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Who's driving this train? Targeting in the coin fight: observations and recommendations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Departments of the Army and Defense, or the U.S. Government.

"It is your attitude, and the suspicion that you are maturing the boldest designs against him, that imposes on your enemy."

-Frederick the Great, 1747


Since the beginning of the War on Terror, leaders across all services have been discussing and applying fresh looks at what could be considered paradigms of full spectrum operations. Those topics include but are not limited to center of gravity analysis, effects based operations, and focusing collection efforts across all lines of operations (LOOs). Most of these are not paradigms but evolution or re-assessments of lessons learned forgotten until recently, or an attempt to apply doctrine for a high intensity conflict on a counterinsurgency (COIN) fight. Targeting is, from my perspective, the lever with which we can shape the battlefield using knowledge of the environment gained through accurate center of gravity analysis and collection along all LOOs under the auspice of effects based operations. With complete visibility of the dynamics within his operating environment (OE), a commander can target specific attitudes, people, locations, and events that are in the way of achieving his desired end state. Aside from being arduous, complex and time consuming, ultimately accurate targeting can be the difference between achieving dominance on the COIN battlefield or getting caught in a protracted, resource consuming fight.

Tactical commanders must constantly assess their unit's impact on the OE and the progress of their operations toward achieving the initial intent.(1) The glaring question most commanders are likely to ask themselves is, "Are we winning the fight?" Successes in a COIN fight are hard to measure. I've heard in several briefings that bean counting is not the best method for measuring success. For example, the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated or discovered in your area of responsibility may be an applicable metric that security is increasing. However, the effectiveness of those fewer IEDs and their lethality may be increasing. Furthermore, in full spectrum operations, security is only one LOO. Some might consider security to be the most important in a COIN campaign. In effects based operations, it is only one measure for determining the impact a friendly commander is having on the environment. Targeting that is based on thorough analysis of the environment and synchronized with desired effects will provide quantifiable successes in the COIN fight.

Currently at the tactical level, targeting and effects coordination is primarily the responsibility of the senior Field Artillery (FA) officer.(2) Perhaps I am biased as an Intelligence officer but I have to ask why. Perhaps an FA officer is ideal because historically it has been the FA officer who has been the subject matter expert on the decide, detect, deliver, assess (D3A) targeting methodology. In high intensity conflicts, targeting is almost always lethal, the effects are actually measurable, because battle damage assessments are easily quantified. However, in the joint contemporary OE, which is low intensity conflict, is it not the find, fix, finish, exploit, assess, disseminate (F3EAD) targeting cycle we adhere to? I would argue that 'find' implies the obvious conclusion that intelligence is the key enabler to the entire process. Also is it not true that intelligence drives operations? This may be common sense to some, an error in semantics to others; but ultimately, if tactical commanders do not know where to apply combat power to achieve the decisive advantage from accurate targeting, how can they expect to be successful?

Now that I have explained why targeting is important in a COIN campaign and how fundamental accurate targeting is to success, there are several observations I made over the course of two deployments and twenty-six months targeting insurgents in Iraq. Along with each observation there are recommendations for altering current methods for targeting in the COIN fight.

Observation: Target determination.

During a replicated COIN practical exercise at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence (USAICoE) Captains Career Course, an instructor asked me, "How are you going to determine who to target?" My initial response was that targets just present themselves. Rarely, if ever, from my past experience have I had to seek out lethal targets for kill or capture. Of course, that's a simplistic answer to a complicated question. Furthermore, the question of who determines what to target, when, and how is also difficult to answer. The common response is the commander always makes that decision. It is our job as diligent S2s to provide the necessary targeting input and recommendation to the commander. The method for prioritizing and recommending targets for the commander is the high value target (HVT) list. It is imperative that standardized procedures be in place for updating the HVT lists and that those procedures are responsive and based on quantifiable metrics fore determining a target's value.(3) Commanders approve the HVT or high value individual (HVI) list depending on your application of doctrine, but the S2 creates the list. Sadly, most S2 sections, like several I have worked in, have fluid metrics for determining target prioritization.

