2016 Emerging Leaders

Catherine Michelle Pappas

Provided rapid analysis and advice to military commanders and policymakers regarding adversarial activity in Eastern Europe and the Middle East during a period of heightened geopolitical tensions.

War and sectarian violence in the Middle East, and heightened tensions with Russia, have put the interests of the United States and our allies at risk. This makes reliable and timely intelligence vital both for the U.S. warfighters who need to make tactical decisions on the front lines and for top policymakers in Washington and Europe.

At the center of this effort is 33-year-old Catherine Pappas, a civilian Air Force intelligence analyst skilled at building credibility with decision-makers and guiding the airmen who conduct intelligence operations.

Stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Pappas works with about 160 airmen engaged in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and is responsible for providing analysis of these intelligence-gathering operations to the European, African and Central military commands. She has been successful implementing a process for quickly identifying and communicating unusual activity in these regions to the Pentagon, local commanders and our allies.

“She ensures that the right information gets to the right people at the right time,” said Capt. Jason Buell, director of operations for Pappas’ squadron. “She is able to look at the strategic, operational and tactical level of any problem.”

Air Force Col. James Lawrence said Pappas has worked to bridge the gap between the active-duty military who collect the data and the national security experts who use the findings to shape U.S. policy.

“She can filter through all the information and tailor it to the level that it needs to go to, and that is truly a unique skill,” he said.

Beginning in January 2015, Pappas assembled a community of interest with intelligence analysts, surveillance operators and commanders from more than 25 U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense units and other national security agencies. She has since advised and designed more than 150 reconnaissance missions in support of national and allied objectives, from monitoring adversary activity in disputed territories to identifying air defense capabilities and gaps to confirming international treaty violations by multiple countries.

For example, Pappas has been central to the intelligence effort that has helped provide timely information and shape Obama administration decisions on events such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, military action in Syria and the migrant crisis that has sent Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland and is now affecting much of Europe.

Lawrence said there is a great deal of information coming from many difference sources. “Cate is merging and fusing them together,” said Lawrence. “There’s no magical computer. She uses her critical-thinking skills and knack for solving problems very quickly.”

Formerly a crime analyst for a county sheriff’s department in California, Pappas rapidly made her mark as an Air Force intelligence analyst operating in an important and high-pressure environment.

“I’m basically ensuring that we’re getting the best analysis to the decision-makers in the right amount of time,” Pappas said.

Senior personnel have been impressed with Pappas’s ability to distill information and understand which components each player in the intelligence effort needs to know.

After putting Pappas in charge of coordinating an operations rehearsal for 16 organizations preparing a surveillance mission in the Middle East, Lt. Col. Ariel Batungbacal received a glowing review of Pappas’ competence. “A senior commander called me later to say that was one of the most organized efforts around a really complex and difficult issue that he had ever seen,” said Batungbacal, commander of the Air Force’s 450th Intelligence Squadron.

Earning this level of respect has been no small feat for someone relatively young in the civil service and without a military background. Batungbacal said Pappas has a high standing among her colleagues because she is “an extraordinary analyst” who “really has a global impact.”

Chief Master Sgt. Eric Harriff, superintendent of the 450 Intelligence Squadron, praised Pappas for being able to “take all these bits and pieces of information, put them together and give a commander a clear picture of their areas of operation, and give them confidence about how they want to move forward.”

“That’s what sets her apart,” Harriff said.

Pappas emphasizes the team aspect of her work. “The things I get to do are a result of working with phenomenal airmen with a variety of backgrounds, and when we are working together to solve problems, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “I know that the work that we do makes an impact on a daily basis.”