Sean Corbett is the founder and CEO of IntSight Global, a management consultancy within the intelligence and security sector with a focus on open-source intelligence. He retired from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in September 2018 after a 30-year career as a professional intelligence officer. He served tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Balkans, Libya, and Central America. He commanded at every rank level, including a tour as Commander of the Joint Service Signals Organisation, as the Head of Intelligence at the U.K.’s Permanent Joint Headquarters and as the Chief of U.K. Intelligence in Afghanistan. Corbett also served as Principal Staff Officer to the Deputy Supreme Commander, Europe, and as the Deputy U.K. Military Representative to NATO. His last appointment in the military was two years at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington, D.C., as the first non-U.S. Deputy Director of a major U.S. intelligence agency. His primary role there was to optimize intelligence sharing with U.S. allies by developing and implementing a transformational change program throughout the U.S. intelligence community.
On his departure from the RAF, Corbett established a Defence, Security and Intelligence Directorate within the geospatial intelligence company Earth-i, where he advanced innovative AI applications to earth observation data, optimized for the defense and security sector. He also currently serves as a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Co-Chair of the Strategic Advisory Group at Janes. He is also co-host of the Janes podcast “The World of Intelligence.”
CTC: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your military career, and the work you’ve done over the past several years? Specifically, how did you come into OSINT (open-source intelligence) work?
Corbett: I joined the Royal Air Force in 1988, as a photographic interpreter—shortly before the specialization expanded into the RAF intelligence branch. After my first tour at the U.K.’s strategic imagery analysis headquarters, I went to Belize on an operational tour, which is where I first started working with a U.S. agency, albeit ‘informally.’ Working alongside and within the U.S. intelligence community has been a theme of my entire career. You tend to find that when you’re trusted within the U.S. intelligence organizations and you get enhanced clearances, both sides say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll use him in that role because he’s trusted and he’s a safe pair of hands.’ One of my follow-on tours, for example, was as the collection manager in JTF-SWA [Joint Task Force Southwest Asia] in Saudi Arabia—in the U.S. SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility]. I’ve also completed operational tours in Northern Ireland, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Libya. I was the U.K. J2 in Afghanistan for a year, working very closely with the U.S. J2 Joint Staff Intelligence, and as the J2 in our Permanent Joint Headquarters [PJHQ]a—our unified combatant command, if you like, we only have one. I also have deep experience with signals intelligence (SIGINT), as I ran the military element of GCHQ [the U.K. equivalent of the NSA] where I was responsible for nine locations globally, several imagery analysis-related tours, and some out-of-branch appointments (as you’re expected to do to grow career-wise), including as the deputy U.K. military representative to NATO at NATO headquarters, and I was also the executive officer for DSACEUR [Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe] for a while as well in SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]. The culmination of my military career was being nominated as the Deputy Director for Commonwealth Integration [DDCI] within the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]. I was the first-ever non-U.S. citizen to be a deputy director of an intelligence agency in the U.S. [It was an] incredible experience, of which I am tremendously proud. It was a huge responsibility, extremely demanding, but a huge privilege. Overall, therefore, I’ve had a pretty varied career; I’ve loved every minute of it and been lucky enough to have worked with some incredible people.
In terms of how I became an advocate of OSINT, this was more of an evolution over a period of time than a specific trigger moment. For example, in my tours within the J2 at PJHQ, we had to maintain a pretty broad awareness of global security threats, and it was impossible to cover all of them through dedicated, exquisite collection capabilities. But if you asked me for one thing that brought the need to embrace OSINT into stark relief, I would have to say the Ebola pandemic in West Africa in 2014. It was very much an intelligence-led problem set, from understanding its spread and regional impact to the security consequences (reaction of populations, civil unrest, etc.). Almost all of the available information was at the unclassified level, and I think we as a community were not well equipped to operate at this level. To be honest, we really struggled with the problem set. Following the lessons learnt process, we therefore established an open-source cell within the J2 to provide that addition layer of unclassified intelligence.
And the trend towards OSINT has only increased. There’s so much happening in the world right now that government intelligence organizations can only focus on so many priorities. You’ve got to start looking elsewhere for some of your information sources and getting reflections that you wouldn’t normally consider. It was really challenging early on, if not for any other reason other than the culture within the intelligence community and a general belief that anything that was unclassified couldn’t or shouldn’t be used as an intelligence source.
