Document created: 04 May 2004
Air University Review, July-August 1971

Air Force Technical Intelligence

Colonel Robert B. Kalisch

Admiral Thomas H. Moorer prior to becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “I believe that the greatest military danger facing our country lies in the possibility of a major technical surprise.”1 As this nation reduces its investment in military technology and development, the need to prevent technological surprise becomes even more important.2 When U.S. technology is foremost, the chance of an unbalancing breakthrough from a nation of lesser technological strength is not so great. Now with the steadily burgeoning Soviet investment in science and technology, the chance of a new development that could break the nuclear stalemate is increasing.3 This ankle traces the early Air Corps commitment to the prevention of technological surprise down to the present problems of technical intelligence. The period up to 1945 differed greatly from the later developments, 1945 to the present. Organizational unity within the Air Force during much of this latter period had a major influence on the attitudes of the current technical intelligence community. Technical intelligence growth has been a direct response to the technological military threat. The increasing complexity of modern weapon systems has created new aspects of technical intelligence. In this article I shall outline and discuss such aspects as technical intelligence priorities, the significance of warfare systems, the growing importance of science to technical intelligence, and the complexities of net assessments.

early air technical intelligence

Military requirements for technical intelligence were minimal prior to World War II. A few farsighted Air Corps leaders such as Major William (Billy) Mitchell, Chief of European Intelligence Section of the War Department (1912), and Major Raynal C. Bolling (1917) foresaw the need for air technical intelligence.4 Despite their efforts, only a modest capability existed in 1941. Realization of the importance of air technical intelligence was slow because of the attitude that technological surprise would not be a decisive factor in a major war. In earlier wars between industrial nations, technical advances were not crucial.

World War II changed these attitudes. New technology dominated events. Radar, antisubmarine warfare, sonar, fighter aircraft design, ballistic missiles, aerodynamic missiles, and atomic weapons created major technological imbalances. These technological asymmetries gave rise to the first real opportunities for technical intelligence.

During World War II one approach to the introduction of a significant new technology was to counter with simple, unsophisticated direct action. One such example was the German V-1 launcher deployment. V-1 launch sites had been identified as “ski sites” by the British from aerial photography.5 “Operation Crossbow” was designed to destroy these sites by aerial bombardment. A high priority was given to their destruction. Yet, during much of this period the Allies were not sure of the purpose or the operational characteristics of the V-1 sites.6 This was a “knee-jerk” response to new technology: if the enemy valued certain facilities, destroy them. The enemy’s enthusiasm in repairing facilities served as a guide for the bombing priority.

Few of the technical intelligence opportunities of World War II were elegantly exploited. Those that were exploited at all usually followed the pattern of capturing enemy equipment (airplanes, guns, torpedoes, or mines) and analyzing it.7 While this technique led to the birth of practical technical intelligence, it was ill suited to counter certain types of the new World War II military hardware, such as radar or atomic weapons. These problems required a more sophisticated approach.

One hint of the potential of technical intelligence analysis was given by the V-2 incident. Some months before the Germans launched the V-2 missiles against London, the Soviets observed a number of large blast craters on the Polish front. An Army Air Corps team went to Poland, retrieved some fragments, and returned to England. By assembling these fragments, a joint British-American team was able to identify the new weapon as a ballistic missile. Once the weapon had been identified, efforts were made to establish suitable countermeasures.8

the cold war

In the twenty-five years following World War II, the need for subtle technical intelligence methodology steadily increased. Nonhostile techniques for obtaining technical data on major enemy weapon systems had to be developed. Each weapon system had to be assessed from the viewpoint of its possible effect in altering the cold war balance of power.

Radar, aircraft missiles, space vehicles, and nuclear weapons dominated the intelligence efforts of this period. Each new radar posed a challenge from the viewpoint of the Strategic Air Command penetration capability and the possibility of effective electronic counter-measures. New Soviet interceptor aircraft raised questions of air defense doctrine, aircraft intercept capability, air-to-air armament, and effective counter actions. Soviet missiles and satellites established a new increased dependence on the technical intelligence analyst. Technical intelligence required not only new collection techniques but also identification of the parameters to define the threat. Public statements by national leaders are evidence of the apparent success of this aspect of technical intelligence.

major areas of technical intelligence

Four major areas characterize technical intelligence activity to date: 
    1. Preventing technological surprise.  
    2. Advancing U.S. technology by use of foreign technology.  
    3. Identifying weaknesses in foreign weapon systems.  
    4. Using certain design traits of foreign weapon systems as indicators of strategic intent.

Each area has a “success story” to tell, but much of it cannot be told now for security reasons. Characteristic unclassified achievements can be cited to give the reader an indication of the progress that has been achieved.

