/ 17 October 2023

War starts when intelligence fails

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The mother of Mia Shem holds up a photo of her daughter, who was kidnapped by Hamas militants, at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the world watches the tragic unfolding of another major conflict between Israel and Hamas armed forces, many have questioned how Israel’s considerable and sophisticated intelligence resources failed to detect the build-up of arms and ultimate large-scale attack. 

However, such intelligence failures are not uncommon in the history of warfare.

One of the most infamous military intelligence failures occurred on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbour. The attack resulted in the destruction of numerous battleships and aircraft and the loss of over 2 400 American lives. 

Weeks prior to the attack, US intelligence was bombarded with indications of a potential Japanese attack on US forces but these were dismissed based on an underestimation of Japan’s capabilities and an assumption that it would not dare attack the US directly. The US entered the war the following day.

Later in World War II, in 1944, Allied military intelligence detected a build-up of German troops near the Ardennes region in Belgium. Intelligence reports of this build-up were dismissed on the basis that Germany lacked the resources to counterattack and it would be impossible for a military force to advance through the dense forests of the Ardennes. 

This is despite the fact that the Germans had successfully advanced through the same area at the commencement of World War II and circumvented the French Maginot defensive line which, ironically, stopped at the same point for the same reasons. The resultant Battle of the Bulge took the Allied forces by surprise and resulted in one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war. 

During the Vietnam War, on 30 January 1968, the North Vietnamese forces launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on cities in South Vietnam during celebrations of the Vietnamese new year. The so-called “Tet Offensive” exposed several intelligence failures on the part of the US and South Vietnamese forces, who believed that the enemy was on the brink of defeat and that a sizable urban offensive was unlikely. 

The Tet Offensive took the US and South Vietnamese forces by surprise, leading to a temporary loss of control over several cities and regions, heavy fighting, and a substantial increase in casualties. TV images, such as those showing North Vietnamese forces within the heavily fortified US embassy compound, had a profound impact on public opinion in the US, contributing to the growing anti-war sentiment and arguably caused the ultimate withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam.

Fifty years ago, almost to the day of the latest Hamas attacks, Egypt and Syria launched a co-ordinated attack against Israel in what has become known as the “Yom Kippur War”. Again, although intelligence reports pointed to escalating Egyptian and Syrian military manoeuvres, these were dismissed by Israeli intelligence as mere posturing. 

The Israeli high command simply did not believe that Egypt or Syria would want to risk another heavy defeat so soon after that inflicted on them in the Six Day War in 1967. This belief was so rooted in the armed forces that any evidence to the contrary was dismissed as not credible. The resultant war re-drew Israeli borders and led to the resignation of prime minister Golda Meir.

While the analysis of the current failure of Israeli intelligence has yet to be finalised, it is possible to discern some common failures in respect of all of these events.

The first of these is a lack of imagination. Militaries tend to prepare based on the wars they have fought. As a result, in each instance, intelligence operatives and their superiors simply could not conceive of enemy action that did not conform to their worldview and planning. Any evidence to the contrary was dismissed as implausible.

In an attempt to counter this, and after the intelligence failures of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence introduced a so-called “Red Team” or “Devil’s advocate” department that was set up to counter groupthink and to ensure that diverse opinions were not ignored by decision-makers.. 

However, the success of such red teaming is often determined by their make-up and the extent to which they feel comfortable telling their superiors they are wrong. In addition, if the scenarios postulated by the red team do not eventuate, the value of their role is diminished in the eyes of the intelligence community. 

Some of history’s best intelligence successes have been achieved by non-military personnel. In both world wars, German military codes were broken by people with skills not typically associated with the military. Linguists, mathematicians, and even crossword experts, able to approach challenges from different angles, created a diversity in thinking that was instrumental in their success.

Another common link between these intelligence failures is the confusion between “intentions” and “capabilities”. In each instance, there was a focus on gathering intelligence on the capabilities of the enemy rather than their intentions. The assumption was that if your enemies lack the capability to wage war, this means they have no intention to do so. 

Intentions are best determined by having embedded human intelligence resources able to establish what is in the minds of the enemy. Instead of cultivating such sources, or because of the difficulty in doing so, the Israeli military appears to have relied on non-human high-tech surveillance and intelligence-gathering methods. Having information about enemy capabilities and movements is not enough if you cannot join the dots and determine their intentions. 

In the present case, it is doubtful that bulldozers, off-the-shelf drones and paragliders were considered a threat — unless there was an understanding of their intended use.

Finally, in each instance, overconfidence played a significant role. When decision-makers are overly confident of their military or intelligence superiority, they might assume that their opponents are less capable or less motivated than they actually are, resulting in a failure to adequately prepare for potential threats. 

Given the relative inactivity of Hamas prior to its large-scale attack, Israeli intelligence might have felt confident that Hamas had been subdued by ongoing counterterrorism operations and that it lacked the capability to launch a massive attack.

All of these intelligence failures had significant implications, not only for the combatants and their civilian populations, but also for the wider geopolitical order. Arguably, had these intelligence failures not have happened, the resultant conflicts might not have occurred, alternatively, the scope thereof might have been significantly reduced. 

Shaun Read is the founder and CEO of Read Advisory Services.