CTC: Can you speak a little bit about what you have done since your retirement in service? Because when we talk about OSINT, there’s a lot of interesting components to what you’ve done during the second part of your career.
Corbett: To be honest, following my DIA appointment, the military in the U.K. didn’t really have anything to offer me after that. I’d already smashed through my glass ceiling as an intelligence professional. They say that you know when it’s time to move on from the military, and I think that’s true. When I returned from the States, I was put in a holding pattern for another two-star role should a suitable one become available, but during that period, I started to take closer look at some of the emerging open-source capabilities. I was lucky enough to be approached by an Earth observation company that was developing some innovative capabilities using video and imagery from commercial satellites, which was really appealing and so I made a fairly rapid transition.
The great thing about that was they gave me the freedom to start developing some technical techniques based on commercially available satellite imagery to support the defense, security and intelligence sector. Specifically, I’m talking about developing machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to apply to imagery such as automated object recognition. This can be a real force multiplier for the intelligence analyst. For example, if you are monitoring an airfield with a number of different types of aircraft on it, you can develop the algorithms that could automatically identify not just the numbers of aircraft present, but also the specific types. We were able to do that to a very high degree of accuracy and sophistication, and at the time, this was fairly cutting-edge stuff. Now, that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a game changer, but if you can do that at scale with lots of different airfields, then it frees the analyst to focus on what they should be doing and that’s focusing on the ‘so-what.’ For instance, you can set alerts within specified parameters that will flag up anomalies, such as when there is an unusual level of air activity. The analyst can then engage to assess the significance of the anomaly. At that stage, probably the defense community—certainly in the U.K.—wasn’t ready to embrace that sort of technology, and certainly not to rely on the commercial sector. But nonetheless, it was good to realize what could be achieved technically and then applied to real-life intelligence problems and I learnt a lot going through the process.
One big lesson was the ability to develop a capability rapidly, something that is extremely challenging in the military research and development community. By sitting down and working closely with the data scientists, coders, and developers so they knew exactly what we were trying to achieve, we were able to meet the requirement rapidly and accurately. Too often in the military community, we fail to articulate the need in the right amount of depth, or remain constantly engaged throughout the process, and are then surprised when the final product falls short.
Another lesson I learnt early on was how many skills are transferrable from the military to the commercial sector. For example, strong leadership, and good communications skills are absolutely essential, as is having a strategy in which a clear vision is translated into an output, where the ends, ways and means are cohered. What are you trying to achieve? How are you going do it? What resources have you got and what additional resources do you need? And then maintaining that aim as much as possible, testing and adjusting when the need arises. This is second nature in the military but often surprisingly absent in the commercial world. In today’s information age, another lesson that can be applied both to the miliary and the commercial world is to use AI as a tool at the appropriate moments, but not to be governed by it and make it an end it itself.
I’ll always be grateful for my time as an employee in a commercial company, but after a couple of years, I realized that I could probably go it alone just as well in terms of setting my own work, understanding what the market needed, and applying my military experience to the commercial sector to help them optimize their outputs, which is why I set up my own consultancy at that stage.
CTC: How would you describe the evolution of OSINT over the course of your career?
Corbett: Certainly 10 years ago, OSINT really wasn’t leveraged in defense to any great extent. We used to use things like BBC Monitoring Service to add a little bit of flavor or to help fill the odd intelligence gap, but it was really an afterthought. But now, however, we’re getting to the stage—that OSINT cannot be ignored as a legitimate source for the intelligence analyst. There is so much data out there, and methods to collect, wrangle, manage, and make it available for the analysts are so good that we are almost at what I call ‘the coming of age of OSINT.’ That, of course, doesn’t mean that exquisite (and expensive) government collection capabilities can be replaced, or that you don’t need the skilled analyst to provide the analysis and assessment. With my imagery background, a good case in point is the quality of commercial satellite imagery that’s available now. I would have been absolutely delighted to have had that within the military domain when I first joined in the late 1980s. And it’s not only the resolution, but the different sensors (electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and even RF) that have proliferated but also, with the development of constellations, the revisit rate has also improved.b One of the limitations of imagery in particular is that you’ve got to wait for the satellite to be in the right orbit to collect against an area of interest. The larger your constellation,c the faster your revisit rate.
