Is the Air Force Serious about Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance?

June 25, 2019

The U.S. Air Force claims to have the best intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) force in the world, and a plan to enhance decisive advantage amidst great power competition. The Air Force also has a culture and history that values ISR significantly below fighters and bombers. Will the Air Force implement its ISR plan, or will priority and resources go to platforms that put fire and steel on target?

The ability to discover activities not otherwise visible to policymakers and military commanders is still vitally important for military planning and options as well as for warning of surprise attacks. ISR aircraft have supported American military commanders and national security policymakers in both war and peace for over 150 years, dating back to the American Civil War. The U.S. Air Force was assigned airborne ISR roles and missions at the outset of its establishment as a separate military service. Current Air Force doctrine recognizes that in the information age, Air Force ISR capabilities operate from and through multiple domains to provide essential, timely intelligence on adversaries’ capabilities to decision-makers and joint force commanders. ISR is often the first additional capability a combatant commander requests in a crisis or contingency situation, and those capabilities often must remain in place to monitor the situation even after a crisis is resolved.

The U.S. Air Force has fielded a massive theater ISR enterprise to support overseas contingency operations since 2001. This enterprise includes a vast, diverse, and distributed force of platforms, sensors, personnel, and networks, with a goal to meet the seemingly insatiable combatant command appetite for ISR. Air Force doctrine defines global integrated ISR as synchronizing the planning and operation of the components of this ISR enterprise, plus analysis and production capabilities, to enable current and future operations.

Fielding such a global integrated ISR enterprise requires a high level of Air Force investment in technology and people. The most visible parts of this ISR force are over 425 manned and unmanned aircraft of 14 different types. While four types of unmanned aerial vehicles (MQ-1B Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and RQ-170 Sentinel) are relatively new and total over 280 aircraft, most of the remaining types date to the 1960s and 1970s. The so-called iron triad of big-wing, manned ISR platforms (E-3 Sentry, E-8 Joint Stars, and various OC/RC/WC-135s, totaling about 80 aircraft) use airframes first developed in the 1950s that are rapidly approaching flight hour limits. Less visible, but vitally important, are the airmen and networks that receive, process, exploit, and disseminate the intelligence information collected by the aircraft. Air Force ISR investments increased dramatically since 2001, but can or should these investment levels be sustained as the new National Security Strategy refocuses on peer competitors? What are the current Air Force plans for its ISR enterprise?

Next Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan

On Aug. 2, 2018, Lt. Gen. “Dash” Jamieson, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR, released the Next Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan. This is a strategy for how the Air Force will maintain and enhance decisive advantage over the next ten years. It includes ten lines of effort across three pathways, which can be summed up as using new and disruptive technologies to network a broad mix of ISR collection across multiple domains, and doing so with fewer people. The plan describes a vast, collaborative sensing grid that utilizes advanced technology to be resilient and persistent. The Air Force will retool the ISR workforce to increase both the quality and quantity of ISR production, all with fewer airmen. Lt. Gen. Jamieson intends to use the Air Force corporate process to ensure the ISR enterprise has the equipment and personnel needed to achieve this vision by 2028.

The public summary of the Flight Plan does not describe specific technologies, capabilities, or platforms to be used, but it draws heavily on an Air and Space Power Journal article on 21st century intelligence. It is apparent that the plan depends upon significant maturation of machine intelligence technology as part of a new data strategy, provided through agile capability development. The collaborative sensing grid will include stand-off and penetrating, manned and unmanned airborne ISR platforms, and space-based and cyberspace-based collection capabilities. It will also heavily leverage Publically Available Information to build a foundation for information collected by classified ISR capabilities. Finally, the plan notes that the current ISR architecture depends upon a large manpower pool to process, exploit and disseminate intelligence, which is not sustainable. The future ISR workforce will utilize machine intelligence and collaborate with public and private sector partners to do more with less.

While not part of the ISR Flight Plan, the Air Force is consolidating management of its ISR and information technology activities, by merging its headquarters deputy chiefs of staff for ISR and Information Dominance. Lt. Gen. Jamieson has been named to the new combined role. At the operational level, Air Combat Command is merging the 24th Air Force, which manages cyber operations, and the 25th Air Force, which manages ISR, electronic warfare and information operations, into a new “Information Warfare” numbered air force. This formalizes existing collaborations between cyber and ISR while expanding the competitive space for electronic warfare and information operations.

As a retired Air Force officer who served two Pentagon assignments working intelligence plans and resources, I am both excited with the level of attention the Air Force now has on ISR, and concerned that Air Force leaders will fall back on an organizational culture and history that does not value the ISR mission or capabilities. As I read the ISR Flight Plan, I fear the Air Force will again divert resources from combat-proven ISR capabilities when their demand to support active combat diminishes. Fewer resources will slow the development and application of the new technologies critical to the success of the Flight Plan. I can’t help but remember an old cartoon by Sidney Harris, which showed two scientists looking at a chalk board full of mathematical equations. In the middle of the board was the statement “then a miracle happens.” Does the ISR Dominance Flight Plan rely on miracles in emerging technology or resources priorities for success?

The Cultural and Historical Record

The Air Force and its precursor organizations have a heritage and culture as described as “The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.” Top Air Force leaders have always been bomber or fighter pilots, once described as “… the carnivores who ‘put fire and steel on target.’ Transport and reconnaissance crews are the herbivores who perform the support missions.” Such attitudes have, and continue to, directly impact Air Force mission and resources priorities. A brief look through Air Force history should validate my concern that the service will not provide the priority and resources necessary to implement the ISR Flight Plan.

