An Inflection Point for Scientific and Technical Intelligence


 “…virtually all modern weapon systems depend upon data derived from scientific and technical intelligence.”
-National Security Strategy, 2017

A seemingly obscure term mentioned in President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy portends a long-overdue shift in the way the United States prioritizes intelligence support in the strategic environment. This appears to be the first administration to explicitly incorporate the term “scientific and technical intelligence” into its National Security Strategy, according to an initial review performed at the National Intelligence University. This milestone went largely unnoticed within the national security enterprise. In fact, however, scientific and technical intelligence (S&TI) will be critical in supporting and executing many of the actions that the 2017 National Security Strategy emphasizes – even outside the section dedicated to intelligence. If the inclusion of the term in the document is a sign that the administration is paying more attention to scientific and technical intelligence, this would be a welcome shift – one that should significantly affect the manpower, resources, and discourse dedicated to this important, but underappreciated mission.

What is S&TI, and Does the Definition Matter?

To appreciate the importance of scientific and technical intelligence and ensure that the proper resources are allocated to it, policymakers should understand the various interpretations of a concept that is intimately tied to several 21st century national security objectives. The National Security Strategy explicitly refers to S&TI in the context of modern weapons systems, using the term to mean the analysis of a foreign or domestic military platform’s capabilities and vulnerabilities. The Department of Defense’s Joint Publication 2-0 Joint Intelligence appears to be the inspiration for using the term this way, and is especially relevant today:

S&TI examines foreign developments in basic and applied sciences and technologies with warfare potential, particularly enhancements to weapon systems. It includes S&TI characteristics, capabilities, vulnerabilities, and limitations of weapon systems, subsystems, and associated material, as well as related research and development. S&TI also addresses overall weapon systems, tactics analysis, and equipment effectiveness.

This narrower view of S&TI – focused on enhancing the ability of specific platforms to collect intelligence – is in part a result of the incorporation of multi-purpose sensor capabilities. For instance, a combination of signals and geospatial data with onboard-processing has become far more standardized in modern platforms and weapons systems. Similarly, a 2012 Air Force study advanced the notion that modern aircraft can assume more intelligence roles thanks to evolving technical capabilities. The recent Naval Research and Development Framework points to the importance of “sensing & sense-making” as a way to transform more data into knowledge and to quickly forecast emerging threats. Last year, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command published a report titled “Operational Environment and the Changing Character of Future Warfare,” which lists 12 trends affecting intelligence including robotics, big data, and artificial intelligence. Each trend centers on the technological impact of evolving dual-use innovations.

For these reasons, the definition in Joint Publication 2-0 links scientific and technical intelligence to a particular basis for a given product – for instance, analyzing the intended purpose of an adversary’s new weapon system. But this definition is too narrow in scope and risks overlooking the demand in the national security community for intelligence on foreign scientific activities that serve different objectives. Other organizations outside of the Department of Defense define the concept differently, and these interpretations are more appropriate to apply to the rest of the National Security Strategy. For example, the Scientific Intelligence Committee, an interagency intelligence producer created in 1949 that formed the genesis of the modern S&TI profession, arrived at a much broader definition:

Scientific Intelligence is that intelligence which deals with scientific potential, activity, and intent. In practice it deals with the discovery of new, and the elaboration of old, scientific principles, with research leading to new applications of scientific principles to the development of devices and methods which may affect the security of the United States.

This definition parallels the definition offered by Reginald Victor (R. V.) Jones, who worked for the British government, and is considered “the father of S&T intelligence.” Jones, focusing on the nexus between scientific activity and national security, thought of scientific intelligence as a “constant vigil for new applications of science to warfare by the enemy.” Modern day examples of Jones’ interpretation would be forecasting the weaponization of new cyber tools, drone swarms, or autonomous vehicles. Ultimately, he emphasized the need for more strategic analysis of nefarious potential, compared to already known systems.

