November 1, 2010  

Think different

Information-age warfare demands new approaches to ISR structures

When we first took to the air, it wasn’t to attack, it was to gather. It was to find. Both the Union and Confederate armies used balloons for reconnaissance during our Civil War.

The 1909 Wright Flyer — the world’s first military airplane — was put into the Army Signal Corps, the branch responsible for developing and delivering information. Much the same is true of our journey to space, as well. Both of the world wars and the Cold War exemplified industrial-age warfare, and today’s view of intelligence springs from this legacy. In the industrial-age model, intelligence was a massive, personnel-intensive operation aimed at supporting national and military decision making. What we wanted was information, and we rapidly pursued the technologies that enabled us to get it.

In the 21st century, the nature of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) has not changed, but its character has. The challenge before us is to transform today to dominate an operational environment that has yet to evolve, and to counter adversaries who have yet to materialize. Progress in this regard must continue as the information-in-war revolution is only just now beginning to be understood.

ISR’s set of capabilities — imagery, communications and signals intelligence from air, sea, land and space, human intelligence and every other variant — have spawned separate organizations and separate processes for tasking, collection, handling, analysis and dissemination. Those organizations and processes became cylinders of excellence at what they did individually, or, said another way, they became stovepipes.

Specialization and differentiation followed the technology of the day and a monolithic adversary. Accordingly, in true factorylike, assembly-line form, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance were each individually organized around very specialized inputs and outputs: Take a photograph, process the film, interpret the information, create a picture, write a report, deliver it to the relevant decision maker; intercept a radio transmission, decode it interpret its meaning, write a message, deliver it, and so on. The intelligence cycle was sequential.

In an age when air power itself was artificially divided between strategic (supporting national or nuclear policy) and tactical (supporting local or conventional combat operations), it comes as no surprise that ISR was similarly divided. Legitimate divisions between the strategic and tactical levels of war became artificially (and incorrectly) synonymous with platforms and weapons.

This artificial division of ISR had three consequences: First, it marginalized so-called strategic ISR as irrelevant to tactical military operations; second, we perceived ISR missions as support activities; and third, at the so-called tactical level, it drove a wedge between intelligence on the one hand and surveillance and reconnaissance on the other.

The industrial-age model created artificial distinctions between the intelligence “ends” and surveillance and reconnaissance “ways” of collecting its necessary data.

Attempts were made — and are being made today — to better integrate the panoply of information that results from these different organizations, and we have made a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go because we’re at a critical juncture in history, one in which the speed of information and the advance of technology are merging to change the way we operate, and even think about warfare and meeting our security objectives through something other than military operations. These changes have dramatically shortened our decision and reaction times, and reduced the number of systems it takes for us to achieve our desired effects.


Further complicating the environment in which ISR has become the key element in our security operations is the uncertainty of what the future holds. So let’s consider the facts of the future. Some assume the future will simply be an extension of the past. Yet we’ve never been accurate in predicting the next security challenge, so beware when folks tell you the future will be like today, because that’s never been the case. There’s no “certainty” about what’s next, other than we’re very likely to get it wrong. Let me give you some examples.

In the summer of 1920, Europe had been torn apart by an agonizing war. Millions had died, but one thing was supposedly “certain” — that the peace imposed on Germany guaranteed it would not soon re-emerge.

Yet by the summer of 1940, Germany had not only re-emerged, but it had conquered France and dominated Europe.

But by the summer of 1960, Germany had been crushed, Europe was split down the middle with two sides threatening each other with nuclear weapons.

Jump to the summer of 1980. The U.S. had been thwarted in a seven-year war against North Vietnam, expelled from Iran, and the only way we saw to contain an enormous Soviet Union threat was to outspend it and draw its ally, a communist China, closer to us.

Yet in 2000, the Soviet Union collapsed, China was communist in name but capitalist in practice, and the U.S. had liberated Kuwait from an invasion by Iraq, economies were booming and the accepted future was that geopolitical considerations had become secondary to economic ones, right up to Sept. 11, 2001.

Using these examples from history, I’d suggest that the 2020s will be nothing like what we’re experiencing today.


This uncertainty of the security environment, evolution of technology, proliferation of information flow, shrinking of decision cycles and blurring of disciplines underlies a need to change. The is not just about the design of our traditional legacy intelligence architectures, but also the traditional segregated approach to the cultures of intelligence and operations that we’re all too familiar with from the last century.

Over the last four years inside the Air Force, we worked hard to move from the traditional stovepipes and segregation of operations and intelligence to the integration of intelligence and operations. We stood up a three-star deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — not just intelligence — to establish an advocate and focal point for ISR; we moved the office of primary responsibility for remotely piloted aircraft from its traditional home in “operations” to the ISR deputy chief of staff. One result was a more than 550 percent increase in deployed orbits in three years.

We moved the primary organization for intelligence inside the Air Force from underneath a domain-centric major command and created a new organization focused on the totality of ISR, and made it responsive to all the Air Force major commands rather than just one.

