Levels of Intelligence


According to U.S. joint doctrine, each level of war has a corresponding level of intelligence.[i] This enables the flow of information and intelligence to move up and down each level of command. Further, the levels of intelligence construct enables leaders at all levels of war to make decisions on the allocation of intelligence capabilities. However, the paradigm of tactical, operational, and strategic intelligence does not account for institutional intelligence, or how the services and the nation plan to defeat threats in the long-term future.

Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC
   1     Levels of Intelligence per Joint Publication 2-0.  This fails to account for Institutional Intelligence

Figure 1 Levels of Intelligence per Joint Publication 2-0.  This fails to account for Institutional Intelligence

Tactical Intelligence

In U.S. joint doctrine, tactical intelligence is defined as “Tactical intelligence is used by commanders, planners, and operators for planning and conducting battles, engagements, and special missions.”[ii] Further, tactical intelligence centers on immediate threats faced by these respective commanders.

The consequences of tactical intelligence failure can lead to the loss of life, the loss of equipment, and the loss of battles. However, failure of tactical intelligence is not the cause for a nation losing a war. Further, investment in and success of tactical intelligence is not a panacea for failures at the operational, strategic, and institutional levels of war.

Operational Intelligence

Similar to operational level planning, operational intelligence occurs within joint commands such as Combatant Commands or subordinate joint force headquarters. Operational intelligence assists commanders of various service level units to act in unison.

When one nation achieves complete surprise at the onset of a war, the result is often characterized as strategic surprise, or a result of strategic intelligence failure. Examples include the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Egypt’s surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However, these attacks incurred a strictly military defeat, both of which the United States and Israel respectively overcame. Indeed, no matter how many ships the Japanese were able to sink on December 7th, the United States possessed the institutional capacity to produce more ships and sailors than the Japanese could ever throw into the Pacific.

The consequences of operational intelligence failures range from the defeat of tactical units on the battlefield to the loss of theater level campaigns. However, in a similar manner to the tactical level, strategic success can overcome operational failure.

Strategic Intelligence

U.S. Joint doctrine looks to strategic intelligence to assist in the development of weapon system and force structure requirements.[iii] While this may be true for short term changes to force structure, the long-term changes to force structure and capabilities development falls under the new concept of institutional intelligence.

The consequences of strategic level failure are dire, but not necessarily a threat to the existence of a nation. At times, strategic level failure is simply the inability to predict global events. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised intelligence professionals around the globe.

U.S. Joint doctrine offers up assistance in determining major weapons systems and force structure requirements as an aspect of strategic intelligence.[iv] This is where current joint doctrine misses the boat. Joint intelligence doctrine lumps capabilities development in the same bin as strategy and policy development. In doing so, the doctrine conflates two distinct skill sets of intelligence professionals, and passes on the opportunity to recognize the unique talents of intelligence personnel who can look  not only at a map, but into the far and distant future.

Institutional Intelligence

Institutional Intelligence is a combination of how the services develop planning scenarios that enable capability development for the mid to long-range future, and how the services understand the domestic environment to enable the manning, equipping, and training of the joint force.  

Institutional intelligence relies on assumptions more than any other level of war. In the development of scenarios, services must consider the future combat capabilities of foreign adversaries as well as the potential capabilities of our own, and allied nations. This could include advancements in weapons technology such as artillery that can shoot further, or rotary wing aviation that can fly greater distances on less fuel.

More than assuming future technologies, institutional intelligence must look at possible enemies and adversaries in the distant future. While it can be safe to assume that some competitors in today’s world will be the same three decades from now, it is also possible for friendly nations to turn based on their domestic politics, as in the case of Iran in 1979. Moreover, enemies and adversaries can quickly turn into allies, as in the case of Eastern European Warsaw Pact nations following the demise of the Soviet Union.

Much of institutional intelligence occurs in the unclassified domain. Documents such as the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report emphasize this need.[v] Indeed, developing a picture of the future involves various research agencies, businesses, and other organizations outside of government.

One of the best examples of institutional intelligence is the development of the various Army College War Games in the inter-war period. Students attending the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania planned against potential conflicts against a variety of nations. These scenarios led to the development of War Plan Orange, the plan to defeat Japan, which was, conceptualized prior the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The consequences of institutional level intelligence failure can damage the nation. The effects of preparing for the wrong war, or entering the next war with the wrong capabilities can lead to strategic or national level defeat. The failure of the German Air force to develop the proper capabilities to conduct strategic bombing directly led to its defeat in the Battle of London.[vi]  

Understanding the Domestic Enviornment

Tactical, Operational, and Strategic Intelligence tend to focus on the operational environment overseas. Any intelligence shop of value to a commander visualizes aspects of the terrain, the population, and enemy forces. Institutional intelligence is paramount in how the military prepares for the next war. Operational and Strategic leaders must know and understand the domestic environment as a way of understanding the capabilities of their own service.

Institutional intelligence should focus on domestic conditions. Leaders responsible for manning, equipping, and training the force must understand domestic demographics and trends. This aids in decisions such as where and how to focus recruitment efforts, and how to encourage career service members to stay in the force.

Military strategists and those responsible for raising a force should understand the domestic economy and its impact on recruitment and retention of service members. Unlike intelligence focused on the enemy, institutional intelligence should provide leaders with an understanding of high tech corporations as a competitor for human capital. When China or Russia implements a new military or economic policy, hordes of analysts study the impacts it may have in the event of a conflict. The US military should do the same as domestic policy changes in line with election cycles.

Knowing oneself has long been mantra of wise advice. The Oracle at Delphi, Sun Tzu, and Army doctrine on leadership have all advocated for understanding yourself before fighting an adversary. Nations across the globe spend enormous amount of resources on understanding foreign nations and the likelihood of future conflict. The United States invests in the study of nations like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and Russia to gain an understanding on how they may conduct warfare in the future. Indeed, the United States Army has an entire functional area of foreign affairs officers who serve commanders and US embassies as experts on various nations and regions across the globe.

The nation that has the most impact on the nature of a conflict is our own. The enemy does get a vote, but our vote still counts. Understanding our own nation’s demographics and culture to build an Army around it is equally if not more paramount for success in future conflict.


[i] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013.

[ii] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013.

[iii] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013. Pg. I-24

[iv] ibid

[v] Letter from the NIC Chairman https://www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends/letter-nic-chairman

[vi] Williamson Murray. 1983. Strategy For Defeat The Luftwaffe 1933-1945. Air University Press. Maxwell Airforce Base, Alabama.