The ISR Traffic Jam: How to Improve ISR Operations in INDOPACOM

Estimated Read Time: 12 minutes
By Don “Bash” Yates

In March of this year in a session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Philip Davidson, former United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Commander, announced his request to dramatically increase the amount of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) in his theatre. He stated he currently only has “one-quarter” of the command’s total ISR needs. As ISR capabilities continue to flow into the Pacific theater, INDOPACOM will be faced with the same problem that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has struggled with for decades. An increased number of ISR platforms does not necessarily lead to greater effectiveness or reduced intelligence requests, in fact demand will likely increase with more ISR capability.

A commonly held belief is that if we want to know more about the enemy we increase the number and type of ISR assets to satisfy the intelligence requirements or intelligence gaps. This line of thinking is very similar to the build bigger roads argument to solve traffic problems. Most of us who have been stuck in a traffic jam have thought that if the road simply had more lanes, traffic would flow faster. However, research has found that building bigger roads does not make traffic lighter, in fact it can make the problem worse. The reason for this can be explained by the concept of induced demand. This concept, in simple terms, means that as the supply of a resource increases, the demand for that resource also increases at the same or similar rate. Simply building bigger roads in heavy populated cities does not reduce traffic jams. We see similar dynamics with ISR assets in CENTCOM.

During the early 2000s the number of ISR capable aircraft rose dramatically in CENTCOM theatres. By 2008, 80% of all the DoD ISR aircraft, from remotely piloted aircraft to planes like the U-2, were busy in CENTCOM areas of operations. Despite this increase in capacity and capability the demand for ISR assets did not decrease but rather increased. There are several reasons for this, one reason is more assets create more work to process, exploit, and disseminate the data. This is an easier problem to solve, as it can be addressed with greater manpower or improved structured data formats for implementing advances in artificial intelligence (AI) sorting and identification. While there has been a lot of attention on improving the intelligence processing aspects of ISR, there has been little focus on the operational components of ISR.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations, All-Domain Operations
MQ-9 Reaper taxiing, Creech AFB, Nevada

There are three concepts the INDOPACOM commander and staffs should think about to prevent an ISR traffic jam. First, ISR operations should be missionized not generalized, second, measures of effectiveness and performance must tie to mission impact and be assessed at the mission level, and third ISR operations should be led and not managed.

Missionized not Generalized ISR

One of the problems with properly allocating and prioritizing ISR capabilities is the vague and obfuscating language to ISR operational taskings. During Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, U-2 pilots would be tasked with “ISR taskings” to take images throughout Iraq. Images taken at different times over the same location were used to try and identify improvised explosive devices (IED) by looking for changes between images, a technique called change detection. Ultimately the U-2’s efforts were wasted because they were being tasked to take images over the entire AO, regardless of troop movement, in a “peanut-butter spread” fashion causing days between images, while most insurgents planted and detonated IEDs within hours. The “ISR taskings” could be argued as successful because they satisfied collection requirements over a large area, however from a mission perspective the ISR operations were a failure. The ISR operations should have been focused on areas where friendly forces were maneuvering and on a timeline to thwart IED emplacement. Had the U-2 been tasked with a more focused mission instead of simply an “ISR tasking” of collecting images from a target deck, they arguably could have prioritized specific areas, shortened the information timeline, and been effective at the mission to protect troops.

ISR is not a mission and treating it as a such creates confusion, however there are specific mission sets under ISR operations. Joint Publication 1-02 defines ISR as, “An integrated intelligence and operations function”. ISR is listed as a core function, however in ISR operations it is common for assets to receive a vague “ISR tasking”. While there are usually essential elements of information (EEI) or a target deck that assets prosecute, an “ISR tasking” is too ill defined and difficult to assess whether it successfully had the impact the commander desired. A lack of mission focus, or specified ISR mission sets, has led to an inefficient collection requirement model and CENTCOM to make up “roles” for ISR assets.

In a recent RAND report on ISR effectiveness in CENTCOM, they identified various “roles” of ISR assets. These ISR “roles” are not well understood like traditional mission sets and are not standardized. If we break down CENTCOM’s “roles” to traditional missions we get: force protection, close air support, dynamic targeting, reconnaissance, and surveillance. These traditional mission sets are defined and thus help in assessing the effectiveness of the missions and give operators focus and intent. Shifting to a mission set focus for ISR operations in the Pacific theater will help alleviate the “granularity” problem that the RAND study highlights as a challenge to ISR assessment effectiveness in CENTCOM, and help properly allocate and prioritize ISR operations. Focusing on specific mission sets for ISR operations can help INDOPACOM commanders effectively task assets and improve assessments, helping avoid an ISR traffic jam.

Measuring Mission Effectiveness

ISR operations are assessed by measures of effectiveness (MOEs) and measures of performance (MOPs). Doctrinally, MOEs and MOPs are designed to assess performance “of the intelligence staff functions” not mission performance. However, MOEs and MOPs are often misapplied to measure the performance of mission accomplishment.

Measures of ISR performance need to be related to the intent of the ISR operation. If an ISR MOP is simply the total hours an ISR platform spent collecting data, then it cannot assess if a mission was successful. For example, if a commander wanted to know the number and type of ships sailing in a stretch of the South China Sea for a specific intent, a surveillance mission, a MOP could be the percentage of ships identified from the ones discovered. In this case, a lower percentage would indicate a problem in identification. If the total number was low, this could indicate a problem in finding ships. In either case, using the intent of the tasking (including negative reporting) would be easier to assess the effectiveness of the surveillance mission than simply counting the number of hours an asset spent in the area. An important note is that MOPs generally do not tell you if you are looking for the right things, that is the intent behind MOEs.

