Command & Control of ISR in a Contested, Degraded, and Operationally Limited Environment: Ensuring Support to Unit Level Intelligence (Part 1)

Approximate Reading Time: 12 Minutes


By: William Tompkins

Editor’s Note: Today we present Part One of a two part series examining the US Air Force’s ability to conduct Command and Control (C2) of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited (CDO) environment while ensuring intelligence support to the unit level. Part One defines the C2 challenges the Air Force will face while Part Two suggests solutions to enable support to the unit level.

For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain; it has been able to deploy its forces when it wanted, assemble them where it wanted, and operate how it wanted. The ability for the US to operate with impunity throughout all operational domains is largely due to its ability to conduct unchallenged command and control (C2). Today, every operational domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace holding the US’s ability to conduct exquisite C2 at risk. Former Pacific Air Forces Vice Commander and 13th Air Force Commander Lt Gen (Ret) Stan Kresge’s white paper on USAF cyber strategy highlights challenges to conducting C2 in an environment where adversaries possess operational capabilities that are equal to if not superior to that of the USAF. In the white paper, he states that “the USAF has enjoyed unchallenged C2 of its forces for the past 25 years, adversaries have been unable to target or affect our networks or systems to the degree that has impacted operations. Unfortunately, the USAF cannot continue to count on that advantage going unchallenged, due to the enormous importance of cyberspace capabilities and networks in today’s US and coalition combat operations, and growing adversary capabilities to counter them around the world.” With threats such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea capable of challenging the integrity of the assured C2 that the USAF has become accustomed to, operations to support mission execution are held at risk. Assured C2 by the USAF is not a given in future conflicts, only through deliberate measures will the ability to operate in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited (CDO) environment be guaranteed.

This article will examine challenges to C2 within Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) channels of the Air Operations Center (AOC) Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance Division (ISRD) down to Unit Level Intelligence (ULI) supporting Air Tasking Order (ATO) operations at a flying wing. Throughout this article, I will create a model that is tailorable to meet every AOC/ISRD’s unique mission and provide the AOC the ability to conduct C2 of ULI while operating in a CDO environment. In addition to providing a model to operate within a CDO environment, this article will define CDO levels and the degradation associated with each level.

The definition of C2 and of ISR differs across the varying Air Force career fields. For example, if you asked a Missions Operations Commander (MOC) at a Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS), an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) on an RC-135 or a ULI officer at a flying wing, you would receive different answers. However, Joint and Air Force doctrine define ISR as:

“Integrated operations and intelligence activity that synchronizes and integrates the planning and operation of sensors, assets, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination systems in direct support of current and future operations.”

This article will focus specifically on the portion of the definition that highlights ISR as “in direct support of current and future operations” which is ULI’s mission. Additionally, it will discuss the ISR C2 structure that exists from the AOC down to ULI and how to better prepare that relationship to operate in a CDO environment.

To prepare to operate in a degraded C2 environment USAF processes and modes of operation must evolve. To meet the challenges of operating in a modern CDO environment modernization is critical. Modernization is not defined solely by hardware; it requires a change in the ways we organize and employ forces. The implications of new technology must be anticipated on the battlefield; we must be able to define military problems and support a culture of experimentation and calculated risk-taking. Adversaries will continue to develop means to defeat us, but the USAF must continue to sharpen its competitive edge and enhance its lethality.

Command and Control at Risk
By 2030, threats with the capability of challenging the US’ ability to conduct C2 will be formidable. Adversaries continue to develop anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry to keep the US and its allies at bay. The US continues to develop weapons technology and software to counter these A2/AD threats, but the doctrine and tactics supporting employment lag behind. While A2/AD weapons such as fifth-generation fighters, advanced air-to-air missiles, and long-range surface-to-air missiles are capable of destroying aircraft, ships, and air bases, they are obvious threats. Commonly disregarded threats are those that hold at risk the US’s extensive reachback access to networks and databases that enable C2. Our adversaries continued pursuit and development of advanced electronic warfare (EW), cyber, counter-space, and ISR capabilities, which are force multipliers, that enable the ability to conduct CDO operations across multiple domains. The growing assumption that C2 networks in future conflicts will be degraded is quickly becoming the operational reality for mission planners. Our enemies look to deny the US information superiority by creating a CDO environment which will deny what Lt Gen (Ret) Kresge calls “assured C2,” stating, “You can’t effectively command if you can’t control. You can’t control if you can’t communicate.” The importance of ensuring effective C2 has been identified as one of three focus areas by Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Gen Dave Goldfein. The CSAF’s focus area of enhancing multi-domain C2 outlines the fact that we dominate the air, space, and cyber domains today, but our adversaries have invested heavily in technologies to deny us the superiority we have come to rely upon. The USAF’s developmental and acquisition timelines associated with fielding a new capability to counter our adversaries technology is lengthy. To overcome the limitations posed by new technology acquisition, it is a necessity to develop sound operational procedures to operate in a CDO environment with the capabilities currently fielded.