Implications for the S&TI Profession

Once we understand S&TI in this broader sense, it becomes clear why it’s so important that the concept is gaining broader recognition. Without using this broader definition, the U.S. government risks under-resourcing the critical personnel who support many of the actions in the new National Security Strategy. Six of the “priority actions” identified in the document will require major support from the S&TI community: 1)“Detect and Disrupt Weapons of Mass Destruction;” 2) “Detect and Contain Biothreats at Their Source;” 3)“Counter Cyber Criminals;” 4) “Deter and Disrupt Malicious Cyber Actors;” 5) “Information Sharing and Sensing;” and 6) “Understand Worldwide Science and Technology (S&T) Trends.”

One of us recently published an article detailing the incredible scope of issues that modern science and technical intelligence professionals have to learn and analyze, compared to their Cold War predecessors. At the strategic level, areas of focus include the analysis of weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, cyber threats, and developmental weapons systems, but the portfolio is still expanding. S&TI analysts and collectors, often called “functional experts,” are the “Renaissance men” of the intelligence profession because they must excel at several fields in science and the arts, unlike their geopolitical counterparts who tend to focus more strictly on international relations or policies within an historical context. Furthermore, the U.S. intelligence community is often organized in a manner that allocates tasks based on the level of scientific acumen a problem set requires. Functional experts and geopolitical intelligence officers are expected to complement each other’s work depending on the requirement. A review of previous National Security Strategies shows that the number of requirements functional experts are required to evaluate, as well as the breadth of those inquiries, is going up.

Weapons of mass destruction analysis is likely the most well-known application of scientific and technical intelligence. Evaluating weapons of mass destruction, in addition to unique types of biothreats such as agroterrorism, remains a key mission for the S&TI profession. Recall that it was highly technical Department of Energy experts, a lesser-known part of the intelligence community, who accurately assessed the purpose for aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq, described in the contentious 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Rapidly evolving technologies in this domain require strengthening a more diverse number of organizations to evaluate new types of threats.

Over the last few years, ransomware attacks and cyber threats have increased significantly, including against some government organizations. Identifying the perpetrators requires both advanced attribution capabilities and better intelligence sharing by technically capable functional experts. Skilled cyber analysts are required to more aggressively partner with private companies to advance their comprehension and communicate their findings to policymakers.

The National Intelligence Council’s unclassified Global Trends reports often attempt to forecast future developments in worldwide technology development. Beyond understanding the immediate technical impact of such developments, understanding these trends allows for estimation of their economic impact, which is often the most important aspect for senior policymakers. The United States is expected to maintain its competitive advantage, often predicated on advanced technology development. To meet this demand, the national security community needs highly skilled, educated and trained S&TI analysts and collectors who understand the fundamentals of converging technologies, and their economic implications.

Previous strategies alluded to the importance of science, technology, and innovation, but none communicated so clearly the important role federal institutions play, and the significant barriers impeding full use of talent across federal agencies. These include poor incentives for hiring and retaining, slow adjudication of national security clearances, and less than competitive salaries. Each of these barriers negatively affects the S&TI cadre and their ability to meet their mission requirements.

According to our conversations with other colleagues, the number of S&TI analysts and collectors in the community has dwindled since the Cold War ended, despite constantly expanding portfolios and requirements. If the national security enterprise fails to “Attract and Retain Inventors and Innovators,” as the National Security Strategy proposes, and integrate them as or with intelligence officers, the consequences will be felt across a wide range of policy areas.

Finally, trained science and technical intelligence officers rarely assume the most senior positions within the intelligence community, hindering their ability to elevate the importance of their mission and provide valuable information to decision-makers. Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, famously attended a Python coding class to better communicate with his workforce. Regardless of the definition, the U.S. intelligence and policy community must realize the full scope of the effort and adapt to the rapidly changing environment with smarter hiring, better retention practices, and a consistent emphasis on effective communication of technical topics. A remarkable number of the National Security Strategy’s priority actions are predicated on this. Now, it is up to the administration to comprehensively implement the document’s recommendations, translating its expressed interest in S&TI into reality.


Dr. Brian Holmes is the Dean of the Anthony G. Oettinger School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD. Max Greenlee is a National Intelligence University alumnus. The views expressed in this article are theirs alone and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, its component organizations, or the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Wesley Farnsworth