HUMINT Condition

By John Reed / February 18, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The Air Force is quietly resuscitating its long-dormant human-based intelligence corps, according to Maj. Gen. Paul Dettmer, the service's assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

In the early 1990s the air service cut its human intelligence (HUMINT) division to focus on high tech spy satellites, planes, radars and other signals intelligence (SIGINT) platforms after the fall of the Soviet Union.

However, in the wake of 9/11, the Defense Department was directed to reinvigorate or even build “from scratch” human-based intelligence teams, according to Dettmer.

Over the last three years, the service has formed a much smaller cadre of HUMINT professionals focusing on getting the scoop on the latest technology being developed by air forces around the globe, said Dettmer during a Feb. 17 speech at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association luncheon in Arlington, VA.

“We have a nascent program started with a small detachment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base” in Ohio, said Dettmer. “Our intent is not to regrow the old Air Force Special Activities Center that did covert, clandestine interrogation and a bunch of other things that would duplicate HUMINT efforts that are done elsewhere in DOD.”

Instead, the service's HUMINT professionals will focus on the newest, most secret tools being used by foreign air forces.

The Air Force's new spies “will focus on niche requirements of Air Force warfighting -- in particular, where we are lacking is HUMINT-resourced intelligence focused in the scientific and technical realm,” said Dettmer.

This plan to focus Air Force spies on technology was prompted after the service's F-15 fighter pilots were given a serious run for their money by Indian pilots -- who were in some cases flying modified MiG-21s -- during the Cope India exercise in 2004, according to the two-star. (Click here for Inside the Air Force's superb coverage of that event, from June 2004.)

“The Indians had some capabilities we were just not aware of, and it kind of blew our socks off in the air-to-air domain,” said Dettmer.

Mark Bowden recently wrote an analysis piece about the future of American air power in The Atlantic that discusses among other things how the Indian air force modified its fleet of soviet and French designed fighters to successfully compete against Air Force F-15s during the Cope India exercise.

A small country can buy a MiG 21 on the world weapons market for about $100,000, put in a better engine, add more-sophisticated radar and jamming systems, improve the cockpit design, and outfit it with “launch and leave” missiles comparable to the AMRAAM. These hybrid threats are more dangerous than any rival fighters America has seen in generations, and they cost much less than building a competitive fourth-generation fighter from scratch. The lower expense enables rival air forces to put more of them in the air, and because the F 15 can carry only so many munitions, American pilots found themselves overwhelmed by both technology and sheer numbers during the exercises over India.