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20 September 2007

The genteel competition among allies

It is a maxim that one never has true alliances in intelligence, only mutual interests. The longstanding UKUSA intelligence liaison, as well its Four Eyes partnerships with the other countries of the democratic Anglosphere, if often held to be a counterexample to that dictum. And given the levels of cooperation in the Long War – especially involving special operations and other operational activities – one can see the merit to the argument.

Yet at the same time a genteel competition between the cousins still takes place, with small victories substituting for times when grand policy changes are inappropriate or impossible. This is most often expressed in the subtle manner of counting coup – forcing a liaison officer to inadvertently exceed his brief, or worming one’s national way into another country’s unilateral operation. Its usually nothing more than a fun game, resulting in bureaucratic embarrassment and individual red faces at worst – and good practice for the day when one must liaise with a “partner” in the multinational environment whose interest are not nearly so benign. If take too far, it sometimes can result in ruined operations and burned programs – but usually there are plenty of older and wiser heads around to ensure the game doesn’t stray too far outside of bounds.

Thus we note with amusement the purported cryptologic success of the Australian Defense Forces during the 1980’s, during their attempts to enhance capabilities against opponents using other than Warsaw Pact standard equipment. One can surmise that this included Identification Friend Foe (IFF) systems as well as other electronic warfare (EW) programs - such as jamming pods and their related processing databases.

For as much as those in Oz may express frustration at the American’s purported unwillingness to share their toys in this case, one should remember that one of the great publicly debated “intelligence failures” of Desert Storm - only a few short years later - was the supposed lack of non-Warsaw Pact EW intelligence. Given the large numbers of Western systems in use by the Ba’athist Iraqi forces – much of French origin – the Cold War postured US forces were alleged to be poorly prepared to address this wider spectrum of threats. Similarly, many of the regional threats (or competitors) faced by Australia during the 1980’s (and today) may well have utilized systems that the 1980’s US EW establishment was simply not postured to address.

All in all, a fascinating bit of history and a good lesson in the difficulties of liaison relationships over the course of the Cold War. One can reasonably surmise that while the issues at hand may change in the new environment, many of the same dynamics will persist. For those interested in further exploring the history of the Wizard War during that time period, we recommend highly the Journal of Electronic Defense, which often includes not only case study articles but an excellent series of first person oral accounts from those that worked those accounts back in the day.

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