A Vision for ISR Modernization
While attending an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) conference about a year ago, a senior U.S. military member stated that the best approach to modernizing and evolving ISR capabilities was through incremental steps. He used a baseball metaphor, saying, “We need to try to hit a series of singles rather than swing for the fences and try to do something big.” He cited a series of large ISR programs valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars that eventually were canceled, shelved or yielded little in terms of new capabilities.
I understood his rationale for advocating an incremental approach to ISR modernization, but I also wondered where the “small ball” approach was leading. I’ve worked in the ISR community for almost 40 years and experienced the transformation from wet film reconnaissance in the ’70s to digital sensors, data links and deployable automated ground stations in the ’80s. The ’90s were the age of real-time sensor-to-shooter integration, and now it’s the era of unmanned platforms. All were major steps to transform ISR that resulted from vision, advanced technology and relentless government and industry focus. A small-ball approach may be a good tactical technique for developing incremental capability, but it fails to articulate a vision for the future of ISR. We must ensure that these “singles” move us toward an overarching vision for ISR modernization. If not, they simply will be a series of random and disconnected responses to the latest maintenance improvements, incremental IT upgrades and one-off, quick-reaction capabilities.
An overarching vision for ISR modernization is critically important to the nation. We have an enormous ISR capability in need of continuous modernization. Each year, the military’s combatant commands (COCOMs) create integrated priorities lists, with ISR modernization perennially topping them. The COCOMs want more ISR capability; improvements to interoperability among U.S. and coalition partners; better data sharing; access to information across the ISR enterprise; more timeliness and accuracy; and improvements in delivering actionable information to forces that need it at the last tactical mile of the battlefield.
To meet COCOMs’ and National Command Authority needs, we must evolve the current ISR platforms, sensors and ground systems into a truly global ISR enterprise. It can be done with focused singles, but they must be focused on larger, more overarching actions to migrate common ISR information technology infrastructure issues. Principally, modernization actions must be orchestrated toward the larger goal of an integrated ISR enterprise. This can be done through three Defense Department ISR focus areas:
- Creating a global networked enterprise consisting of military service ISR ground stations and COCOM intelligence centers.
- Developing advanced sensors, platforms and communications.
- Improving delivery of timely ISR information to the last tactical mile.
We will delve into more detail on those three ISR focus areas in the next blog, so stay tuned.
Ralph Wade is a vice president in the Strategic Innovation Group at Booz Allen Hamilton.