What are some of the main areas departments are looking to acquire funds for research and development of new ISR technology?

Contributor:  Hampton Dowling
Posted:  10/23/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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How will the current fiscal environment affect your acquisition strategy for ISR platforms?

            If we indeed experience a budget increase for ISR, in today’s fiscal climate there would be tremendous pressure placed on both DoD and industry to get more capability out of each increased dollar that would most likely have been provided at the expense of another system, capability or level of force structure.  In short, whereas there’s plausible growth in ISR capability there is a likely parallel degradation in the number of assets that would otherwise have been on station and available to use ISR products and services. 

Generally speaking, ISR is typically just one half of the larger operational duet.  There’s no substitute for assets “being there” to use ISR data, there’s no substitute for having interdiction capabilities at the right place at the right time, and there’s no substitute for having ordnance on the right target at the right time. So, would this possible imbalance between ISR capabilities and real time credible data, and reductions elsewhere in the DoD inventory, have measureable impact on executing the given operational task at hand?  One must assume so, and therefore, I think it’s logical to assume any plus-up in ISR technology development – if that were to be the case – would have to somehow accommodate wherever feasible the loss or degradation of capability caused by any parallel reductions in other DoD inventory. For example, many UAS and manned systems have often demonstrated they can provide multiple data schemas and agile mission support at a fraction of the costs of multi­-billion dollar overhead systems, however, for many of the reasons cited above, acquisition efforts have been anything but simple. There has been a tendency to introduce new and untested capabilities to unmanned platforms, causing production delays and cost growth. Such factors taken together have often led to inefficient incremental acquisition efforts, and an inability to ensure disparate systems can be linked effectively to yield a comprehensive operational picture. This behavior would have to change and such change isn’t easy. A key consideration to changes in institutional level behavior would be underlying efforts to acquire, deploy and operate ISR systems using methods and means that would somehow account for shortfalls in other operational capabilities. That’s not easy and would be mission dependent, hence, there’s really more than one answer to this question. 


            As I mentioned earlier, ISR systems are overseen by the armed services, intelligence, and appropriations committees, all of which have collective challenges. Most aspects of various ISR programs are necessarily classified. Public statements by some congressional members and staffers indicate, however, that important differences among committees exist with regard to current plans for “national” level programs and there have been considerable differences in regard to “tactical” level programs. If so, this abyss in policy guidance has tangible consequences especially in today’s budgetary climate. For DoD and industry alike, there’s understandable frustration about cost growth of ISR systems, counter-productive duplication of efforts, and the possibility of inadequate collection. ISR acquisition requirements extend well beyond satellites and their launch vehicles, downlinks and support structure. The increasing use of large numbers of UAS, LTA, mid-endurance manned aircraft, land-based and mobile ISR systems requires different and more varied communications support to include “reach back” of JTFs, AMOCs, COICs etc. This increased use of “tactical” level ISR systems increases requirements for acquisition of SATCOM communications satellites with increasing emphasis on multi-data schema web-based systems and support of real time fused data forensics.


            For me, it’s fair to say that two thoughts come to mind. One, ISR capabilities would have to be re-prioritized and current assets re-capitalized for longer term or multi-mission tasking; and second, that a premium would be placed on how to institutionalize ISR capability development and procurement, and getting such capability fielded substantially faster within cost. This approach would enable employment of various ISR capabilities and networks distributed to multiple user-consumers, layered to provide the right level of capability to the right geographic regions at the right times, all the while leveraging commercial systems and multiple sensors from both national and tactical levels.  Such a layered employment would presumably serve the unique, rapid response requirements of high demand regions, special operations, irregular warfare and post-disaster relief situations. In my mind ISR, at the both “national and tactical” levels should migrate, at least in part, from a principally requirements-based acquisition approach towards a capabilities-based strategy, with the proviso that a purely capabilities-based approach could introduce additional challenges.  Changing such a DoD and major Prime/OEM “business model” isn’t easy, but industry at large has frequently had to conform to such prescripts and I would think DoD can do the same.


What are some of the main areas departments are looking to acquire funds for research and development of new ISR technology?

