From Missiles to Microchips

Nation-states, non-state actors, and the evolution of intelligence

Efforts by the United States Intelligence Community (IC) to apply Cold War strategies to new age threats and non-state actors have largely failed, leading to adaptations and evolutions within the IC to understand and address new threats in new ways. The Soviet Union and the Islamic State terror organization pose very different problems for intelligence professionals to solve. As the world moves further into the information age, the IC as a whole is evolving to meet new threats with analytical, technical, and ideological developments designed to foster the flow of information, rather than compartmentalize it into Cold War-era boxes and stovepipes.

This article outlines the differences between nation-states and non-state actors, including their structures, threats posed by them, and IC adaptations necessary for global social progress. The first step in this process is to define and differentiate nation-states and non-state actors, followed by an outline of IC approaches to each type of threat, intelligence paradigm developments, and potential enhancements to future U.S. intelligence operations.

Nation-States vs. Non-State Actors

Nation-states need structure to function in the world, while non-state actors do not. Foreign intelligence organizations of nation-states are designed to function as parts of their nation’s governmental structure in some form or way, which makes identifying them and addressing potential threats from them a verifiable process. Nation-states are also generally held accountable for the actions taken by government associated organizations and departments, which in part dictates the field of activity that any given nation-state can and will be willing to conduct at any time. International repercussions from the global community—including sanctions and/or military retaliation—are a strong deterrent for most national governments that prevents them from taking certain courses of action and from many forms of conduct.

The Russian Federation, for instance, took control of Crimea in a deception-based maneuver that resulted in virtually no combat, intentionally avoiding any conventional military retaliation from the West.1 Chinese military expansion into the South China Sea, while creating tension in the region, does not involve war or international conflict either.2 Still, when faced with being charged with cyber-attacks on the United States, the Chinese Government remains unwilling to admit that it was even conducting cyber operations,3 for fear of international repercussions—including the potential for conventional war. These examples show that while nations are willing to act, they are generally unwilling to engage in major conflict or start a war. Non-state actors do not have this problem. Instead, many thrive on the prospects of international conflict and warfare.

Non-state actors are generally defined by their lack of structure, asymmetric tactics, and unique operational procedures. Any entity not acting on behalf of or directed by a nation-state is a non-state actor, including drug cartels, terrorist organizations, hackers, sex trafficking organizations, international corporations, vigilantes, bounty hunters, and even basic criminals and individual citizens of the world. They can, therefore, only be defined in the category of not being a nation-state or directed by a nation-state, and not defined in respect to what they actually are.4 Some non-state actors have an organizational structure, such as corporations, and can be addressed like that of a nation-state, or targeted similarly for espionage or protection purposes. However, most non-state actors that pose threats to nation-states do not have a structure that is easily identifiable, definable, or targetable.

Operational procedures and tactics of non-state actor threats also tend to be less symmetrical than nation-states, and almost every non-state actor is unique in its specific operational procedures and techniques. Each threat must be evaluated and addressed individually for threat mitigation and/or intelligence operations because of this uniqueness. Conducting counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, for example, cannot be based on counterterrorism operations against Hezbollah, simply due to the differences in each organization’s unique strategies, culture, location, and patterns, despite both of them being terrorist organizations. Non-state actors require a higher degree of analysis to understand each threat completely before actions are taken, unlike nation-states where threats posed are understood, partly based on comparable historical analyses, international law, the economic prosperity of the nation, and regional stability.

Nation-States and Non-State Actors: Similarities and Differences

Nation-states and non-state actors are similar in the respect that they are mainly people led by other people, so understanding the behavioral psychology of people is a useful approach to understanding either type of threat. Both require resources, including people, to present a threat. Terrorist organizations like the Islamic State rely primarily on weapons and recruiting to grow in numbers and capabilities—the larger they are, and the more weapons they have, the more significant of a threat they can potentially pose. Nation-states like Russia and China rely heavily on other resources, such as energy, food, water, and other types of wealth-creating capital. Organizational utilization of those resources also differs, as a nation-state’s resources are used mostly for ensuring economic stability for its citizens and creating capital wealth to raise international prestige and rapport. At the same time, terrorist organizations have somewhat different concerns.

