Drop Zone: Modernizing ISR C2

By Jerry “Marvin” Gay

“The ITC represents the best use of Airpower and Operational Design as delineated by the CFACC.”

– Lt Gen Robert Otto

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. No plan.

As execution day arrived, anxiety ran high. The December 8, 2016 operation would be the largest airstrike of 2016 and the second largest airstrike since Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) began. Looming like a dark cloud over the team was the awareness that only three months earlier, on September 17, 2016, coalition aircraft caused an international incident by striking a Syrian regime outpost after mistakenly characterizing the area as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) held territory. A thorough investigation of the incident determined the strikes were the result of human errors made by Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) personnel. The same mistakes could not happen again.

Immediately following the ill-fated strikes in September, the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) provided clear direction and intent to rectify the errors made during the mission. Lessons would be learned. Modifications would be made, immediately. For his intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission, the CFACC’s Chief of ISR (CISR) and Chief of Intelligence (A2) initiated an ambitious overhaul of the Air Component’s ISR and targeting processes that would instill an enemy-focused ISR culture, restructure the CFACC’s dynamic targeting process, establish a fusion cell optimized for real-time battlespace awareness, and modernize the CFACC’s ISR command and control (C2) capability.

An hour prior to the planned December strikes on ISIL’s revenue generating infrastructure, the Deputy Combined Forces Air Component Commander (DCFACC), also the designated Target Engagement Authority (TEA), had not authorized mission execution. The ghosts of September 17th and a high degree of doubt lingered. Although pre-planned strike criteria were met, the TEA wanted one last ISR collection sweep of the expansive target area to ensure there were no civilians present. The TEA’s order to scan and report all activity across the target area was a new, unforeseen requirement. The plan was changing.

Prior to any operation, shuffling ISR assets in real-time or compiling additional decision-quality intelligence requires time-consuming coordination with nodes located around the world. Not this time. In the span of minutes, crews were informed, sensors tasked, analysis conducted, and results relayed to the TEA. Once it was confirmed that no civilian activity was observed, the strike was approved. Orchestrating this complex ballet of sensor integration, data fusion, and analysis dissemination was the CFACC ISR Tactical Controller (ITC), a trained and experienced ISR tactician empowered through mission command. Because the CAOC’s ISR Division (ISRD) was employing an ITC to integrate and optimize ISR sensors as well as serve as the TEA’s focal point for fused target analysis, the DCFACC was able to more rapidly establish positive identification of the enemy with higher confidence and verify there would be no civilian casualties or collateral damage.

This type of dynamic, complex operation requiring agility and flexibility to overcome the inevitable moment operational plans change is why in 2010 ISR Action Officers adapted the special operations forces (SOF) ITC model for use by conventional military organizations. Now, more than seven years later, the ITC was proving its worth for the Air Component. The December 2016 strike resulted in the destruction of a fleet of more than 168 ISIL oil tanker trucks in Syria and a loss of more than $2 million for the terrorist organization. These types of oil-related strikes have eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars in ISIL revenue and degraded their ability to fund ongoing war efforts in Iraq and Syria. More importantly, ISIL’s loss in revenue impacted its ability to finance, supply, and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks worldwide.

“For more than a decade, USCENTCOM components have relied on ITCs to ensure our ISR employment meets supported commanders’ intent.”

– Lt Gen Jeffrey Harrigian
USAFCENT Commander

While the scope of the strike operations and the destruction sustained by the enemy are noteworthy, it is the new approach to real-time ISR C2, rapid data fusion, and ISR Airmen-led targeting that the CFACC, Lt Gen Jeff Harrigian, chose to highlight when interviewed by AFCENT’s Public Affairs Officer. “We’re bringing more information, fusing it, and providing it faster to the decision makers, which allows us to get ahead of ISIL. This allows us to positively identify targets and strike them before the enemy can deny us that opportunity,” Lt Gen Harrigian stated. These results could not have occurred if not for the man-in-the loop approach to real-time ISR C2 predicated on multi-domain maneuver and fueled by ISR professionals adhering to mission command principles.

Expounding on the CFACC’s comments, his Chief of Targets added, “What traditionally took weeks to months to develop, can take […] a matter of hours to days while maintaining the same detail, precision and confidence levels.” One of the key enablers for the strikes and unique advantages singled out by the Chief of Targets was the ITC. The CFACC ITC position provides the “ability to immediately direct ISR collection and analytical activities” in real-time with unprecedented responsiveness and precision to ensure assets are achieving the commander’s priorities, objectives, and intent. Rounding out his remarks, he indicated that the ITC will remain an essential capability for fusion warfare and ISR-enabled targeting for the Air Component.

“I recognize just how critical the development of the ITC role has been throughout the U.S. Central Command [area of operations] for ensuring support to ongoing operations.”

– GEN Joseph L. Votel

The man-in-the-loop construct for real-time ISR C2 and adherence to a mission command philosophy expressed through ISR mission type orders represent a paradigm shift in how the CFACC employs theater-level ISR capabilities, as well as how supported commanders leverage theater-level ISR resources. Although there have been countless operational successes akin to the December 2016 strikes enabled by unheralded ITCs across all combatant commands, the innovative use of ITCs by non-SOF organizations has only recently garnered widespread support from key senior military leaders. The forthcoming series of articles, entitled Modernizing ISR C2, explores a future ISR C2 realm centered on multi-domain speed, agility, and flexibility enabled by a multi-domain maneuver concept of operations. The series will also advocate for a man-in-the-loop approach to real-time ISR C2 founded on the utilization of professionalized ITCs. While the series will focus largely on the Air Component, the details and recommendations considered in the article have implications for the Joint Force across all domains. Ultimately, multi-domain maneuver, mission command, and man-in-the-loop ISR are the key ingredients required for modernizing joint ISR C2.

Major Jerry “Marvin” Gay is an active duty U.S. Air Force officer most recently assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He holds an MBA from George Mason University School of Business, a Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University, and a Bachelor of Arts with dual concentrations in Asian Studies and Judaic Studies from the University of Tennessee. Major Gay is a USAF Weapons School graduate with over 25 years of distinguished military service. A former ISR Tactical Controller (ITC), Airborne Cryptologic Linguist, and Airborne Intelligence Officer (AIO) with over 2,700 flight hours and 1,000 combat hours, Major Gay has controlled and served as aircrew onboard a variety of Air Force and special operations intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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