OPSEC importance spans Cold War to present

  • Published
  • By Col. A.J. Stewart
  • USAFE Asst. Director of Air and Space Operations
I arrived at my first operational assignment at Carswell Air Force Base, Texas, almost 23 years ago -- just in time for the wing’s annual Operational Readiness Inspection. During the Cold War, a Strategic Air Command bomb wing was always a tense place, but a SAC wing during its annual ORI? Let’s just say Hollywood made movies about SAC ORIs ...

Despite all the preparation, there were cracks in the armor -- the inspectors, primarily by listening to base phone lines, pieced together almost the entire flying schedule for the upcoming exercise, including takeoff and land times, tail numbers, and names of crew members. The inspectors also produced alert force rosters, planned changeovers, exercise targets, air refueling tracks and more. Although no single piece was classified, each bit presented valuable information about the wing’s upcoming activities -- information our adversaries would love to get their hands on -- all from monitoring open sources like the base phone lines, discarded copies and overheard conversations.

It was the height of the Cold War; we knew our adversaries monitored our activities and constantly probed us for soft spots and vulnerabilities. Still, during its highest state of readiness, our wing had leaked information like a sieve.

The premise of operational security is that the accumulation of one or more elements of sensitive/unclassified information or data could damage national security by revealing classified information. Fortunately, this time it was only an exercise and no one was hurt. Had our exercise been a real conflict, however, our operations would have been in serious trouble. Some events one never forgets -- as a young second lieutenant, I had it impressed on me that divulging sensitive information can happen unintentionally, lead to mission failure and endanger our people.

The Cold War is over, but again we find ourselves engaged in a global war in which a persistent and deadly enemy constantly probes us for weaknesses and vulnerabilities he can exploit. Information may be collected by monitoring radio and telephone conversations, analyzing telephone directories, financial or purchasing documents, position or "job" announcements, travel documents, blueprints or drawings, distribution lists, shipping and receiving documents, even personal information or items found in the unclassified trash. Over time, seemingly innocent bits of information can come together like pieces of a puzzle to present a clear picture of our intentions. The goal of OPSEC, as a "countermeasures" program, is to deny an adversary those pieces of the information puzzle.

Today’s enemies are patient and determined -- they can spend months, even years observing and collecting information on what we do and how we do it. By gathering bits and pieces of information on our intentions, capabilities, operations and activities, our enemies can gain enough insight over time to endanger our personnel and even our families as we work to accomplish our missions.

Try looking at your habits, practices and schedule through an adversary’s eyes. What information could you gather? Do you observe any unusual activities, rehearsals, DV visits, schedule changes, special call signs, etc.? Do you discard recall rosters or similar documents without shredding them? Can you pick out bits of information, which, unimportant by themselves, could give important clues to those watching us? If you can, then so can the bad guys.

It is our collective responsibility to protect information about what we do and how we do it as though our lives depended on it. Cell phones and unclassified e-mail should never be used to discuss sensitive information. Use secure phones and email, shred documents, be careful of your surroundings and never forget that we are a nation at war with an enemy constantly looking for an opportunity to inflict harm. Let’s not make it easy for them. Remember, OPSEC is everyone’s responsibility.