When a crisis, contingency, or war starts, commanders require immense amounts of intelligence on the opponent’s military capabilities and activities. The military throws a great deal of money and people at the problem to develop, deploy, and employ the latest ISR capabilities to meet the commander’s requirements. Once the crisis, contingency, or war ends, the Air Force has a long track record of abandoning ISR as soon as the immediate operational demand declines. This pattern repeats with the next crisis, contingency, or war. As the Air Force refocuses from central Asian contingencies to peer competitors, is the Air Force really serious about replacing its current robust ISR capabilities with new technologies and platforms?

Throughout World War I, “… the world’s air arms dedicated the majority of their resources to watching the enemy.” The U.S. Army Air Service leveraged French and British observation and reconnaissance aircraft, equipment, and procedures to build a credible American ISR capability in Europe. However, it was the fighter pilots who gained the most fame and acclamation among airmen. Aviation historian James Streckfuss described the fighter pilot mystique as having achieved near cult status, in part because of the attitude that “a real man fights the war. He does not just observe it.” This fighter pilot mystique remains the core of U.S. Air Force culture to this day. After the war ended, the Air Service quickly dismantled almost all aerial observation and reconnaissance capabilities.



During the 1920s and 1930s, Army Air Corps leaders built a culture around the mission to “fly, fight, and win” wars to justify the dream of creating an independent Air Force. The “Bomber Mafia” at the Air Corps Tactical School developed the doctrine for high-altitude, daylight, precision bombing of enemy industrial infrastructure, as codified in Air War Planning Document 1 in 1941. Unfortunately, the air force culture led the men who developed this industrial web theory to not recognize its dependence on intelligence to identify the critical components of the web, reconnaissance to find those components in enemy countries, and surveillance to determine the best timeframe to strike, or restrike, those components.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the Army Air Forces had to quickly build ISR aircraft, cameras, processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities to meet the massive wartime intelligence requirements from land, sea, and air commanders. The Air Force fighter pilot culture resisted this development, as reflected by an Army training film titled “Reconnaissance Pilot.” The film starred William Holden as a hot shot pilot who wanted to fly fighters. He was quite disappointed when assigned as a reconnaissance pilot, which meant flying an unarmed aircraft. Eventually, he grudgingly accepts that even though he cannot shoot down enemy aircraft, his reconnaissance photos enabled an operation that destroyed over 200 enemy aircraft.

After World War II ended, the Air Force culture shaped resources decisions to rapidly dismantle the ISR force, preferring strategic bombers and air superiority fighters over mundane ISR activities. The newly independent U.S. Air Force only rebuilt ISR capabilities later in the 1950s, driven by operational requirements from the new unified commanders in the Far East and Europe. Of note, unlike the “unarmed and unafraid” tactical reconnaissance model shown in the “Reconnaissance Pilot” film, early jet reconnaissance aircraft carried both cameras and guns. One reconnaissance pilot summed up the issue as: “… if you put guns in a recce aircraft the pilot is going to look for something to shoot rather than take pictures, guns being more fun than cameras. (Quite true.)”

Cold War competition with the Soviet Union created a huge challenge for U.S. national security policymakers — political realities and Soviet counterintelligence efforts negated almost all traditional means to collect intelligence on Soviet activities. As noted, the Air Force was responsible for reconnaissance for the Department of Defense. However, the Air Force culture focused resources on developing fighters and bombers. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stepped into the reconnaissance void left by the Air Force, and developed a purpose-built high altitude ISR aircraft, which became the U-2. President Dwight Eisenhower directed the CIA to operate the U-2 over the Soviet Union. Thus, the Air Force ceded its core ISR mission to the CIA. CIA championing of the U-2, its follow-on A-12 (OXCART), and subsequent CORONA satellite reconnaissance capabilities drove national-level ISR activities separate from the Air Force, which continue to this day.

Critical ISR Technology Development

The U.S. Air Force’s ISR Flight Plan is intended to provide effective ISR capabilities for the new peer competition national security environment. A major challenge is to move from manned and unmanned aircraft that perform well in a low-threat environment, to new platforms able to operate in high-threat environments. Only the small number of RQ-170 Sentinel are considered survivable in high threat environments. The Flight Plan recognizes the need to recapitalize legacy manned ISR aircraft with an integrated network of sensors across multiple platforms. So far, the Air Force has cancelled the Joint Stars replacement aircraft (due to poor platform survivability) in favor of the Advanced Battle Management System, with no platforms yet identified. The Air Force has also attempted to phase out either the U-2 or the RQ-4 Global Hawk for several years. Combatant commanders prefer the proven U-2s, because the RQ-4 is incapable of performing all U-2 missions.

The ISR Flight Plan emphasizes leveraging many new and emerging technologies to enable fewer ISR airmen to do more for future warfighters with less resources. However, the intelligence community has long claimed that machine intelligence (automated target recognition) is the key to exploiting ever-increasing volumes of reconnaissance and surveillance collection. The community is still awaiting solid results, but the Flight Plan relies on them. The integration of ISR and IT in the new combined ISR and Information Dominance organization may facilitate progress with big data and machine intelligence. Perhaps the time is right and machine intelligence technology may be the miracle needed to make the Next Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan a reality.


The U.S. Air Force thus faces many difficult challenges as it shifts to the new National Security Strategy, particularly with ISR. The Air Force’s ambitious ISR Flight Plan is intended to provide effective ISR capabilities for the new peer competition national security environment. The Air Force also has a long record of dismantling ISR capabilities to pay for new combat capabilities, even when those new capabilities depend on ISR assets to find and fix their targets. If the history of the U.S. Air Force is a reliable indicator of future events, I am not optimistic.



Robert Stiegel is a retired Air Force colonel, currently serving as an assistant professor of intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Air Force

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