Stop Bombing Dirt: Resolving a Decade of Failed Aerial ISR Management


“I need you to get out there and stop the Army from bombing dirt. Fix their intelligence process and find us [the Air Force] some real Goddamn targets,” snapped the colonel to me in the first of my 11 months in Afghanistan. Between my three exercises with the Army and Navy and my time targeting ISIL, I was prepared for this conversation. This was my fifth run-in with the intelligence community failing to answer the commander’s call for effective use of collection. Moreover, my fellow intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) liaison officers working in Syria, Iraq, and South Korea brought back the same critiques: The Army puts some of the least prepared people in charge of the 24/7/365 collection management cycle, and the whole American war effort suffers the cost. An Army brigade’s collection management team exists to write the requirements for the larger intelligence community and to synchronize collection with military operations. In my experience, ground operations in Afghanistan began too often without a clear scheme of intelligence’s role in informing the commander and locating targets. Commanders grew infuriated as Army intelligence collection managers failed to provide the necessary intelligence to support operations. In today’s low-intensity conflicts, this failure is frustrating and occasionally deadly. In a fight against North Korea, China, Iran, or Russia, it will lead to catastrophe.

At first take, the problem appears to be the Army’s to solve, but Army personnel will never be able to leverage support from the Air Force intelligence community in the same way Air Force personnel can leverage their own service’s resources. In a flipped scenario, this would be the equivalent of the Air Force trying to direct the Army where to position its tanks. The Air Force built a reach-back system that minimized the number of troops forward and largely ceded planning control of ISR to the other services. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein is pushing to change that during his tenure in order to better prepare his service for peer adversaries. The Air Force intelligence community, following his lead, prioritized updating its methodology of intelligence collection in a ten year vision. One early step the Air Force can take in its transition is expanding a proven program that puts Airmen with the collection management expertise into the deployed decision-making cycle: Air Force ISR liaison officers. On paper, these collection experts deploy as aerial advisors, trainers, and conduits to Army collection personnel at and above the division level. On the ground, Air Force ISR liaison officers are already working in the Army’s maneuver level of war: the brigade. Their job is to establish relations with their Army intelligence counterparts and to synchronize the intelligence work of the Army and the Air Force. They are in high demand, as ISR liaison officers perform the bulk of intelligence collection from the air, and the Air Force does not deploy enough of these officers to provide one to every brigade-size organization. To rectify this mismatch, the Air Force should expand its pool of ISR liaison officers and work with the Army to assign them to collection management leadership positions in deployed brigades and divisions.

Intelligence Collection Management is Missing in Action

Army brigade intelligence collection management teams carry out three main tasks:  building intelligence collection into operational plans to drive a commander’s decision-making, writing collection requirements, and synchronizing real-time collection. Collection requests, the most recognizable aspect of collection management, explain to higher headquarters and aerial collectors what the unit is looking for in time and space, as well as where the unit should send that information once it’s collected. However, collection requests do not describe how the collection will be integrated with maneuver and fire support to achieve the overall commander’s intent. That’s why collection management teams should have a say in operational planning. The last aspect is to synchronize the actual aircraft — managing real-time collection to get the desired intelligence into the commander’s hands, coordinating multiple assets working on the same problem, and balancing emergent changes to the mission. To execute these functions, a brigade collection management team requires seven experienced personnel: an “ISR manager” to lead the team, three collection planners to write requirements, and three personnel to synchronize collection as it occurs. Ideally, an Air Force officer leads the team, supervising civil servants, contractors, and other uniformed service personnel. Together, the seven-member team can effectively manage the provision of aerial intelligence to brigades on a constant basis.



Unfortunately, this process is not reliably occurring today. The Army’s allocation of personnel to different staff positions indicates that the Army values aerial intelligence collection below strike or maneuver capabilities. The Army provides collection management shops with limited personnel, who are more junior in rank than their counterparts in the combat branches, and with more contractors than in other sections.

During my 2017-2018 deployment as an ISR liaison officer to the headquarters of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, the Air Force manned only two of the seven conventional brigades with the appropriate number of personnel in their collection management section. The lack of training and experience of those personnel further exacerbated the shortfall. The best-manned intelligence collection team had one team member out of seven with prior collection management experience or any sort of formal training. Brigades assigned majors (O-4) and senior captains (O-3) to plan for artillery, close air support, and infantry operations, but they relied on inexperienced lieutenants (O-2) and junior captains (O-3) to plan the collection that would provide them a target to engage. With too few intelligence personnel to handle the requirements of collection, some brigades employed non-intelligence personnel to support operations. The brigades’ command center considered a security clearance, the ability to type, and the ability to talk on a radio as the only skills required to direct the nation’s most capable collection platforms.

Other task forces filled the gap with contractors. A full third of the contractors arrived in theater ill-prepared for their assigned role of writing collection requirements, so their units assigned them to the simpler task of supporting current operations instead of planning them. These contractors stated on their resumes that they possessed collection management experience, but they could not use the standard collection management software, which beyond the lying, made them poor replacements for uniformed personnel.

