Destined to Fail? Does a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to ISR systems work?

Contributor:  Hampton Dowling
Posted:  10/23/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Explain the main reason why a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ISR systems would fail?

            That’s a loaded question… one that’s quite popular with some and one that’s avoided by many.  The answer, or set of answers, depends on who’s asking and to whom the question is being asked. First and foremost, I believe we have to recognize that ISR systems, perhaps more-so than the majority of other recognized sets of military capabilities, has sustained congressional interest at both sub-committee and statutory committee levels, which institutionally drives a number of critical factors the least of which is most certainly acquisition and acquisition strategy – the critical path for success or failure of any program to include ISR.  We must also include the realities of pending changes to national strategies, the declining budgets across the federal government and not just DoD, that will influence capabilities across the DoD, DHS and broader Intelligence Community for the next few years, and the tough technology choices we’ll have to make in order to satisfy an increasingly diverse set of requirements.

            The challenges to have greater commonality across the ISR mission area have been widely recognized.  Independent assessments, the GAO, IG reports and even Congress has urged development of architectures, roadmaps and business models that codify requirements and requirements definition, and then acquisition and fielding.  Most folks would agree that such a document would be desirable if not simply mandatory, but there are significant, practical reasons why developing such roadmaps and gaining essential advocacy are problematic.  Just think about it… these ISR systems provide both civilian authority and field commanders alike essential real time information on foreign capabilities, I&W of WMD, information regarding the intended or pending actions of foreign leaders (both friend and foe), as well as, the growing number of state-less transnational criminal and terrorist organizations. Perhaps of more fundamental importance, however, in our world of now-now-now requirements, ISR provides the essential elements of precise targeting with the credible forensics that justify actions in what I would categorize as three general areas: national policy, tactical maneuver and criminal litigation. Those three seemingly disparate pillars by themselves paint an enormously complicated mosaic of linkages that are not easily managed within traditional or static acquisition models such as for ships, planes, radar systems etc.  Again, think about it. The linkages between manned and unmanned ISR platforms and their associated payload systems, numerous multi-agency DoD and Federal user requirements (both foreign and domestic), the mandated regulatories associated with both jurisdiction and authority, the export controls laid out across 30+ categories managed by the Departments of State and Commerce (DoS and DoC), an expanding number of dynamic threats, and the realities of technology development, deployment, training, security and sustainment, collectively, all of these equities have a dramatic and concurrent impact on every aspect of the ISR mission long before capabilities get to the field operator.  So, when we begin to think of a one-size-fit all approach, it’s with this rather hair-hurting backdrop any discussion, at least in my mind, would first have to consider.   

            Generally speaking, with respect to ISR, I believe we’re at that point in the evolution of national security where the overarching methodologies, guideposts and requirements of federal acquisition are truly challenged to effectively serve the agile and more responsive budgetary needs of DoD and federal sector operational requirements. This perspective might be further underscored as we continue to observe greater alignment or comingling of DoD and Inter-Agency activities. Many ISR capabilities acquired for one purpose are now used for other missions on a regular basis; missions which may have been unanticipated or not even existed when the original system was designed and deployed. What further exacerbates this situation is the critical imbalance and uncertainty of our current fiscal climate relative to high consumer demand for agile top-shelf ISR capabilities and products that must serve traditional, and new rapid response and irregular warfare missions.   

            So, as I consider the question of one-size-fits-all and why it would fail, let’s step back and consider the bigger picture. Today, our capital ISR systems and their associated programs of record – national and tactical—are used by both domains in large quantities.  ISR systems are largely structured within broad and rather porous pillars:  orbital reconnaissance (the platforms of which many have been operational for 25-45 years); manned aircraft of various configurations; unmanned aerial systems of virtually every size and shape we can imagine; land-based sensor platforms, and sensitive capabilities largely employed within a covert tradecraft. These pillars have different masters, that is to say those federal departments or agencies responsible for national systems are typically not the same as those which design, acquire and field tactical systems. That’s not to say, however, there are no gray lines of separation.

