Get on With It: Transformation of ISR in the 21st Century

By Robbin Laird

The ability of the United States to re-shape its forces for the post-Afghan military world will be difficult.

But it is less about money, than about culture change.

It is about failing to understand and generate support for the game changing technologies already entering the inventory and re-shaping how U.S. forces can work with allies.

There are three parts to dealing with this challenge of cultural transformation.

The first is that the platform centric focus of the Congress, DOD, the analytical community and journalistic coverage simply misses the point.

It is about forces, fleets and value propositions. How does this or that platform, new or transitional, enable the forces to meet the appropriate missions?

The second is that leveraging capability and evolving over time the software and other dimensions of new platforms is a core element of re-shaping forces. Architecture, software and evolving capabilities of multi-mission platforms will be the defining reality, not the ability to continuously generate new stove-piped platforms.  It is not about how many separate platforms one can buy; it is about the capability which one can deploy.

The F-35 and A400M are two programs, which are reflective of the new fleet dominated realities. These platforms will evolve in their functionality and impacts over time, even if outside they look pretty the same 50 years from now.

The third is coalition and joint is the operational reality.

The United States will not necessarily bring to future conflicts the entire capability necessary to prevail BY ITSELF; engagement with allies and partners defines from the outset what victory and success will mean.

This in turn means that you need to build C4ISR from the ground up that has core elements, which are coalition shareable, not simply the neatest proprietary kit one can buy.

There is an additional challenge facing the U.S. military, the Congress and the current Administration.

The U.S. force structure needs to be transformed, not simply downsized along current lines. If a new Republican Administration comes to power and simply increases support by say 30% to procurement budgets but buys the same stuff across the board, the agile force structure the country needs will not be built.

This means as well that security blankets such as UAVs – which are the blanket which analysts cuddle themselves to go to sleep with at night and reassure themselves that we are innovating – are simply statements of the past, not the future.

Unmanned systems are not able to survive extreme tests such as Northern Edge, are simply flying robotics which can be placed on other systems, are manpower intensive in deployment and are not capable of giving best value of payload for propulsion costs.

Innovation can be delivered with UAVs as part of the mix, not defining the mix.

Innovation is about moving up the Z axis with the F-35, distributed the ISR enterprise across the deployed force, and building operational flexibility and effective mission tailoring.

A case in point illustrating many of these points is the M1400 airship with the Blue Devil 2 program integrating the ISR systems onboard.

Here a transformational systems is about to be cancelled by the USAF in favor of much more limited and historically constructed UAV systems such as Predator.

This is a case study in NOT understanding the requirements of moving towards globally agile and coalition enabled forces.

The program can be looked at in the briefing charts below as well as the fact sheet.

But several capabilities of this program leap off of the page.

First, if the program was measured in a realistic manner, for example, ISR delivery equivalencies, this would be a priority program. To keep 6,000 pounds of ISR equipment on station for 78 hours it would take 39 current fixed wing UAVs or 1 M1400. It is hard to miss this point.

But also significant is the cost of the footprint. It is not just the question of 39 or whatever fixed wing UAVs.

It is about the SIZE of the footprint and the COST of the manpower for a deployment. Manpower is the most expensive and dear part of the equation.  So buying stuff which deliberately ups manning when BETTER options are available is madness.

So where is the cost equivalence of deployment, in terms of manpower and footprint?

This has been a constant missing factor in evaluation major programs like the F-35, where the fleet of F-35s provide significantly greater capability than bringing legacy aircraft, with AWACS with electronic warfare planes, etc. The cost of the F-35 per unit is not really the issue; the issue is the cost of doing a mission and the footprint necessary to do that mission.

If you miss this in a big program, you are sure to miss it in a small, developmental program where the same metrics should prevail.

Second, the centrality of coalition means that a program like the M1400 and BD-2 is extremely important.

One can deploy the platform and the system, and put on board what is appropriate to a mission WITH allied or partner sensors on board without have to vet through some bizarre U.S. management process.

Immediate operational benefit can be provided for allied engagement through mixing and matching aboard the large deck real estate of the airship and the open architecture modular ISR management architecture.

So instead of taking 18 months to integrate a sensor aboard a Global Hawk, you can mix or match the deployment package in hours or days.

This capability is central to the real missions facing U.S. forces in the years ahead.

Third, airfields are vulnerable.

This is why we have focused on the centrality of the F-35B as a core capability for U.S. and allied forces going forward. Currently, the UAV logjam in Afghan airfields is a problem, and protection of those airfields a major and continuous challenge.

Imagine if you could lower your need to launch from this or that point and diversify the challenge to the bad guys on how to take out your ISR deployment airfield.

Fourth, the ability to work across a realistic spectrum of operations is central.

One reason the ARG-MEU for the USN-USMC team is such an effective instrument is its ability to work across the spectrum of operations.

Neither Predators nor would this airship help you on the high end of operations, but starting with security missions through many military missions both would be useful, but the new airship program eminently more so.

Imagine there was a threat in the Gulf of Hormuz. Hard to do that I am sure.

If the Saudis or the UAE had some of these systems up, we could not only share the systems on board, but we could mix or match what would be there and determine JOINTLY how we would use and understand the data.

Confidence is rooted in part on having shared data BUILT in that allies can work from collectively.

The chart below in many ways highlights the game-changing quality of this technology, which I would argue, is symmetrical with where we need to go in building more agile and capable, coalition centric forces.

It would be helpful, if the USAF leadership on its way out does not take this game changing technology off the table for the new Chief of Staff.

He deserves better in order to shape the agile forces which Secretary Panetta has called for.

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