MOEs are supposed to answer if we are doing the right thing as opposed to are we doing things well, however if MOEs are not tied to mission accomplishment they are subjective. One key insight from the RAND study showed that feedback like asking the commander if ISR was effective in getting him or her actionable intelligence did not work. Commanders in the report could not differentiate sources of consolidated ISR information. A solution would be to have MOE assessed at the mission level not the operational level to rate mission effectiveness.

Apart from losing the ability to assess individual assets effects to mission accomplishment, current collection based MOEs reward inaccurate reporting and promote resource hogging. ISR assets are allotted to commanders by availability and priority. However, similar to the use or lose concept of end of year funding in the military, where if a commander does not use all the money allotted by the end of the year they could lose it the following, ISR assets not used can be reallocated. Commanders are then encouraged to task their assigned assets, even ineffectively, (like having an asset with cameras over a cloud covered area) to send the message that the asset is still needed. Additionally, because a commander’s level of confidence and perception of risk is directly tied to their ISR operations, competition for resources between organizations personally affect the commander’s decision calculus. Thus, ISR MOEs incentivize commanders to report missions as effective and use resources at a higher rate than mission accomplishment demands.

It costs nothing—in terms of fiscal dollars—for a commander to request and then task ISR capable platforms. This is one reason why the principle of induced demand holds, and the major reason why demand for ISR capability increases even as ever-increasing numbers of assets are available. The solution to induced demand is cost. If users of a resource incur a cost, the demand will decrease to a manageable and efficient level. One way that the INDOPACOM Commander can induce cost to ISR operations and avoid an ISR traffic jam is by encouraging delegation of authority to ISR mission commanders.

ISR Mission Command

Applying the idea of mission command to ISR operations is not new, however using the concept to help solve the ISR traffic jam or induced demand problem is. While others have argued that ISR operations can be improved through mission command, the cost it also imposes on commanders is beneficial in solving the ISR traffic jam problem. Mission command imposes cost in two-ways: time and personnel.

An initial time cost is added to a commander because it takes time for a commander to convey his intent to a mission commander. Clear commander’s intent is one of the six principles of the U.S. Army’s mission command philosophy and is needed in any operation using mission command. By comparison, assigning collection priorities, as happens with collection management requires little intent. Often intent is inferred from a static Air Operations Directive (AOD).  Developing and communicating commander’s intent would require clearly defined objectives and missions for ISR operations. This level of planning will require a significate initial investment of time but will contribute to increase ISR operational effectiveness.

The second cost for commanders to implement an ISR mission command model is in personnel. The current collection management model has a collection manager as the singular point of contact for the varied and wide range of ISR operations and missions in their area of responsibility. In contrast, the ideal ISR mission command model for ISR operations would have several mission commanders specializing in each ISR mission set such as ISR support to, dynamic targeting, search and rescue, force protection, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Mission commanders can be experienced operators with expertise in specific mission types, and because of their operations background would be able to directly assess and evaluate the effectiveness of the missions and assets to improve MOPs and MOEs. There is an overhead cost to adding personnel to operational staffs but with that cost comes operational expertise and understanding that collection managers simply do not have, and operations can shift from simply being managed to being led. 

The costs outlined above perhaps are why despite the growing body of work advocating for ISR mission command, the concept still has not gained traction. However, if considering the principle of induced demand, these costs might be exactly what is needed to make ISR operations more effective and efficient. Moving to an ISR mission commander model for INDOPACOM would not just solve the ISR traffic jam problem by inducing cost but can also increase ISR operational flexibility and help assess effectiveness of ISR operations at platform specific levels and thereby increase overall theater ISR effectiveness.

Current Management Model

Some may argue collection managers already act as pseudo ISR mission commanders. Indeed, collection managers do monitor and modify ongoing ISR operations and have something akin to mission command authority in “collection management authority”. However, this is not mission command.

Mission command requires delegated decision-making authority to react immediately to changing mission requirements and collection managers do not have the experience to make mission specific decisions. To make up for this lack of ISR operational experience, operators are often brought in as liaison officers to help collection managers make real time decisions.  ISR operators advise collection managers who manage operations. A better model would be for collection managers to advise ISR mission commanders who lead ISR operations.

A final distinction between collection management and mission command is the principle of risk. Mission command requires understanding and accepting prudent risk, and collection managers generally do not understand the risks associated with ISR operations. For example, during operations in Iraq, MQ-9s were tasked to operate over a city that was known to have Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) fires and planes repeatedly came back with battle damage. The crews requested time to scan the area every hour to mitigate the risk of getting shot down. The collection manager, not understanding the risk to the platform denied the request not wanting to lose collection time over the target. Proper risk assessment will only increase in importance as ISR operations in the Pacific shift to great power competition.


Admiral Davidson stated that adding ISR assets would help “add capacity to the picture” in the East and South China Sea, however based on experience and social science, commanders across the board will want more ISR capability no matter how much they currently have. Without introducing cost to ISR operations INDOPACOM will likely experience the same ever growing demand for ISR assets that CENTCOM did. Cost can be induced on commanders by spending time and personnel on ISR mission command focused operations. Having an ISR mission commander would allow for direct feedback and accurate, mission-focused, assessment of ISR platform contributions.

Just as building bigger roads will not solve traffic jams, giving commanders more ISR platforms will not satisfy their demand for ISR. It is human nature to want more of a valuable resource, like ISR, but as the supply increases without a plan how to use it some of it will become redundant. To avoid the ISR traffic jam in the INDOPACOM theatre commanders and staff will need to shift away from a collection management model and move toward specific mission focused operations led by ISR mission commanders.

Major Don “Bash” Yates is an Instructor Weapons Officer with over 1200 hours in the MQ-9. He is currently serving as the Chief of ISR Global Force Management for Air Force Special Operations Command.

Disclaimer: 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.

Featured Image Source:

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply