Modernizing C2 of ISR – Part 2: Breaking ISR’s Industrial Age Chains

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This  is the second in a series of articles addressing theater-level ISR command and control. While the series focuses largely on the Air Component, the details and recommendations considered in the article have implications for the Joint Force across all domains. The final part to this series – Part 3 – will delve further into the issue of ISR professionalization. Part 1 can be read here.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 Minutes

By Jerry “Marvin” Gay

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.
– Winston Churchill

There is a thin line between stubborn and stupid adherence to a preconceived idea on the one hand, and a courageous persistence in the face of initial reverses on the other.
– Maj Gen Haywood S. Hansell, Jr.
U.S. Army Air Forces (WWII)

Introduction: The Military Way

Change is scary. For military leaders, bottom-up change is especially frightening and the very antithesis of “the military way.

World War II provides multiple examples where bottom-up change may have advanced Airpower and the trajectory of the war toward a more rapid Allied victory. For example, in a seminal tactics manual (“Air Tactics”) written in 1922, Major Thomas DeWitt Milling explained, “The backbone of the Air Forces on which the whole plane of employment must be hung, is pursuit.” As the first “Officer in Charge” and later the Assistant Commandant of the Air Service Tactical School, Milling attempted to codify into doctrine pursuit (aka fighter) aircraft employment and advocate for its critical role in military operations. Nearly a decade after Maj Milling’s work, another pursuit aircraft tactician and advocate, Captain Claire L. Chennault, took over the Pursuit Section of the rechristened Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS). Chennault concluded that pursuit aviation was “a weapon of opportunity that might be employed either offensively or defensively.” He firmly believed that “new theories and methods should be warmly welcomed” and recognized that the preponderance of Airpower literature perpetuated the notion of bomber invincibility. This errant bias for an infallible bomber force, in Chennault’s estimation, “illustrate[d] the authors’ lack of acquaintance with modern pursuit methods, firepower, and technique rather than any inherent weakness in pursuit.” Milling and Chennault’s perspectives and ideas were cast aside by WWII era pilots and senior leadership alike despite being founded on lessons learned from World War I and extensive pursuit aircraft training.

The advocacy by Milling, Chennault, and others notwithstanding, the fundamental role of pursuit aircraft, in particular the viability of pursuit aircraft in defense of bombers, was not widely embraced throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, then Lt Col Henry “Hap” Arnold even observed that pursuit aircraft will “rarely intercept modern bombers except accidentally. Such being the case, they can normally operate solely against other pursuits or observation and it is doubtful whether such operations justify their existence.” Arnold and other leaders mistakenly believed bombers could overcome all threats from German intercept aircraft and arrive at their targets unscathed without escorts. It was not until 1939 that Gen Arnold began to reconsider his position on pursuit aircraft concluding, “A doctrine which has been widely propounded in certain air corps circles for many, to the effect that pursuit aircraft and fighter aviation can be minimized on the basis that fighter craft cannot shoot down large bombardment plans in formations, has now been proven wholly untenable.” Despite catastrophically high losses and continued advocacy, it took until 1943-1944 before Gen Arnold and other senior WWII leaders began to implement policy that reflected a new understanding and appreciation for the vital importance of pursuit aircraft. The refusal to heed or act on Milling and Chennault’s conclusions played a major part in the loss of tens of thousands of Allied aircraft, over 20,000 in 1944 alone.

Alas, history is replete with examples of institutional intransigence when militaries face the need for fundamental change. Moreover, contemporary leaders continue to overlook viable and innovative solutions offered by junior personnel in favor of a technological “silver bullet” or the latest operational theory that has yet to be operationally validated. All the while, the Millings and Chennaults of today stand ready to incorporate lessons learned over the last 17 years to improve the US military’s warfighting capability.

The change addressed in this article centers around command and control (C2) of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the ISR process, and ISR C2 authorities. Simply put, today’s ISR Enterprise is facing a significant inflection point that demands fundamental change or risk mission degradation or failure in future wars. Similar to the pre-WWII historical parallels, some of the answers to the Joint Force’s growing challenges lie in preexisting ideas already developed, tested, and proven by different elements across the Joint Force.