            I say the pillars are porous because of the increasing confederation or confluence of integrated interoperability which in turn has practical implications for both operational requirements and acquisition. Demand, and the diversity of that demand, is driving a formidable wedge between a one-size-fits approach and what I can only currently describe as an “other” approach to managing and serving the ISR mission space. As of 2005, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L)) has served as the DoD space, or “national” level architecture planning office, with a charter to provide Congress a roadmap and how it will be used in ISR architecture planning.  Well, we haven’t seen a comprehensive architecture as of yet beyond periodic strategy and vision documents; and to some extent that’s understandable. Acquisition strategy and execution at many levels is complicated by a Congress that addresses ISR programs through several committees, but principally three:  Appropriates, Armed Services and Intelligence.  For the Services, DoD’s Acquisition Bible, DoDD 5000, was conceived and drafted when ISR had only one three letter spelling and not the two dozen or so variations of today.  Rapid response, agility and commonality of systems were not fundamental considerations.  

            Again, stepping back to consider the “bigger picture”, for the past four decades sizable investments have been made in geo-spatial signals intelligence and overhead reconnaissance which are largely considered to serve “national” level interests which are typically under the stewardship of the NRO, NSA and CIA. But also consider the equities and requirements of organizations such as the Nat’l Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, AFRL, DHS, and the various combatant commander geographic joint task forces. Whereas in earlier periods such “national” level programs and capabilities served the needs of the president or national command authority, today, these “national” level systems are on-call or are routinely accessible to “tactical” users. Yes, there are subscriber and access tripwires, but the point made here is to underscore the clear diversity of user-consumer needs and requirements, and therefore the plausible diversity of needed capabilities rather than a one-size-fits-all framework.   What we do know, is that for many of the same reasons and challenges I’ve cited thus far, that same AT&L office is also very much part ‘n parcel with actions to address challenges at the “tactical” level.  It does all come full circle to common linkages such as, but certainly not limited to, OMB’s authorization and obligation of funds in a declining budget, changing public policies and an increasing amount of diverse operational worldwide requirements. 

            Let’s look at this one-size-fits-all issue from a different angle. I think we all have an intuitive understanding of “national” level ISR requirements borne from the well known three letter agencies, NORAD and our major allies, but let’s also consider some of the broader tactical mission areas now served by the same “all-collective” ISR term:

  • Ground maneuver and campaign support to land forces
  • Special operations and surveillance support
  • Counter-insurgency operations (COIN)
  • Maritime domain awareness (MDA), and now regional domain awareness (RDA)
  • Counter terrorism (CT)
  • Counter illicit trafficking (CIT)
  • Aerial surveillance
  • Vessel traffic management and coastal maritime surveillance
  • Counter networks, to include human, DataComm and social media ecosystems
  • Riverine operations
  • Stability operations
  • Law enforcement support
  • Urban warfare
  • Border protection, management and sovereignty enforcement
  • Critical infrastructure and force protection
  • Anti-submarine warfare in the littorals
  • Long range digital communications and network relay
  • Food security
  • Signals forensics
  • Secure commerce


            To address these mission areas, also consider the near-equally diverse list of servicing platforms which fall into numerous operational and acquisition categories.  For example, the UAV menu gets complicated:


  • Tiers I, II, II+ and III, or Class I, II, III and IV
  • Handheld
  • Close, tactical or micro
  • NATO types
  • Logistics
  • R&D
  • Civil defense


            For Lighter-Than-Air platform (LTA), aerostats, sizes range from 3m to 74m, from mobile and both land and maritime platforms.  Mid-altitude airships are generally the length of a football field, can stay aloft for 24 hours, and be operated from almost location. For manned aircraft, we’ve entered an era of non-standard FW and RW platforms, with size and payloads differing from AWAC & JSTARS airframes to mid-range endurance re-configured commercial aircraft and helicopters.  Coastal surveillance land-based platforms are re-emerging in terms of demand and multi-purpose use. Size and diversity across ISR platforms and systems is anything but standard with such differences being driven by an increasing number of user-consumers with both similar and differing missions. The mission areas I just mentioned are not niche challenges or the responsibility of a single Service or institution, but rather require a cavalcade of capabilities, as well as, sufficient capacity from across the entire DoD and other departments and agencies of the federal government.  So, would a one-size-fits-all approach succeed within categories of ISR platforms?  I’m not so sure. 


