More and more American leaders recognize the importance of taking a whole of government approach to using America’s power. We are strongest when we bring the full weight of our national power to bear — diplomacy, information, the military and economics. Applied with strategic skill, these four levers of national power — when acting in concert-can deliver desired effects at particular points in time, often at less cost in blood, treasure, and national prestige, than can military action alone.
The information age, perhaps more than any other factor has brought the seams between these elements of national security into stark relief. We can no longer afford the simplicity of four instruments of national power operating in near isolation. War is not fought only by the military.
Diplomatic overtures, information campaigns, and economic incentives all must play in a coordinated way. In this knowledge age, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) may be the key integrating element for effective strategic and operational policy development.
Yet our current architectures and frameworks for melding national and military intelligence ways and means toward a common end are antiquated. Consider the warrantless wiretaps debate — regardless of where one comes down on the civil liberties aspect, regulating intelligence collection according to laws written before cell phones and the Internet existed is strategically untenable.
There is a natural tendency for institutions to use new systems as adjuncts to current capabilities. For example, we initially used desktop computers primarily as expensive typewriters. We embraced them because they made word processing far easier. It took time for us to recognize their transformative power; far from making current systems more efficient, networked computers opened up entirely new capabilities.
We eventually restructured our offices and ways of conducting business to realize these capabilities. Similarly, the Navy initially employed aircraft carriers primarily “in support of” surface fleet operations. Carrier-based aircraft enhanced the accuracy of naval guns and protected the fleet from surprise. However, time and events eventually led the Navy to recognize aircraft carriers as the supported element, with the rest of the surface fleet operating “in support of.” Fundamental changes in naval organization, equipment, and concepts of operation (CONOPS) followed.
The lessons learned are twofold. Radically new technologies can grow from supporting to supported status, and it will take time for established institutions to accept the new reality. Institutions typically value emerging technologies solely in terms of contributions to present missions and CONOPS. It takes time to recognize the new missions they offer and the new CONOPS they demand.
This is the situation we find ourselves in today with ISR. It is currently moving from a supporting capability to the leading edge of national security operations. ISR — and operations in the cyber domain — will be key in countering weapons of mass destruction and net-enabled transnational terrorist forces that threaten international stability, and thereby our own nation’s security. It will lead the fight by the year 2020 and will be the key suite of capabilities to get us from here to there.
During the Cold War, we had the advantage of a relatively static adversary. We could periodically peer over the Iron Curtain to fix the enemy’s position, identify his capabilities, and assess his intentions. Against this massive, monolithic, and largely predictable threat, a “shooter heavy” footprint was appropriate.
Today, our enemies are evolving, adapting, and highly malleable. We can only imagine the ways in which they will threaten us. Like a liquid that gravitates toward our weakest points, they aim to defy our grasp. Because they infest urban areas and hide among civilian populations, finding the enemy has become a great challenge. Finding is one part of the problem-sorting enemies from the civilian populations in which they hide is the other. In this sense, knowledge-having always been key-is assuming precedence over kinetics as the prerequisite “weapon” of war. As with every other aspect of the information age, victory will go to those who create and exploit knowledge faster than their opponents, and ever increasingly in ambiguous and uncertain situations.
Meeting this challenge requires a shift from the Cold War mind-set that placed ISR in a merely supporting role to a new understanding that in the twenty-first century, ISR will perhaps be the key to achieving US national security objectives.
Make no mistake about it; we still need “fifth generation” weapon systems to rapidly defeat evolving advanced threats. If we are to retain our position as the world’s sole superpower, we must stay a generation ahead of conceivable key threats-that is what gives us our asymmetric advantage. However, we must also capitalize on all the capabilities resident in modern systems and take a transformational, vice traditional, view of those capabilities. We are in an era when we can “finish” practically any target we can find. Our chief challenge is to find-fix-track low-signature targets, however fleeting and unique they may be. Without this capability, precise shooters are of little use.
Today’s enemies cannot mass without defeat. One of their primary goals is to negate our force application advantage by escaping detection. This is why ISR now makes up the majority of our current operations. It is why we fly far more ISR sorties every day than strike or airlift sorties. Of course, the sortie ledger is dependent upon the character of the conflict, but the fact remains that ISR is in great demand. One of our significant challenges is how we will satisfy the growing demand for ISR in a future of constrained defense resources.
One way is to capitalize on the sensor capabilities inherent in our modern aircraft. Traditional nomenclature constrains understanding of capability in this regard. For example, the F-22 and F-35 are not simply “F”-22s or “F”-35s-they are F-, A-, B-, E-, EA-, RC, AWACS-22s and 35s. They are flying ISR sensors that will allow us to conduct network-centric warfare inside adversary battlespace from the first moments of any conflict, in addition to their array of attack capabilities. The fact that may not be opposed by like fighters means we can depend on those robust capabilities all the more-if we understand this new relationship between ISR and kinetic capabilities.
This kind of capability-based perspective will be increasingly required in an era of constrained defense resources. While we will still build dedicated ISR platforms, we must incorporate ISR capabilities into all our platforms-air, space, sea, land, and cyber. Doing so will also require adjusting concepts and processes for the manner in which we allocate, plan, and employ these systems.
In the future we will judge the value of platforms in terms of their ability to sense and communicate, as well as by how they perform in their traditional roles. Think of this approach as the observer effect extended to modern warfare. The simple act of observation causes adversaries to react. When we observe an enemy we immediately change his activities. Based on his reaction, we can bring all elements of American power to bear as needed. However, it all starts with our ISR advantage. ISR has never been more important than it is today-and that importance will only increase for the foreseeable future.