We don’t have an innovation problem. We have an innovation adoption problem. We are too risk-averse, too stove-piped and too bureaucratic.
– General Stephen Wilson
Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force

The Problem with Theater-level ISR: Stovepipes and Requirements 

The Combatant Commands’ (CCMDs) theater-level ISR collection management is routinely characterized and critiqued as being “too stove-piped.” In June 1996, the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published “IC21: The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century.” The study concluded that the “most common criticism of the current collection management process…is that it is dominated by stovepipes.” Although the IC21 study was completed in 1996, little has been done over the last 21 years to effectively mitigate and resolve stovepipes that exist throughout the ISR Enterprise. As the Joint Force modernizes for future adversaries and multi-domain operations, the military must aggressively overhaul the current ISR C2 system that is too slow to adapt to the diverse demands of a modern battlefield. This article recommends major changes to three distinct areas: Organization, Authorities, and ISR Professionalization. The Joint Force, and in particular the Air Component, must develop an ISR framework better suited for the complexities of multi-domain operations and future warfare. To do so, the military should:

  1. Organizational Change: Redesign the Air and Space Operations Center (AOC) for optimal C2 of ISR in multi-domain operations. This means dissolving the AOC’s ISR Division (ISRD) and creating a single operational process with ISR professionals integrated throughout the AOC. It also means adopting a strike cell model for real-time C2 and oversight of AOC-controlled ISR, as well as other air, space, and cyber assets supporting Air Component priorities, missions, and objectives.
  2. ISR C2 Authorities: Replace antiquated theater-level ISR C2 authorities and associated tools that reinforce stove-piping with new authorities that promote the development of holistic ISR plans, concepts of operation (CONOPs), and Mission Type Orders (MTOs).
  3. ISR Professionalization: Create a joint ISR Tactical Controller (ITC) certification (akin to the Joint Terminal Attack Controller certification), and develop a multi-nation, multi-service Memorandum of Agreement to standardize ITC employment.

These ideas are not new, rather they have been proposed and discussed for years, if not decades. Aspects of these concepts have even been tested, validated, and codified during combat operations, but remain unacknowledged and unaccepted by institutional gatekeepers oft opposed to new ideas that disrupt current constructs. Pedantic intransigence notwithstanding, the proposals recommended in this article have largely remained trapped by bureaucratic forces unwilling to consider or embrace organizational alterations or mid-level managers too risk-averse to advocate for such new, ambitious efforts due to their infatuation with the status quo or for fear of failure. The world is a different place than it was in 1991 and change is occurring more rapidly than ever. The historical paradigm in which military organizations stood idly by until a General Officer or senior civilian official downward-directed significant change simply will not work if the United States is to maintain an asymmetric military advantage over our adversaries. Instead, we must empower the Millings and Chennaults of today to foment change from the bottom-up. Senior leaders and mid-level managers alike must be open to new ways of doing business and secure enough to promote this new model of bottom-up innovation irrespective of where the idea originates.

Organizational Change: ISR and the AOC

At its most fundamental level, the AOC is the nucleus of Air Component operations and allows the exercise of centralized control, decentralize execution of Airpower. According to Annex 3-30 Command and Control, the AOC “provides operational-level C2 of air component forces as the focal point for planning, executing, and assessing air component operations.” The AOC is a direct descendent of Tactical Air Control Centers (TACC), which was developed after the Korean War; however, it was not until 1991 and Operation Desert Storm that the AOC construct really came of age. While much has changed since the 1990s, the AOC remains an Industrial Age construct that employs a linear, assembly line-like process to generate a daily Air Tasking Order (ATO). General John Jumper, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, once described the AOC as an “ad hoc command and control center comprised of stove-piped systems, manned by different functionals who were most likely working together for the first time.” Jumper’s description remains accurate to this day. The fragmented process executed by separate divisions and employed by the AOC for strategy development, planning, and execution is incompatible with conducting modern warfare, mitigating agile and adaptive adversaries, and executing multi-domain operations.

