DIA Demonstrates Practical Innovation for Mission Success

Change is a constant in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). The mission requires anticipating developments to give policymakers the time and space to get ahead of an adversary. Since the construction of the modern defense and intelligence enterprise, three major shifts have reshaped intelligence work: (1) the shift from a war footing to the Cold War, (2) the end of the Cold War and the rise of the information age, and (3) the attacks on 9/11 and the shift to a counterterrorism focus. Now, intelligence professionals are facing a fourth shift: a moment of extreme acceleration in the availability and impact of technology combined with great power competition that is causing a revolution in the business of intelligence. In this new era, adversaries have embraced hybrid warfare tactics and the rapid adoption of disruptive and emerging technologies. Competing to win requires innovation at a pace and scale that the IC has never before attempted.

Innovation in the IC encompasses much more than just technological advancement. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, innovation is “about challenging the ways we see the world and the processes we use in our day-to-day work. It’s about doing our work in the most efficient way possible so we get the most timely and relevant information possible.” In a recent event at CSIS, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, talked about seeing these evolving threats over his career and discussed how he has shaped the day-to-day work environment to best position DIA for success in this fourth moment of major change. He highlighted several recent innovations, ranging from adopting emerging technologies to creating new offices and enhancing alliances.

The three past shifts each challenged the IC in different ways. The first shift took place at the onset of the Cold War, when the IC shifted from a wartime enterprise to a spy-versus-spy global struggle against the influence of the Soviet Union. The second shift occurred after the fall of the USSR. This period saw dramatic advances in communications technology that had enormous impacts on the IC; collaboration became increasingly essential and the IC had to develop tools to securely share sensitive information. The post-Cold War period also witnessed a substantial shift in the strategic landscape. New security challenges—including conflicts in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, and Kuwait; a rise in the number of terrorist attacks; and an increase in human, narcotic, and weapons trafficking—along with the technological challenges forced the IC to adapt to a more chaotic, disorganized world while dealing with reduced resources.

The 9/11 attacks ushered in the third major shift. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the IC’s organizational structure was outdated and siloed—unsuited for defeating an enemy who intentionally sought the seams in the security enterprise. The IC reorganized, ramping up vast resources to close organizational gaps and prosecute a decades-long fight against an asymmetric adversary.

While the United States was fighting terrorism, China and Russia were watching, learning, and reshaping their own national security enterprises. Russia is an old pro at information warfare and China has caught up quickly. Today, the United States is experiencing a fourth strategic shift, where technological advancement is happening at a blistering pace and near-peer adversaries are sprinting to adopt new capabilities for national security. Success in this new era means operating in the gray zone, identifying nefarious activity that surpasses normal statecraft but lurks below the threshold of open war. It also means understanding the seemingly weekly advances in artificial intelligence (AI), bioengineering, quantum computing, and other technologies that will change the world. As adversary states use the economic, diplomatic, political, and information spaces to advance their strategic objectives, the IC also needs to ready itself to compete in this new environment.

Berrier has witnessed these shifts in the strategic environment and the resulting innovation in the IC firsthand. He said that DIA is working to create a culture of innovation, which, according to DIA’s 2022 strategy, will “institutionalize an anticipatory environment” and position DIA to “address the challenges posed by strategic competitors in the current and future operational and technological landscape.” Recent major advancements in DIA that Berrier highlighted at the CSIS event include adopting emerging technologies such as AI, restructuring to ensure that DIA “is meeting the department’s intelligence and strategic competition needs,” and refining partnerships and alliances to have the “right accesses in the right partnerships.”

To outpace strategic competitors in an era of fast-paced technological innovation, the IC should continue to quickly integrate critical and emerging technologies into intelligence operations. DIA, for example, is working to use AI tools to make sense of the immense amount of data available. To dissect vast amounts of data, DIA is replacing an old critical database of foundational military intelligence information, the Modernized Integrated Database (MIDB), with a new system that will enable AI to “make sense of big data and create analytic bandwidth.” According to Berrier, the new Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System (MARS) “takes everything that’s in MIDB but infuses it with the tools we have available today.” DIA’s website further details some of the advancements—MARS will transform the existing database into a “dynamic, cloud-based system that pairs humans with machines to automate routine processes.”