We reorganized the distributed common ground system (DCGS) as a global ISR weapons system versus a set of organic nodes that are only associated with one region. As a result of that reorganization, we were able to merge imagery and cryptologic capability into new standardized ISR groups that for decades were segregated because they resided in organizations traditionally aligned along title 10 and title 50 roles.

This distributed, networked and linked global ISR processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) enterprise can now rapidly and flexibly respond to any crisis, conflict or disaster without having to stage people and equipment forward to the point of interest. This has greatly shortened detection-to-decision timelines, and enabled operational successes that the ‘old-think’ way of doing business didn’t allow.

So now the Air Force has a one-stop shop for ISR PED capabilities for our joint force commanders. Each of the regional combatant commanders now has a habitual relationship with a DCGS, but we can shift the work if a heavy tasking exceeds the habitual DCGS’ capability. This has been key to fully using all the collection assets we field, and ensured that even when the Army and Marine components surged and there was a devastating earthquake in Haiti, we could meet all the multiple joint force commanders’ requirements for ISR PED.

We all need to think about building on this enterprise approach to ISR and improving the integration of intelligence operations across all domains and communities. Integration of intelligence disciplines is key to moving beyond the stovepipes of excellence and toward a source-agnostic enterprise.


Fundamental to progress in this direction is the tenet that ISR is indivisible. How can one make such an assertion? Certainly, throughout military history the services have experienced some degree of separation among intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — organizationally, programmatically and culturally. Indivisibility has to do with principles, not feasibility. In our Pledge of Allegiance, when we assert the indivisibility of our nation, we address the cultural memory of a catastrophic Civil War. Indivisibility does not mean that division is not conceivable; instead, it is the realization that division destroys the synergy that unity provides. ISR is indivisible because the effects it provides depend upon the synchronization and integration of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. That is the principle.

Intelligence relies on surveillance and reconnaissance for its data and information. Conversely, we do not know what to surveil, where to reconnoiter, or when to do either without intelligence. The data collected depends upon processing and exploitation common to all three activities. Decision makers do not care much about the who and how behind their intelligence. No one is asking for separate “I,” “S” and “R” streams on different displays or in different formats — they are expecting integrated products on identical timelines.

The indivisibility of ISR is reflected in the definition of the component terms. The collective term ISR first came into common usage in the mid-1990s. Coined by Adm. Bill Owens, who at the time was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, integrated ISR was presented as a vital component of the revolution in military affairs, defined by the information age, and implemented through the concept of net-centric warfare.

As defined in the modern context, ISR is an operational function with the goal of providing accurate, relevant and timely intelligence to decision makers; it’s the lifeblood of effective decision making. Together, ISR operations provide decision makers the intelligence and situational awareness necessary to successfully plan, operate and preserve forces; conserve resources; accomplish campaign objectives; and assess kinetic or nonkinetic effects across the range of national security operations. They are integral to gaining and maintaining decision superiority. Why, then, does the indivisibility of ISR need explanation?

The short answer is that ISR has never been quite what it is today. The importance of the principle of indivisible ISR reflects how the information age has altered the strategic landscape.

Information-age warfare differs distinctly from its industrial-age predecessor. Precision has supplanted mass, timing has become compressed and service interaction has increased. Twenty-first-century demands require that what we once tolerated as separate tasks now become a single, integrated process. Battlespace awareness is the effect sought by national-security decision makers. Coordination and interoperability are no longer good enough.

Knowledge is of no greater value today than in the past. Intelligence, gleaned from reconnaissance, has existed since the dawn of warfare. What has changed in the information age is the capability — the realistic expectation — of how data can be assimilated, synthesized and delivered in time to be useful. As capabilities increase, the inefficiencies of the past are no longer sufficient for the task.

The paradigm of industrial-age warfare defines operations as putting iron on a target. Attrition is the focus. Accordingly, the military spent most of the last century perfecting precision — the technology, tactics, techniques and procedures necessary to put iron accurately on any target, anywhere.

In the information age, operations have to do with effects. The 1990s evidenced this evolution in a clear explanation of the kill chain — find, fix, track, target, engage and assess. At least two-thirds of kill-chain operations are ISR; increasingly, the target and engage steps are nonkinetic. Knowledge comes before power, and our asymmetric ISR capabilities are able to achieve effects all on their own.

This is the changed character of ISR. In the modern context, the find and fix links of the kill chain are much more difficult than the engage link, particularly for kinetic operations. ISR efforts today make up the vast majority of the operations required to achieve our security objectives. Operations range from finding the enemy, to deconstructing his network and intentions, to putting weapons or other effects on target, to subsequently assessing the results.

In Iraq, to eliminate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Predator remotely piloted aircraft executed more than 600 hours of reconnaissance and surveillance operations to build thousands of hours of sufficient intelligence for about 10 minutes of F-16 kinetic operations.

