If the Department of Defense’s intelligence operations are going to be successful in the future, the intelligence community must move from a descriptive model, in which analysts offer details on an event, to a predictive model, in which analysts describe what may happen, top defense leaders said Aug. 13.

“The ultimate goal of intelligence is not just to win wars. As President Eisenhower said, the only way to win the next war is to prevent it,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said during an Aug.13 keynote presentation at the DoDIIS conference in Omaha, Nebraska.

The key challenge for intelligence operations today is to determine the indicators of an event that could take place and what is being missed, Ashley added. He noted the intelligence community has to move past descriptive intelligence — how high, how fast, how far — and be more predictive.

“For us to do that, we need to be able to harness the big data that’s out there,” he said.

In today’s world, every action humans take in their lives generates data, whether it’s making a phone call, sending a text message, ordering from a ride share company or swiping a credit card.

“The data exists and our ability to discern as much information from it as possible will determine our success or our failure,” Jack Gumtow, CIO of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at the same conference.

Data in the open source and classified intelligence collection space might hold the keys to better understanding and even preventing certain events, Ashley said.

As an example, he pointed to the Arab Spring, in which several governments in the Middle East faced destabilization in 2010. Ashley, who served as director of intelligence for the military command overseeing the region, said that many of the warnings signs were there.

Analysts saw the rise of inequality, increased corruption, growing public discontent, but they were not able to pin down the time or the catalyst for the events that led to the Arab Spring, he said.

Similarly, Ashley wondered aloud if a similar approach could have been prevented World War I if the modern technology existed in 1914.

“Would we have seen the conflict coming in time for leaders to make a decision necessary to halt the series of events that happened in August of 1914,” he asked.

Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of Special Operations Command, similarly told the audience that perfect situational awareness is predictive analysis that prevents a crisis.