Although the overall performance of the Air Component and the AOC in Desert Storm were deemed a success, ISR integration was judged a failure by General Norman Schwarzkopf, as evident in his post-war Congressional testimony. Much has changed since Desert Storm, with the volume of ISR resources growing significantly and senior leaders readily acknowledging the essential role of ISR collection and analysis. Despite an insatiable demand for ISR and an ever growing armada of ISR assets, the Air Component has been reluctant to overhaul and modernize the theater-level ISR C2 and collection management processes that have remained largely unchanged since 1991. When the AOC was originally introduced, there were far fewer theater-level ISR assets and the Air Component’s ISR mission was executed from within the Combat Operations Division’s (COD) ISR Cell. During combat operations, the ISR Cell could expand into an ISRD if required. Over years of continuous contingency operations, a permanent ISRD has become the norm for ISR planning, scheduling, and collection management, while the COD’s ISR Cell continues to oversee ISR execution. The ISRD is also charged with theater-wide analysis and targeting. This separation of ISR planning within the ISRD from all other non-ISR planning (in Combat Plans Division) creates gaps and seams in the Air Component’s operational planning and execution framework. Looking toward the future, it is antithetical to the concept of multi-domain command and control for Air Component ISR planning and collection management to be disjoined from the rest of the AOC’s operational processes. The divide is detrimental to unity of effort and operational cohesion, and leads to incoherent schemes that fail to sufficiently enable a supported organization’s operations or meet a supported commander’s intent. To resolve the shortfalls that arise from maintaining separate processes, organizational changes must be made to the AOC to establish a unified operational construct. Ultimately, if “ISR is operations,” then AOCs should eliminate ISR Divisions and integrate ISR Airmen and joint professionals throughout the other AOC divisions to create a single, integrated operational framework.

Finally, integrated operations require Air Component leadership and expertise to represent both the employment of non-ISR capabilities (J3), as well as the ISR components of operations (J2) at all times. While traditionally the Senior Intelligence Duty Officer (SIDO) oversees ISR execution, a new position should be introduced for a more senior ISR Airman with expanded responsibilities. The senior ISR officer would become the air component commander’s senior intelligence officer, co-equal with the J3, and maintain oversight of ISR, targeting, and real-time processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) or other analytical activities during ATO execution. Essentially, the Chief of ISRD would be repurposed into this role. In sum, to better align with today’s operational realities, the AOC should adopt the strike cell model and utilize both a J3 (Operations Officer) and a J2 (Intelligence Officer). The new construct should be comprised of the J3’s operations team, to include a FIRES section complete with Fire Support Officer (FSO) and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), as well as the J2’s ISR team complete with ISR Tactical Controllers and robust analytical support. This model has proven to be supremely effective and adaptive for special operations forces (SOF) and land component organizations. These two recommendations, dissolving ISRDs and adopting the SOF strike cell model, would initiate the AOC’s evolution required to effectively C2 complex multi-domain operations. 

Facing the Demand: Modernizing ISR C2 Authorities

As previously highlighted, many of the issues and critiques that exist with theater ISR are not new. For example, a key finding in the 1996 Intelligence Community in the 21st Century (IC21) study indicated the intelligence community requires “additional authorities and different management structures to create a unified, effective and efficient community.” The IC21 finding remains as true in 2017 as it did in 1996. Today’s ISR system is based on individual collection requirements and reinforces stove-piped collection operations. To resolve these issues, the Joint Force should introduce new ISR C2 authorities which provide components an intuitive and easy way to formulate holistic, multi-domain ISR plans. Moreover, the joint theater-level ISR construct must free itself of unwieldy and overly prescriptive collection management tools, such as Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management (PRISM), that reinforce a stove-piped, single-INT approach to ISR operations.

Operational command and control of ISR involves terminology and authorities distinctly different from C2 of other military activities. At the operational-level of war, CCMDs exercise collection management authority (CMA), which is the authority to determine the priority, focus, and weight of ISR efforts across the theater. CMA involves two complementary functions. The first CMA function, collection requirements management (CRM), involves defining what targets intelligence systems should collect. The second CMA function is collection operations management (COM) and entails specifying how to satisfy an ISR requirement. COM is most often delegated by the Joint Task Force (JTF) Commander to the Air Component due to their unique ability to leverage the AOC for theater-wide C2. These two functions, CRM and COM, provide the operational-level ISR C2 framework that defines broad collection management lanes and boundaries.