Beyond modernizing systems like the MIDB that are critical for DIA’s intelligence work, DIA’s 2022 intelligence strategy highlights that the agency should also have “innovative and modernized management processes that direct mission-focused activities and investments” In this regard, DIA recently modernized its human resources system, which has not been updated since the late 1970s, to make it more efficient and workable. Berrier said these types of upgrades not only improve performance but also change the culture and foster an expansive culture of innovation at DIA.

Furthermore, DIA is restructuring internally to be able to operate more efficiently in this new era. In doing so, DIA created a handful of new roles and offices. For instance, in 2021, DIA created a new role—the deputy director for global integration (DDGI). According to DIA Public Affairs, the DDGI aims “to reduce seams in coverage and synchronize complex intelligence issues that cut across historic regional and functional lanes within DIA.” Berrier put it bluntly at CSIS: “[The DDGI] has the authority to move assets and resources across the entire DIA enterprise.” This new office will streamline agency efforts and improve integration and collaboration across the agency.

Similarly, DIA also recently set up the China Mission Group, which brings together DIA’s China analysts, collectors, counterintelligence professionals, and mission managers to focus exclusively on strategic competition with China. The China Mission Group also works closely with DIA’s Indo-Pacific Regional Center, INDOPACOM, Joint Staff J2, and the secretary and staff in the Department of Defense. DIA is also working to stand up a new coalition in Australia called the Combined Intelligence Centre that is focused on understanding China and how PRC leadership thinks. According to Berrier, the reorganization within DIA “gives [DIA] the agility to understand and see what’s coming over the horizon. . . . [It] gives us a current operations focus, and then a future operations focus.”

Furthermore, to better position itself to operate in the era of strategic competition, DIA is working to develop and strengthen its alliances and partnerships. According to its strategy document, such collaboration is a particular strength of the U.S. IC that “[serves] as force multiplier that [generates] strategic and operational advantage across the competition continuum.” In addition to the new Combined Intelligence Centre in Australia, DIA also created the Partner Mission Integration Office, which Berrier said puts all DIA partnerships “under one partnership umbrella.” This new office considers the operational picture to understand where DIA should divest a little or invest more energy in building relationships. For example, as focus pivots to the Pacific, specifically to China, smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific such as Vietnam and the Philippines are becoming key partners. As Berrier explained, “some of the partnerships [DIA] had 20 years ago might not be the partnerships we need going forward,” and this office will work to help DIA prioritize today’s most critical partnerships.

In this new, increasingly complex era of strategic competition, DIA has already made concrete strides to better position itself, and it must continue to do so to outpace U.S. strategic competitors. There are a few areas where DIA and the IC in general can and should continue to improve.

First, recruiting and retaining top talent remains a key challenge across the IC. Having highly qualified, diverse, and passionate employees is critical to the success of intelligence work, but given the lengthy security clearance process and salary discrepancy between government and industry jobs, the IC is constantly competing with industry for hires, especially those with technical skills. Berrier highlighted that the IC should emphasize the importance of its work and the job satisfaction that comes from contributing to the IC’s mission.

Second, the IC should continue to build its relationships with industry. Today, most innovation happens outside the government, so the IC needs to be able and willing to lean into those relationships to quickly adopt emerging technologies. The IC, however, has historically struggled to strike the right balance of information sharing and collaboration while maintaining secrecy and protecting sensitive information. This unwillingness to share information going forward could hamper innovation.

Finally, the IC should continue to improve the interoperability of systems, technology, and policies. Data needs to be securely accessible and interoperable across geographic and functional areas to facilitate information sharing, to quickly produce analysis at scale, and to ensure decision advantage. Developing interoperable systems with partners and allies will also bolster U.S. defenses as allies provide key sources of intelligence.

The IC has helped protect U.S. national security through shifting strategic environments by adapting its structure and the nature of its intelligence operations. Because its operational advantage is determined by the speed at which it is able to collect, process, analyze, and act on information about a particular threat, the IC should recognize the urgency in responding to this new challenge. “[DIA] today is nothing like it was three years ago,” Berrier said. “I feel really, really good about our ability to be agile . . . I think we’re in a really good space right now.”

>Julia Dickson is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  Emily Harding is the director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program and deputy director of the International Security Program at CSIS.

Research Associate, International Security Program
Emily Harding
Director, Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program and Deputy Director, International Security Program