DIA’s Ashley Details Challenges and Shifts in Defense Intelligence


Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discusses the disruptive challenges the nation faces, the shifts and changes in defense intelligence, and the need to learn our adversary’s culture and language to be better prepared for defense during an interview with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the 2018 AUSA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Our AUSA coverage is brought to you by Bell, a Textron Company, Elbit System of America, L3 Technologies, Leonardo DRS, and Safran.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, USA

Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

AUSA Annual Meeting

October 2018

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Conference and Trade Show in Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Army leaders from around the world to talk about the service’s future, its budget, strategy, doctrine, technology and more.  Our coverage here is sponsored by Bell, a Textron company; Elbit Systems of America; L3 Technologies; Leonardo DRS; and SAFRAN.  And we are honored to have with us our guest, the 21st Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Bob Ashley.  Sir, thanks very much for making time for us.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley:  You’re welcome.

Mr. Muradian:  You were on a panel discussion just now about the sort of disruptive challenges the nation faces, and they’re myriad, whether from cyber threats, whether from asymmetric means that some of our adversaries want to employ on us.  If you look at the anti-access area denial technologies that China, for example, has developed, they’re specifically designed to attack or put stress on every single American military advantage.  Russia’s doing similar sorts of things, whether in cyber or in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Talk to us from your perspective, what are some of the more serious disruptive threats the United States military faces?

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  You mentioned some of those.  We look at things like hypersonics, artificial intelligence, remote [GIGLS], and a lot of times people think about unmanned aerial vehicles.  It’s not only unmanned aerial, it could be a terrestrial ground unmanned vehicle, it could be something that is below the water.  So there are a number of things like that.  

Artificial intelligence is a big one.  The other part is human performance.  A lot of people think about how do you go from a digital to AI to the fact that I can actually hook you in a machine for a cognitive enhancement.  And it’s not only a cognitive enhancement, but also looking at things like stamina and physical human performance as well.  So there’s a multitude of things like that that we watch closely.  Weapon systems wise it’s things like hypersonics, and different kinds of capabilities.  Photonics, different kinds of materials that are developed, whether it’s additive capability to do lasers, to do sensing, to do communications.  Whether it’s quantum computing that gets you into encryption, algorithms that are very sophisticated.  Things along those lines.  So there’s a multitude of technologies that we watch.

But for us from DIA, the big piece of that is how are you going to operationalize it?  What’s the context in which you’re going to use it?  How are you going to deploy it?  What’s the doctrine, what’s the organization?  So it’s not just this I have a box that does this, or I have a hypersonic glide vehicle.  Okay, well how are you going to operationalize that and how are you going to fight it?

So at the end of the day for us it’s not only understanding what disruptive technologies are out there, but in the context of how is that going to be used in conflict.

Mr. Muradian:  The leadership that we have and the force, 17 years of continuous combat, longer for Special Operations forces, and certainly sporadically if you look at Bosnia and other missions, Somalia, right back to the Gulf War have been, you could say, a continuum of operations for U.S. military.  Certainly that’s what the Air Force would tell you as well.

Talk to us about the intellectual shift.  Your organization has been laser-focused on obviously providing global intelligence, but specifically on the counterterror, counterinsurgency operations, where many of your predecessors spent a vast majority of their time.

Talk to us a little bit about the adjustment you’re making to get back into that great power mindset, given that the Defense Intelligence Agency has been on the vanguard of intelligence since it was founded right after the end of World War II.

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  For us, the core competencies we have are understanding foreign militaries and the operational environment.  So what you’ve highlighted is the fight we’ve all been in the last 17 years which is the counterterrorism fight.  That is an operation, for the most part, we can kind of choose the time and place of engagement, we can set the tempo of operations for the most part.  Then when you get back into great power competition it is major combat operations.  That is a different kind of fight.  And all the Chiefs of the Services fully appreciate that.  They have embraced that.  You see that in places like for the Army, the National Training Center, where we’re getting back at okay, how do you go to the field and engage in major combat operations?  And how do you integrate the technology that’s developed over the last couple of decades and apply it?  So everything has context to it.

So if somebody’s building an intel system, it’s got to be an intel system that I don’t need a day to set up.  I can do it in a matter of minutes to hours.  So those are the kinds of things that as an intel community you’re focused on.  And then how do we bring the sensors that might have gone to a national agency down to a warfighter?  In this case the warfighter might be a corps or division commander.  So how does national collection, which might have gone to a ground station or another place, make its way in real time out to a division, to an air wing, to a MEF, to be able to make that happen.  So that they’re getting reporting in real time.

For us, as we do our analysis on foreign militaries, now we’re back into looking — we never walked away from this.  We’ve always been looking at the major nation states.  But it’s really understanding how they’re bringing in technology, how they’re thinking about warfighting, and they’ve been watching us for the last couple of decades.  So it’s not as if China and Russia, for example, as great power competition, they’ve watched how we’ve evolved, they’ve watched us in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, they watched us in Iraqi Freedom in 2003, they saw how we evolved from a division to a BCT centric ground component, back to divisions as there was the advent of great power competition.

So for us it’s not just saying hey, they’ve got six of these, four of these, twelve of those.  It’s all of that, and how are they going to fight it?  So for us, it’s the context of not only the technology, but the technology as it’s applied on the battlefield.

Mr. Muradian:  Do you have the right kind of linguistic skills?  I mean you were a career military intelligence officer.   I remember, for example, in the 1980s whether you had midshipmen or cadets, would study Russian, for example, in order to better understand the adversary.  The Chinese language skills, you’re seeing more and more military officers who have a degree of fluency in Chinese.