Currently USAICoE teaches the use of the CARVER method for ranking target priorities. CARVER assigns weighted values for a target's criticality to his insurgent cell, accessibility for capture, recognizability for positive identification after capture, vulnerability to capture, positive effect on the environment if captured, and the lack of recuperability within the insurgent network if captured. With a weighted metric such as CARVER, a target that may not be as critical or have as much of an effect on the environment by capture could move up on the HVI list and replace a target that was not accessible for priority of asset support. In regards to low density assets and collection platforms above division control, the HVI list number is a key determinant for whether a unit will receive asset support requests.

The availability and application of intelligence assets is vital to conducting targeting-deliberate or dynamic. Without the necessary assets, staff S2s cannot complete the F3EAD targeting cycle. I have seen first-hand S2s altering their HVI list in order to garner asset support for a target, where suddenly the HVI ranked number ten was number one overnight. Granted, it did help get support for the target but after a while HVI numbers became less of a criterion for getting asset support and the asset managers began reading target packets instead and making their own decisions on priority. Ideally the higher headquarters such as Corps would establish a tier system or prioritization categories so that subordinate unit's targets could be nested and ranked according to the Corps commander's intent. By doing so asset requests for targeting could be easily deconflicted.

Another common problem was establishing standardized criteria for lethal targeting. Units would attempt to kill or capture a target without a complete target picture. Week after week targets would be captured without any measurable effect on the environment. After one target was captured, the insurgent cell to which the target belonged would take a couple of days to reorganize and change their methods so they would not get caught as easily the next time. During this process, they are likely to do their own analysis and attempt to figure out the source of information that led to the recent capture of a cell member. Targeting in this manner, by not knowing the potential outcome of a capture can lead to a possible loss of a valuable source of information. Sometimes tactical patience with regards to targeting is a viable method to reduce the likelihood of source information disclosure while developing an accurate target picture of the insurgent network and putting Soldiers' lives unnecessarily in danger.

Recommendation: Target determination.

Establish a metric for determining a target's value and the effects of capture. The CARVER process is a simple approach to making that determination so that you may prioritize your efforts accordingly. Ensure that target prioritization metrics and all targets are nested, not only with the higher headquarters, but with neighboring units as well. Through whatever means necessary, develop an accurate target picture on each insurgent network and cell in your area of operations (AO) before attempting to capture a member of that cell. Go beyond the couched answer that by capturing an HVI there will be less attacks and the environment will be more secure. Force analysts to consider who will fill the void created by capturing a target. Also work with the commander and other staff sections to establish when a target is developed well enough to engage. In other words, determine "action" criteria.(4)

At any given time an S2 section will be working on gathering information on multiple targets. Most commanders will thirst for targets within their OE. Then they turn to the S2 for potential targets. Rather than offering up any target that can be captured, employ action criteria that can be applied to all targets. Ask your S3 these questions before an operation to engage a target is triggered: How clear does the target picture need to be? Can we risk conducting simultaneous operations to capture multiple targets at one time if they are in the same cell? Ultimately establish a standardized process and direction for targeting while balancing the risk versus gain of capturing a target.(5) Once this is achieved you can determine which targets should be engaged by comparing the CARVER score and the risk versus desired effect incurred during capture. See Figure 1.


Observation: Connecting lethal and non-lethal targets.

I recently observed a training exercise for MOS 35F10 Intelligence Analysts. The analysts were participating in an exercise which replicated being an S2 section in a unit in Iraq. They had two top ten target lists, lethal and non-lethal. Over the course of several days, they continued to capture lethal targets. That list would change and be updated but the non-lethal list did not change and it was not updated. Clearly they had completely negated the use of non-lethal targeting.

Flash backward to Iraq during my most recent deployment. Brigades were using non-lethal targeting more than lethal. Many of today's officers have wholeheartedly accepted the concept of non-lethal targeting. As I am writing this article right now, units throughout Iraq are rebuilding schools, roads, and essential services. This is no longer a paradigm shift; it is not an afterthought in the COIN fight. However, when conducting Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB), many S2 sections do not connect lethal and non-lethal targets. Many intelligence officers are likely to see non-lethal targeting as a function of civil affairs, the fires and effects cell or the reconstruction team.

As an example, I would argue that, if anything, the push to reconcile disenchanted Sunni Iraqis during the "surge" of 2007 by creating the Sons of Iraq program is the prime example of how effective non-lethal targeting is as a means to reduce the need for lethal targeting.(6) Contrary to what seems to be an accepted antiquated way of thinking, Iraqis do not randomly decide to become insurgents, there is a motivation. At least in context with Operation Iraqi Freedom, with every insurgent killed or captured, there is the potential to grow more insurgents unless cultural mitigating factors are not considered.(7)

Recommendation: Connecting lethal and non-lethal targets.

