Command & Control of ISR in a Contested, Degraded, and Operationally Limited Environment: Ensuring Support to Unit Level Intelligence (Part 2)

Approximate Reading Time: 12 Minutes

By: William Tompkins

Editor’s Note: Today we present Part Two 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 defined the C2 challenges the Air Force will face while Part Two continues and suggests solutions to enable support to the unit level.

Overcoming Degraded Command & Control
Deliberate planning and preparation are required to operate both effectively and efficiently in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited (CDO) environment. Failure to develop a contingency plan to operate in a CDO environment which addresses the fundamental factors of planning (who, what, where, when, and why) and regularly exercise (how) that plan will end with disastrous results. The following model is designed to maximize support to the unit level, to prepare the Air Operations Center (AOC) to support unit level operations prior to the start of contingency operations, and to foster reachback capability and warfighting integration in a CDO environment. While this model is not all-inclusive, it is intended to bring together not only Air Force units but also joint and bilateral partners to leverage capabilities that would otherwise not be available to the AOC and Unit Level Intelligence (ULI) personnel and offer a tailorable solution. Ultimately, this process is designed to produce an agreed-upon course of action between the AOC and the supported ULI as a working plan to mitigate the effects of a CDO environment.

Step Objective Action
1. Outreach to Supported Units Identify supported units within AOR and assign a team to manage outreach.
2. Prioritizing Communication Identify local communication methods as well as joint/bilateral partners within a geographic area of ULI.
3. Support to Mission Execution Define supported unit’s mission, and information priorities in a conflict both up and down echelon.
4. Leveraging Co-Located ISR Identify co-located ISR that may be leveraged by supported units and how these capabilities can be incorporated.
5. Operational Relationships Determine an operational structure and enterprise to distribute information.
6. Preparing for Operations in a CDO Environment Identify ways to exercise and train during peacetime to prepare for wartime operations.
    Table 2 – Preparing to Operate in a CDO Environment

1: Outreach to Supported Units
The first step in preparing to overcome the challenges of supporting unit level operations from the AOC/ISRD in a CDO environment is assigning specific individuals or a team within the ISRD the responsibility of managing outreach with supported units. This task will likely be the responsibility of the Unit Support Team. While this may seem elementary, by assigning the outreach task to a specific individual or team, rapport will be built with the supported units and the ISRD which will facilitate coordination of pre-contingency planning to execute in a CDO environment. The party responsible for outreach should initiate contact on a regular basis (i.e., weekly to bi-weekly) to keep an ongoing dialogue of challenges faced by and requirements of ULI. The Chief of ISR Division (CISR) should consider sending members of the outreach team to meet the supported units face-to-face as well as get a better idea of the facilities and infrastructure that ULI are using to conduct operations.

2: Prioritizing Communication
Once the initial coordination has occurred with the supported units, a Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency (PACE) plan should be created to identify the methods that will be used by the AOC/ISRD to communicate with ULI. Communication methods with ULI should not be limited to organic capabilities such as Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNet), Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System (JWICS), and Secure Terminal Equipment (STE) but should also consider the availability of these communication methods within other squadrons at the ULI’s location. In the event landline communication becomes interrupted, other means to communicate such as ultra high frequency (UHF), very high frequency (VHF), and satellite communication (SATCOM) radios which would be available at the supported units command post should be identified. In addition to terrestrial based communication methods, the ability to communicate up echelon via aircraft datalinks and radios should also be explored. After investigating all available means to communicate electronically the ability to use a courier service should also be explored. Once the AOC/ISRD and ULI have identified all locally available means of communicating the process should be repeated using the same process by reaching out to all available joint and coalition partners within the immediate proximity.

Once all communication means have been identified, they can then be categorized into operational zones which will enable quick triage to establish a CDO level.

  • Operational zone 1 would include all communication methods that are organic to ULI and those that exist at the ULI’s home station. These communication systems are aggregated because the systems most likely are supported by the same communications infrastructure.
  • Operations zone 2 would consist of communication methods that exist outside the ULI’s home station but are within reasonably close geographic proximity and could be leveraged by ULI to communicate with the AOC. Operational zone 2 would incorporate both joint and coalition partner capabilities within geographic proximity to ULI’s home station.
  • Operational zone 3 would include the rest of the organizations in theater, to include the AOC.
  • Operational zone 4 would include all other reachback organizations that exist outside the theater.

CDO Intel Image 2

3: Support to Mission Execution
After establishing the means with which communication will occur in the event of a contingency the AOC/ISRD should establish a clear delineation of the supported unit’s mission to determine what products are a priority for dissemination. Understanding the supported unit’s mission will determine the tailored level of support that is required by the AOC/ISRD in the event operations must be conducted in a CDO environment. Communications could be degraded for an extended period in a CDO environment; therefore, it is critical to ensure that the vital information required to execute the mission is distributed when able. An example of tailored support would be identifying that a particular unit would be tasked to conduct interdiction missions to degrade an enemy’s integrated air defense system. Based on knowing the units primary role in executing an Operation Plan, the AOC/ISRD should prioritize the dissemination of target data, combat search and rescue (CSAR) data, and tanker air-to-air refueling data. This example would be a worst-case scenario assuming that communication times would be minimal and possibly only conducted via voice. If this scenario occurred, it would still be imperative that the AOC/ISRD continue to attempt delivery of the Air Tasking Order (ATO) and Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List via its traditional means (i.e., secure email or classified website) to deliver the required tasking documents. The AOC should also work with supported units to develop Mission Type Orders (MTOs) that could be used to ensure mission execution occurs in the event that C2 becomes degraded.