Current theater-level ISR C2 authorities made perfect sense two decades ago when CCMDs and the Air Component managed employment for relatively few ISR assets. With such a limited number of “big wing” ISR aircraft, an assembly line-like process requiring supported organizations to funnel individual collection requirements to the AOC was sufficient. Furthermore, the databases and tools developed to support this type of process, namely PRISM, while terribly cumbersome, was adequate for the task. With the advent of the Information Age and a significant increase in ISR aircraft and sorties per day, today’s theater-level ISR construct and associated processes are suboptimal and often hinder ISR operational effectiveness. The cumbersome ISR process creates unnecessary, time-consuming work for both the supported and supporting organizations, making it less than ideal for the modern battlespace.

New ISR C2 authorities could promote operational integration and enable the execution of multi-domain operations, while avoiding deficiencies inherent in today’s system. The new construct should be centered on the development of comprehensive multi-domain ISR plans intended to achieve a commander’s objectives and intent, rather than simply stitching together an ISR scheme one individual requirement at a time. A new collection planning system will allow organizations to more easily construct and implement multi-domain ISR CONOPs and permit ISR planners to utilize all collection tools available to them to achieve optimal ISR integration. An ISR C2 system predicated on ISR plans or ISR CONOPs, rather than individual collection requirements, is demonstrably different than the current system and one that postures the Joint Force for all future operational scenarios.

“I recognize just how critical the development of the ITC role has been throughout the U.S. Central Command AOR for ensuring support to ongoing operations.”
– GEN Joseph L. Votel

“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

Professionalizing the ISR Force: Embracing ITC-Enabled ISR

ISR sensor employment and PED optimization begins and ends with ISR professionals. To most effectively and efficiently leverage ISR capabilities and the Joint Force’s robust PED architecture, the ISR enterprise must ensure professionalized personnel are intimately involved throughout the process. The more complex and ambiguous the ISR or analytical task, the more critical it is that ISR experts are providing oversight, input, or direction throughout task execution. Further, we must seek ever new and innovative ways to leverage the expertise and skills of ISR tacticians. Due to the complex nature of modern warfare, ISR processes must allow for unprecedented responsiveness which involves the immediate transition from ISR collection to kinetic or non-kinetic action. Based on a decade of validated tactics, techniques, and procedures, an ITC executing Sensor Tasking Authority has emerged as a proven model for executing real-time ISR C2, optimizing sensor performance, and directing PED nodes to more rapidly derive actionable intelligence.

ITCs were first employed to support combat operations in 2005. Since those early days in Iraq, the ITC position has evolved into a critical enabler for theater-level ISR collection in all CCMDs across the range of military operations. Although the ITC position was initially envisioned as a GEOINT-specific specialist, ITCs are now relied upon for real-time, all-source fusion that seeks and initiates ISR-enabled targeting opportunities. Ultimately, ITCs serve as the supported organization’s primary focal point for real-time synchronization of ISR assets and PED fusion activities. As operations evolve and an organization’s intent and objectives change, ITCs allow for agile, flexible, and immediate adaptations to the ISR integration plan and shifts in the intelligence fusion weight of effort. This agility and flexibility ensure ISR and targeting operations remain most relevant for the supported organization. The maturation of the ITC position and over a decade of tactics validation has turned a position initially created to optimize ISR during counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism missions into one that is now ideally suited for multi-domain operations for all mission sets.

The ITC position is still a relatively nascent capability for conventional forces (i.e., non-SOF). Despite the fact that the CCMDs and components are still in the early stages of articulating their requirements to Joint Staff and the services for trained, certified, and fully qualified ITCs, the capability and expertise ITCs provide already serve as the standard bearer for optimized airborne ISR. With over one hundred ITCs employed across USCENTCOM alone, the Air Force and other services must resolve the lack of formalized ITC training and certification. The absence of codified joint ITC standards and formal ITC training have led to negative mission impacts across the USCENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR). The negative operational outcomes include inadequately trained ITCs losing positive identification of fleeting targets, poorly executed sensor hand-offs from ITCs to JTACs, and ineffective collection due to sensor misallocation.