As I mentioned earlier, increasingly, a single aircraft executes the entire kill chain. Aircraft normally associated with strike operations have excellent sensors on board, and in many cases their sensor data can be networked to others, who can turn it into actionable intelligence.

The ISR-strike combo

Armed remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) offer another approach to this ISR-strike combination. In fact, the al-Zarqawi incident involved an armed Predator, though ultimately an F-16 executed the strike. Air Force RPA pilots are very comfortable with the responsibilities of finishing the kill chain when called upon to do so, yet a subculture in the military does not feel comfortable with using so-called sensor platforms as shooters.

The Navy provides one example of a different cultural perspective. Perhaps because of the traditional need for immediate prosecution of targets in antisubmarine warfare, the Navy arms manned ISR assets, putting AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-84 Harpoon missiles on P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

ISR is the linchpin of an effects-based approach to operations that has been so successfully used in meeting our security objectives. One cannot accurately predict the effect of operations on an enemy system without good intelligence; nor can one assess the effects without detailed surveillance and reconnaissance.

Intelligence requirements for accurately creating desired effects and conducting effects-based assessment are much more demanding than the old attrition-based “bean-counting” model. This increased intelligence detail makes focused reconnaissance and persistent surveillance operations increasingly crucial.

A key barrier to realizing the inherent indivisibility of ISR is the way the Defense Department collectively manages ISR as individual program elements within a defense-budget process that one can at best only describe as Byzantine. The alternative is that our National Security apparatus should effectively manage ISR with a capabilities- and effects-based approach. The capabilities-based construct dictates that for all actions — from planning to programming to acquisition to employment — ISR effects and capabilities must drive and shape the effort to satisfy the needs of joint decision makers. Effective ISR simply cannot be driven by numbers of platforms or pots of money.

Under the program-based construct, too often the narrow focus of program optimization results in missed opportunities to integrate, analyze and interpret information of value to war fighters and decision makers. For example, most combat aircraft in the U.S. military have some type of sensor on board, yet virtually all of that potential ISR data is figuratively left on the floor of the cockpit. In the current program-centric budgetary world of DoD, narrowly focused optimization of individual platforms, sensors and systems is the norm.

Absent a clear definitive strategy, the big picture is lost to a collection of kluged-together widgets. In the current environment, why for example, would the AC-130 program-element manager spend the program’s funds on seamless integration of the aircraft’s sensor data into the Global Information Grid if doing so doesn’t put more rounds on target? Conversely, why would the intelligence community contribute funds to a program outside its control, knowing that the funds could be redirected?

In the Air Force, we converted to a capabilities-based construct to close the cultural rifts in ISR by aligning the service’s ISR capabilities with Joint Capability Areas. The lines between intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are the product of historical and institutional biases. Today, joint remotely piloted aircraft operations demand a transformed mindset and new organizational construct.

The Navy made this leap years ago. Submarines have always been hunter-killers — armed ISR/Strike platforms. Conversely, antisubmarine platforms are in a constant state of doing ISR. Submarines, the original stealth assets, are among the hardest things in the world to find. The Navy learned the hard way in two wars against submarines that if the kill chain is not nearly immediate, the probability of a submarine kill drops precipitously. There are parallels today in hunting for terrorists that will carry into future air warfare against armed, hostile RPAs and hostile stealth aircraft.

The services must also embrace cross-domain ISR as a major mission that enables and optimizes the effects of every other mission. In the information age, the intelligence gleaned from surveillance and reconnaissance also has effects all its own. To fully recognize all the effects of ISR requires that we change parts of our organizational culture.

ISR is a mission set and must be prioritized on par with other major missions. No longer can we treat ISR missions as support to operations. ISR is operations and is foundational to everything the military does.


ISR is about synergy. Integration and synchronization make the effects of collective ISR far exceed their potential when they are separated. All of the data and information required for the production of intelligence are the result of reconnaissance and surveillance collection; conversely, the sole purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance is to collect data and information for the production of intelligence.

ISR deals with knowledge, regardless of where its effects are (to, from, in or through) and regardless of who produces or receives it. We must view ISR in terms of capabilities and effects. It has to do with decision superiority — not platforms, sensors or specialty codes.

The U.S. military must ensure that strategy guides and informs the programming of budgets — not the reverse. A coherent cross-domain ISR strategy must underpin budgetary decisions.

The 9/11 commission report’s now famous summary that the cause of that disaster was a “failure of imagination” cannot be allowed to be repeated. It’s time to do a bit of imagining — imagining how we can restructure our legacy C4ISR organizations and processes to best meet the conditions of the information age. This will not be easy and it is sure to upset many apple carts, but if we don’t do it our adversaries will — and we have too much at risk to let that happen again. AFJ

LT. GEN. DAVID A. DEPTULA retired in October after more than 30 years as an Air Force officer. His last post was deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. He was the principle attack planner for the 1991 Desert Storm air campaign and the director of the Combined Air Operations Center for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.