With the supported unit’s primary mission established and the prioritization of critical information to be disseminated identified, the necessity to report mission success or failure up echelon is imperative to provide the CFACC and the AOC the data needed to plan the next ATO cycle. Unit Level Intelligence should use every means possible to communicate the outcome of the tasked missions to the AOC/ISRD via the PACE plan developed in pre-contingency operations to combat the CDO environment. 

4: Leveraging Co-located ISR
With communication methods prioritized and mission requirements established, the ability to access co-located ISR by both the AOC and ULI must be determined. Based on the assessment that intel reporting up and down echelon would be denied or significantly delayed in a CDO environment the ability to leverage ISR that is either co-located or within close proximity to the AOC or ULI would be key to answering the CFACC’s Prioritized Intel Requirements in lieu of having access to serialized reports. The AOC and ULI should not only seek out traditional ISR collection such as electronic intelligence or geospatial intelligence, but should consider sources such as a co-located control and reporting center or an airborne air control squadron which could provide critical radar tracking data to highlight emerging enemy tactics. Critical information could also be ascertained from aircrew debriefs that could provide insight into enemy capabilities and intent as well as provide potential updates that may have been gained in-flight from up echelon C2. These sources are reliant on military equipment and would be primary targets for electronic attack in a CDO environment; the ability to leverage open source intelligence and publicly available information could provide critical information about mission success or failure as well as information about our adversary’s intent and current capabilities. When operating in a CDO environment with limited access to serialized intelligence reporting commanders will be required to assume inherent risk when leveraging unclassified sources in their decision-making process.  

5: Operational Relationships
In the event that combat operations begin, it is paramount that the flow of information up and down echelon occurs to ensure mission success. In addition to information flowing up and down echelon, it is important that the same information has the ability to propagate laterally within an organization. Within the AOC/ISRD, significant relationships exist between the Analysis, Correlation, and Fusion Team, ISR Operations Team, and Targets Team which requires coordination and situational awareness of each section’s current focus to ensure mission success. Not only within the ISRD, but throughout the AOC, inter-division relationships are important to ensure continuity and mission success. The importance of fostering these relationships within the AOC will enable the transmission of communication received while operating in a CDO environment by any division to be quickly distributed to the appropriate team. Conversely, prioritized information for distribution (i.e., target data or CSAR information) could be sent to all divisions within the AOC in an all-out attempt to reach either ULI or a distributed customer if a CDO environment is ongoing.

In the same manner that the AOC/ISRD would attempt to ensure data is distributed via relationships forged within the AOC, ULI should ensure that the equivalent relationships have been created locally to enable a free flow of information. By creating mutual relationships with other on-base squadrons and organizations within close geographic proximity, ULI should be prepared to pass and receive prioritized information when able. 

6: Preparing for Operations in a CDO Environment
With contingency operation procedures established, contracts created to prioritize data passage and operational relationships identified the plan to operate in a CDO environment must be exercised frequently, or it will atrophy. To prepare, the AOC/ISRD should run internal rehearsal of concept (ROC) drills exercising their ability to identify how support would be provided to ULI in a CDO environment. These tabletop drills would allow ISRD personnel the ability to work through scenarios using the models for the support that were previously developed. The AOC/ISRD should also reach out to the supported units to incorporate this tailored support to ULI during unit effectiveness inspections or large force exercises to simulate support in a CDO environment. The AOC/ISRD support to ULI operations will most likely need to be conducted incrementally to desensitize intel and aircrew personnel to outside assistance. To gain further experience outside the theater of responsibility and gain further experience the CISR should consider sending members of the ISRD team to other external training opportunities (i.e., Red Flag, Cope North, or Air Force Weapons School Integration Phase) to exercise their support to ULI and aircrew. Additionally, the AOC should attempt to incorporate actual unit level participation into exercises such as Blue Flag where C2 is being exercised to validate support in a CDO environment. The ultimate goal is to train our Airmen to operate with a CDO mindset to execute at the speed necessary to win against a near-peer adversary.

There is a lack of coordinated effort between the operational level and the tactical level of war. Many of the recommendations that I have presented throughout this paper had not been coordinated nor considered. I am happy to report, though, that through my research the inputs to begin coordination between the 603 AOC/ISRD Unit Support Team and the supported United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) units has begun. While these deficiencies may not have been identified during my initial interviews in December 2017, the problem of addressing AOC operations in a CDO environment has begun to be addressed. In March 2018 the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron (JTS) released Flash Bulletin 18-07 Joint AOC C2 in a CDO Environment, which provides planning guidance and options for CFACC authority delegation to synchronize offensive operations, maintain the initiative, and achieve the commanders intent. This article does not address the challenges associated with operating in a CDO environment for the ISRD singularly but instead addresses the challenges that the AOC would face as a whole. This article is a monumental step forward to advance the conversation with regard to preemptive planning to conduct degraded operations.

With the increased reliance on information superiority to ensure mission success, the ability to conduct global reach-back to enable ISR operations is currently challenged by near-peer adversaries. Our adversaries have invested heavily in technologies to deny us the superiority we have come to rely upon. These emerging threats are challenging the US’ ability to conduct “assured C2,” and mission success will be held at risk.

To function in a CDO environment, the AOC must be ready to support subordinate units with the data they require to conduct daily operations. The ability to continue to operate when C2 is degraded will not occur by accident; deliberate actions must be taken before the initiation of hostilities. This evolution in C2 capabilities requires new thinking, new training, and perhaps new technology. Airmen need to be empowered across ranks to be forward-leaning and thinking, enabling them to act autonomously to fulfill their duties. Without a plan for multiple means of redundant communication and the integration of Air Force, joint, and bilateral partners to support ULI, the AOC/ISRD will be rendered ineffective in the next high-end fight.

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 U.S. Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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