In addition to developments in collection techniques is the ability to manage all of that data: things like doing a certain amount of the processing onboard the satellite as opposed to having to download it all, which requires the satellite to link to a ground station. This adds to the immediacy of the information that’s available.
CTC: You’re an avid angler.
Corbett: I am.
CTC: Does the world of fishing offer any lessons to us about the evolution of OSINT? So when you think about the world of fishing and your love of that area and your OSINT world and your work there, is there a spot where these two domains meet?
Corbett: That’s an interesting question, and you might be surprised to say hear me say yes, 100 percent actually. When people ask me why I fish—because I’m also a big rugby man, and the two don’t seem compatible—I describe fishing as an exercise in problem solving, where you’ve got an infinite amount of variables. Any time you go fishing, the variables will have changed. You’ve got to work out within the conditions—whether it’s environmental conditions, the weather, what the fish are doing, what time of year it is—the best approach to fishing. You’ve got to hone down the different data points and aggregate them to work out what you should be doing: where you should be putting your bait, how you should be presenting it, and so forth. So in that respect, there are some similarities between fishing and the intelligence process. There’s also a lot more science and technology involved in fishing these days. For example, some people use sonar, which is probably cheating in some ways, to locate under water features and therefore where the fish are likely to be lying.
The other great thing about fishing for me, especially the type of fishing I do (which can involve sitting out for long periods waiting for a bite from a big fish), is that it gives me time to actually sit down, away from the clutter and the noise of the internet, social media and all the rest of it, with a stack of reading. I do a lot of my research, and even some of my reporting and analysis on the lake bank.
CTC: What role do you think OSINT has played in understanding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Corbett: I think quite an important one, actually. In many ways, the Ukraine example has accelerated an understanding by the intelligence and defense communities, and the commercial sector, of the power that OSINT can actually bring. I started doing a little bit of talking-head engagements with the BBC when the invasion first started, and I was a little bit concerned that the granularity of my understanding would be nothing like what it was when I was within the community. But actually, the amount of open-source intelligence out there that you could cross-refer and validate was really strong, so I could put a narrative together that was credible and I had a high level of confidence in it. That proved to be the case in hindsight.
I think you can therefore use open sources to build a good picture about what’s actually happening in a crisis situation and assess what you think is going happen there. The narrative and the reporting and the assessment that have come from some of the mainstream media in past conflicts have frankly been quite shocking. It is now a lot more mature and they are starting to ask people like myself the right questions. That has been facilitated by the proliferation of trusted OSINT providers.
I think another key role for OSINT in the Ukraine crisis has been around the information campaign, which is of course still running and is highly significant. I don’t know, but I would be very confident that intelligence organizations have been using open-source intelligence to verify messaging that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to provide the public. Defense intelligence in the U.K. has been putting out a daily sit rep [situation report] about what’s going on. It’s not particularly deep, and it’s not particularly analytical, but it keeps an official narrative going at the unclassified level. And it’s good enough for the general population to have the awareness that they should have. Are there still challenges? Yes, there are. The question is how seriously and how enduringly has the community embraced open-source intelligence, and that’s a big question right now.
CTC: It was interesting to see how much information was released in advance of Russia’s invasion, from particularly the U.S. intelligence community. The amount of corroborating OSINT that was available probably made it easier for the intelligence community to release that type of information, which seems to be a real shift, at least on the U.S. side.
Corbett: There’s two elements to that: There’s the messaging in terms of ‘we know what you’re doing,’ and then there’s the influencing of ‘don’t do it because we know what you’re going to do.’ Now, the Russians have been doing that for years. Everybody considers them to be masters of information/disinformation campaigns, but actually, they’ve been a little bit found out because some of their information operations around Ukraine have been very clunky to say the least. For example, you see pictures of allegedly dead civilians from attacks by Ukrainians, but then the camera continues to roll on and these people get up and walk away. We’ve seen that happen on a number of occasions. I think some of the bubbles have burst there, but you do need to be—with open-source intelligence as with any form of intelligence—cognizant of the misinformation and disinformation piece.