Defining CDO Levels
Operational domains are classified as air, land, the surface of the ocean and subsurface, space, the information environment (including cyber), and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Multi-domain operations can be defined as the ability to work in multiple domains and use one domain to complement or support operations in the other. Capacity to conduct C2 in a CDO multi-domain environment is rarely exercised, and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) are not codified at the operational or tactical levels.

After review of multiple Joint Publications, Air Force doctrine annexes and scholarly articles I could not find a definition that described how a CDO environment could or would be categorized. When referencing AFTTP 3-1 General Planning, it describes contested operations as “operations limited by adversary capability and/or actions.” This definition merely scratches the surface of the term being defined let alone quantify it. To better support ULI experiencing degraded C2 with the AOC it is important to establish criteria to define the level of degradation being experienced. In order to define CDO levels, I have assigned each an objective value. The scale is modeled in a similar way to acceptable level of risk (ALR) ratings used in the operational and tactical realm. These ratings reflect the level of C2 degradation between the AOC and the tactical level and are defined in Table 1. The description of the CDO level criteria is written from the ULI perspective, and this same model is easily inverted and can be used to describe the degradation in C2 down echelon from the AOC.


Table 1 – CDO Levels Defined

In the table higher head-quarters (HHQ) is defined as organizations up echelon (i.e., AOC) and any other organization outside the local area that has access to the US Intelligence Community. The level of CDO low is defined as a situation in which one or more means of C2 is still available between the HHQ and ULI. The levels of CDO medium through extreme describe scenarios where C2 is unavailable for a pre-defined amount of time. These pre-defined intervals in communication are designed to coincide with the ATO cycle. If C2 connecting ULI to HHQ becomes disrupted for greater than 72 hours, the Air Operations Directive (AOD) containing the JFACC’s guidance is no longer current.

What Do We Lose
When preparing for degraded C2 operations in a CDO environment, it is important to determine what information would not be received both up and down the echelon to build contingency plans. When examining the case of AOC support to ULI, the loss of communications for more than 24-48 hours would significantly impact mission operations. Communications degradation between the AOC and ULI would mean no access to the ATO, which governs the daily taskings for flying squadrons. The AOD would also not be received, which is a critical conduit for JFACC’s guidance to be passed for day-to-day mission execution. Within the AOC/ISRD, the Analysis Correlation and Fusion team is responsible for producing daily products such as the Daily Intelligence Summary which syncs with the ATO cycle to optimize decision making within the multiple levels of the AOC as well as provide supported ULI a summary of enemy actions from the previous 24 hours. The Graphic Intelligence Summary is another daily product that provides a visual representation as a mean of “mapping” the battlespace for its audience. These are examples of products from the AOC that would not be received by ULI if C2 were degraded or denied the ability to “push” information up to the AOC. It is the responsibility of ULI to ensure that Mission Reports, which provide a summary of ATO execution back to the AOC, would be received. Conducting requests for information to answer a commander’s critical questions and provide insight into developing enemy tactics and force disposition would also be limited. Having a comprehensive understanding about what information would not be available in a scenario in which C2 is degraded up and down echelon would help both the AOC and ULI to better prepare to operate in a CDO environment.

Maj William “Torn” Tompkins is the Senior Intelligence Officer at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. He is a former Instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School with assignments in US European Command, US Pacific Command, and multiple deployments to US Central Command.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment


One thought on “Command & Control of ISR in a Contested, Degraded, and Operationally Limited Environment: Ensuring Support to Unit Level Intelligence (Part 1)

  • December 10, 2018 at 5:34 am

    Torn, great article. I have also written about the effectiveness of CDO mitigation TTPs of C2ISR units, but in an allied operation setting. Not surprising, the challenges are similar to what you outlined here.

    Looking forward to part 2.



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