‘Slow-Boil Crisis’: DIA Needs More Capability to Track Russian, Chinese Tech Work

The 22nd Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier speaks at the 2021 Department of Defense Intelligence Information System (DoDIIS) worldwide conference plenary sessions on December 6, 2021.

The 22nd Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier speaks at the 2021 Department of Defense Intelligence Information System (DoDIIS) worldwide conference plenary sessions on December 6, 2021. DIA image by David W. Richards

It takes years to train intelligence analysts, but the Pentagon doesn’t have “that kind of time.”

PHOENIX, Arizona—The U.S. military is “in a slow-boil crisis” because of Russian and Chinese technology development, particularly in areas such hypersonics, computing, and AI, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, said Monday. 

“When you think about the modernization that the People's Republic of China has undergone over the last 25 to 30 years, it truly is incredible,” Berrier said, especially in space and cyber. “And just very recently, they have demonstrated much of that capability to include space hypersonics and other capabilities. That is very, very concerning for our nation.”  

The agency will rely heavily on new technologies and modernized processes to meet the military intelligence portion of that challenge, Berrier and other DIA officials said at the agency’s annual DODIIS conference here.

The end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would seem to free up DIA assets to focus on Russia and China, but experts in one region can’t generally be expected to quickly be useful in another. It takes seven years to develop a DIA subject matter expert, Berrier said, “and so we don't have that kind of time.” 

Nor can assets be moved without sacrificing important coverage. “Taking analysts out of SOUTHCOM and putting them into INDOPACOM—that's probably not the right solution set because there are Chinese activities that are happening” in South America as well, he said. 

He recalled meeting with then Defense Secretary Mark Esper shortly after taking over DIA and Esper presing him on how many analysts were moving from other areas to track China. “I wasn't particularly comfortable with that briefing,” he said. “Secretary Esper asked me how many analysts were moving to China problems. And the answer was not very many. But I don't think that was the wrong answer. I think the right answer is that the China problem is global.”

So DIA is trying to compensate by improving the Defense Department's network for top-secret intelligence: the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System, or JWICS. It is also modernizing the network that helps Five Eyes allies share information, said Douglas Cossa, the agency’s CIO.

Cossa said the agency is also setting up a new operational environment to streamline how the agency interacts with multiple cloud vendors. He said that that will allow DIA to better pick and choose what features from what vendors are most important and make sure that security concerns that emerge from using multiple clouds are being addressed across the entire agency. (Experts in Defense Department data systems have previously argued that multi-cloud environments weren’t the best choice for the department.) 

Eventually, Cossa said, artificial intelligence is expected to help DIA produce useful intelligence faster. But it can’t yet fuse data better than a human analyst.

He noted that DIA produces more “more data than any other agency” in the Defense Department. “The challenge that we have is: How does that data connect together? I think in terms of AI, we've hit a complexity ceiling. We've done a lot of work in terms of data preparation and looking at trends in data. The next innovation, I think, will come where half explains how that data relates.”

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