Terrorist organizations’ primary concern for resource utilization is being able to kill as many people as possible with as much media attention as possible, to boost recruiting efforts, and spread their ideology across the world for purposes of regional or global domination.5 Public support matters to both nation-states and non-state actors as well, since increasing one’s reputation, both locally and around the world, can increase the range of actions that are acceptable to conduct. Russia’s invasion of Crimea was not retaliated against, mainly because of the way the issue was presented to the public,6 just as media manipulation by the Islamic State was primarily responsible for its swift expansion and success in recruiting.7 Both of these entities swayed public support in their favor to help achieve their goals.

Despite several similarities between nation-states and non-state actors, there are many factors that simply only apply to one or the other. International law does not regulate or affect non-state actors or their actions since they inherently cannot be a party to any international agreement or treaty for any reason. Nation-states, on the other hand, face severe repercussions by openly violating any international laws or signed treaties, or if they are caught violating either of these clandestinely. Nation-states also have massive infrastructures for large scale weaponry and economic operations as well. In contrast, hostile non-state actors do not have access to the required materials and/or facilities needed to establish such features. There are no terrorist organizations with a space program, for example.

This means that any satellite operations conducted by terrorists, be it for cell phone communications or cyber operations, must go through a nation-state’s infrastructure. Nation-states like Iran who are state sponsors of terrorism and also have a space program, therefore, create a very unique problem.8 Non-state actors cannot by definition have a ballistic missile program either, since this also requires an infrastructure that only a Nation-State can achieve, but they can still acquire and use such weapons through allies, theft, or the black market. If the Pakistani Taliban or the Haqqani Network, for instance, were to seize Pakistan’s missile facilities, they would immediately become the world’s first terrorist organization with nuclear Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles,9 which makes potential instability within the Pakistani Government of paramount international concern.10

Technological innovations generally also require a Nation-State’s infrastructure with research facilities, scientific education programs, and a lot of money, limiting this combat multiplying factor to nation-states as well. Just as with missiles, however, non-state actors may still acquire technological innovations, including medical devices, weapons, computer hardware/software, communications equipment, or espionage devices by other means. In free societies like the United States, this problem is multiplied by readily available technological innovations to the public. It has resulted in the evolution of technologically based non-state actors like the hacktivist collective, Anonymous, presenting new and unique threats to nation-states and the world.11

Free societies have also provided other non-state actors, like terrorist organizations, with technological infrastructures that can be used for cyber operations and tactical social media coordination for paramilitary operations, including terrorist attacks, such as happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Paris, France. The fact remains that non-state actors, while very different in nature from nation-states, have overlapping features, and unique features, and each threat must be approached by intelligence professionals uniquely and individually to achieve success. Intelligence methods and operational tactics must evolve continuously in the face of perpetual technological and ideological evolutions around the world to maintain global stability and human freedom, and the American intelligence infrastructure represents the best hope for achieving this goal in today’s world.

Intelligence Community Adaptations: Killing the Cold War Mindset

Intelligence operations and focuses throughout the Cold War were primarily concerned with threats posed by nation-states, and in particular, the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. The intelligence infrastructure of the United States that was created and grown during this era of Nation-State threat priorities stimulated the creation of extensive analytical techniques and operations explicitly designed to counter threats from foreign nations and their organizations. While terrorism and other non-state actors existed, they were not prevalent and did not receive enough attention to warrant extensive development of Non-State Actor threat mitigation techniques until relatively recently.