But one of the great criticisms is when the Chinese come to the United States they learn a lot about what we do.  When we go to China we don’t learn anymore than pretty much the language, to refine it.  Do you have some of those linguistic and cultural skills of the depth and breadth that you need given the scope of the challenge?

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  We are building those.  A smart person once told me, the best way to understand the culture and understand the nation is to learn their language.  So yeah, I mean will you ever have all the linguists that you need?   You won’t.  And these are complicated languages, but it is something we invest in.  I think that is a good foundational piece to understand how they think, how they approach problems, how they problem solve.

One of the key things for us is, you know, what are the intentions?  Whether you’re facing an enemy at the four-star level or you’re facing a national decision-maker, or if it’s at a tactical level, a key thing is to understand as much as you can about that person, what the intent is and how the intent supports whatever capability they have.  So language is a great place to start that.

There’s a lot of things from a technology standpoint in the way of machine learning that helps augment that.  When you look at all the collection, the material you bring in, sometimes you may be challenged to have a linguist listen to everything.  So one of the key things that we’ve got to be able to do is triage it because of the volume and scale.  You can literally collect so much information now that you’ve got to have tools that save the analyst time so that he can actually think about analysis and applying tradecraft against the information that he has as opposed to just going through all of it.

Mr. Muradian:  What are the advantages and the limits for artificial intelligence, for example, and big data mining?  I mean we find that the intelligence game itself is fundamentally changing, right?  Once we were the only people who had spy satellites of great fidelity.  Now you can buy satellite imagery of remarkable fidelity that is awkward for militaries around the world in terms of kind of the capabilities that they can reveal.

Talk to us a little bit about both the opportunity and the potential challenges on AI and big data from an intelligence perspective.

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  For us it is, you never walk away from your analytic tradecraft.  So it’s one thing to say you pull all this information in, you’re able to aggregate it, you’re looking for patterns and things like that.  But at the end of the day, it’s not a Google search.  It’s not going on Yahoo and looking things up.  There is tradecraft.  So the analytic tradecraft that’s applied in terms of sourcing, understanding the source, critical thinking, all that tradecraft gets applied to publicly available information.

Now in there, the sweet spot between open source or publicly available information is coupling that with kind of that pristine classified access that we have in the IC.  So I think really where our key insights are is kind of that nexus or that Venn diagram that overlaps not only what’s available in the public domain, but what is available from very sensitive classified sources, and I think that’s where we start to discern the real insights that are not available to just anyone.

Mr. Muradian:  What about IT cooperation?  Some of the best intelligence, you know, folks always have a tendency of joking about the State Department people going to canapes and receptions, but that’s actually some of the places where you get your best intelligence from.  Talk to us about cooperation across the intelligence community.  And I have a follow-up on that as well.

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  I think it’s tremendous.  Everybody is kind of rowing in the same direction.  Everybody has different kinds of placement and access that they can get information.  But it is the collective of all those 17 organizations and what the services provide, and equally important what our partners provide.

So if you go back and you look at the National Defense Strategy, one of the major lines of effort is leveraging allies and expanding the number of allies that we work with because they will have placement and access, they’ll have the cultural insights that tie into linguistics, that they live in that neighborhood, that we may not necessarily have.

So expanding that network is not just the 17 organizations in the IC, it is all the allies and partners that we have on a global scale to help us understand what’s taking place.

Mr. Muradian:  Two questions.  One, one of my senior intelligence friends said it’s one thing for us to warn, it’s another thing for our leaders to listen to what we’re warning them about.

Do you think that there’s been a sea change in that?  That as a senior intelligence officer you can present information and senior leadership is going to be listening to it?  Given that you’re the eyes and ears.  You’re the watch tower that gives folks advance warning, whether it’s a systems threat, a strategic threat, or otherwise?

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  I have no doubt.  I am not encumbered in the least way to make sure that I can provide the assessment without any concerns that there’s pressure to do something different.  I’m very, very comfortable with that.

What I tell people is commanders will make their own judgment, and that judgment will be based on information we provide.  It will also be based on experience which is why the IC has kind of a, is a separate organization, provides assessment to commanders.  Hopefully commanders will make their own assessment and judgment.  It may be in line with where the IC is.  They may see something or assess something a little bit different.  But that is their own prerogative.

Mr. Muradian:  Let me ask you one last question, and that is what we saw after 9/11 was the intelligence community say hey look, we’re going to break down all of these barriers and the walls.  I remember talking to Bob Cardillo about this.  At the time it was look, we got into a problem because stuff was stovepiped.  It’s more important for us to do proper venting at the front end and allow folks to share in this information, to be able to have that aha moment, even if it’s in the middle of the night.

The flip side of that is we saw the Bradley Manning incident and the Snowden incident. 

So talk to us about what you think the best balance is to make sure that you don’t recreate some stovepipes because of a few very, very bad and very unfortunate incidents.  What’s the best way to try to tackle this?

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  I can’t give you the technical ways, but there are ways in which your credentials identify you in a certain way, based on your job and position that allows you access to certain information, so that you would not necessarily have kind of a Snowden kind of event.

I can’t say that you are going to be able to preclude those 100 percent.  There’s always that risk.  There’s always the risk that you’re going to have something like that happen.

But we learn in terms of how we do credentialing, how we do access, to be able to make it as enabled in terms of the breadth of information that you can have, that is relevant to the job, and that you need to be able to execute.

So there’s a give and take there, but I think we’ve learned a lot over the last decade-plus on how to do that.  Technology will be an enabler for how we do that better.  I’ll leave it at that.

Mr. Muradian:  Lieutenant General Bob Ashley, 21st Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Sir, thanks very very much.  I very much enjoyed the conversation.

Lt. Gen. Ashley:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate it.  Thanks.


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