Understanding ISR as Information Surveillance Reconnaissance

By Robbin Laird

ISR-led operations are becoming a key part of the reworking of 21st century warfighting which enables modular task forces to operate at the tactical edge.

And to do so with enough information and to make decisions and to be able to continue to operate effectively in their area of responsibility in the battlespace.

But this is ISR better understood as Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance than as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance where ISR collectors are pushing information to decision makers somewhere else in the battlespace.

The U.S. Navy’s Resolute Hunter exercise revolves around this transition.

As I put it in an article reporting on last year’s Resolute Hunter exercise:

With AWF and Red Flag experiences preceding it with many years, one could think of Resolute Hunter in terms of training for the left side of the kill chain, in which find, fix, track (F2T) are key elements with target and engage being the right side of the kill chain with a shared overlap between the left and right side of the kill chain with regard to assess.

But this is not quite right.

For the ISR role is expanding beyond such an approach and such an understanding. In one sense, the ISR sensor networks with men in the loop can deliver decisions with regard to the nature of the evolving tactical situation, and the kinds of decisions which need to be made in the fluid combat environment. It may be to kill or to adjust judgements about what that battlespace actually signifies in terms of what needs to be done.

And given the speed with which kill decisions need to be made with regards to certain classes of weapons, the ISR/C2 network will operate as the key element of a strike auction.

Which shooter needs to do what at which point in time to degrade the target?

How best to determine which element of the shoot sequence – not the kill chain — needs to do what in a timely manner, when fighting at the speed of light?

The evolving role of ISR in a contested fluid battlespace also raises the question of rules of engagement. In the legacy land wars, the rules of engagement were shaped around a certain understanding of the OODA loop which allowed for the OODLA loop, with the lawyers entering the cycle to determine the validity of a targeting sequence.

With ISR systems determining the where and nature of how to execute a mission in a rapidly unfolding battlespace, the need to think through information engagement really pulls apart the inherited notion of rules of engagement as well.

Put another way, there is not going to be a carefully constructed common operating picture for the political-military commanders located far away from the moment of decision with regard to the dynamically unfolding contested battlespace. What the ISR capabilities can deliver are “moments of clarity” with regard to decisive actions.

This is how one Marine Corps general put it recently: “We believe that speed matters. Because in this next fight, if data is the currency of this war fight, we believe that speed matters. And it’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow.”

It should be noticed that Red Flag itself is changing significantly as well as a core force reshapes air combat, namely, the F-35 global enterprise and the capabilities of the F-35 as an information dominance aircraft able to deliver C2 at the tactical edge of combat. 

Tod Schuck highlighted this shift in an article published on Breaking Defense on May 11, 2017, entitled “OODA Loop 2.0: Information, Not Agility is Life.”

The F-35A excelled at the Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB this year, leaving advocates of traditional fighter aircraft design and performance shaking their heads.

The 13 F-35As faced the most advanced aggressor aircraft and simulated threats available and the Joint Strike Fighter’s performance “far exceeded expectations,” Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan said. The latest figures show a kill ratio as high as 20:1 for the F-35A. This performance advantage is changing the way the services are understanding how to fight with the F-35. For example, Capt. Stephanie Anne Fraioli’s article in the Air & Space Power Journal notes that: “With fourth-generation fighter airframes, speed and energy equaled life and survivability. In the fifth-generation realm, information equals life.”

This last statement that “information equals life” is the key point. When Col. John Boyd formed his energy-maneuverability (EM) theory in 1966 with Thomas Christie and Lt. James Gibson, he created the concept that the available energy in a fighter aircraft “equals life”. EM theory provides a method to understand the relationship between altitude and the kinetic energy (position and velocity) of an aircraft to define aircraft maneuverability. Boyd is famous for his claim that within 40 seconds, from an initial position of disadvantage, he could defeat any opposing pilot via the use of his EM principles in mock aerial combat.

Over several years the problem space in modern warfare has changed. In Command and Control (C2) there are four domains that have been described by Drs. Alberts and Hayes: physical, information, cognitive, and social. Boyd’s work focused on the physical domain – designing a multi-ton fighter aircraft so that it would always be in a position to dominate an adversary in a dog fight. Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars in the United Kingdom, is famous for a similar design method.

To him, weight was always the enemy in the “dog fight” of close wheel formula racing. He often defeated much more powerful and heavier opponents because his cars were more maneuverable and retained more energy exiting the corners in races. In motor racing, the more speed that you carry out of a corner, not into it, will always result in a faster course time.

Today in warfare, information domain maneuverability matters more than physical domain maneuverability. Aerial dogfights have been replaced by beyond-visible-range (BVR) targeting and execution. In his article about the Red flag exercise, Colin quotes Lt. Col. Tyler Lewis, commander of the 57th Adversary Tactics Support Squadron at Nellis AFB that in a fourth generation aircraft “you get whacked a lot”. Lewis often had no idea he was going to die until he was declared dead during the Red Flag training.

Erik Blasch, of the Air Force Research Lab, and I have recently developed a theory that we believe explains the F-35’s superior performance in simulations and war games like the Red Flag exercises: Information Power (IP) and Information Maneuverability (IM). 

Col. Boyd’s EM theory, which shaped the design of the F-15 and F-16 fighters to be superior in the physical domain, has been brought to a new level. IM theory explains how the F-35 is dominant in simulated warfare exercises via the information domain.