Intelligence representatives developing the intelligence infrastructure that exists today can target specific organizations within specific Governments for intelligence and counterintelligence operations. The ability to understand a structured organization made this possible and facilitated expansive espionage operations, including penetration operations and counterintelligence missions, to deceive the enemy and/or deny them information. The ability to identify the enemy and define it is the primary reason this type of analysis and intelligence operation targeting nation-states is so successful. The Soviet Union was an obvious target. Its intelligence, political, economic, and military organs also were definable, and therefore targetable. Even the tactics and procedures used by the Soviet Union could be documented over time, providing a standard analytical framework to base decisions on, with known variables regarding how specific parts of the Soviet Union’s organizations function and operate. Traditional threats posed by nation-states and individuals, before the onset of the information age, pale in comparison to the threats that exist today, threats that cannot be defined, controlled, and some that simply cannot be defeated, only mitigated.

Moving from the Cold War era into the information age has changed everything and created a large number of asymmetrical threats, not just from asymmetrical non-state actors, but from nation-states as well, transforming the entire global threat landscape forever. Intelligence professionals in today’s world must deal with issues and threats that have never existed, and therefore without historical data to reference when attempting to analyze them. Technological proliferation is the primary cause of this new threat landscape, technology in nearly every area of human life that is causing third world threats to be armed with first world weapons and technologies to aid their cause.

Transnational terrorist networks conducting cyberspace operations and coordinated paramilitary attacks on civilian populations have created global fear in addition to the physical threats that exist in the world, multiplying the overall effect of any attack they conduct. Many nation-states have also adopted non-traditional techniques and weapons, creating entirely new potential combat zones in space and cyberspace. The United States IC in today’s world must address a more significant number of potential and real threats, simultaneously, than have ever existed at one time in human history, and the freedom of the entire human race is at risk.

Intelligence professionals in the information age are no longer only trying to discover the number of tanks or missiles that an adversarial foreign nation has operational at a given time. They are instead assessing a multitude of threats without historical precedence that change the entire analysis and many which act as force multipliers, including but not limited to:

  • The number of supercomputers any potential adversary has access to
  • The speed of an adversary’s most advanced processor
  • Whether or not terrorist organizations have access to weapons of mass destruction, how they might use them, and where they could turn to get them
  • Regional and global economic stability
  • Human rights violations by nation-states and non-state actors
  • Weaponized space assets, potential and known, and their impact(s)
  • Prospects for human expansion into space, including colonization, celestial militarization, and planetary resource exploitation
  • Robotics technology proliferation
  • Military and intelligence-related nano-science applications
  • Global and regional drug and sex trafficking operations
  • Human impacts on the Earth’s natural cycles
  • The radicalization of violent homicidal terrorists who gain a foothold in failed states and spread their ideology throughout cyberspace

These are just some of the things that occupy the focus of the IC today, and each one has its own unique properties and operational requirements. Individual entities and organizations within each classification also contain their own unique features and operational tactics. The evolution apparent in the IC is as complex and expansive as the evolution from a paper letter to a personal computer hard drive with a terabyte of data storage. Growth does not make something inherently more effective; however, so another focus—on intelligence procedures themselves—is also necessary for the IC to appropriately adapt to current and future threats in the world.

Intelligence Evolution in the Information Age

Many of the challenges of today have not been addressed before in history and must be analyzed and understood before they can be addressed. Some threats are similar to threats of the past, however, and understanding history can help analysts learn to analyze more effectively, through the study of human nature, warfare, and intelligence operations throughout history. Communism is an ideology, and the Kharijite ideology that spurs the majority of radical Islamic terrorists into action is also an ideology. While there are few similarities between the ideologies themselves, the practice of combating an ideology on a global scale is not new to the United States or the IC. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed from economic and social disparity. The Communist ideology lost popularity, however, due to disillusionment within its believers, not the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Even Communist China does not follow the original Marxist philosophies of early communism. It has adapted to a Capitalistic type of communism in the face of widespread disillusionment with the Communist ideology. The Kharijite ideology can be fought the same way – through intentional and extensive operations aimed at disillusioning the believers and potential believers of radical Islamism. Cyberspace and economically challenged regions in the world are the primary recruiting grounds for radical terrorist organizations, which means the IC can target these same areas to eliminate the potential for recruitment, with aggressive, offensive counterintelligence operations in cyberspace in addition to economic interventions to educate and elevate the populations of regions with economic and social disparity. Ironically, eliminating social and economic inequality in critical areas of the world could collapse radical Islamic terrorist ideologies in much the same way that increasing economic and social disparity collapsed the Soviet Union and led to the disillusionment of Communism.

