The public furor over the National Security Agency’s (NSA) programs for collecting American’s electronic communications and “eavesdropping” on the phone calls of world leaders misses the really interesting story. The media has been chasing this story for months and has yet to demonstrate a serious breach of the public trust. Even the reports that the NSA has been tapping the phones of world leaders, including U.S. allies, is much ado about nothing. Who really cares if Angela Merkel takes sauerkraut on her bratwursts to go? And if you think foreign intelligence services aren’t doing the very same thing to U.S. leaders, you are just naïve.
The real story about the NSA is its role in supporting military operations. In the digital age, the NSA is a key player in what the military calls the “kill chain.” The kill chain is the connected array of sensors, communications networks, information processing and targeting systems, military platforms and weapons systems that the U.S. military uses to execute offensive operations. Electronic eavesdropping was a central element in the Allies’ successful campaign against German submarines in World War II. Whether it is the nuclear strike plan (or SIOP), the air campaign that suppressed Saddam Hussein’s air defenses in Operation Iraqi Freedom or the Special Forces Operation that took out Osama bin Laden, there is always a kill chain and that chain involves electronic intelligence collection.
When NSA Director General Keith Alexander refers to the dozens of terrorist plots that were foiled as a result of electronic intelligence, he means that the information gleaned from electronic collection efforts was employed to direct other sensors and, eventually, military and security forces, to a specific target. That target could be a bomb, the bomb maker, the factory in which the device was built or the higher ups in the terrorist network that direct attacks or fund them. How the military and law enforcement choose to prosecute those targets can vary greatly depending on circumstances. But having the right intelligence is critical to any counter-terrorism operation.
The NSA has a critical role to play in defeating Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threats. Electronic intelligence has long been a central feature in U.S. operations to defeat hostile air defenses, what is called SEAD. The NSA gathers critical information on the status of such defenses, their locations and movements, operational practices and tactics. By monitoring the communications of other nations’ strategic and theater ballistic missile forces, the NSA provides U.S. leaders with strategic warning. This kind of intelligence also is used to tell U.S. forces what enemy sensor systems are seeing and hearing, allowing them to break the enemy’s kill chain.
Wars of the future, across the spectrum of conflict are increasingly information dependent. As foreign countries become more IT dependent, particularly for their military capabilities, the role of the NSA and electronic intelligence collection, in general, will become more important.
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