The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is pleased to announce the release of the latest entry in The Mitchell Forum paper series, “Rethinking the Information Paradigm: The Future of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in Contested Environments”, by Col Herbert C. Kemp, PhD, USAF (Ret.). Kemp returns to the Forum series to analyze the future of one of the US Air Force’s most vital mission sets in information age warfare—Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR).
Though the US Air Force has built an impressive global information network that has succeeded marvelously in the wars since September 2001, Kemp writes, future conflicts now loom ever closer where potential adversaries could bring to bear advanced weapons such as modern fifth generation aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and threaten US military capabilities like never before. These adversaries will also attack long-haul data networks in the event of hostilities that have previously functioned uninterrupted. “The current ISR enterprise relies on two fundamental capabilities,” Kemp writes: The ability to fly sensors wherever they are needed in the world to gather ISR, and the capability to exploit and disseminate that ISR quickly across a global enterprise. “Both of these…are potentially at risk in highly contested environments,” Kemp warns.
Kemp, a 28-year veteran intelligence officer, writes that developing a new ISR architecture capable of succeeding in contested combat environments will not be easy. But reforms must focus on three key areas—better sensing in areas of future conflict, building more resilient networks and effectively employing autonomy in modern military operations, and improving understanding of the modern combat environment by effectively utilizing tools such as “machine learning.” Though current ISR systems will continue to prosecute certain types of missions for some time to come, developing new capabilities will “require significant changes in technologies and organizational models,” Kemp notes. In his Forum paper, he urges the US Air Force to adapt an “ambidextrous organizational model” to accomplish this, which is to concurrently execute existing missions, while continuing to modernize key capabilities and forces to the extent that incremental innovation allows. This approach will present challenges in programming and acquisition, but “speed and determination are essential if the Air Force ISR enterprise is to evolve to meet the needs of 21st century multi-domain warfare,” he argues.