My comfort zone is “tactical” level ISR where focus, of late, hasn’t  so much been on new pure ISR technologies per se, although that broad effort certainly continues unabated, but rather on imperative priorities to apply weighted efforts that allow operators to better leverage and improve existing capabilities to meet recognized new mission challenges (such as irregular warfare, CT, stability operations, COIN etc.). One best practice that seems intuitive and is often overlooked is that tactical level activity, like a business transaction, doesn’t involve a one-time push of information. It’s dynamic and is now typically layered with subscribers who are packaging & providing the information, analyzing the information, and using the information all within the same closed encrypted network. Examples might include improving visualization experiences, onboard data and systems management, increasing data rates and volume within pipes and frequency bands, network integrity, partner nation confidence building and payload modularity.  Budgets are in decline, R&D programs are becoming increasingly segregated to accommodate such budget realities while meeting prioritized Service & COCOM requirements, and tough choices are facing both OSD and DoD agencies that include tactical ISR strategy development. Part of the challenge is the acronym ISR has become somewhat overused and may be outdated – which isn’t a surprise. Understandably, the scope of ISR as a mission space is expanding, terms of reference are changing, and the diversity of both capability providers and end-users is also maturing, all of which drives ISR to mean more things to more people.  ISR has been largely viewed as an Intel Community driven mission area; hence, requirements were defined accordingly.  As technology, tactics and threats have changed in just the past two years, the role of a greater number of organizations is changing how we regard as ISR.  In fact, for example, as many as 66 countries would be eligible to buy UAS platforms under new DoD guidelines but Congress and DoS/DoC, which have a final say, have not yet opened the pathways for exports.  At least we’re seeing progress. 


            Given that as backdrop, it’s a bit difficult to narrow down a finite number of areas seeking resources.  I would suggest the following is a fair description of current attention: 


  • Determining the discreet missions which comprise ISR and aligning with new DoD directives, and titles & authorities of user-consumers.  This, of course, has impact on resources. In terms of a federal budget managed by OMB, ISR support now plays to two major clients – DoD and DHS – which is a paradigm shift from only a few years ago
  • How to apportion what type of ISR support with and/or by partner nations
  • More appropriate alignment of mission, to platform type, to platform size, to payload, to sensor options, to communication architecture
  • How to merge the increasing need for GEOINT with current ISR payload options
  • Smaller payloads for persistent surveillance of littoral, urban and jungle/Riverine exploitation
  • Accelerated advancement in high resolution EO/IR optics with large fields of vision
  • Tailored ISR support of on-call rapid response and irregular warfare missions
  • Micro-UAS capabilities, UUVs and USVs
  • How to merge the increasing use of precision geo-locating (PGL) tools with ISR payload options
  • Real time FMV/imagery that can be immediately applied to forensic analytics within a secure network
  • How 4G and cloud architectures can enable ISR tasking, processing/analysis and dissemination
  • How ISR can serve tactical counter-counter activity
  • Analysis of roles and implications of improving integrated interoperability on ISR
  • Applying lessons learned and recommendations from a myriad of recent GAO and Service IG reports.

            My sense is there are many folks across the broader DoD Community that consider the desirability of a long-range plan or architecture for deployment of ISR assets is a given but also suspect it is not achievable. The policies and military capabilities of sophisticated nation states may again become the highest collection priorities rather than those of terrorist groups that are currently the primary concern (the past eight years present a formidable example).  Similarly, there are no indications that technological capabilities of ISR systems have reached a stable plateau and basing future acquisitions and theater contingency plans on current technologies may prove to be premature. Indeed, there are inherent challenges involved in establishing plans for acquisitions over a multi-year span even if they are arguably outweighed by the limitations of annual planning cycles.

            Ultimately, most recognize that there are limitations on what Congress can do to shape the international environment or the emergence of new technologies. That said, Congress has the authority to do most anything especially with respect to the roles and missions of organizations involved in acquisition, as well as, authorizing and appropriating funds for acquisition of ISR systems. Nevertheless, many of the complications involving ISR systems are derived from the Executive Branch and current policies. The ability of the ODNI and DoD (to include USD(I) and/or USD (AT&L)) to establish an agreed-upon acquisition plan is inevitably a critical factor.  In September, 2012, GEN Dempsey, CJCS, published “Capstone Concept of Joint Operations, Joint Vision 2020”, which lays out his perspective of the future operating environment, advances new concepts for such joint operations and suggests force structure attributes.  A quick read of its fifteen or so pages adds just a bit more complexity and a few more considerations to the answering the above questions.

All of this has bearing on choices made by various institutional sponsors in efforts to seek ISR R&D funding. Again, demand as driven by expanding operational requirements across an increasing number of missions may not be sufficiently accommodated, much less satisfied, because of practical challenges presented by today’s budgetary climate and established acquisition models.           

Hampton Dowling Contributor:   Hampton Dowling

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