CTC: So, how do we navigate the credibility of online information with the rise of disinformation campaigns and the spread of misinformation?
Corbett: It’s big business now, and I don’t think it’s a problem that’s confined to open-source intelligence. It’s all forms of both intelligence and information and particularly common in social media. There’s a big difference between misinformation, which is people just repeating what they have heard, misunderstanding or putting something that’s wrong out there, and disinformation, which is deliberately putting out false information to influence elements of the populations or to try and change behaviors. It’s actually a very important and very complex issue, but the very quick answer in terms of mitigating both misinformation and disinformation is establishing and following good tradecraft.
What do I mean by tradecraft? It’s setting analytical standards whereby you ensure your sources are credible and accurate. It requires cross-referring more than one source to make sure that it is validated, and it is making sure also that you use all of the information, not just some of it. You’ll hear the phrase ‘all-source intelligence’ bandied around a lot within the community. It rolls off the tongue easily, but how many people really do all-source intelligence as opposed to multi-source intelligence? It’s being able to assure the information you get to say, ‘We think this is right because …’ and be able to back it up with evidence. If you really want to conduct all-source intelligence analysis, then you have to consider assured OSINT as a valid source.
It’s probably worth mentioning the difference between information and intelligence at this stage. Information comprises known data points, often disparate and seemingly unconnected, but it only becomes intelligence when it is applied to a particular problem set, often with an incomplete set of data. That’s the art of intelligence: taking disparate pieces of information and putting it into an assessment without necessarily all the building blocks. I look at intelligence as if you’ve got about three different jigsaw puzzles all scrambled up: Some of the pieces are missing, some of the pieces of the image are also missing, and you’re trying to come up with what it is you’re seeing. Open-source intelligence has a role to play in that, by providing more pieces of the jigsaw.
There has to be analytical rigor and the methodology and evidence that you can go back to, and then you’ve got a chance. There are a number of techniques, when you start getting into social media and some of the analytics, for example, that you can assess whether a piece of information (data point) is genuine. That might be through analyzing the metadata, cross-referring images against known locations, or even analyzing a raft of unconnected tweets or other social media commentary referring to the same event. It all helps to add to the degree of confidence you have. So yes, there are ways to mitigate disinformation and misinformation, but you do need people that know what they’re doing.
CTC: Regarding OSINT, are there any specific technologies or capabilities that you’re most excited about? Are there any core obstacles the intelligence and defense community faces in maximizing how new OSINT-related technologies and capabilities are utilized?
Corbett: In terms of technology, we’ve covered some of that already, but I think that an ability to effectively collect, manage, and process the data in an automated manner is the most exciting thing. There’s so much data out there that it’s almost impossible for a human being to cognitively take it all in and sort it in a structured way that leads to an ability to assess what it all means. Being able to scrape disparate data—whether it’s off the internet or whether it’s imagery, telecoms interactions, or whatever—to make it manageable and relevant for the analyst, it has to be effectively processed and sorted. At Janes, for example, they have been able to automatically interconnect millions of data points because they’ve labeled and tagged all of their data regardless of where they’re from, over the last number of years. If you’re an analyst, that is gold dust in terms of time saving and efficiency. If you talk to an intelligence analyst anywhere, they will say probably their greatest effort in terms of time is actually collating data into something that they can then use to conduct what they should be spending most of their effort on: providing the ‘so what’—the analysis and assessments. So developing and applying AI tools to manage the data is the key thing for me.
In terms of challenges, I would say they are not so much technical—although there’s still a lot to be done in refining with the data management—but cultural. Firstly, in the intelligence community, there are a lot of very good deep specialists out there, but a lot of them will have been stove-piped into their own individual area of expertise, whether it’s SIGINT, HUMINT, GEOINT, each has its own tradecraft, which don’t yet incorporate OSINT. And there’s still people that say, ‘Hang on a minute. open-source intelligence is not actually intelligence. Therefore, I’m not going to use it.’ As much as anything, it’s about trust in the data. You still see a little bit of that, although not so much anymore. I think the question that is important, though, is, ‘How do I integrate open-source data with classified?’ Because you’ve still got to protect your information, existing security mechanisms make it really hard to integrate different security layers. It’s a difficult challenge. There are ways to ingest open-source onto the high-side, but they are still not that efficient.
The other cultural thing is that open-source can be seen as a threat to the analyst. There is almost an assumption that if we’ve got all these really good algorithms, if we’ve got all this huge amount of automatically collected, publicly available data, we can get rid of some of the analysts. And, of course, turkeys don’t vote for Thanksgiving. And so there are people that will think, ‘Why would I embrace this?’ That’s not just an open-source intelligence issue, of course, and trust in AI remains a complex challenge. I personally don’t see AI as a threat. There is so much happening in the world that the more we can get the analysts to look at the ‘what are we seeing here and what does it mean’ rather than the collating the data, the better I think.
I think there’s also an ownership issue. We are quite insular within the intelligence community. There is no question that open-source intelligence is increasingly recognized as having a role, but with a ‘we’ll do it ourselves’ approach. ‘Why would we go to really expensive commercial providers when we could develop in-house now?’ Without getting too political, defense is littered with good ideas that originated in the commercial sector, but were then brought into the core, into defense, into procurement, into capability development, and then, five to 10 years later, having spent lots and lots of money, without achieving the intended outcome, they went, ‘OK, show us how you do it.’
CTC: You’ve talked about how integration has been key to how open source as a discipline has evolved and of it being the intersection between public and private. Or even just on the government side of interagency cooperation, multinational cooperation, seeing how we optimize or maximize our use of OSINT and the related capabilities and technologies. When you think about the future of OSINT, in terms of integration and collaboration, what comes to mind for you? It just seems like a field that in order for it to advance even further, it needs to continue to play in that integrated space, even more so than it already has.
Corbett: There is definitely a requirement for as much collaboration as possible and whether that is between commercial and military, whether that’s just between nations, and even, dare I say, intelligence agencies who tend to jealously guard their own data. It’s absolutely essential because otherwise you don’t get—back to the jigsaw analogy—you don’t get the fullest picture available. And so, you will miss things. And I think 9/11 taught us that in hindsight—and I’ve been through the 9/11 Commission report with the lessons identified—a lot of the information was there: a) if you knew where you were looking, and b) if it was all brought together. Now, that’s easier said than done because of the sensitivity of some of the information, because of how it’s derived and how it’s collected, and the fact that agencies do have different sources, methods and even IT systems. You add open-source intelligence on top of that, and it makes it incredibly complicated.
So, the really key question is, how do you integrate all that information into one place that is coherent and that actually ticks all the boxes for the security requirements, particularly in the age where you’ve got so much data. For instance, if you want to downgrade some classified piece of information, there is so much out there, how do you go through the process of downgrading each individual data point when there are literally millions of them? You can’t do it manually. And that’s where you apply AI and cloud computing: The problem then comes, of course, if you then start trying to integrate open-source data points, that then integrates into the classified domain. There’s a lot of work going on there. It is really complex, and I don’t think there’s an easy solution for it. I think it’s imperative, though, because our adversaries probably aren’t as constrained by security protocols as we are, and the last thing we want is for them to gain an information advantage.
There’s also an issue about aggregation of data. There is an argument that states that even if something is unclassified, it can still be sensitive. If you amalgamate lots of unclassified things together, then that could actually make it make it classified. I don’t fully subscribe to that view personally because I think if you’re only [bringing] publicly available information together to make the assessment, it’s what anyone could do. The key is not to reveal intelligence gaps. So integrating the data is a hugely important question, and one we’re going to have to address soon as we start increasing our cloud computing capabilities and reliance.
CTC: The evolution of OSINT and supportive technology has increasingly been a key resource and tool for defense and national security communities and has enhanced how allied nations collaborate. What concerns, if any, do you have about the adversarial use of OSINT both by non-state actors and state actors, or proxies?
Corbett: This is something that we really do need to concern ourselves with because, as I said, as much as we’re developing some good techniques and open-source capabilities, the adversaries are as well. You can be sure that the Russias and the Chinas and terrorist organizations of this world are not just copying us, but they are doing it at scale and without necessarily applying the ethics or to the same degree of rigor that we would go through.