At the September 2016 USCENTCOM ISR Conference, component commands unanimously endorsed the need for formal training and certification for all conventional ITCs in theater. The USCENTCOM Commander, General Joseph Votel, subsequently acknowledged the training shortfalls and negative impacts on ISR employment, expressing his intent to advocate for Joint Staff support to remedy these issues. Support and advocacy for ITCs from both GEN Votel and the USAFCENT Commander, Lt Gen Harrigian, led to the first-ever approved and sourced ITC Request For Forces by Joint Staff and Air Combat Command. Continuing the momentum for this important initiative, however, remains an uphill battle due to a disconnect between articulated CCMD requirements and the bureaucratic hurdles to have the requirements met. Meanwhile, ITC-led ISR continues to be the standard for optimized collection and fusion operations for all components. The ITC position, which is the epitome of bottom-up innovation, will continue having positive impacts on global ISR effectiveness now and for decades to come.

“Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.”

“You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”
– Albert Einstein


Lt Claire Chennault graduated at the top of his advanced pursuit training class, and was described as “the ideal pursuit pilot with split second reflexes and a shrewd fast-working mind.” Years later, as an instructor and department head at ACTS, Chennault was dismayed by how the school “taught the newest and most theoretical precepts of massive bombardment but was teaching fighter doctrine of 1918.” Not only did Chennault highlight these discrepancies to multiple Army Chiefs of Staff, he also advocated for more effective and realistic pursuit training during his testimony to the Federal Aviation Commission’s Howell committee. For his sustained efforts to advocate for pursuit tactics and employment, Chennault was punished by having his name removed from the Command and General Staff College list for the class of 1934-1935. Even more impactful on Chennault’s career, he found himself persona non grata in the Army and its air arm. In retrospect, we can now marvel at Chennault’s vision, tenacity, and courage, despite the tragic manner in which his story unfolds. Ultimately, poor health, disputes with superiors, and the fact that Chennault was passed over as unqualified for promotion led him to resign from the military on 30 April 1937 at the rank of Captain. World War II saw Chennault recalled to service and the valiant acts by his Flying Tigers squadron eventually earned him some level of vindication.

Similar to Chennault’s criticism of the Army Air Corps’ bomber bias and institutional negligence toward pursuit capabilities and tactics, many career ISR professionals acknowledge that the current theater-level ISR system is obsolete and inadequate. That is to say that the ISR C2 authorities and collection management process utilized by CCMDs and subordinate component commands to develop and validate collection decks, schedule and employ airborne ISR capabilities, and evaluate ISR effectiveness is inadequate for the complex demands of today’s dynamic operational environment. In fact, many ISR tacticians have made repeated attempts to improve a broken ISR construct, all the while struggling against a bureaucratic system seemingly impervious to change.

Despite best efforts to effect positive change, supported entities are forced to expend significant resources or develop workarounds for a cumbersome and inflexible theater ISR process. Units pay a significant manpower bill for a process that calls for incessant drafting of individual collection requirements and essential elements of information. The unnecessarily burdensome work should be exchanged for time better spent on crafting multi-INT, multi-domain CONOPs that will more holistically and effectively convey a supported organization’s ISR needs. Exasperatingly, the joint force remains wedded to an ineffectual, stove-piped, Cold War era process despite nearly two decades of lessons learned and ample evidence that reveal more effective ISR planning and employment methodologies. With these lessons learned, tactical experts must find a way to convince senior leaders that major change is required. We cannot allow bureaucratic intransigence or institutional inertia to prevent us from modernizing an ISR enterprise that is crucial for multi-domain success. Continuing the tradition established by Thomas DeWitt Milling, Claire Chennault, and other Airpower visionaries, we must steadfastly advocate for fundamental change to the ISR enterprise. It is well past time to modernize ISR C2.

About the Author:

Major Jerry Gay is an active duty U.S. Air Force officer most recently assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). 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. Maj 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, Jerry 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 US Government.

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