            Ask yourself how many of these “tactical” level capabilities serve today’s “national” level interests and/or requirements of those national level organizations?  This points to the porosity of pillars I mentioned earlier. Viewed through one set of lenses, one might argue that one-size-fits-all approaches then make sense in terms of funding, R&D and tactics. Viewed through another set of lenses, however, the practical realities of costs, complexity of individual platforms and payloads, continuing rapid advances in applied technologies, and challenges associated with linking so many disparate systems to serve the variety of user-consumers across all the mission areas I just mentioned necessarily requires different acquisition approaches and for an equally different set of capabilities – a reality that’s not likely to change during the foreseeable future.  


            Thefour Services have consistently acquired different tactical ISR capabilities to satisfy their perceived unique requirements, and COCOMs have been successful in doing the same to satisfy their Urgent Operational Needs (or UONs). Let’s also consider the role of industry is this discussion. Although they enable tangible benefits of improved ISR capability by satisfying formal requirements and providing varieties of credible quick-turn tactical solutions; it’s that same thrust of contribution that drives more daylight between today’s approach and any notion of one-size-fits-all. Candidly, there’s really been no codified incentive or requirement to do otherwise. Requirements have demanded diversity of capabilities.  It’s difficult to challenge the argument that’s today’s approach hasn’t also provided the superior war-fighting, and counter-insurgency, counter-illicit trafficking ISR capabilities we so heavily now depend upon. True, the overall result of approaches to date has often incurred excessive costs for different standard and non-standard ISR systems with duplicative or overlapping capabilities and payloads; it’s also that same emerging set of operational requirements and UONs, statutory budget processes, various federal titles and authorities, and congressional public policies that impede progress toward, much less achievement, of any one-size-fits-all approach at any level.


            To be fair, there are programs which during the course of performing their charter are creating operational and budgetary efficiencies. For example, NAVAIR’s Special Surveillance Program was established in 2004 to fill rapid response, irregular warfare operational requirements in 12 months or less.  Success has often depended on fielding non-standard solutions which by themselves share a commonality of comprised capabilities and/or flexible modularity in order to be agile and responsive.  That’s not to infer this is a model for DoD at large but rather to simply give credit to one example of how commonality has been leveraged to create program level efficiencies. NAVAIR PMA 263’s ongoing emphasis to drive mission modularity to STUAS payloads may also lead to some of the efficiencies desired of a one-size-fits-all approach as it’s applied to expeditionary missions and support of irregular operations.  In 2009, Air Force moved forward with its “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047”which described a family of UAS ranging from man-portable vehicles to larger, “tanker sized” platforms with the goal of acquiring a common set of airframes within a family of systems with interoperable, modular ‘plug and play’ payloads, with standard interfaces. We’ll see. Both services are still continuing to make sustained progress. Initiatives which took shape as recently as 2009 are already changing in response to advances in both technology and adversary’s capabilities which are now frequently leveraging the exact same technologies – or better. 


            A good way to wrap up my comments to this question might be with two comparisons. During the cold-war and early post-cold war eras DoD pursued large monolithic systems that fielded ISR capabilities more aligned with a one-size-fits-all approach, i.e., single systems that satisfy all customers without necessarily evaluating the full set of alternatives.  This relic model was principally associated with “national” level systems that served a rather static or predictable set of operational timelines; but today’s post-911 landscape of irregular, stateless adversaries, presents a myriad of new tripwires that can only be accommodated by what many believe is a robust combination of “national and tactical” level ISR capabilities.  Candidly, today’s reality is that one size does not fit all.  In the long view, ultimately, there must be some form of an overhead surveillance architecture, even if it cannot be set “in stone” for multi-year periods. In this view, it has to include not only the physical collection platforms, but the associated high-capacity communications, and data processing and analysis systems.  Accordingly, I believe there must be a similar set criterion for “tactical” level capabilities that enables some form of standardization in the absence of one-size-fits-all.  In ongoing legislative dialogue, both the Executive and Legislative Branches will be challenged to design and fund systems that maximize rapid response, and adaptability to new missions such as irregular warfare while accepting reasonable cost containment protocols. Candidly, I believe itmay be quite some time before the alignment of requirements, technology and acquisition regulations enables a different business model that’s truly effective driving commonalities akin to one-size-fits-all models.  Economics does, however, tend to be the most senior of influencing factors and thus drives imposed efficiencies and limitations.  It will be interesting to entertain this question five years from now.

Hampton Dowling Contributor:   Hampton Dowling

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