What do you do about it? I think there’s inevitability that you just have to accept it in some ways, but I think also that it really drives home the requirement that we, as individuals and organizations need to protect our own information. A lot of OSINT is derived from social media, whether it’s people bragging, whether it’s somebody just taking a photograph of a Russian tank going past or where you’ve got civilians posting reflections of specific events. So that while this kind of information helps us, there is the potential for it to also work against us. Take the example of the Strava incident.d When people, like myself, ran around deployed secure military facilities, you tended to activate your fitness app. But that sort of data is easily accessible and can be used against you. A simple example, but it does make the point that every individual within our own organizations has an imperative to, as much as possible, protect our own information.
One of the areas I was involved with while serving was the information assurance piece. I used to run an organization that used to monitor our own side to see what the OPSEC [operational security] was like. And many times, it was absolutely shocking. Now this goes back a few years, and the secure communications weren’t always in place. Sometimes, there was an operational imperative to pass on sensitive information in the clear. Things have moved on since then, of course, with better secure communications and even commercial apps such as signal and Wickr which are hard, if not impossible, to decrypt, but OPSEC and COMSEC [communications security] remain very much dependent on individual vigilance.
With regards to intelligence sharing, there’s a real balance to be struck between protecting your own information and sharing it to the extent necessary to be useful. That’s a conundrum that we’ve been through for many years, and something that I was very involved with when I was the DDCI at DIA. There are so many advantages to sharing intelligence with allies and partners, but they have to be balanced with the need to protect sources and methods. OSINT can again play a role here, by using unclassified data that has been corroborated with that from classified sources. And so it’s the degree of risk you wish to take, but also the processes and procedures that are in place to mitigate that risk. It’s a really complicated issue, but an area in which we do need to improve.
CTC: As you mentioned earlier, you have your own consultancy practice. How did you come to set it up? What advice would you offer to someone who’s seeking to set one up as well?
Corbett: I learned a lot from the commercial sector, but after about 18 months, I reached a stage in which wanted to take OSINT in a direction where I was very comfortable doing what I thought would support the defense and intelligence sector best and in the way that I wanted to do it. Establishing my own business gave me the freedom to pick and choose. I was lucky because I’m at a stage where I can pick and choose what I want to do.
In terms of what I would advise somebody in setting up a consultancy, the first thing is, understand very clearly upfront the level of risk that you’re prepared to take: financial risk, personal risk in terms of how hard you’re going to work, and whether there is a need and an appetite and a market for what you have to offer. You need to do the research, develop networks and seek advice, but you’ll never really know that until you take the plunge. So ultimately, there has to be a leap of faith, and to reach a moment where you commit, ‘I’m going to do this anyway.’ I started negotiating my first contracts about three weeks before COVID hit. I thought at that stage, I was dead in the water because you couldn’t get out and meet people and develop relationships. But I was quite lucky as I had already done much of the groundwork and could do a lot of my work remotely.
The second thing is, be very clear in what your expertise is and where you can add value. Again, I’m lucky because of my broad experience and relatively high profile within the community. So with my contacts and my understanding of the IC, in the U.K. and U.S., and the international piece as well, I was aware of the environment. If somebody asked me a question about NATO, for example, I’d have a good understanding of what was required and where the challenges lay. I think the other requirement common to probably any endeavor is honesty and integrity. In the commercial world, there does seem to be a little bit of a gray area, which in my view can impact the level of trust between industry and government. It’s the Richard Branson quote, to [roughly] paraphrase, ‘Just say yes to anything they offer you and then work out how to do it afterwards.’e That’s fine, but it’s got to be within the art of the possible and you need the tools and resources to meet the need. Personally, my reputation is the most important thing I have. Once you lose that, you’ll never get it back. By reputation, I mean if you say you can do something you need to be able to do it, and to the degree that needs to be done.