Instead of position, thrust, lift, velocity and other physical parameters, IM theory uses parameters from communication theory. These include communication channel capacity, information entropy, number of messages sent (per unit time), and the velocity of those messages. This produces the IP measure which is similar to the Boyd formulation for specific energy (Es). Then, by comparing your information position (power) to other adversaries, you can determine whether you have the stronger or weaker information position, the basis for IM superiority.

The principle here is the same as used for mechanical advantage in a system. If you need to elevate a car in order to change a tire it is nearly impossible to use your bare hands to manually lift the corner of the car you need to raise. However, by using a simple car jack you multiply your exerted force in the area you need to lift the car. IM works this same ratio in the information domain.

The IM theory formulation is explanatory, and Dr. Blasch and I still need to run simulations of the principles. However, a credible theory must also be predictive so we believe that in the analysis of information-centric systems, we will be able to also predict with high accuracy who will win any given engagement in battle or in similar domains such as automated financial trading systems.

The F-35 is a high bandwidth, networked, highly capable sensor/weapon, low observable platform that is superior in the information domain over all other types of aircraft. It will continue to win the “information dog fight” against all other adversaries if it maintains its IM advantage.

We have highlighted similar concepts in many articles by Secretary Wynne, Ed Timperlake, and interviews with F-35 pilots since for many years. 

But if you don’t get the strategic shift in warfare, you simply not understand how to assess platforms, payloads or capabilities.

The featured photo shows the F-35 involved in Red Flag 21-1.

An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet assigned to the 62nd Fighter Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, lands for Red Flag 21-2 at Nellis AFB, Nevada, March 4, 2021. The unit has highly-experienced coalition instructor pilots who will be in a unique position to mentor U.S. and coalition participants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dwane R. Young)

In an article published on February 8, 2021, Lt. Nicolle Mathison, Nellis Air Force Base Public Affairs, provided an overview on Red Flag 21-1.

This iteration of Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base has been engineered to provide consistent and realistic training to include space and cyberspace as mediums for organizational learning to take place at the same level as air operations.

Space-unit participants include blue, red and white players from the United States Space ForceU.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and allied nations’ combat air forces.

“For Red Flag 21-1, we’ve employed space electronic warfare capabilities that support full-spectrum national security objectives, along with offensive cyber capabilities across adversary data networks affecting that network’s ability to pass data or function properly,” said Capt. Kaylee Taylor, chief of Non-Kinetic Integration at the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

“What my job entails is coordinating blue, red and white space and cyber integration for Red Flag and other key exercises at Nellis Air Force Base,” she added. “I am also the only USSF member in my unit, so I act as a type of ad hoc USSF liaison officer.”

The integration of non-kinetics in the mission planning cycle has a direct positive impact to the lethality and survivability of the air package and, ultimately, the success of any mission planned against a capable adversary.

Blue forces act as the non-kinetic functional team leads, providing non-kinetic planning integration into the mission planning cycle. Non-kinetics refer to a combination of electronic warfare fires from ground and airborne assets paired together with offensive cyber fires.

“To prepare the blue force to engage in Red Flag, upon arrival they attend a non-kinetic duty officer course to get them spun up on what their roles will entail,” Taylor said. “In addition to that, the Nellis (AFB) team puts on Mission Commander Academics, which is a full day of academics teaching those who are going to be in mission planning the rules of engagement and what the other players bring to the fight, providing them a baseline of what they need to start on day one.”

Tactical mentors from the 328th Weapons Squadron provide guidance and direction for the non-kinetic planning cell members, which enables them to bring the most up-to-date tactics to Red Flag.

The red forces provide realistic adversary threats for the blue team to fight against. One red-force player is the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron, an Air Force Reserve unit with the 926th Wing based at Nellis AFB.

The 26th SAS mission is to replicate enemy threats to space-based and space-enabled systems during tests and training exercises. By using GPS and satellite communications, adversary effects the squadron provide Air Force, joint and coalition military personnel with an understanding of how to recognize, mitigate, counter and defeat these threats.

“As a unit whose mission is to know, teach and replicate enemy threats – we support the USSF blue players who are currently pushing their individual missions forward in an effort to train expert Guardians,” said Maj. Scott Hollister, 26th SAS flight commander of Adversary Plans Flight. “This includes teaching representatives from our joint and allied partners on how to employ specific tactics.”

These USSF reservist partners provide threat replication training to remotely piloted aircraft, plus various fighter and bomber platforms during Red Flag 21-1. Additionally, they work closely with cyber aggressors to provide realistic layered effects to multiple space and cyber organizations participating in Red Flag.

The white forces are neutral players who help steer the exercise. They provide input to the blue and red players and help control the pace and intensity of the exercise.

A challenge many international players and USSF units can expect to face during exercise planning and execution is being new to the joint all-domain integration game.

“For most participants, this is their very first time participating in Red Flag,” Taylor said. “For the space and cyber non-kinetic functional team leads, it may be their first time doing mission planning. For the pilots, it may be their first time seeing non-kinetics, space or cyber integrated into the air fight. We introduce it to them so they can prepare to compete and win in all-domain combat operations.”

Red Flag provides mission commanders the opportunity to lead in a contested degraded and operationally limited environment with multi-domain assets and international allies – a training experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

“Any realistic training against a near-peer or competitor nation is going to require heavy utilization of multi-domain operations,” Taylor said. “The classical role of the Air Force being able to penetrate an airspace protected by an integrated air defense system is no longer a problem set that can be solved using Air Force assets and capabilities alone. Red Flag aims to train how we fight against modern potential adversary capabilities. In order to do this, we have to bring together airborne capabilities with the emerging capabilities of both space and cyber units.”