Warfare will continue to be an act of force compelling your adversary to concede to your requirements.(8) The same effect can be gained by linking lethal targets to non-lethal targets.(9) If we understand a lethal target's motivation we can force him to concede to our will non-lethally. While conducting IPB in a COIN fight, analyze the identified insurgent networks in comparison to the environment. Attempt to determine what about the environment is generating motivation for the insurgent cells. Some examples are poverty, disenfranchisement from the local governance, ethnic tensions, and with regards to groups such as Al Qaeda, it may be a religion based end-game which equates to a death wish.

Therefore, rather than telling the commander who the recommended HVIs are and where they live, provide information instead that can lead to a non-lethal approach to marginalizing the enemy along multiple LOOs. (See Figure 2). The effect is still the same, secure the populace and reduce attacks on friendly forces, but the means for causing the same effect is approached from a different angle. Granted, as I mentioned earlier, targets like members of Al Qaeda and any members of external terrorist net-works who are only visitors to the OE will be harder to effect non-lethally. Although over time, if the environment is secured and the populace is accepting of your unit's presence, they will deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda or any members of external terrorist net-works. To sum up, I would argue that the true test of a unit in a COIN environment is their ability to secure their AO through non-lethal targeting.


Observation: The quantity versus quality approach to targeting.

The analogy of comparing targeting methodologies to fishing or hunting seems apt in this case. Most units during the 2007 "surge" found it necessary to front load their targeting efforts by conducting a majority of analysis on a target and its insurgent network prior to capture. After weeks and months of collecting information about a target, eventually a raid would be conducted when the unit felt it had enough information to detain an individual. In general most units apply a targeting criterion which includes the comparison of risk versus gain, effect of capture, and the likelihood that the individual will not be released. Other units, I would have to say a minority, geared their targeting process towards exploitation in the F3EAD cycle. After they had met their necessary capture criteria, before conducting a raid on an individual they would also seek out members of the same insurgent cell for possible action. Simultaneously they were able to conduct raids on multiple targets within one cell that could potentially lead to the dismemberment of the cell. Often these raids were launched having only a name, location and knowledge that the target was part of a particular insurgent network. A well thought-out exploitation plan requires a detailed understanding of social networks, insurgent networks, insurgent actions, and the community's attitude toward counterinsurgents. (10)

Honestly, this approach increases the risk of having to release a captured individual which no one likes to do. However, they were careful to ensure that each individual detained was viably linked to the cell and there had to be enough information available on the individuals that exploitation could be conducted post capture. Perhaps the phrase 'quality versus quantity' is not applicable because both methodologies require at least one quality target. In the quantity approach with their one or two well developed "quality" targets, they would have several less than developed targets. With at least one quality target they were able to exploit the other targets within the same insurgent cell by applying knowledge gained on the cell from each detainee, thereby each detainee provided a piece of the puzzle. Through thorough exploitation they were able to complete the picture and gain the information necessary to send all the detained cell members to prison, as well as generate future targets. Risk of having a detained individual released is the greatest challenge to the quantity approach.

Recommendation: The quantity versus quality approach to targeting.

Both methodologies have their place in the COIN fight. The ability to capture multiple members of one cell in one night is awe inspiring to both friendly and enemy commanders. Sadly, most brigade intelligence efforts are not capable of conducting the necessary footwork involved in exploitation of several targets post capture. For this reason alone, I would recommend that S2s ask themselves the following questions before attempting to conduct actions against networks versus one HVI at a time: Do we have an accurate picture that puts each person we want to detain in the insurgent cell? Do we know which events each individual was involved in and to what degree? Do my intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and collection efforts allow for accurate monitoring of reflections post capture? Do we have the ability to positively identify a target once we capture him? Finally, are my interrogators capable of handling the necessary workload of exploiting multiple detainees?

If the answers to any of these questions are no then I would not recommend attempting this methodology. The idea of having to release a detainee after a successful capture is often a hard concept to swallow. That is why it is imperative to have the ability to exploit a target post capture. If a detainee is released, he may have done the mental math and surmised how he was captured, which is never good, or it may harden his and his friends' dislike of your unit being in the area. In effects based operations, conducting raids in the middle of the night which result in the release of detained individuals results in a negative effect. Therefore capturing one big fish, to use the fishing analogy, is better for the environment, but remember that you are going to have to sit in the boat for a long time before you catch the big fish. In Iraq, sitting in the boat equates roughly to allowing the insurgents freedom of maneuver, which invites attack.

Observation: Target Packet Development.

As time goes by target packets have a tendency to collect unanalyzed data. When the time finally comes for a selected target to be maneuvered on, there is a last minute rush by analysts to create a succinct packet for the tasked maneuver element and its commander. Fusion analysts, as they develop target packets, often become vested in the packet much like an artist would his art. I myself fell into this relationship with the target packets I created when I was a battalion assistant S2. This relationship has positive and negative effects, because the creator of a target packet wants to be creating informative, thorough, and actionable targets. However, he or she may not want to exclude any gathered information. Also, sometimes analysts develop biases regarding target information and choose to exclude information they feel is not in line with their own beliefs regarding the target. Therefore, the target packet may become too large for consumption by the maneuver commander and his Soldiers. Also, as a target packet grows it becomes too large to send via email without using an optimizing tool which flattens the data, sometimes that in itself is not enough and the slideshow has to be parsed into sections and sent in several emails.

Recommendation: Target Packet Development.

Microsoft PowerPoint seems to be the preferred medium for target packet development among intelligence analysts. It has, over time, proven the best means for collecting, analyzing, and briefing target information. However, Special Operations Forces analysts do not use this medium for their target packets. Instead data is collected and analyzed in word processor format. Both methods for target information development and dissemination have pluses and minuses.

PowerPoint target packets are easily briefed, but analysts tend to avoid updating them as often. The information is usually spread throughout a number of slides in a target packet. In order to mitigate this, analysts create a one slide overview that has the "bottom line up front" (BLUF) for anyone who reads the packet. However, by doing this, useful information gets placed in a box in the lower corner of a slide in the smallest font readable. On the BLUF slide analysts often paste large pieces of imagery containing possible bed down locations. During most time sensitive target (TST) missions I have seen, the analyst's imagery rarely lined up with the actual target location. If you have ever had to take one of these BLUF slides onto an objective at midnight and tried reading it with a red lens flashlight you know how this good idea has failed. This slide is meant to be easily understood, and it's normally accompanied with another slide covering exploitation procedures upon capture such as recommended tactical questions. The intended information is necessary for tactical planning before a mission but unfortunately, in the haze of battle, I would argue that these slides do not typically leave the cargo pockets of their intended audience on an objective.

It can be said that word processor documents would endure the same fate on an objective, yet these documents are smaller and easier to share via email. Because of this, I recommend keeping PowerPoint target packets for in-house targeting meetings, and have analysts use word processors to collect and analyze target specific information. You must ensure they are updating, at a minimum, the word processor version. Rather than cut and paste data into a slide show, make them rewrite the word processor version every time new information is available.

With TST missions, which are the current trend in Iraq, the mission commander needs succinct information regarding the target and some micro IPB on the target location for planning prior to conducting an operation. Time is wasted by analysts doing last minute scrubs on PowerPoint target packets while he or she is trying to figure out which slides they should print and hand to the TST commander to best prepare him for a mission. At the very least, if the mission commander prefers BLUF slides, analysts should separate target packets for operations and the larger versions for briefing at targeting meetings. Hasty IPB cannot be avoided prior to a TST mission, an elaborate target packet alone is not enough. Ultimately, the mission commander, TST or not, and adjacent units need relevant, concise, and updated target information to conduct mission planning.

On a side note, high side packets should also be consolidated into as few slides as possible for the same reasons above, and since these packets do not leave SCIFs, PowerPoint is the preferred medium. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) analysts, like all source analysts gravitate towards making target packets into large slide shows of unanalyzed data that are hard to transmit via email without parsing them into multiple emails.

Observation: Flattening target information sharing

Targeted individuals will often leave their home and travel. Aside from being human nature to visit friends, family, or insurgent buddies (at least in regards to Iraq) sometimes targets run because they fear capture. Perhaps, like mine, your unit conducted an unsuccessful raid and the target got spooked, subsequently leaving your AO or perhaps even your division's AO. When this occurs there may be a proactive attempt for a member of your S2 section or your fire and effects cell (FEC) to pass the relevant target packet to the land owning unit where your target has fled. Even in situations where it is not an HVI, but just a known associate of your HVI that resides in another unit's battle space, the desire to pass the relevant information along to the land-owning unit still arises.

However, in order to pass the target data there exists an archaic method to passing that data (See Figure 3). It first has to go up to your division, your division then sends it to Corps, and then Corps sends it to the land owning unit's division and its division sends it to its brigade where ultimately the target information is passed to the intended audience. At any time in that information flow an intended recipient or facilitator of the information may not check his or her email or answer the phone. The relevance of that target may also get lost in the transmission much as in a game of phone tag. This hierarchical flow of target information can, at any point, be slowed or completely halted along its path to the intended recipient.


Recommendation: Flattening target information sharing.

The good news is that the Distributed Common Ground Station will help flatten that information flow. The bad news is every deployed brigade cannot afford to hang all their HVI, developing, or emerging target packets there. Nothing is faster than calling the land owning unit and emailing it the necessary target information. Of course, be prepared to explain why this target information is relevant to the recipient, even if a target is not actionable. Just by giving another unit the target, it may help them to build situational awareness and possibly fill an information gap or further confirm known information.

In the SCIF this information flow is possible because there is generally contact information for analysts in other SCIFs throughout the Theatre and beyond. The same ability should be transferred into the S2 section or the FEC. If every brigade targeting officer had the phone number and email address for every other brigade targeting officer in Theatre, target information could be easily shared rather than relying on the hierarchical flow through the various division and Corps staff sections (See Figure 4). In this way, there is one point of contact for all targeting matters at each brigade. This does not relinquish the necessity for keeping the division and Corps staffs in the information flow, but it would eliminate inundating their staffs as the sole conduit of target sharing.


Sharing target data even inside the division between sister brigades should not be done during weekly or biweekly targeting meetings. Targetable information tends to have a shelf life especially in the SIGINT community; if it is not shared in a timely manner, it cannot be leveraged. Close coordination, cooperation, and communication among the participants are essential for the best use of available resources and to mitigate the targeted individual's ability to use unit boundaries as an advantage. (11) Some would argue this purpose is already served by having liaison officers (LNOs) from each brigade at division and division LNOs at Corps. The brigade LNOs at a division do help facilitate target sharing but this still relies on a hierarchal information flow and leads to the impediment of rapidly passing target information which can be done much faster by picking up a phone and calling one person at the land-owning unit's targeting cell. Visibility of targeting efforts across the country and the movement of targets across division boundaries should not be limited to echelons above division. The ability to track and share a dynamic target's data should be flattened because the shortest distance between two points will always be a straight line.


Targeting in the COIN environment is the sole mechanism for determining where and when to apply combat power to achieve success. It requires thorough analysis in order to develop an accurate picture of the OE. With complete visibility of the environment an S2 can recommend targets that will result in the desired effect. Finding appropriate targets; fixing the insurgent networks; cells and members; finishing the targets; exploiting all further information gained; assessing the changes in the OE, and the constant dissemination of target information across the entire theatre to other units operating in unison is imperative to winning the COIN fight. The observations and recommendations I derived from intelligence operations during two deployments to Iraq will give you, as an intelligence officer, insight into some of the common stumbling blocks in the collective force that is targeting.


(1.) JP 3-60, Joint Targeting, 13 April 2007, Appendix C, 1-a.

(2.) U.S. Joint Forces Command, Joint Fires and Targeting Handbook, 2007, Appendix A, 1-b.

(3.) JP 3-60, II-8, para 8-a.

(4.) FM 3-24, Counter Insurgency, 2006, 5-106.

(5.) JP 3-60, I-6, para 6-d.

(6.) Gary Bruno, "The Role of the Sons of Iraq in Improving Security," The Washington Post, 28 April 2008 accessed at

(7.) Peter W. Chiarelli and Patrick R. Michaelis, Winning the Peace: The Requirement for Full-Spectrum Operations, Military Review, 85:4, July-August 2005.

(8.) JP 3-60, I-1, para 2-a.

(9.) FM 3-24, 5-103

(10.) FM 3-24, 5-108.

(11.) JP 3-60, III-1, para 1-c.

by Captain Cortis Burgess
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Title Annotation:counterinsurgency fight
Author:Burgess, Cortis
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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