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Open-Source Intelligence: The Tool of First Resort in Ukraine War

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • May 04, 2023

    Historically, secrecy has been a critical element associated with intelligence operations. 1 However, this is now rapidly changing with open-source intelligence readily available to military leaders as well as security analysts. The technological advances in open-source intelligence have vastly increased the quantity and quality of information available to planners and practitioners, making the notion of secrecy seem less relevant. For intelligence agencies, any reluctance to embrace the revolution in open-source intelligence by privileging past practices of intelligence, where ‘secrecy and secretiveness’ has been the paramount code of conduct, could limit their effectiveness in future wars. Yet, there are befitting reasons to believe that ‘secrecy’ in intelligence operations will continue to play a dominant role, but with an all-new meaning, is the key matter.

    Open-source intelligence has played a significant role in the depiction of the Ukraine War. Commercial imagery from high-resolution satellites provides real-time intelligence in terms of troop mobilisation, troop concentrations, movement of heavy equipment and logistic echelons. While satellite imagery contributes to planning at the strategic level, social media apps like Tik-tok, Telegram and Twitter (the 3Ts) have been transforming the tactical battlespace like never before.2 A whole new industry of analysts from diverse backgrounds have emerged, using these real-time images, videos and data to depict the progress of the Ukraine War. Elsewhere, professional intelligence platforms like BellingCat and others demonstrate how open-source intelligence can be used to reveal an adversary’s activities in ways and detail that would have been a laborious intelligence activity in the past.

    Ukraine’s ability to seamlessly integrate traditional sources of military intelligence with open-source intelligence into its ground operations marks the arrival of new-age intelligence tools. The fusion of strategic-level and tactical-level intelligence with open-source and reconnaissance inputs from unmanned platforms has been the key to Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian invasion. No wonder many security experts argue that open-source intelligence is fast emerging as the ‘tool of first resort’ in present-day intelligence operations.3    

    Intelligence in Ukraine War

    Military intelligence operations in the future will be determined profoundly by the Ukraine War experience. Today, we barely need any classified imagery to pick out a military build-up. Satellite imagery which used to be the sole preserve of the intelligence agencies is now available at a low cost, while online apps have brought transparency on the battlefield. The Ukraine War proves that when this low-cost imagery and open-source data collected through diverse agencies and quarters is fused and analysed, it becomes a vital contributor to the overall intelligence picture.

    Three aspects explain Ukraine’s impactful use of open-source intelligence for operational purposes: the willingness (of the West) to share strategic and tactical-level intelligence, as part of the foreign intelligence liaison, with the Ukrainians; the importance of commercial imagery in locating and fighting back the Russian advance; and the salience of open-source intelligence and online apps for enhanced situational awareness on the battlefront. 4

    Firstly, there is a growing importance of foreign intelligence liaison in the Ukraine War. Foreign intelligence liaison is a routine amongst strategic allies and partners, but this can only be useful if the recipient military is capable of integrating the inputs provided by the partner country into a cogent intelligence picture. The Ukrainians seem to have done well to incorporate intelligence inputs received through military liaison with domestic intelligence and open-source intelligence, which attests to the impact of its intelligence agencies and their practices.

    Although much of it is under wraps, the importance of the Western world supplying intelligence to Ukraine cannot be underestimated. This is primarily at two levels. At an operational level, the United States has been sharing intelligence with Kyiv to develop its military response to Russia’s invasion for a long time. From a strategic perspective, by making better use of publicly available information and intelligence, the West has been able to shape a strong coalition amongst its allies against Russia and in a way, strengthen Ukraine’s resolve to fight a superior adversary.

    What makes this conflict unique is the unprecedented willingness of foreign governments to assist Ukraine by providing satellite –imagery-based intelligence, and unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance effort to shape its responses on the battlefront. Foreign military liaison is a two-way street: how much intelligence the donor country is willing to share and how much of it is useful to the recipient state, without being overly caveated or constrained.

    Secondly, the sharing of commercial imagery with Ukraine in locating and fighting back the Russian advance has been a key factor in the war. The proliferation of high-resolution satellites has revolutionised the availability of low-cost commercial imagery, with enhanced granularity, coverage and efficiency, required for timely analysis and interpretation. The Ukrainian military has made good use of this imagery made available by firms like MAXAR Technologies,5 Blacksky and Canadian RADARSAT-2.6 This imagery when combined with social media posts streamed by sympathetic civilians and partisans along or across the battlefront, have provided real-time inputs on the Russian build-up.

