First Prize
  • Cosponsored by the Naval Institute and Naval Intelligence Professionals

Summary: The naval intelligence community must strike a balance between old tools and new technology.

Commander Nelson is the deputy senior naval intelligence manager for East Asia at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.

Mr. Rhodes is a career civil servant who has served as an expert in Asia-Pacific affairs in a variety of analytic, advisory, and staff positions across the Department of Defense and the interagency. He recently graduated with highest distinction from the U.S. Naval War College and is an affiliated scholar of the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute.

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The Knowledge Professional’s Tool kit: Active Learning

There are many proven tools naval intelligence officers can use to improve this passive learning curve and embrace more active learning in training and on the job.

Physical maps, such as the one being used here by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s intelligence officers during World War II, can display a geographic area in its entirety at a resolution and a relative size that most computers and screens cannot match. U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive

A first step toward active learning begins with encouraging handwritten note-taking in training classes, and should include greater use of hand annotation in routine analysis.5 Officers trying to master the enemy’s order of battle should make their own notecards and reference documents (cheat sheets). Receiving a gouge book is not the same as making it oneself: The process of drafting a reference sheet eventually obviates the need for it—by collating, condensing, and processing the data, the officers learn it for themselves.

Flashcards are a proven analog tool, but what should today’s naval intelligence officers be memorizing? In World War II, intelligence officers would drill aircraft silhouettes with slideshows, and playing cards with silhouettes were popular gimmicks for teaching aircraft recognition in military and civilian populations. The nation’s more recent wars have produced decks of playing cards depicting people, such as key figures of the Iraqi regime. But the foundational knowledge of operational intelligence for the type of conflicts and adversaries prioritized by the National Defense Strategy should emphasize the right geography and technology. A deck of playing cards (or handmade flashcards) for today’s challenges should include key bases, distances between locations, characteristics of key military platforms, and the ranges and capabilities of key missile systems. In addition, in the age of what Chinese strategists call “informatized warfare,” it is essential to know (without looking it up) which parts of the electromagnetic spectrum a system uses to sense, communicate, or attack.

Finally, officers should embrace analog methods of active visualization by making their own maps and diagrams when studying a problem. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan himself found this technique useful: He describes using cardboard models to visually re-create past naval battles as he analyzed them for his early works on sea power.6 Similar examples of effective visualization for studying operational problems and developing new solutions are the early 20th-century gaming floors at the Naval War College and the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Tactical Unit during the Battle of the Atlantic.7 As with handwritten notes and personalized study aids, forcing a person’s mind to visualize a dynamic situation through his or her own eyes enables active study of that problem.

The Knowledge Professional’s Tool kit: Communicating

The way naval intelligence officers perform their duties has changed little in recent years, despite advances in the civilian knowledge economy.8 The use of digital tools is stale and lackluster, but bringing new digital resources to the professional toolkit is only part of the solution. Many of the operations for which these tools are needed also can be done with analog tools that serve an intelligence professional in studying the adversary, and are essential to communicating that knowledge in a coherent way.

Paper beats pixels. Large-format displays are valuable tools to illustrate a point in the moment or to serve as an “information radiator” or “kanban board” that groups can use as they come and go and a situation unfolds.9 There are good reasons why classrooms have always been filled with chalkboards, whiteboards, and maps. But in recent years, large digital screens have taken over conference rooms and displaced analog methods for large displays. Electronic displays have many advantages in the types of media they can present, but they also can reduce the resolution of the information relayed to the viewer. Statistician Edward Tufte points out that a printed sheet of paper can contain far more data and graphics than a screen, arguing that an 11” x 17” sheet folded once to be a “four-pager” easily “shows the content-equivalent of 50 to 250 typical [PowerPoint] slides.”10

For decades, simple model aircraft on sticks have been used by aviators to train and plan for battle. Naval intelligence officers could use scale models to re-create close encounters and dangerous maneuvers in the South China Sea.

Google Earth and powerful geographic information systems are valuable research and analysis tools, but analog maps remain superior in many settings. Napoleon was known to lie down on a massive table to study detailed maps with his staff; President Abraham Lincoln kept a map folded in his pocket when he visited Grant in the field; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt would study wall charts with his staff and then draw on maps to illustrate a point.11

Large physical maps or charts can do many things that images on a screen cannot. First, they can display a geographic area in its entirety at a resolution and a relative size that most computers and screens cannot match. Second, when a map is placed on a table, it encourages collaborative learning—admirals and their staffs gather around, pointing, discussing, and annotating it. This creates an interactive discussion that no digital format can accomplish. And finally, they are aesthetically pleasing. A beautiful map with the right detail has a magical effect, inviting deeper study and tactile engagement.12

At their best, knowledge management efforts do not lock users into exclusively analog or digital formats—they strike a balance. Just as ubiquitous printers make digital words and images more permanent and portable, scanners and software allow users to digitize, share, and render searchable their analog holdings. Scanners and digitization software, however, are not deployed widely enough in the intelligence community. All-source intelligence officers would be more effective with fewer barriers to scanning foreign language publications and media, preparing them for databasing and computer-assisted translation with optical character recognition, and cross-referencing with other databases. The same tools also would aid officers in storing and sharing the notes, personalized references, and visual aids they generate in active learning.

Rock beats paper. Physical objects, such as scale models and sand tables, present a three-dimensional and tactile connection to a problem set. A briefer can manipulate the object to visualize its position and context in space and time. For example:

  •  Manipulating multiple models together allows a briefer to tell a compelling and dynamic story. For decades, aviators have used simple model aircraft on sticks to analyze and explain the subtle relationships of speed, angles, and distance in combat engagements. Intelligence professionals should use similar means to re-create close encounters and dangerous maneuvers in the South China Sea, using detailed models that faithfully depict the relative size, shape, and motion of the ships. Briefing with this technique would take Mahan’s method for analyzing positions and use it to communicate analytic conclusions.
  • Terrain and building models, from crude sand tables in the field to works by professional model makers, are another proven analog technique used to prepare units for deployment, plan daring raids, and brief Presidents.13 Today’s intelligence professionals could communicate more effectively by breaking out of formulaic slideware and embracing visual aids with three dimensions. They could strike a balance of digital and analog by using inexpensive 3D digital printers to create physical models as dynamic briefing aids.

Embrace your inner artist. The suggestions above call for intelligence professionals not only to use more analog tools, but also to employ them creatively in ways that might seem outmoded or unpolished. The true test should be the effectiveness of the communication. It was not too long ago that drawing pictures by hand was a valued skill among military officers. A hand-drawn diagram may not look as “finished” as a PowerPoint slide, but it will be truer to the precise point the officer is trying to convey, can include more details and subtlety of line than PowerPoint will ever allow, and will prove field-expedient when everything else breaks. … … …