Technological surprise. Two interesting examples of prevention of technological surprise are the forewarning of the Soviet ICBM threat and the warning of the Soviet fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). Dr. Harold Brown has described the importance of intelligence evaluations in the former case:

A good example of the two-edged nature of lead time and intelligence estimates is the intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Soviets were working on in the early 1950s. Knowledge that they were developing an I.C.B.M. was a major factor in the initiation of our own program in l954-55. But the Soviets did not have a substantial I.C.B.M. capability until 1962, an elapsed time of about ten years. Starting two or three years later, we managed to finish about two years earlier than they.10

Another possibility of technological surprise was nullified during the Soviet development of the fractional orbital bombardment system. The advantage of this class of system is that it permits an attack on an unusual trajectory, presumably one which would minimize the probability of detection.11 Technical intelligence can assess what trajectories can be used, which trajectories would be most effective, possible countermeasures, and mass launch capability evaluations. This input coupled with U.S. strategic force deployment and strike plans can provide the all-important net assessment of the significance of the FOBS. This is another way in which technical intelligence can prevent technological surprise.

Transfer of technology. The national research and development “slowdown” has caused some writers to speculate on the nature of the technological threat. George Fielding Eliot has said:

. . . danger to the U.S. of technical surprise probably does not lie in the sudden appearance of a decisive Soviet weapon system against which we would be helpless. It lies rather in the steady year-to-year cumulative gains which Soviet devotion to technological competition and determination . . . may produce.12

This hazard may be reduced by the transfer of advanced foreign technology to domestic use, a post-World War II example being Project Paperclip. Paperclip was designed to allow Axis scientists and engineers to continue their work in the United States after the war.13 The net result of this effort was that the highly sophisticated missile and jet aircraft technology of the Germans was effectively transferred to this nation.

Such opportunities rarely occur. A more common situation is that a nation, having developed a militarily important technology, jealously guards it. The Soviet technology in chemical and biological warfare is probably quite advanced compared to the U.S. state of the art.”14 However, no simple transfer of this technology is possible. Such a transfer could only result from intensive intelligence efforts by analysts well schooled in the issues of chemical and biological warfare as well as the techniques of intelligence collection and analysis. Despite the difficulties, it is the job of technical intelligence to transfer the foreign technology as well as assess the threat posed by it.

Identification of weapon system weaknesses. The technical intelligence effort to identify the weaknesses of potential adversaries’ weapon systems is operationally important and highly visible. Of major significance to the Air Force are the capabilities of the Communist bloc interceptors. Theoretical estimates and engineering evaluations are usually adequate for performance data or aircraft vulnerability studies. In some cases, however, only flight-test experience will suffice. Such a situation arose during the Korean conflict. Parts from damaged MIG-15 aircraft were available for analysis, but General Benjamin W. Chidlaw and Colonel H. E. Watson wanted a MIG-15 intact for flight test.15 As a result of their efforts, a defector flew a fully operational MIG-15 in to Kimpo Air Base at Seoul in 1953. This windfall established the credibility of technical intelligence. Actual flight tests confirmed the aircraft characteristics previously estimated by engineering analysis of damaged aircraft.

As brilliant as the MIG-15 exploit was, it could not serve as a model for future technical intelligence problems. Captured hardware has rarely been available during the cold war. Instead, remote sensing techniques, extensive engineering analysis, and logical deductions based on Soviet systems concepts have provided the basis for hardware evaluations.

Determination of strategic intent. Modern weapon systems are exceedingly complex. A system may be so complex or may require compatibility with several other systems so that there can be no overall optimization. Such a situation is resolved by subsystem optimization. The nature of the subsystem optimization may be indicative of the intent of the system. In fact one might deduce the overall system intent more readily in this way than by study of the entire system.

Examples of disclosure of system strategic intent from a subsystem are not uncommon. Analysis of the Soviet SS-9 ICBM illustrates the point. The underlying question was the Soviet intent in their large SS-9 deployment.16 Dr. John S. Foster, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Department of Defense, described the situation as follows:

Although we are not positive that the multiple warheads being tested on the Soviet SS-9 ICBM are designed for multiple hard-target destruction, we do know that the guidance and control system employed in the SS-9 tests has capabilities much greater than that required to implement a simple MRV. The things we do know about this mechanization are completely compatible with MIRV even though they do not prove a MIRV capability. . . . My own judgment in this matter is that the Soviet triplet probably is a MIRV and that it has little other function than the attack of large numbers of hard targets.17

Such an analysis has profound implications. If one accepts Dr. Foster’s conclusions, the Soviets appear committed to a greater emphasis on a counterforce strategy.18 This in turn creates an increased sense of urgency for programs intended to decrease the vulnerability of the U.S. strategic force.

current technical intelligence

Several fundamentally new factors affect the role of technical intelligence. These factors are likely to accelerate and alter the evolution of technical intelligence. Some of these problems are clearly in the domain of the technical intelligence analyst. Some fall in the large grey area between technical and classical intelligence.

