Lessons Learned – SIGINT Operations

Posted: 12/22/2013 in Communications

The following open source account of the near destruction of the FARC and ELN in Columbia S.A. makes for a very good primer in the lessons learned process. It will also offer some insight into something near and dear to my heart, the results of poor communication practices. Maybe I can talk Mosby at Mountain Guerrilla and Sam at Guerrillamerica in to doing a decent writeup on both the UW and intel. aspects of the article. Disclaimer:  This article is not intended to be a exhaustive study on the conflict in Columbia. 


While in the Army, and particularly while in SF, I was able to attend several “lessons learned” events where we would take an operation, failed or successful, and pick it apart in order to determine what was done right or wrong. This allowed us to avoid making the same mistakes someone had already made, and thus mitigate the pain involved, or on the other hand, where the operations were successful, to adopt their methods for our own use.

The U.S. Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) is the formal proponent for the U.S. Army lessons learned process. We won’t go into the formal process that they have established. They’ve most likely changed it since I got out and it’ll save my body armor from taking a HEAT round flung by some staff weenie who is a dual trained expert at both L.L.  and “Death by PowerPoint”.  We’ll use the informal, “setting around the team room with the guys under the watchful eye of the Team Daddy” method. Everybody reads the after action reviews, any open source info, classified stuff from the 2 shop and other related info, gets together and on a white board, works up the information pertinent to the teams mission. The useful stuff goes into the team SOPs or TTPs.  It made for a good use of down time, and sure beat picking up pine cones on main post. While the time frame for most of the operations that we dissected were of much shorter duration, this article is very easy to tear apart.

My take on the article:

The insurgency in Columbia is nearly 50 years old.  In 2000 the UW theater was so well-developed that the sovereign nation had ceded control of vast amounts of the country to the insurgents.  Historically, in most UW situations, that is near the tipping point of collapse of a regime. In some cases (most) the end game can then be determined by additional outside help being supplied to either side in the conflict. Take Afghanistan, Libya, and  Syria for instance. In the first two instances, the government was overthrown with outside forces helping the rebels, in the last the government is being supported by Russia. In the case of Columbia, the U.S. government chose to come to the rescue for several reasons, but mainly due to the FARCs use of drug production and smuggling weapons to fund their operations. For the U.S. Government the final straw appears to be the killing and hostage taking of the American contractors.

Lessons I took from the article:

1.  Maintain the moral high ground. If the only way you can fund your endeavor is through the sale of drugs, humans or weapons, you’ve got a pretty sorry excuse for a revolution. Good luck finding anyone that is not either scared shitless of you or a sociopath to follow you.

2.  Just because you have your opponent seemingly on the ropes, keep in mind they might have buddies waiting to come to the rescue. Always watch your flanks.

3. Understand the politics of the situation. (much as I hate politics). Had it been the current U.S. administration vice the Bush administration, what course of action would have been taken by the U.S.? Time is on the side of the insurgent (remember, this was a 50-year-old insurgency) don’t become impatient and make your move too soon.

4. Always keep the locals on your side. They are the source of most HUMIT. I took this as one of the FARCs biggest mistakes. You can’t make targeting all local officials as part of your SOP. Just remember, everybody is related to somebody else.

5.  Pick your targets wisely and strategically. If there is no long-term gain for your group, and the payout is peanuts, why waste your time, and scarce resources. That’s why we do target folders. The insurgents offered up the final excuse for the U.S. to become involved when they captured the three American contractors and killed a fourth. The wise course would have been to return them safely. What would have been the long-term benefit for the FARC in keeping them as hostages? Governments are always looking for a excuse reason to test out new weapon systems help out their neighbors in need.

5. Know and understand the threat and don’t become lazy and complacent with your SOI and other communication procedures. Always assume someone is listening in.  Signal collection appears to have been very extensive. Be very careful with your radios. Notice how their communications were compromised, even their home-grown codes. Another good reason to change your SOI daily. However, I don’t believe that the only SIGINT gathered by the NSA was intercept of radio and cell phone communications. The GPS targeting information appears to be very precise as shown in the bomb damage assessment (BDA) photo.  This is an indication of radio direction finding or GPS transmitters being placed on target. If transmitters were used, they had to be put in place by a local. If someone lased the targets, that requires involvement of someone with local knowledge of the terrain. Yet another reason not to piss off the locals.

6.  Keep your groups small, large groups make large targets.  Small groups will join to become larger groups usually for specific operations then split up into the original small groups once the operation is complete.

Now everyone else is invited to pile on.

  1. […] Morgan recently covered this article over at his excellent SIGINT blog, and suggested that I take a stab at explaining some lessons […]

  2. […] Lessons Learned – SIGINT Operations. […]

  3. Matt Bracken says:

    Time to reread “Killing Pablo” (Escobar) by Mark Bowman, the guy who wrote Black Hawk Down. His location was fixed by U.S. military and spooks collecting sigint in airborne platforms. Today it’s probably drones, and probably even more efficient. If you key your FRS or CB radio in the forest, you might as well fire up a red parachute flare, is what I’m thinking.

    • Matt Bracken says:

      Mark BOWDEN, not Bowman. Sorry.

    • 858x70 says:

      Escobar could not fathom how the cops were finding out his every move. He was convinced someone was betraying him. He tortured several (formerly) trusted lieutenants to death looking for the leaker.
      Lesson: paranoia is not enough, one must also think outside the box.

    • danmorgan76 says:

      Matt, What comms you decide to use depends on the threat. If your intel is good, you’ll know when you can use a radio without risk. If your intel points to the Golden Hoard you should be able to use your radios. A point to consider, our local Fish & Game use scanners programmed for every available license free band from GMRS/FRS to Marine and MURS and the local poachers haven’t figured this out. So if it’s the local gendarme, I would use something they can’t intercept, such as the DTR. And just because the threat might be mil.gov, doesn’t mean the units in your area have the ability to intercept or DF. During OEF, while deployed SF units routinely intercepted radio traffic in their AO, they rarely had attached DF capabilities. But when they did, it could be a game changer. Most regular units I came in contact with didn’t even have basic intercept capabilities. So, when resources were limited, they usually were deployed to areas that had garnered extra attention, where someone was becoming a real pain-in-the-ass. More reasons to build up that intel network. And practice your hand and arm signals.

    • Mark Cobbeldick says:

      Several years ago, OCEAN APPLIED RESEARCH CORPORATION started manufacturing low-cost Automatic Direction Finders for the civilian maritime community. The was addition to the high-tier professional units they has been selling to the public safety community, the Civil Air Patrol, and the US Coast Guard.

      Available on most any frequency band, they used a simple four element Adcock Antenna Array, phased and tuned to your frequency range. This can easily be identified by observing four whip antennas on a metal plate, of four dipole antennas on a mast. (NOTE: This is the same antenna scheme used by law enforcement for their in-vehicle LOJACK receivers.)

      Usual capture time on a signal was +/- 50mSeconds, with a bearing accuracy of 1-degree or better.

      I used a version on 160-210 MHz for tracking vehicle location beacons and individual worn audio ‘body wires’ transmitters.

      A variant of the OAR ADF unit is standard issue on all USCG vessels as part of the VHF-Marine Band transceiver package.

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