The famous Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu once said in his book, “The Art of War,” that, “There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:
3. Trusting his officers and soldiers
5. Fear of battle
At least on faults 1-4, he seems to have nailed Vladimir Putin’s wartime faults perfectly. It’s too soon to say that Putin’s special military operation is flailing and failing to a fault, but things aren’t looking good and leaders like India’s Modi and China’s Xi Jinping seem to be putting some distance between the Russian leader and themselves.
But there’s something at work in these 21st century wartime developments that are getting other political and military leaders’ attention.
According to Julian Barnes and Helen Cooper writing for the New York Times, “Throughout the (Ukraine) war, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with information on command posts, ammunition depots, and other key nodes in the Russian military lines. Such real-time intelligence has allowed the Ukrainians… to target Russian forces, kill senior generals and force ammunition supplies to be moved farther from the Russian front lines.”
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said, “We are regularly providing detailed, timely intelligence to the Ukrainians on the battlefield to help them defend their country against Russian aggression and will continue to do so.”
All this is a part of what “American officials call a massive and unprecedented intelligence-sharing operation with a non-NATO partner that they say has played a crucial role in Ukraine’s success to date against the larger and better-equipped Russian military,” according to a report by NBC news.
Now we hear that the tables may be turning in Ukraine, with the Ukrainian military making substantial battlefield gains in a counter offensive. How can this be with Russia’s overwhelming military machine?
Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence Jennifer Sims (full disclosure — my sister), argues in her new book, “Decision Advantage” (Oxford University Press), that “Intelligence is an underappreciated form of power that helps some humans to avoid predation and others to accomplish it.”
She goes on to point out that, “According to conventional wisdom, strategic surprise and other intelligence failures are both inevitable and ultimately irrelevant because at least in international politics and war, military muscle matters more than brains.” But in “Decision Advantage,” she counters this argument to show that the competitive pursuit of intelligence advantage has been measurable, buildable, and a consequential form of power that can help competitors win against otherwise stronger opponents.”
That’s a sentiment that Sun Tzu would almost certainly have agreed with and included in his book 2,520 years ago.
Coupling intelligence advantages with smart weapons can be a game changer. According to the Markets and Research platform of CISION, “Information technology (IT) has revolutionized military operations making it smarter and more efficient and effective… Battlespace awareness; location certainty of enemy vessels, vehicles and artillery; real-time information acquisition and dissemination are all vitally important for seamless operations, for making precision strike decisions, and optimum engagement of battle equipment… and modern warfare entails full integration of various stakeholders, from armed forces to intelligence agencies.”
Various news agencies have reported that the Ukrainian military has utilized specific U.S. provided intelligence coordinates to attack Russian troop positions, aircraft, ammunition stores and other logistical support assets.
What makes all this more remarkable is that this massive level of intelligence sharing has occurred with a non-NATO state, making this level of cooperation unprecedented.
Dr. Sims’ book about the power of intelligence in warfare, however, is not titled Intelligence Advantage but rather “Decision Advantage.” In her first historical example, an analysis of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, she reminds us that new tactics and strategies are a part of the intelligence learning process and the Spanish navy was not sufficiently apprised of the English navy’s latest tactics or their use of heavy cannons in naval combat.
But most interesting to me in the telling of this defeat was the “overarching problem of hyperconfidence.” Intelligence is one thing but, “a second reason hyperconfidence develops is that insecure leaders, valuing decisiveness, cover their insecurities with bravado. As that bravado spreads, subordinates copy the posture, deny threats, or just make stuff up.”
This struck me as sounding like someone we know from the reigning realm of Russia — hyperconfident, foolishly decisive, insecure to be sure, and until now at least, with a wagging tail of sycophants imitating his swagger and denying his failures.
It’s probably too soon to say after Ukraine’s successful counter offensive in the Northeast that the advantage has shifted to the Ukrainians, but U.S. and NATO intelligence has made a significant difference along with the passion of Ukraine’s warriors, and of course the fatuous, spiraling bravado of an unhinged Russian leader, in a hole and digging furiously.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.