SecDef Blasts Air Force on ISR

FACT: U.S. military use of airborne drones (UAVs) dawned at the turn of the millenium, with nearly 100 vehicles in use before the Sept. 11 2001 attacks. By the end of that year the number had doubled, with the majority in use in Afghanistan. Today, according to a speech today by Sec. of Defense Bob Gates, “We now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001.”

ANALYSIS: The Gates speech today, to an Air Force audience, is being covered mostly with a focus on his “harsh criticism” of that service. For example, CNN’s headline was “Defense Secretary Scolds Air Force for War Effort,” or Fox News “Gates Says Air Force Must Step Up Efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan.”  And there was plenty of raw material for the tough stories, including CNN’s inclusion of the Gates soundbite that getting the Air Force to send more surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan has been “like pulling teeth.”

Others (like a Reuters story) struck a less frenzied tone, including more depth about his proposals going forward, and the Defense Department’s actual plans for improved acquisition and use of Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR. I’d encourage you to read the full transcript (get it here).  (By the way, here’s some background on ISR and its variants.)

But personally I can validate the early lack of a real integrated focus on “ISR” as truly woven into the overall intelligence fabric. I accepted a DIA appointment in the fall of 2003, essentially at the two-year mark in the Global War on Terror.  After I’d been there for a few months, I received an invitation to attend an annual “Global ISR Conference,” and was trying to decide whether to attend. I mentioned the conference to one very high-ranking, veteran defense intelligence official and asked him whether the agency (DIA) sent many people to this particular conference.

“Nope.”  I looked down at the brochure, which as I recall was replete with interesting speakers and topics from across many parts of DoD.  “Why don’t we?” I asked.  The reply, “We don’t traditionally do ISR,” was said with such matter-of-factness that it surprised me. 

“What’s the ‘I’ in ISR stand for again?” said I.  I wasn’t trying to be facetious, I was just taken aback at a seeming parallel-worlds reality that was keeping two related fields apart. 

Now, times have changed, and DIA changed with them over the past three years. A huge change came with the formation of the JFCC-ISR (Joint Functional Component Command for ISR), which tied DIA intimately with Strategic Command as a central player in the ISR world.  Here’s an early background description of that change and its context (from SIGNAL magazine).  The cover story in Military Intelligence Technology this month has an update interview with DIA DIrector Gen. Mike Maples, in which he talks about the evolution of ISR support across the defense intelligence enterprise, and also gives an update on my old brainchild project Alien.  (Note: As of my writing, that interview has not been posted yet, but when it does it’ll appear on their website presumably; I’ve received the hard-copy.)

The bottom line, of course is: the I in ISR stands for intelligence, and Sec. Gates was right on in his exhortation to understand the critical importance of that linkage.

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2 Responses

  1. Lewis,

    This was a great write-up and a great point about the press and their harsh tone. When I first heard what WTOP was saying about this it sounded like the SecDef was whining. Once you dig into the facts he was really just being appropriately open to a class of military thinkers who need to study transformation.



  2. Truth of the matter is that the Air Force draw-down its intelligence force in 2007 as part of the Force Shaping Prgram and the Reduction-In-Force (RIF). As a result, there are only a few bodies left to rotation into deployment. Intel officers are now considered a part of the endangered species, like nurses and doctors.


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