Future Demands for ISR Technology

Contributor:  Hampton Dowling
Posted:  10/23/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Highlight the main challenges being faced with regards to future demands for ISR technology.

             I believe there are fiscal and operational challenges regarding future technology demands which are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in today’s budgetary climate the challenges tend to focus less on the user-consumer demands which have traditionally driven increases to, or changes within, authorized expenditures but rather on those same requirements now having to back into a far different and less flexible set of austere budget lines. The semantic relationships between institutions, operational requirements and expenditures will, for the foreseeable future, likely be different than previously observed.  Generally speaking, there are pent up operational demands for continued evolution of ISR related technologies, as well as, looming fiscal limitations that will have a potentially equal and opposite impact on the pace and priorities related technology development. Managing both, I believe, is where OSD is today.


            Let’s briefly address the economic challenge. Recall, I mentioned ISR roadmaps and architectures which would be intended to, amongst a few objectives, guide agreed multi-year planning and acquisition of currently slated ISR capabilities, and introduction of new platforms. The worthy goal would include cost containment in alignment with satisfying forecast operational requirements while driving an effective mix of overhead capabilities, and both unmanned and manned systems. The downside would, arguably, suggest that technology funding and the changing international landscape would limit what could be achieved in terms of a multi-year procurement strategy designed to somehow sufficiently serve what we all know to be an aggressive, and frequently changing, tactical level ISR mission area (there would also be similar implications for programs serving “national” level capabilities). Regardless of whether the forcing functions are the impacts of today’s budget realities on upcoming FY DoD expenditures, or changes within the DoD acquisition culture intended to drive more disciplined multi-year planning, or perhaps both, I believe there are plausible challenges that may likely have a negative impact on, or be affected by, future demands in ISR technology and operational effectiveness:

  • The acquisition process would be likely less agile, and less responsive to both urgent and rapidly changing operational requirements
  • Operational readiness and capability would become more dependent upon effective disciplined and well choreographed recapitalization
  • R&D would slow, or perhaps place greater emphasis on rapid prototyping but of fewer [prioritized] capabilities
  • Fielding fewer platforms and fewer improved platforms which would drive increased use of current assets to perform a greater number of missions; some of which are not consistent with the design capabilities of an employed asset
  • In addition to potential shortfalls in national and tactical platforms, there would degradations in terms of integrated interoperability with networks, systems, other platforms, and capabilities of partner nations, as well as, sustainment and operational readiness
  • Greater reliance upon commercial products and services.

            Reduction in budget outlays would necessarily cause levels of operational degradation regardless of dependency or cooperation by partner nations and the private sector. If past behavior is an indicator of the future actions, out of necessity, new or additional capabilities most urgently needed by COCOMs and leading federal agencies would likely be fielded ad hoc and on the fly, developed outside the formal acquisition process, and funded via supplemental legislation.  This, of course, would set into motion unintended consequences and undermine current efforts to incorporate ISR capability funding within baseline budgets rather than the current dependency on supplemental appropriations measures. It also would jeopardize plans for more extensive ISR R&D efforts on systems such as those emphasizing tactical 4G deployment, Ka & Ku Dual-band use, and on-demand interoperability between tactical and national systems. This past August, the Secretary published DoDD 5000.71, Rapid Fulfillment of Combatant Commander Urgent Operational Needs, which establishes the policy, responsibilities and guidance to facilitate rapid delivery of capabilities in response to COCOM’s urgent operational needs. Make no mistake; this is a sea change within today’s DoD business model and conveys the need for programs like NAVAIRs Special Surveillance Program and directly supporting Counter Networks and Illicit Trafficking Program (CNIT). This directive authority, which in specific ways provides alternative acquisition paths to guidance detailed in the basic DoDD 5000, will have bearing on “tactical” level ISR operational support requirements to include rapid prototyping technology development. In a fiscally austere environment, however, satisfying such UONs requirements on a sustained global basis in this manner may have profound programmatic implications in the out-years unless such rapidly procured and fielded ISR capabilities can be retained to serve long term multi-purpose requirements. 

            Looking ahead, in additional to fiscal challenges to ISR technology development there is the opposing drive for improved ISR operational capability from the standpoint of anticipated requirements, to include such COCOM urgent operational needs. UAS and several manned ISR platforms remain constrained by legacy terminal hardware & middleware, airborne certification requirements and inefficient spectrum management. These limitations, amongst others, are both a worthy investment for ISR technology development and an impediment to fully optimizing newly developed systems just now coming online. As one Echelon II commander was recently quoted as saying, “many if not most of our networks are broken or significantly limited in capability.” Given that the satellite space segment is the primary commodity cost factor in many end-to-end tactical networks, DoD might benefit from increased use of commercial SATCOM industry managed service providers who offer far more raw bandwidth bundles & system efficiencies. Beyond point-to-point networks, SATCOM is the primary and preferred data pipe. The commercial sector is typically more adaptable and agile; to include cost advantages relative to traditional Ku and C Band operators. This kind of business model alternative presents potential flexibility to institutional ISR technology development that strives to provide increased capability in concert with complementary state-of-the-art support infrastructure. It may also advance our capabilities to engage social media networks, perform denial and active exploitation of web-based architectures, and execute remote stability operations more effectively. Soon, ISR missions by low-to-medium altitude platforms will have payload sensor suites that drive data rate throughput from today’s 8 to near 40 MBps to well over 100MBps. In short, these are just a few but relevant examples of where ISR technology development demands must sync with advancements in support capability in order to achieve mission success. Unfortunately, budget constraints and programmatic inefficiencies present real challenges that will likely exacerbate operational challenges in the ISR mission space.

            As I commented earlier on NAVAIR and Air Force initiatives, in many respects its payload diversity with an open systems approach that seeks interchangeable sensors and complete payload modularity which is typically shaping a measureable percentage of “tactical” level ISR capability improvements and technology applications. There’s an effort to balance recapitalization with the need for new, edge ISR technologies. It’s widely recognized that we do have to apply more standardization across classes of platforms while capitalizing on what has been a long trend of fielding superior technologies that deliver results. 

Hampton Dowling Contributor:   Hampton Dowling

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