Between a shortfall in personnel and inadequate experience, brigade-level staff simply could not plan and execute intelligence collection operations on a daily basis. Aircraft imaged the same area daily, and in one instance broke off the pursuit of a targeted individual to bomb rocks. In a standard PowerPoint presentation with 30 slides outlining an operational plan, collection took up a single line on one slide. While doctrine required a series of slides on who, what, when, where, why, and how the collection would drive operations, collection personnel were not writing them. The shortcomings in collection planning, requirements writing, and real-time management led to daily strife between brigades, and negatively affected their ability to locate and destroy the Taliban. Without collection management personnel, intelligence aircraft operated independently of each other and lacked guidance about what information was necessary to identify targets. As a result, brigades could not determine who was or was not a threat. Taliban units destroyed checkpoints and attacked Afghan Army units on a weekly basis. The local U.S. Army units were thrilled to hit a target within a month’s response time, and when the units could not locate a target, they employed weapons on the unoccupied ground as an attempted deterrent against these persistent Taliban operations.

Trouble at the brigade level cascaded through coalition forces in Afghanistan and especially frustrated the Air Force, which provided the most sought-after armed reconnaissance aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper. Air Force leadership in theater saw brigades attempt to coordinate collection efforts and aerial collection platforms operate for weeks without success, or spend a whole day on a low-value target. Worse yet, Air Force commanders watched as units dropped an increasing number of munitions in the desert to send a psychological message rather than to actually strike targets. At the time, Air Force personnel could not control the planning and direction of intelligence collection. They could only control its execution and processing. The Air Force did try unsuccessfully to drive operations without getting intelligence collection managers into the Army’s planning cycle. Headquarters at U.S. Air Forces Central Command sent additional operations planners to the operational headquarters in Afghanistan, but they could not send enough intelligence collection management personnel to individual brigades. Deployment processes, which require personnel to undergo months of training, limited both sides. Alterations to centralized scheduling require years of policy adjustments, and administration policy limits the number of U.S. service personnel allowed in the theater.

Air Force Intelligence Liaison Officers as Brigade ISR Managers

As the Air Force works through its ISR reforms, Air Combat Command should sit down with Army Forces Command and Army Intelligence Command to change the assigned roles and responsibilities of ISR liaison officers.

The Army intelligence community will not be able to make the necessary changes on its own, as its intelligence officers are already overburdened and spend their early years performing “branch detail” as officers in infantry, armor, or artillery battalions. Further, Army intelligence officers are required to understand human intelligence, terrain analysis, weather, and communication networks, all amid wargaming enemy actions.  This complexity of tasking leaves less time for specialization in aerial intelligence operations. The Air Force by contrast relies on specialists like meteorologists to handle tasks not related to aerial intelligence. To the point, less than a single percent of Air Force intelligence officers will be involved in human intelligence. An Air Force intelligence officer’s first two assignments, lasting approximately three years each, are split between intelligence operations and supporting flying units in mission planning. In current operations, the Air Force uses fixed facilities with established networks reducing its requirement to build and understand communication networks.

The bulk of the Army aerial collection community consists of three brigades, whereas the Air Force aerial collection community fields almost eight brigades of personnel. The Air Force amplifies this advantage by deploying individuals versus whole brigades. The service can move intelligence officers supporting an operation stateside forward for a six-month rotation and then bring them back to support the same mission. This process keeps stateside units to receive updated intent from commanders downrange. The Air Force’s increase in the number of ISR liaison officers is small change relative to reimagining the Army intelligence career field and deployment system. Army liaisons would also lack the critical understanding of Air Force capabilities, the contacts within, and the trust of the Air Force community.

Additionally, Air Force ISR liaison officers have demonstrated that they are better suited to fulfilling requirements and leading collection operations. During my tours, I saw numerous Army commanders install Air Force ISR liaison officers as their brigade intelligence collection managers because they didn’t think their own service’s personnel could do the job well. These Air Force officers built and executed collection operations as detailed and thought-out as other maneuver operations. In one case, coalition forces transitioned from striking dirt fields to destroying 25 Taliban targets. In another instance, an Air Force intelligence officer prevented mission failure during a computer network outage by coordinating operations via radio. As an Air Force officer, he better understood the radio and video equipment involved and knew how to communicate with aerial collection platforms to a greater degree than the other members of the team. In a third example, several Air Force ISR liaison officers working together planned a collection effort that enabled the Afghan National Army to seize a district from the Taliban. These Air Force officers brought expertise that allowed for three intelligence collection aircraft to operate in the same battlespace and effectively share target development information. Drone operators, pilots, and analysts requested to work in these operations and felt that their intelligence was making a difference for the first time during their deployment.