The changing relative technological strength of the United States will cause important changes in the technical intelligence program. Totally different technical intelligence strategies are appropriate to a nation that is the technological leader and to one that is a follower. Consider the defense against ballistic missiles. No one would suggest that this technical intelligence area should be treated identically the same as intelligence pertinent to digital computer design. In the latter field, the United States is the international leader, the primary innovator, the standard for reference. In the other, the United States does not have an operationally deployed antiballistic missile (ABM) system, and our national attitude is much less committed to achievement in this field than the Soviet Union is.19

A second factor in the role of technical intelligence is that some types of technological advancement may not be particularly significant in view of the world situation. In this category one might contemplate a twenty percent change in the range of a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile, which would not alter the threat significantly. However, a similar change in the range capability of GUIDELINE, the Soviets’ surface-to-air missile, would represent a major threat change in their air defense system. The point to be made is that not all technological advances are of equal importance.

technical intelligence priorities

Deterrence of nuclear war is our prime strategic objective.20 Assured destruction is an integral part of the strategy to deter war. Lieutenant General Glen W. Martin, Vice Commander, Strategic Air Command, has defined “assured destruction” as a reliable ability to “destroy a significant percentage of Soviet population and industry after the worst conceivable Soviet attack on our strategic forces.” 21 Any intelligence that affects assured destruction capability is high on the priority list. Intelligence priority can be judged on the basis of the likelihood that the information will alter our understanding of the military balance of power or the comparative military capabilities. In general, intelligence, especially technical intelligence, is evaluated on the basis of relevance to U.S. decision-making. As the relevance of the intelligence varies, so should its priority. Such an approach allows allocation of resources on more critical issues at the expense of less important areas.

warfare systems

The use of Soviet military equipment by other nations brought to light the problem of the operation of Soviet warfare systems. The United Arab Republic has had difficulties with a mix of Soviet radars, interceptors, and surface-the-air missiles that must be analyzed from the viewpoint of an overall warfare system. One suspects that the command and control, maintenance, and communication are fundamental problems which tend to degrade the quality of that equipment.

As modern weapons are deployed throughout the world, part of the technical intelligence job is to assess the overall war-making capability. Each weapon system contributes to the overall total, but without an integrated assessment, any view of a national capability is grossly distorted.

sensitivity to science

Prior to World War II the impact of technology during a war had not been great. Similarly, the impact of science has not yet been fully felt in war. To be sure, science has changed the nature of war, but it has not yet been a dynamic factor during a war. Nonetheless, the lead time from scientific discovery to application is being steadily shortened. In critical areas in the future this time interval could be deceptively brief—on the order of five years. This telescoping of time from science to application is an issue of importance to the technical intelligence analyst. Formerly it was sufficient to remain abreast of technological developments and implications. Today and in the next decade the scientific base and its military potential are essential elements of any comprehensive evaluation.

This problem is particularly difficult because often the only people capable of assessing the scientific advances in other countries are the U.S. scientists in similar fields. This factor tends to bias estimates. U.S. scientists naturally believe that the approaches used in their own research are the most promising. They often believe that other approaches are less attractive. This situation is inevitable, but it forces the technical intelligence analyst into an untenable position. Either he assesses the threat as greater than the most knowledgeable scientists in the field do, or he accepts their somewhat biased views.

Further difficulties arise in the assessment of research for which no U.S. counterpart exists. On an unclassified level, one example is the problem posed in attempting to judge the significance of vernalization experiments, that is, enhancing the growth of certain plants if the seeds are planted and subsequently exposed to very low temperature. Not surprisingly, this phenomenon has been important in Soviet agriculture, but other nations have not given it high priority. Hence, no technically strong research is being conducted on a large scale outside the Soviet Union. Judgments in such areas are extremely difficult and questionable.

net assessments

An intelligence estimate, technical or otherwise, is not an end in itself. Intelligence has meaning only insofar as it enhances understanding of future interactions. Specifically, how military weapon systems will interact in combat is of prime concern. Isolated system capabilities and characteristics are not key data. For example, a capability for tracking a surface-to-air missile system is dependent upon the vehicle to be tracked. Without definition of what is to be tracked, the tracking capability really has no meaning. The Blue Ribbon Defense Panel described its concept of net assessments:

A Net Assessment Group should be created for the purpose of conducting and reporting net assessments of the United States and foreign military capabilities and potentials. This group should consist of individuals from appropriate units in the Department of Defense, consultants and contract personnel appointed from time to time by the Secretary of Defense, and should report directly to him.22

This description does not treat the problems of net assessments. Problems arise because of the uncertainties of intelligence data and the fact that these net assessments will constitute fundamental constraints on DOD actions. Intelligence uncertainties are often hidden in the estimating process. Furthermore, not all technical system estimates enjoy the same level of confidence. Therefore, the art of net assessments is to translate intelligence studies and military systems data into realistic relative parameters. The vagaries of intelligence may frequently require that the comparison parameters be generated specifically for net assessments and not be a generally reported index.