    While detecting troop and logistic build-up is simple and straightforward, assessing an adversary’s intent can be difficult. For any imagery to be useful, intelligence analysts have to look beyond the routine movements and deployments, to ascertain any activity the adversary might have undertaken to reveal his intent or aims. The power of intelligence fusion and analytics is vital to establish intent. A layperson using imagery might be able to identify a platform as an artillery gun, a tank, or an infantry-carrying vehicle. However, if these inputs are analysed at an intelligence fusion centre with human intelligence inputs, the make, model, and units to which they might belong and likely areas of deployment or employment can be inferred. In this war, Palantir Technologies and a few others have provided their services to the Ukrainians to analyse how the war has been unfolding in terms of troop movements and battlefield damage assessments to good success.7

    Evidently, with an assured supply of publicly or commercially available satellite imagery and associated processing technologies, it is very well possible to alter the military disadvantage that a weaker country possesses against a stronger state.8

    And thirdly, there is a growing salience of open-source intelligence and online apps in this war. Ukraine’s smart integration of intelligence received from domestic sources with that provided by friendly governments, or obtained from open-source intelligence, has been remarkable. Since actionable intelligence has low shelf-life, Ukraine’s intelligence outfits have been agile in processing and sharing of information received from diverse intelligence sources, with visible effects on the battlefield. For instance, Ukraine made extensive use of Russia’s un-coded radio and phone transmissions, due to the inadequacy of secure tactical radios with the Russian military, to its advantage. 

    What has become clear now, is how the Ukrainian population acts as one large ‘sponge’ for collecting intelligence on Russian movements and deployments. Ukraine’s tech-savvy citizenry with smartphones have turned the state into a large, distributed and open-source network for information collation. The presence of the motivated citizenry with smartphones, in and around the battlefront, provides a wider scope of intelligence collection than any traditional means.

    On its part, the Ukrainian government has taken a step further by allowing its citizens to post pictures and videos of troop movements, geo-tagged on its country-wide public service app called DIIA, for instant use by military units on the battlefield.9  

    The Future of Open-Source Intelligence

    Today, intelligence is becoming ‘all-source’. As one expert argues, open-source intelligence now looks much like a sovereign intelligence enterprise, increasingly replacing traditional intelligence as the mainstream intelligence.10 High-resolution platforms provide imagery that allows security analysts to track troop movement and build-up at low cost, while smartphones allow instant sharing of tactical-level updates.  The tracking of Russia’s military manoeuvres by space-based sensors, like Maxar, Planet and others is another example of how the state’s monopoly on intelligence operations is increasingly coming under pressure. Satellites, Star-Links and smartphones are the new tools of intelligence, making open-source intelligence as the tool of ‘first resort’ in military operations.      

    However, it is also apparent that open-source intelligence cannot replace traditional intelligence practices such as HUMINT (Human Intelligence), SIGINT (Signals Intelligence), ELINT (Electronic Intelligence), IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) or MASINT (Measurement and Signature Intelligence) and for good reasons. While open-source data can give insights into an adversary’s capabilities, it does not inform on his intent. This interpretation tussle between the capabilities and intentions is eternal.11 A similar debate was up last year about the Russian build-up and it took a long time for intelligence analysts worldwide to figure out Russia’s intent.

    Military commanders often lack precise insights into ‘what’ an adversary is thinking or planning to do and they tend to substitute with pre-disposed perceptions. In such circumstances, the traditional intelligence practices are more valuable as these tend to collect and process information, intuitively and imaginatively, to arrive at reasoned military deductions. But then, traditional intelligence systems are forever in high demand and in this information-dense age, they cannot be omnipresent and need to be complimented by other means to meet battlefront aspirations.

    Open-source intelligence has its other shortcomings too. With the proliferation of smartphones and low-cost imagery in the hands of wily analysts, it becomes easier to spread misinformation or cause disinformation. Misinformation or disinformation are not new tools, but in this age of AI, they make it difficult for analysts to distinguish between real or fake information.12 When text-generating and image-generating apps are taking the world by storm, intelligence-craft will have to increasingly rely more and more on human expertise, and not open-source alone, to decipher between good and bad intelligence.

    The Ukrainian experience will influence future military campaigns. In an era, when anyone can be an intelligence aggregator, analyst, and user, this war compels nations to re-think the relationship between intelligence, statecraft and military operations.13 This war proves that the gap between what the governments know and what the analysts can discover is shrinking with the widespread proliferation of high-quality, open-source low cost data, and diffusion of AI-driven analytical tools and platforms.14 As a policy pointer, life-like videos and images on smartphones and low-end computers can make warring sides miscalculate, making digital deception a new phenomenon in future wars.

    Amid this backdrop, lawmakers, policymakers and military practitioners might have to re-assess the relationship between the traditional and new tools of intelligence, and their inter-se relationship with respect to secrecy and transparency.  Amongst other learnings, there is a compelling case to create agile, Open-source Intelligence Enterprises (OSINT-Es)15 within the secret world of intelligence to keep pace with futuristic demands on intelligence for quick decision-making on the battlefield.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.