General: Air Force Must Rebalance ISR for ‘Contested Environments’

The U.S. Air Force plans to re-balance its approach to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in order to build a force that is more capable of operating in contested or “non-permissive” operating environments, service leaders said at the 2013 Air Force Association Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, National Harbor, Md.

In particular, this means an increased emphasis upon stealth capabilities, unmanned systems and technologies which enable air platforms to succeed in highly challenged environments, said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff, ISR.

“We need to rebalance our integrated ISR capabilities. We have a force that has grown up in permissive environments. It is the fight the nation has asked them to carry on and they have done an incredible job. As we decrease the amount of our forces fighting in these permissive environments, we have to take a look at our ISR assets and ask if they are the appropriate mix to fight in future environments,” Otto said.

Otto explained that the Air Force is currently largely invested in what he called “permissive ISR,” meaning environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. air superiority was widely established.  When it comes to the future, however, the circumstances will likely be much different, Otto explained.

“Right now the mix is not where it needs to be. We are over-invested in permissive ISR and we have to transform the force to fight and win in contested environments,” Otto said.

For example, potential future adversaries are likely to possess “jamming” equipment and advanced anti-aircraft weaponry likely to challenge the ability of U.S. planes to operate freely.

Praising the sensors, stealth characteristics and ISR capabilities of the Joint Strike Fighter, Otto said he hopes the Air Force can build stealthy ISR platforms.

“As we’ve looked at contested and highly contested environments, one of the things we learned is stealth is one of the ways you can access those areas.  I will be articulating that as a requirement,” Otto said.

Overall, Otto hopes to see a mix of capabilities over the next several decades to include stealth technology and unmanned systems able to acquire and transmit combat-relevant information.

“Our vision for 2023 is an Air Force enterprise that seamlessly injests data from an even wider expanse of sensors and sources and then swiftly conduct all-source analysis so that we can deliver that decision advantage to warfighters,” he added.

The goal of effective ISR, which includes processing, exploiting and disseminating battle-relevant information, it so enable commanders to make faster and more informed decisions, Otto said.

“We want to provide the commanders at every level the knowledge they need to prevent surprise, command forces, make decisions and employ weapons,” he said.

This extends across all domains, including ground, sea, air, space and cyberspace, Otto added.

“We want to enable commanders to apply deliberate and discriminate and deadly kinetic and non-kinetic combat power,” he said.

ISR platforms are also designed to help commanders develop a better understanding of adversaries intentions and capabilities, he explained.

“Air Force ISR provides unprecedented awareness,” Otto said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Bernard

    Fully autonomous surveillance drones.

    You can’t jam them because they don’t need radio communications to operate.

    • blight_

      True, but I suppose you can always /try/ to jam them in terms of GPS.

      Of course, the newest generation of devices should support INS, GPS, Galileo, GLONASS and Beidou just to be on the safe side.

    • S O
    • blight_

      Bandwidth will kill you before jamming.

      Presently we use our UAVs to collect high-res FMV…not the cheapest thing to collect bandwidth for, then we’re piping it via satcom. Our investments should be in LOS data transmission…didn’t they use an AESA phased array radar to transmit information before?

      “F-22s are not equipped with conventional datalinks such as Link-16 which can be easily spotted by enemy SIGINT. Instead, they use a unique stealth-qualified, narrow-beam Intra-Flight Data-Link (IFDL) designed to relay data and synchronize a situational picture only among the Raptors. As this stealth datalink is incompatible with all other communications devices, Raptors cannot communicate with any friendly aircraft.”

      Something like that wouldn’t be a bad idea for UAVs.

      • Bernard

        The whole idea of “fully autonomous” is that it doesn’t need to communicate at all. It can run a pre-programmed mission (it will need to be smart enough to adapt to changing situations and abort under certain conditions) store all of it’s surveillance internally and return with that intel when it’s mission is over. Therefore the bandwidth requirements will either be zero (it drops off the hard drive full of intel), or bandwidth will only be used when specifically requested (either it initiates automatically, or HQ initiates).

        • blight_

          You can be fully autonomous while pushing information back to a main node. Manned aircraft are controlled by the local pilot, not teleoperated from afar, and are capable of transmitting information back to a main node while doing so.

          Similarly, an aircraft instructed to do something can transmit information back without requiring real time teleoperation from somewhere else.

          Unless you intend to fly the aircraft, bring it back and then download its contents. Depending on how time-sensitive the information is, it may not be very useful. Surveilling Somali pirate bases might not be time-sensitive, but looking for them on the high-seas is time-sensitive, and knowing where they are going with information as fresh as possible is of high importance.


    Nuke ’em.

  • oblatt1

    The real message is that we need to get back to winning the imaginary wars because the real ones are too hard and not profitable enough for the aerospace contractors.

    this is a win win win solution – the services win, the contractors win and the terrorists win – whats not to like.

  • jamesb

    the REAL thing I get from this is spending MORE money for NEW expensive airframes….

    It NEVER ends….

    And of course the Air Force is behind this right?

    The grunts just want something that flys slowly and gets them INTEL….

  • Joe_Sovereign

    More billions to fight a war that will never happened. We need cheaper planes that can operate cheaply in environments where we have complete air dominance.

    If the United States fought China or Russia the Air War would last a week until one or both sides ran out of planes. Anyone else we would wipe out their Air Force and Air Defense in a week or two. Then we have 100 million dollar stealth planes flying unopposed but since we could only afford a handful of them we have limited capabilities.

  • jamesb


  • Dr G

    The message the general was trying to say is that we aren’t going to have the luxury of spending whatever we want. “Rebalancing” means figuring out what’s most important and start defunding the stuff on the bottom. He’s not asking for more money because he knows there isn’t any.

  • brad

    Those giant corporations are always thinking of new ways to stick it too the taxpayers. Their biggest fear is peace.

    • Mike
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