Lack of education and the censorship of information are significant factors that contribute to social disparities in the world, and therefore need to be countered with information proliferation and education. Part of this requires technological proliferation to increase the ease of access for societies to information through the internet, and potentially even Government sponsorship of satellite communications and internet capabilities for nation-states that lack the potential for such a technological infrastructure by themselves. Because this increases the risk of these technological assets being used by non-state actors for other purposes, increased intelligence operations, specifically in cyberspace, must accompany these information expansions.

In addition to these longer-term strategic economic and social methods to tear down the radical Kharijite ideology that fuels the majority of global Islamic terror, enhanced paramilitary operations and covert actions are needed to simultaneously combat physical terrorist elements already established around the world. With combined international cybersecurity efforts to ensure cyberspace as a place for global information proliferation and education, along with robust offensive counterintelligence, covert action, and paramilitary efforts to combat global terrorism and other physical Non-State Actor threats, world peace has its first opportunity in recorded history to be achievable and maintained. The challenge now is for Governments and people to realize this, and act accordingly to secure the future for humanity and the world.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency, including but not limited to the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, or the Marine Corps. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any U.S. government entity.


1 Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, “Crimea and Russia’s Strategic Overhaul,” Parameters 44, no. 3 (2014): 81-90.

2 Miroslaw Przygoda, “China – Russia, a Strategic Political and Economic Axis of the Contemporary World,” Varazdin Development and Entrepreneurship Agency (VADEA) (2015).

3 Cuihong Cai and Diego Dati, “Words Mightier than Hacks: Narratives of Cyberwar in the United States and China,” Asian Perspective 39, no. 3 (2015): 541-553.

4 David Moore, Sensemaking: A Structure for an Intelligence Revolution, (Washington D.C.: NDIC Press, 2011).

5 Andrew Terrill, “Understanding the Strengths and Vulnerabilities of ISIS.” Parameters 44, no. 3 (2014): 13-23.

6 Thomas Grant, “International Dispute Settlement in Response to an Unlawful Seizure of Territory: Three Mechanisms,” Chicago Journal of International Law 16, no. 1 (2015): 1-42.

7 Rohan Gunaratna, “A New Threat Landscape in 2015,” UNISCI Discussion Papers 37 (2015): 9-13.

8 Dan Dickerson, “Iran Would Strike First,” Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International 16, no. 3 (2010): 30-36.

9 Paul Kerr and Mary Nikitin, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues,” Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East3, no. 2 (2012): 313-351.

10 Kerr and Nikitin, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons.”

11 Brian Kelly, “Investing in a Centralized Cybersecurity Infrastructure: Why “Hacktivism” Can and Should Influence Cybersecurity Reform,” Boston University Law Review 92, no. 5 (2012): 1663-1711.

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Joshua Duke

Joshua Duke served as a military intelligence analyst, including 24 months in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I, II, III, and IV. He holds a B.A. in Intelligence Studies with a Concentration in Counterintelligence from American Military University, and is now serving in his second branch of the military. Joshua focuses on several national security and intelligence related subjects, including new approaches to counterterrorism using counterintelligence-based models, autonomous weaponry developments and their applications to international law and United States national security, and the future impacts of the space domain on global economics and security.

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