US Air Force Maj. Gen. John Shanahan, center, and Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, right, say the Air Force must focus on cyber, space and human ISR. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will leave lasting changes on the US military, but their biggest legacy on the Air Force has been the impact on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
The service’s ISR mission underwent a renaissance during the decade-plus missions in the region, transforming from a support tool to a vital part of every combat operation, with unmanned systems such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper seen as defining symbols of the conflicts.
But as the US moves away from the region, the Air Force is facing new realities — both strategic and budgetary — for its ISR mission, forcing service officials to make big decisions on laying the groundwork for what is to come.
To begin that process, Maj. Gen. John Shanahan, head of the Air Force’s ISR agency, issued a 14-page “Strategic Plan” in 2013 laying out the direction for the service’s ISR mission through 2023.
The report can be summed up in a line from his opening summary: “We must transition rapidly from a target-based, inductive approach to ISR centered on processing, exploitation and dissemination to a problem-based, deductive, active and anticipatory approach that focuses on ISR operations.
“We have to help shape the future or risk being shaped by it,” he concluded.
The most obvious challenge facing the service, and one identified by the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, as key, is the movement away from “permissive” environments toward contested ones. That includes a planned move away from technologies such as the MQ-1 and MQ-9, which can be victimized by advanced anti-aircraft systems, in favor of different technologies and strategies.
“We believe that we are over-invested in permissive ISR, and we are probably under-invested to deal in contested, or highly contested, scenarios,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR. “So, in an environment where budgets are certainly not going to be growing, that implies that there needs to be a realignment of our means.”
Both Otto and Shanahan identified that realignment as having three major focuses — cyber, space and human ISR.
“The Air Force is investing quite heavily in cyber, in support of these national mission forces that we are standing up for US Cyber Command,” Otto said. Meanwhile, “there are assets and capabilities in space that we have been either underutilizing or that we have not integrated as well as we could into this wholistic [ISR] picture.”
While Otto and Shanahan both want closer integration of space and cyber activities, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, one of Otto’s predecessors, warns that there are institutional barriers that must be removed.
“What we really need is to get rid of major commands that were designed for a world that existed in the middle of the last century, and upgrade them to the kind of 21st century challenges that we’re facing today. That’s why we need an ISR major command, and we need to move our domain-centric commands into more functional commands,” Deptula said.
“We ought to be looking at consolidating force application into one command and meld cyber and ISR together into an integrated command, because cyber was an outgrowth of the intelligence field, and those two entities operate in conjunction with one another,” he said.
Rather than viewing ISR as something divided up among different major commands, it needs to be more fully integrated at the highest levels, Deptula said.
Although less flashy than the technological aspects, the human intelligence and analysis aspects of the service could actually grow in importance in the coming years, according to both generals.
“The Air Force essentially disinvested in human intelligence in the past decade, so in the next decade, I think we recognize that we need to have some investment,” Otto said. “It will be modest, but we do have a need for human intelligence as well.”
What does that look like? In his report, Shanahan talked about the need to “professionalize the analytical workforce,” an idea he expanded on in an interview.
“We have atrophied our skills a little bit in this core skill of analysis, and along with that, I would throw in some targeting skills and also our language capabilities,” Shanahan said. “Some of this is the nature of what we’ve done for 12 years.”
Shanahan pointed to the “tsunami of data” that comes in from ISR assets every day, using the example of someone assigned to watching full-motion video of an area for 12 hours a day.
“It’s not quite the same level of analysis required to study a Chinese integrated air defense system and put them into the context of all the other things China is doing with the modernization of its military,” he said. “We have to teach this idea of critical thinking, and put it in context of, you may have one piece of the story, but you need the other 35 pieces that go along with it.”
Investing in automated technologies is key to developing those capabilities, Shanahan said. That includes things such as automatic queuing. Instead of having an analyst sit and watch 12 hours of video, the Air Force would set up a system that alerts the analysts if activity occurs in a certain area, or if a hyperspectral camera picks up traces of explosive during a flight.
“It’s exactly the place we need to go,” he said. “What we must do is give more time back to the analysts to figure out the wicked problem sets, the really hard, deep analysis that has to happen.”
“We don’t need to have people staring at video monitors coming from [UAV] feeds, waiting for something to happen,” Deptula agreed. “We don’t have a deficit in training, but we need to change the fashion in which we train to optimize our analysts’ impact, because we are going to have fewer of them in the future resource-constrained environment.” ■