There’s another element to that as well, and that is the morality piece. There were a couple of cases where I was approached by some big, international companies, who said, ‘Can you do this? It’s a long piece of work; six months-worth of good revenue.’ And while I could have done the work, what they were trying to achieve working with certain defense organizations, I knew the requirement wasn’t yet developed and the money wasn’t there. So instead of taking the contract, doing all the work, and then putting the money in my pocket, I said, ‘I will do a six-day piece of work that tells you why you would be wasting your time and effort and money doing this or why it’s more challenging than you think it will be, and where best to invest instead.’ Now, that is not the most profitable way of doing business, but when I produced that paper, this particular company went, ‘We are so grateful. You have saved us considerable investment, effort, and time.’ I’d like to think that in the future, they’ll see me as a trusted source and maybe use me again. So for me, the morality side and the ethics is really strong, and I think there is a correlation, not always, but there is a correlation between those companies that are honest and have got integrity, and success. I would also never do any work, even if legally allowed, for a nation or organization that I thought may be acting against our values and principles or collective national security. I remember being approached by representatives from a fractured nation that effectively wanted me to provide them with a kinetic targeting campaign. Needless to say, I declined the very lucrative offer.
CTC: A final question, and it’s one we often ask senior leaders who sit across our table: What keeps you up at night?
Corbett: In terms of the global strategic environment, there’s not a lot of good news out there right now. One of my biggest concerns with the West is short-termism in politics. It’s the internal politics about ‘how do I stay in power? It’s all about me’ as opposed to grand strategy. That is nowhere to be seen. It seems to me there is very little genuine strategic thinking within western governments, which has been the case for a while. We should have been paying far more attention to Putin’s Russia following Georgia and then Crimea, and should have recognized China as a strategic threat far earlier. The question now is, how do we demonstrate collective resolve and maintain the global strategic balance without tipping us over into wider scale conflict with global consequences?’
If you then put together our failure to enact a robust response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the chaotic way that we withdrew from Afghanistan, which demonstrated a lack of coherence at best and a lack of multilateralism at worst within NATO, and certainly between the U.S. and its closest allies and the Western response to the COVID pandemic, suddenly you’re back to Westphalia and it’s all about the individual state. It shouldn’t really be all that surprising therefore that Putin acted as he did: ‘Now’s my opportunity because they’re [the West] in disarray, its each nation for itself, there’s no political will. There’s no plan and no coherence.’
I think at the macro level, you’ve got an increasingly belligerent China that’s increasing its rhetoric regarding Taiwan and global aspirations; you’ve got the Arctic that’s another potential flash point; you’ve got unrest in Iran and the breakdown of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA); North Korea, which is becoming more belligerent, as well as non-traditional threats like climate change, food insecurity, all the rest of it. There is so much going on that if we take short-term view, then we will really fail.
In terms of the tactical level, I am concerned that the defense and the intelligence community is not embracing open-source intelligence as quickly, as effectively, and in as an integrated manner as it could be yet. We have to keep on educating. We haven’t had the sophisticated discussion with government about how we integrate OSINT fully into what we do. There is still a deep mistrust between defense and the commercial sector, and in some cases for good reasons. Defense sees the commercial world as just trying to steal their money from them and not deliver what’s required, and the commercial sector sees defense as leading them along, getting them to develop capabilities without paying for them, seeing what’s best, and then ditching them when it’s not quite right. It’s getting better, and there is an understanding that improvements are needed. But we’ve got to be much more agile and develop a level of trust that can encourage true partnerships to the benefit of all. Only then will we be well positioned to address the many security challenges that I have just outlined. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: The U.K. J2 concerns matters of operational intelligence and is stationed at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ), which concerns joint and multinational military operations for the British Ministry of Defense. For more information, see “Permanent Joint Headquarters,” gov.uk
[b] Editor’s Note: The “revisit rate” refers to the gap in time for the satellite to revisit the same area again.
[c] Editor’s Note: In this context, “constellation” refers to a satellite constellation, or a group of satellites working together as a system.
[d] Editor’s Note: AVM Corbett is referring to the fitness tracking app Strava releasing a heat map visualization collected from its users in November 2017. It unknowingly released the structure of military bases and other sensitive structures due to personnel who used the app and worked on those installations. For more information, see Alex Hern, “Fitness tracing app Strava gives away location of secret US army bases,” Guardian, January 28, 2018.
[e] Editor’s Note: The British entrepreneur Richard Branson has tweeted, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” Richard Branson, “If somebody offers you …,” Twitter, January 24, 2018.