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Air Force ISR Changes After Afghanistan

May 1, 2014
BY Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

Different enemies, battlefields, technologies and budgets mandate new sensors and uses.

  • Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, USAF, commander, U.S. Air Force ISR Agency, extols the virtues and necessity of technology education to high school students at the Alamo First Robotics Competition.
     Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, USAF, commander, U.S. Air Force ISR Agency, extols the virtues and necessity of technology education to high school students at the Alamo First Robotics Competition.
  • ISR airmen carry out their missions on an operations floor.
     ISR airmen carry out their missions on an operations floor.

The U.S. Air Force is emerging from almost 13 years of conflict in the Middle East with a different perspective on its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Lessons learned from those battlefields are leading to new directions that will entail abandoning traditional approaches and methods.

Recent operations have demonstrated the importance of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to coalition partners. As the missions wind down, officials in charge of such activities are focusing on a reset, determining what adjustments to make to keep the capabilities relevant moving forward. The Air Force has no plans to stop providing services across the military, though what that means with a smaller force in different environments remains to be seen.

Throughout the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, capabilities from various sensors became available at continually lower echelons even as support remained intact to the highest levels within the United States. Officials in the ISR community have learned to better integrate platforms, sensors, the network and the enterprise. The advent of the Joint Information Environment encompasses part of that effort, as the military creates a single, secure information-sharing environment across its branches.

Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, USAF, commander, Air Force ISR Agency, says the war in Afghanistan will be remembered as an ISR war as much as anything else. Incredible ISR capabilities were fielded to Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 12 to 13 years, but not all of them will transfer to the military of the future. Others will be revamped for a different fight. Some capabilities coming out of Afghanistan, for example, will be as important in new locations, but for different reasons, Gen. Shanahan states.

Over the length of the recent conflicts, integration became the biggest advancement in the field. Leaders are working on making sure that sensors and platforms are not individual, but a real part of that broader ISR enterprise. During the fast tempo of operations at the height of the conflict, resources sometimes were fielded without full integration for the sake of providing expedient assistance to forces.

The general explains that the military has reached the understanding that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance no longer stand as separate entities, but are fully combined into the ISR construct. With technology developing at increasingly rapid rates, ensuring the right connections becomes more difficult and more important. “The Air Force is a little different than the other services,” Gen. Shanahan says. “The Air Force always has presented all of its sensors to the joint force.” The military branch holds none of its ISR resources in reserve, he adds. This approach makes sharing and enterprise natural fits.

In the future, Gen. Shanahan foresees more remotely piloted capabilities. He also predicts the use of more expendable unmanned sensors that can be employed and discarded as necessary. In the past, ISR tended to be mostly about platforms. “Now, it’s about enterprise and information architecture,” he explains.

As the Air Force ISR community adjusts to the new landscape, it faces several challenges, including what the general calls the need to run forward while walking backward. Recent battles have featured permissive environments in which ISR air platforms maneuvered with minimal to no threats. Gen. Shanahan says that for some while in the future, forces still will operate in the same type of situation with little in terms of well-resourced enemies to deter them. However, at the same time, places such as Syria, North Korea or Iran present different scenarios in which the United States will have to contend with anti-access/area-denial threats. “We have to learn to do both,” the general states. Training in the ISR arena will have to focus on the two possibilities.

Sensors will need to be multifunctional, according to the general; there will be no single-mission platforms moving forward. The job of the ISR world, he offers, is to take all the data those ISR sensors collect and make sense of it. Eventually, the information should benefit the warfighter and the nation. Some of the changes may be foundational, others might be at a more national level, but the challenge for next-generation capability is to put together all the pieces.

In recent years, the conversation around ISR has shifted with recognition of the importance of the field. Rather than an addition to planning, commanders now discuss it first, wanting to know what capabilities they can employ. The Air Force ISR Agency is looking to make the ISR enterprise flexible to meet varying requirements. An area ripe for improvement is the collection management process. With so much data coming in, managing it properly becomes difficult and critical.

ISR personnel need to determine what commanders really want to know to optimize use of sensors. In the past, a platform might fly over a target once a day and take a picture. But now, many sensors can pull in a variety of data, helping analysts figure out what adversaries want to keep secret. Multiple sensors can monitor a single target almost constantly, and the ISR community is working hard at enabling persistent capabilities. Part of the solution to the various challenges will be a move to a cloud architecture.

Other challenges involve what Gen. Shanahan calls the three Rs—reduce, reset and reconstitute. Reduce refers to the lower personnel numbers the Air Force and overall military are facing; reset addresses the retrograde from Afghanistan and what future operations will be; reconstitute deals with how training must adjust for new environments. “I’m really beginning to put my focus on the three Rs and what that looks like,” Gen. Shanahan says.

For the last of these, the premier effort is the Red Flag exercise, which the general describes as the best training he has seen during his 29-year career. Additional emphasis is being placed on cyber in such practice events as that domain continues to affect operations across the spectrum.

The Air Force ISR Agency works closely with the training community to ensure that what the service branch teaches in its schoolhouses translates into real-world operations. Emphasis is being placed on “21st century training,” meaning more inclusion of tools such as video games, interactive media and competition, because digital natives tend to learn naturally through those means. Though the younger generation is accustomed to and comfortable with working in big data, that knowledge does not always translate into using it correctly to provide information. They are not necessarily analysts, Gen. Shanahan says, explaining analysts take information and turn it into intelligence that others can use to make decisions. He refers to a program his agency is working on that focuses on training analysts to make the necessary connections from the data collected. The human factor is the most important piece of the ISR puzzle, and that involves critical thinking and decision making.

The general continues that the military must have a trained, capable force. Personnel need to be students of warfare. Interactions between individuals at all levels help generate ideas, including when troops operating at more technical levels pass their perceptions to leaders.

In particular, Air Force ISR personnel must train to failure to ensure they succeed on the battlefield, especially as wars change and adversaries have capabilities different than those found in Iraq and Afghanistan. The general says the Air Force must build resiliency into its network, being open to going all the way down to using grease pencils if necessary to keep operations running. “We have to plan ... for the worst possible scenario,” he says.

Budget reductions present another challenge, but tGen. Shanahan is less concerned about cuts in training than he is about aspects of certain systems such as the Global Hawk and U-2. He also wants to ensure continued investment in research, development, test and evaluation to maintain a cutting edge and the ability to adapt.

Industry faces many of the same problems as the government when it comes to reductions in funding. The way both the public and private sector carry out business has to change. Gen. Shanahan wants the two sides to come together in better partnerships and consortiums. He explains that each has a tendency to blame the other when systems fail to work as planned. Now, they must engage in dialogue about the 21st century and how to provide the right plug-and-play tools for ISR analysts.

The military continues to determine how best to make use of commercial technology for defense applications. Apps have provided additional capability to analysts for several years. Gen. Shanahan emphasizes the need to find the right place for humans in the technological loop, adding that the military must be smarter in its approaches and perform program management better. The right tools can give analysts time to focus on the hard problems.

Agile acquisition and engineering processes across enterprises is extremely difficult and extremely important, the general explains. A special challenge is information technology, which is needed to enable a global reach back and faces a rapid development rate the sluggish procurement cycle does not accommodate well. The general echoes many around the Defense Department in his call for more plug-and-play and a move away from big, bulky technology releases. That approach risks obsolescence of technology by the time it reaches the hands of troops.

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