Defence and Aerospace special report: ‘Intelligence is now the highest currency’

Series Title
Series Details 18/10/01, Volume 7, Number 38
Publication Date 18/10/2001
Content Type

Date: 18/10/01

A month after the horrific attacks on New York and Washington, it has already become a cliché to say “the world will never be the same again”.

But like all clichés, it is based on the truth: until 11 September most of the world - regardless of north-south, east-west divides - existed within a loose but agreed set of assumptions regarding war, terrorism defence and security.

Wars occurred between sovereign states, as in the Iran-Iraq conflict or 1991 Gulf War; or else were internal civil wars of various kinds, as in Rwanda, the Balkans or Afghanistan.

Terrorism was a collective term for acts of death and destruction committed by individuals against sovereign states, which, however awful or large scale - as in the Canary Wharf or Lockerbie bombings - were still mostly seen as internal problems.

Within this spectrum, defence was defined as the measures states took to protect themselves from wars, or else enable them to engage in conflict if need be. Security was a broad term for countries protecting their citizens from internal danger, encompassing everything from theft to terrorism, and was mostly associated with policing. All these divisions have been blurred since the attacks on the US. Clearly acts of terrorism, their sheer scale effectively transformed them into an act of war.

More significantly, they have drawn a response of war from the US, its NATO allies and the ad hoc coalition which has been formed to fight against the perpetrators of this specific massive crime, and terrorism at large. As a result, defence forces - armies, air forces etc - have been sent into combat against individuals rather than another state, whilst security forces - police, secret services - are becoming engaged in national defence in the US and Europe. In other words, defence and security are no longer distinct categories, and this shift will have far-reaching implications.

The first implication has already become obvious: definitions of 'the enemy', also known as 'threat assessment' in professional parlance, have completely changed. Indeed, it is worth recalling that in the distant era before 11 September, the US and Europe were engaged in a deep disagreement over missile defence which essentially revolved around threat assessment: the US claimed a threat existed from rogue states, which is why a missile shield was necessary, and Europe disagreed. But neither seriously considered terrorism to be a serious defence risk.

That was because there was a clear distinction between the threat posed by states (which was a defence issue) and individuals (which was a security issue). Now the enemy is understood to be both the terrorists and the states that harbour them, for both defence and security purposes.

This leads to the second implication, which is that battlefields are now global, in every way. Throughout the 1990s battlefields such as Bosnia or Kosovo became virtually global through the media, and global as in all-encompassing, since every street, house and remote hill became the battlefield. But nonetheless these wars still involved two or three sides of a specific conflict in a specific location. No more.

Now every corner of the globe has become the battlefield - since the terrorist enemy could strike anywhere or be harboured in any state, and the war against this enemy could be taken anywhere, however remote.

The third implication is therefore that the nature of battle will be changed. In fact, it is changing before our eyes, as we watch the conflict in Afghanistan unfold. Air power and special forces are now the mainstay of war, alongside advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities and missiles.

In other words, relatively few, highly trained humans and awesome technological capabilities have become the methods of this modern war.

Central to this trend are the unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which eliminate the role of humans entirely. They look rather like model aircraft and basically operate in the same way. They are controlled from a great distance and, depending on the pod attached to them, can relay back surveillance pictures in real time, or even carry a missile.

The mass use of UAVs, as also the general trends of combat, started to become obvious in the Kosovo conflict, but in Afghanistan it has been honed to the extreme.

Based on the former three, the fourth implication is that defence planning is now going to incorporate a lot of security issues, and vice versa. The first sign of this was seen two weeks ago, when NATO dispatched five AWACS to the US, as part of its Article V commitment. AWACS are Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft - basically gutted aeroplanes that have been fitted with very sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities. Unlike drones, these are manned surveillance instruments, designed to cruise over and around designated locations, providing intelligence and early-warning capabilities.

In this case, they have apparently been sent to the US to replace similar national assets that are now being used against Afghanistan. But whether they will be used for the security of the US or as part of the war against terrorism is unknown - and in a sense not entirely relevant, since the two have become one and the same thing.

We are now living in a new world: a world in which tanks and guns cannot defend us; a world in which military forces must assist police forces, and special forces are supreme. A world in which intelligence is the highest currency - since it is the real power against terrorists. And terrorists are now the real and absolute enemy, anywhere and everywhere.

  • Dr Ilana Bet-El is senior policy advisor with GPC International Public Affairs and Communications in Brussels. Formerly senior advisor on the Balkans in the UN Department of Political Affairs and a senior political analyst in Bosnia, she specialises in international defence and political strategy.
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