ISR operations: 'Eye in the sky'

By Maj. Tim Johnson | Air Force News Service | March 23, 2009

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- "Complete adaptation to environment means death. The essential point in all response is the desire to control environment. " These words from the American philosopher and reformer John Dewey make the point that as conditions change, one must not simply adapt to them, but instead endeavor to control the new reality that is created by them.

This principle has been at the forefront of U.S. military innovation as a new battlefield has emerged characterized by militants, insurgencies and guerrilla warfare.

At the tip of this innovation are the revolutionary changes being seen in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. This innovation can be seen in how ISR operations support Afghan and coalition forces on the ground as well as the Afghan population throughout the country.

"Clearly, airborne ISR capability has become indispensible to successful ground and air combat operations, and the U.S. Air Force brings the lion's share to the battle," said Col. Eric Holdaway, director of intelligence for Air Force forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.

With respect to combat operations, the ISR mission provides a level of planning, analysis and targeting support never seen before in the history of warfare.

"One of the most important aspects of airborne ISR is the way that it makes ground reconnaissance more effective, and vice versa," said Colonel Holdaway.

Lt. Col. Kirk Karver, deputy director of the ISR division at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia, explains that "through analysis we provide information on the current situation, but also provide 'predictive' information giving combat forces visibility of emerging, future enemy actions and threats.

"In this same way, we are able to bring intelligence to bear on the targeting process, ensuring that we have the most accurate and precise information available so that we only effect the targets we intend to effect," he said.

The capability to enhance the targeting process is extremely important, as it demonstrates how this new technology contributes to reducing non-combatant casualties. Through the use of multi-source intelligence and real-time information delivery, ISR assets enable Afghan and coalition forces to be very patient in pursuing Taliban and Al Qaeda cells.

"Identifying and maintaining identification of targets is a significant capability to help reduce the risk of hurting the innocent," Colonel Holdaway said. "If women and children are there, you don't hit the target at that time; you wait until you believe you can hit the enemy and only him. "

Colonel Holdaway emphasized the importance of new information gathering capability. "Information is thus taken to a whole new level," he said. "With the new technology we have the ability to not just see the enemy, but build a 'pattern of life', enabling us to engage at a time and a place of our choosing. "

This improved capability is important especially in light of the enemy tactics of fighting in and around civilian populations.

"Our duty compels us to pursue the adversary in a way that is both effective and, at the same time, does not endanger non-combatants," said Colonel Karver.

Colonel Karver added that another key aspect of ISR capability is in how it supports the Afghan government and citizens. Through its pre-route surveillance and convoy over-watch, ISR assets are able to provide exceptional security for humanitarian missions such as UN World Food Program convoys and provincial reconstruction team efforts to develop fundamental essential services.

ISR operations also support elections to include voter registration and providing election-day security through armed reconnaissance and overwatch. Maybe most importantly, Colonel Karver said, they provide security for national assets such as dams, power lines, and "watching and protecting" major cities.

ISR assets do all of this sight unseen; most of the time performing their missions invisible to those on the ground. They become an important force multiplier by enabling Afghan and coalition forces to make maximum impact with limited forces engaged on the battlefield.

Those who support ISR operations do not stop when the mission is completed. Their processing, exploitation and dissemination teams conduct continuous qualitative and quantitative analysis looking at every ISR flight to see how they could improve future performance. This continuous analysis and improvement has enabled these relatively new systems to quickly provide more and more value to those they support in a relatively short period of time.

Over time, the continued development of these systems will lead to a future where information is even more integrated into air and ground operations with all combatants viewing real time, common sets of data and reacting to furnished analysis with speed and accuracy.

ISR operations have given military leaders the ability to not just adapt, but in a large degree to control the many changing aspects of the battlefield. They do this through improved technology and process design, as well as a keen desire to deliver vital information to combatants in the field.

Colonel Holdaway summarizes ISR's new found value best by explaining that "through this new technology we have a better idea where enemies are and can better characterize their behavior.

"The resulting operational intelligence provided to Afghan and coalition forces helps provide a more secure environment for the Afghan people," he said. "We believe that will, in turn, allow them to rebuild their nation and provide their children with a better future, one in which al Qaeda has no part whatsoever. "