A net assessment, as described here, refers to the comparison of military capabilities. It should not weigh weapon systems, because individual weapon systems do not necessarily play identical roles in the warfare system. One example would be a weapon system for which the other side has no counterpart. The Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles would be a case in point. There is no corresponding weapon in the U.S. inventory. Clearly, weapon systems could not be compared in this situation.

Consider the problem of comparing intercontinental ballistic missiles. One aspect of the comparison would certainly be the system capability to destroy the adversary’s hard targets. Yield, accuracy, and reliability are involved as well as target hardness and targeting considerations. Net assessments would evaluate capabilities against enemy target systems, not yield, accuracy, reliability, etc.

Modern war is an incredibly complex interaction of men and machines. Technical intelligence provides a basis for forecasting the behavior of some of the elements. Technical intelligence has steadily grown and increased in sophistication. In World War II technical intelligence was in its infancy. Cold war pressures caused a maturation and major increase in sophistication. During the sixties the ultimate technical intelligence product was an individual weapon system analysis. Now these analyses are but building blocks to a broader assessmentthe warfare system. The warfare systems and their component system analyses are the basis for the even broader problem of net assessments.

Not only has the problem grown in the sense that many weapon systems must be assessed as an integrated military unit, but also the development cycle has become critical. Science can be brought to bear on military issues quickly and dramatically.

Hence, there have been changes in the nature of the technical threat as well as a changing requirement concerning the form of the evaluations. These factors will have a profound influence on the growth of technical intelligence in the seventies.

Air War College


1. Thomas H. Moorer, “Inquiry into USS Pueblo and EC-121 Plane Incidents,” Hearing before the House of Representatives Special Subcommittee on the USS Pueblo of the Committee on Armed Services, HASC No. 91-10, Washington, GPO, 1969, p. 635.

2. Otto J. Glasser, “Shaping the Future,” Air University Review, XXII, 1 (November-December 1970), 3.

3. The Soviet Military Technological Challenge, Center for Strategic Studies, Georgetown University, September 1967, p. 8.

4. FTD 1917-1967, Foreign Technology Division, AFSC, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 1968, p. 8.

5. Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate, The Army Air Force in World War II, Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 84.

6. Ibid.,p. 525.

7. FTD 1917-1967, p. 12.

8. Ibid.

9. John C. Meyer, Supplement to Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 8-1970, p. 10.

10. Harold Brown, “Planning Our Military Force,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 45, January 1967, p. 280.

11. Brooke Nihart,  “The Soviet Strategic Threat and U.S. Decisions,” Armed Forces Journal, 20 June 1970, p. 8.

12. George F. Eliot, “Technological Surprise,” Ordnance, Vol. 54, July-August 1969, p. 55.

13. FTD 1917-1967, p.18.

14. The Soviet Military Technological Challenge, p. 76.

15. FTD 1917-1967, p. 24.

16. Craig Powell, “Strategic Forces,” Armed Forces Management, Vol. 16, No. 7 (April 1970), p. 27.

17. John S. Foster, “Soviet Multiple Warheads Due Next Year,” Armed Forces Journal, Vol. 106, August 16, 1969, p. 14.

18. Air Force Manual 2-11, paragraph 2-3, 1 December 1965.

19. William T. Lee, “Soviet Military Industrial Complex, Part II,” Armed Forces Management, Vol. 16, No. 9 (June 1970), p. 41.

20. Melvin R. Laird, “Countering the Strategic Threat,” Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, 6-1970, p. 14.

21. Glen W. Martin, “The Strategic Deterrent,” Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders, No. 6-l970, p. 21.

22. Report to the President and the Secretary of Defense on the Department of Defense by the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel, 1 July 1970, Washington, GPO, p. 59.



Colonel Robert B. Kalisch (USNA; M.S. E. E., Stanford University; M.S., Trinity University), prior to his assignment to Air War College class of 1971, was Director, Ionospheric Physics Laboratory, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories. Previous assignments have been as instructor, Air Training Command; Chief, Offensive Missiles Division, and PACAF liaison officer, Foreign Technology Division; and Chief, Electronics Division, Air Force Office of Scientific Research.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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