Strategy Analytics attended the IQPC Airborne ISR 2012 conference over February 28th and 29th, 2012. Key trends and issues explored include the use of non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, battlespace collaboration and budget constraints.

Traditional ISR assets include the US JSTARS (Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System) and UK Sentinel. Pod solutions from companies such as ELTA Systems and Northrop Grumman allow non-traditional platforms, e.g. fast-jets such as the Saab Gripen and Boeing F/A-18 to perform ISR missions.

The increasing capabilities of these NTISR assets translate into these platforms playing a deeper role in ISR missions. The underlying question is whether these increasing capabilities will eventually lead to traditional ISR platforms and systems becoming less important and perhaps even being side-lined in the future.

The availability of sensors on a fast-jet in itself however does not qualify the platforms as being suitable for ISR missions. These non-traditional assets will play a role in ISR, provided pilots have suitable training specifically for ISR missions and the missions are clearly defined. However even with this training in place, offloading and analysing the data in a timely and actionable fashion so that relevant information can be extracted will remain a bottleneck and this is where traditional ISR assets will continue to play a key role.

UAV platforms such as the Predator and Global Hawk will also continue to increase their penetration of the ISR environment, though extension into civilian law enforcement activities will require careful integration of these platforms into civilian airspace. Despite the prominence of UAVs, there remains a clear market for manned ISR platforms from companies such as Hawker Beechcraft that can fulfil requirements for layered ISR capabilities as well as potentially providing a fast, economical path towards achieving these capabilities in budget constrained environments.

With future conflicts transitioning towards net-centricity and coalition-based operations, ISR capabilities will be increasingly important drivers in achieving battlespace collaboration.  However, achieving total battlespace collaboration is largely a political consideration rather than one subject to technical or other considerations that can be resolved by industry.

There are a number of strategies that could be considered to achieve this collaboration including a multi-layer sharing philosophy where certain partners are able to access information up to a certain point with details deemed sensitive then be classified at a higher tier which then limits access to some of the partners. Using the “cloud” is a feasible way of achieving this kind of access though bandwidth limitations still need to be considered. This approach has the disadvantage that it may take time for the coalition partner that has collected the data to then classify that information into the respective tiers.

The other approach may be to simply pass on all data as it is collected to all partners. However, bandwidth limitations aside, this may also lead to data overload where the data being provided to the ground troops and partners does not provide the pertinent information necessary for suitable action to be taken.

Arguably, total collaboration could be an unrealistic goal given the political constraints and a more achievable and useful goal would be to strive for sufficient collaboration so that partners get relevant data that provides timely actionable intelligence.

Balancing the books remains a priority for all defense departments while adapting to changes that will drive the future ISR environment from a cold war “counting equipment” function to being able to provide an understanding of the environment and situational awareness that encompasses various factors such as history, culture etc. as well as technology capabilities.

One of the challenges in addressing future budgetary requirements for ISR platforms will be rolling in equipment and capabilities that have been acquired under urgent operational requirements (or equivalent) to meet challenges in theatres such as Afghanistan. As these operations wind down, questions of how much layered ISR capability is folded into future defense budgets will impact future platforms and programs. This could potentially limit the overall number of fielded platforms though theatres such as Afghanistan and Libya have emphasized the need for a range of capabilities, based around both conventional and non-traditional ISR platforms.

ISR remains a priority despite challenges on a monetary front that could potentially limit the acquisition of future dedicated assets. Future requirements will need to be balanced between aspiration and provision and there will be an emphasis on driving coherence and affordability with mission systems that have commonality across platforms. There will be continued use of traditional as well as non-traditional ISR assets with the utilization of common ISR assets across nations becoming common practice to take advantage of future technologies and platforms.