This experience led me to conclude that the role of Air Force ISR liaison officers — to train, advise, and assist joint partners — should transition to planning and coordinating the execution of intelligence collection for brigades. This revised role would more closely mirror the other Air Force liaison officers within tactical air control parties — air liaison officers, weather officers, and air mobility liaison officers. Air liaison officers or their enlisted counterparts work with Army staffs to plan and coordinate each airstrike, and they possess a recognized role in preventing friendly fire and mid-air collisions. The tactical air control party provides specialized skills to the joint fight on behalf of the Air Force, and the ISR liaison officer plays a key role in providing those skills.

The Air Force and Army developed the ISR liaison officer concept in 2008 to overcome what was then thought to be a temporary frustration in the intelligence process. Neither the frustration nor the position proved temporary, and ISR liaison officers have deployed to support joint operations ever since. The Air Force has worked to mature the ISR liaison officer program by providing formal training and billets in air support operations squadrons. However, each step forward for the program has been met by resistance — mainly by a sense that ISR liaison officers are doing work that the Army intelligence personnel should do.

To enact these changes, the Air Force would need to end its vision of educating the Army out of the problem and assume responsibility for aerial collection planning by increasing the overall number of ISR liaison officers. For its part, the Army would have to formalize its trust in Air Force members serving as brigade ISR collection managers. These liaison officers would also need to align themselves as joint assets, rather than serve as pure liaison officers. While this change seems a mere definitional matter, the passing of this authority and responsibility for intelligence collection management from Army to Air Force officers would mark a substantive change to the current understanding of aerial ISR management. The Army benefits from the Air Force’s aerial ISR expertise, and the Air Force gets increased influence over its collection platforms and analysts.

Institutional Costs and Benefits

To make this happen, the Air Force would need to expand its community of ISR liaison officers to support the approximately 20 Army brigades, divisions, and corps deployed worldwide. The initial ISR liaison officer intelligence qualification course at Nellis Air Force Base should double its classes to handle the increased training requirement. Air Combat Command would have to shift more intelligence personnel to the program and away from traditional analysis and collection roles. In return, the Air Force would benefit from increased leverage at the tactical level and increased quality of ISR planning. With Air Force ISR liaison officers in place, air component commanders would possess a foothold in the planning phase to ensure that the full-spectrum use of airpower is deliberate, rather than an afterthought. This new construct would also reduce wasted intelligence collection, analysis, production, and dissemination efforts, which would likely compensate for the increased manpower requirements.

This new model would negatively affect the Army, too, removing from the Army some direct control over intelligence operations and the opportunity to develop its own aerial ISR experts. By removing Army officers from aerial collection management, the Army would limit its intelligence officers’ exposure to planning these operations. That said, the permanent incorporation of ISR liaison officers into units from the brigade up reduces the relevance of this loss. The institutional expansion and assignment of Air Force ISR liaison officers to Army brigade staff will likely result in inter-service frustration, as Air Force liaison officers report up Air Force channels. The close air support community has dealt with such an increase in complexity in the past, and ISR liaison officers have succeeded in supporting brigades since 2008.

The greatest benefit for the Army is better and more reliable intelligence upon which to make decisions. A commander’s increased trust in the intelligence collection process allows him or her to make more rapid decisions and reduce risk. Additionally, the Army intelligence community benefits, as it can reduce officer training requirements and better focus on its areas of intelligence expertise: ground reconnaissance, human intelligence, and prediction of enemy actions on the battlefield.

Suffer Change and Regain Relevance

The current joint intelligence collection management scheme is unable to handle the requirements of modern warfare. The alignment of Air Force ISR liaison officers as collection managers for Army brigades in combat operations would reduce gaps in preparedness and training. Commanders should expect Air Force ISR liaison officers to plan collection that will meet their intent, just as they expect Army intelligence professionals to provide their unique skills in analyzing the enemy. The end result would be a joint force ready to fight peer competitors and a reduction in wasted collection opportunities.

The dysfunction in ISR collection management has angered commanders across the Middle East, but the United States has not suffered massive casualties or mission failure as a result. Taliban and Islamic State fighters cannot deny the U.S. military the ability to collect or bring down aerial platforms. North Korea, Iran, Russia, or China will not permit Air Force reconnaissance aircraft to fly persistently over targeted areas. Aircraft with full-motion video capabilities, the current intelligence collection staple of counter-insurgency, will not be able to get close enough to the enemy to be effective in the latter cases. Adversary electronic warfare will disrupt intelligence collection and dissemination networks. Brigade collection management teams will need to be able to coordinate and execute operations without being able to see the enemy in person or on full-motion video. Without effective collection planning and empowered personnel, joint forces will fail. The Army and Air Force can prepare for this challenge by modifying the role of the Air Force ISR liaison officer.



Capt. F. Jon ‘Spinner’ Nesselhuf is an intelligence officer of the United States Air Force. He has worked in signals intelligence, targeting, ISR planning, and collection management. He has deployed twice in support of Operation Inherent Resolve as a targeting duty officer and Operation Freedom Sentinel as an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer.

Image: U.S. Army, Aubrey Love