The Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency supports the Air Force’s mission to “fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.” From its home at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, the agency provides and operates ISR capabilities in concert with service, joint, national and international partners.
Maj. Gen. John Shanahan took command of the agency in June, after serving as special assistant to the deputy chief of staff for ISR at Air Force headquarters. He spoke with Barry Rosenberg, editor of C4ISR & Networks, sister publication of Air Force Times, about operations in contested environments, coping with big data, and moving beyond processing, exploitation and dissemination.
Q. With support of the warfighter a given, what is at the top of your to-do list?
A. What I think about now is what we should look like 10 years from now. I think the end state will be a smaller, more capable, modernized Air Force ISR enterprise that is really capable of conducting full spectrum operations through what I like to call ‘cross-domain integration’ of not just Air Force, but also joint and coalition national theater and tactical ISR capabilities.
We are in a fight now that we are very good at. We’ve spent 12 years focusing on the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re very good at the counterinsurgency, counterterrorism type of fight. How are we going to approach the next one? I do not have a crystal ball, none of us do. I don’t know exactly what the fight will be or what it will look like, but I am positive it won’t look like the fight we are in today. So I need to start moving the ISR Agency from a focus on what we would call ‘permissive non-contested operations’ to higher-end operations in more contested, degraded environments.
But let me say very definitively we will not stop doing some of these other types of operations. ... I am comfortable that we have the ISR enterprise capable of handling these operations. What we aren’t as ready for yet is operations in more highly contested, degraded environments.
So what is it going to take to get there? ... I call it the three ‘Rs.’ We need to reduce, reset and reconstitute the ISR enterprise. And the reduction is not necessarily by choice.
Q. And by that you mean the reduced force is being driven by the fiscal environment?
A. It is. I don’t know exactly yet what we will look like in terms of budget. There is no question there will be cuts. ... So, we will take this opportunity to get smaller in a way that is smart. We’re not going to just decide to ‘salami slice’ cut, but really figure out how do we shift the enterprise to a more capable, modernized force.
Q. And by more capable you mean ... ?
A. For example, developing low-observable, penetrating capabilities capable of operating in a heavy electronic countermeasures environment and in cyberspace. Let’s face it, our adversaries and our potential adversaries have been watching our fights very carefully, and will be developing, or have developed, countermeasures against our capabilities, whether ISR or anything else in our Air Force and the other services. I need to make sure we know how to operate and are effective at operating in those degraded environments.
When we look at Operation Enduring Freedom, I hope historically it will almost be looked at as the ISR war, because we’ve put so much capability in theater over the past 12 years. But today we need to start looking at a different threat.
Q. You mentioned three Rs, with the second one being reset. To me reset typically means returning hardware systems from Afghanistan back to maintenance depots in the U.S. for repair and refurbishment. What does reset mean as far as ISR is concerned?
Much of my capacity today is absorbed in global operations, and a very high percentage of that is in the war in Afghanistan, which is a certain type of fight. But what are my analytical requirements going to be for a different type of fight? Let’s say it’s a higher-end fight in a nonpermissive environment. Some of the analysis capabilities for these types of fights have atrophied a little bit in these 12 years of war.
I need to rebuild our analytical capability, which requires a bit of time to reset. I have to figure out the best way to reset that ISR force. I can’t stand it all down. It’s simply not possible because there is an insatiable demand for ISR across the world every day. The lion’s share of our capability right now goes to Central Command, but that doesn’t mean the other combatant commanders don’t have requirements. They do. They have far more requirements than we have capacity. At the same time, I’m trying to make the case that as we begin to draw down in Afghanistan we need to take a little bit of a breather in the right areas at the right time in order to reset the force and start focusing on these other type of fights.
Q. So is operating in contested environments a platform/UAV issue or a sensor performance issue? For example, maybe unmanned systems have to fly at altitudes beyond the range of ground-to-air defenses.
A. Without being able to penetrate threat defenses, standoff becomes very important. When I say ‘standoff,’ perhaps space is one of the answers. Cyber is [also] one of the answers. In fact, maybe cyber is the ultimate standoff where I don’t have to penetrate defenses at all, other than network defenses. That’s not a given, but it’s a different way of looking at it.
Q. And when you say cyber, what’s the connection between cyber and ISR?
A. They are inextricably linked. There are different philosophies on this, of course. Not too many years ago, SIGINT, or signals intelligence, was in many ways the precursor to what we call cyber today, and I don’t mean that in the offensive cyber realm. When we talk about cyber network exploitation or ISR and cyberspace the intent is the same; we are gaining access to be able to pull information and exploit that information to create the actionable knowledge to help decision makers. As I said, we have ISR airmen today integrated into cyber organizations.
In the Air Force we are looking very carefully about what is the future, what is the right integration, and what is the right organizational framework for the integration of ISR and cyber in the Air Force. Those are very good questions. I don’t have the answers yet but it’s something our Air Force is looking at very closely. We’ll have those answers and some direction within the next couple of years.
Q. So getting inside an enemy’s network and surveying their network could be the “S” in ISR?
A. That’s a good way to characterize it. But of course there are also network operations that are just running networks day-to-day. I don’t call that ISR and likewise I don’t call offensive cyber space operations ISR.
Q. Let’s talk about the processing, exploitation and dissemination aspect of ISR. What are your PED challenges today and how do you see them changing in the coming years?
A. Instead of ‘PED,’ today we are using the term ‘PC-PAD,’ or planning and direction, collection, processing and exploitation, analysis and production, and dissemination. Why is it important to move to that concept? The perception of PED is that it’s more passive. It’s platform-based. PC-PAD to me is active, anticipatory, and that means it starts with planning and direction. We had a tendency in the past to look more at a platform. Now we are focused on a problem-driven approach.
For example, a combatant commander has a problem set of some type, perhaps it’s the Air Force component in a COCOM. Let’s look at what we can do for that problem set from across the entire enterprise. When I say entire enterprise I don’t mean just Air Force. I mean the other services, as well as the coalition piece, which is equally important. That drives us in a different direction and allows us to start using our assets more effectively.
Again let me bring in the cyber. We may be able to provide a cyber solution to an ISR problem set that previously we weren’t thinking about because in the past the answer was, ‘We just want to put a U2 over the target.’ We’re moving away from the target-specific planning approach to more of a problem-based approach. Another way to say it is a platform- or sensor-agnostic approach to ISR.
Q. And you’re actually putting steps in place to go in that direction?
A. We are well down that path. We are seeing more and more people take that approach. And it’s important to view it as PC-PAD, going back to what I said about operating in contested environments versus permissive environments.
I mentioned earlier the analyst and analysis part of it that we may have lost or had atrophy. I know we have lost some capability that we had in our service and across the entire DoD 20 years ago because of the nature of the fight we’ve been in. So, I need technology to help me, but I also need to rebuild the analyst skills to allow me to do the PC-PAD effectively. I need an apps-based approach to the world — like the rest of the intelligence community is going to — in order to simplify the problem.
I am not going to have the time or the people to deal with this enormous volume of data that we’re beginning to see more and more of in the next couple of years. All of the broad-area sensors, persistent stare, high definition, and multi-spectral systems — you name it — are giving us a data problem beyond anything we’ve experienced in the recent past. ... We need to find some way of automating, where possible, some parts of the processing and the exploitation, to really give us the time we need for the exploitation part of it.