Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield: Why It Matters for Community Security – Forward Observer Shop

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield: Why It Matters for Community Security

If you haven’t already, I recommend getting started with the Intelligence and Community Security series (Day 01) because everything we cover from here builds on that base of understanding. Today’s post covers Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, and it’s a revised and expanded section from the Introduction found in SHTF Intelligence: An Intelligence Analyst’s Guide to Community Security.


At the heart of Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield, or IPB as it’s called in the Army, is understanding the elements of terrain and how they affect friendly and enemy operations. IPB products are prepared and updated daily around the globe by militaries for their operations and contingencies. (Intelligence analysts and military planners are no doubt pouring over and constantly updating the IPB of Syria as this post is published.)

The Intelligence Analyst’s understanding of the battlefield is the bedrock of military operations because he prepares the intelligence that informs the commander and his battle staff of what the battlefield looks like, or will look like in the future.

A battlefield’s physical terrain offers advantages and disadvantages to invading and defending fighters, regardless of cause, creed or nationality. The battlefield doesn’t choose sides by itself; the battlefield just is. The physical terrain is little more than a tool, and it can be an asset or a liability. Physical terrain like hills, mountains, roads, lakes, rivers, bridges, and buildings can quicken the advance of an army or stop it dead in its tracks.

And it’s this incredible utility of best using the battlefield’s terrain that has enabled fighters for millennia to punish larger armies, defend more ground, expedite an invasion, and perhaps most importantly, predict what an enemy leader and his fighting men will do in a given situation.

Military leaders since time immemorial on all sides have exploited these terrain effects to great success or peril. French Emperor and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have had his aides scour libraries in search of maps and books detailing the foreign lands of his campaigns. Attaining an expert knowledge of the battlefield terrain contributed to his success: of the 60 battles he fought over his career, he won 46 and lost seven. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was commissioned into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1829. By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, Lee had participated in every major battle, and had provided U.S. Army General Winfield Scott with detailed reconnaissance information. He was a practitioner of terrain analysis and it’s part of what later made him a brilliant Confederate commander.

But there’s another type of terrain that we need to understand as future participants in low intensity conflict. As we survey the past decade and more of American warfare in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, we see a great need to understand not just the physical terrain, but also what’s called the human terrain.

As opposed to naturally-occurring features or man-made obstacles of the physical kind, the human terrain includes the people, their feelings and opinions, their wants and desires, their languages and cultures and collective histories. When adversaries, especially numerically inferior guerrillas, can take their message to the people, they open up a parallel war. Not only are our adversaries trying to kill the enemy and stay alive themselves, but they also lobby or coerce tribes, groups or individuals for support. This “war of the people” can’t be won on physical terrain or by conventional means alone. For as much difficulty as there is in patrolling a remote mountainside, the human elements of those who inhabit it make the fight much more complex. These human factors can lead to making war on the enemy among the people more difficult than is respected or appreciated.

T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, lived among the Arabs and he understood the human terrain. That’s what enabled him to lead Arabs in a successful guerrilla campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

Having a poor understanding of the populace in Iraq and Afghanistan is one area that greatly contributed to the enemy’s successes in both countries during U.S. operations there. The local insurgents understood the people and, in many cases, we didn’t. We understood the insurgents, but generally not their base of support and the fault lines that surrounded the tribal relations in these areas. We can see insurgents and insurgent activities. Tribal dynamics — the allies and bitter enemies of a particular sub-tribe going back hundreds of years, for instance — is more difficult to see. When those dynamics are rubbed the wrong way, military operations become exponentially more complex. The human terrain, just like the physical, can be leveraged by us or against us. Just like an army leader can force his adversary to fight on unfavorable physical terrain, so can the army leader force his adversary to fight in unfavorable human terrain.

Mao Tze-Tung famously said that the guerrilla should move through the populace like a fish moves through the water. The Army’s approach to the wars when I arrived in both countries was largely still to sort through all the water in order to find the fish, when we should have been working with the water to find and expel the fish for us. The Army, as good as it is at killing people, was wholly unprepared to fight a “war of the people” on that scale. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan proved that conflict is already costly and messy enough, but not understanding all the elements of the operating environment makes it more expensive, both in financial terms and in the cost of human lives. The years spent playing ‘catch up’ in that part of the world reignited scholarly and academic approaches to warfare that emphasize sociology and psychology; lessons learned the hard way by the Army every few decades dating all the way back to fighting the insurgents of the Philippine War in the late 19th century. The “parallel war” of tribes and non-combatant populations is much more important than was given credit to by many commanders in the early and mid-2000s.

For as long as IPB has been practiced, it will be practiced into the future. But it’s difficult to say just what that future will look like for those interested enough to learn more about Low Intensity Conflict. Billions of dollars are spent on national defense and intelligence gathering at home and abroad, and leaders and policy makers still don’t know exactly what to expect. The world is a big place filled with a lot of people, after all.

And while we – you and I as preparedness-oriented individuals who share an interest in protecting our families and communities – don’t have billion dollar budgets, we also don’t have to deal with the world, or the nation, or even an entire state. What belongs to you is your home and community. That’s your area of responsibility and that’s where most of your preparedness time and resources need to be directed. People often don’t believe me upon hearing it for the first time, but the fact of the matter is that your greatest and most immediate threats are likely the unprepared folks who already live around you.

Our mission during the next emergency hopefully won’t involve tanks and planes, but the same principles apply. The security of our community is still at the mercy of the terrain and people who inhabit it. If you need a refresher on the six layers of the operating environment, check out Day 04 of Intelligence and Community Security: The Operating Environment and You. In future posts, we’ll work on fleshing out this concept of the Operating Environment and explore ways that we can analyze the effects on community security.

If you’re like me and concerned about the next recession, natural disaster, cyber attack, world war, domestic conflict, or any number of events that can impact our communities, then I hope you’ll continue to read the Forward Observer Daily as we delve deeper into intelligence, security, and defense for an uncertain future. If you don’t want to wait for future posts, you can get a head start on the competition by reading SHTF Intelligence: An Intelligence Analyst’s Guide to Community Security.

If you want to immerse yourself in intelligence and community security over the course of a few days or a few weeks, we do offer an online training course, which is available for streaming 24/7. The Area Intelligence Course is a series of lessons that guides students through the process of building an Area Study for their community that outlines the risks and threats likely to be faced during an emergency, whether local or national.

As always, thank you for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I’d be more than happy to do what I can to answer them. Leave a comment below or just email me.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper

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Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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