Pacific Strategy X: ISR Services to the Honeycomb

10/24/2011 – As the presence forces operate in the Pacific from the Arctic to Australia, a key enabler will be the ISR inputs or services which support and enhance deployed decision-making centers, whether in the combat aircraft of the 5th generation or by the ships and longer-range strike assets.

The service structure should be understood as a function of capabilities deployed permanently or deployed in areas of interest when appropriate to various insertions or augmentation of force.  The ISR service structure  is a key element of the scalability of capabilities, and shaping of both US and allied concepts of operations. We are using the term service structure to highlight that the structure is platform agnostic.  The ISR service structure is very dynamic as well and can come from commercially leased systems, large aircraft, dirigibles, or robotic systems whether air-breathing or not. The key is to feed the ISR services into the decision making system and to support deployed presence platforms, capabilities and warfighters.

Space-based systems shape the “permanent” presence foundation for ISR in the Pacific.  Given the weather conditions and the vast expanse of the Pacific, an ability to tap into space systems is a crucial foundation for situational awareness and guidance for deployment decisions.


A comprehensive C4ISR service structure can be built based on parterning with commercial and allied offerings pursued in a realistic policy enviornment and a distributed architecture shaped whereby capabilities emerge from the elements of a deployed capability, rather than trying for a costly comprehensive architecture which requires solely proprietary funding to support the end to end effort.

Leveraging other people’s money, whether commercial or foreign space, or other Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Decision Making Support or C4ISR D platforms is essential for an affordable, capable military space strategy.

The mix can well drive innovation and match quality of shaping a de facto distributed space architecture. Overcoming stove piped programs, and challenging DOD and the intelligence community to OPERATE outside the box is crucial.  Simply contemplating change is not adequate.

Engaging in organizational innovation is at the heart of today’s technological innovation. Money can be freed up to support needs revealed by organizational innovation and core needs, which emerge at the edge of overlapping capabilities.

Space provides a significant contribution to C4ISR D or data for decision-making.  Yet the unmanned revolution as well as the fifth generation aircraft is game changers in providing data for deployed decision makers.  And the role of hoisted payloads in supporting UAVs has become evident in the Afghanistan operation.  The new capabilities can provide a re-think about how to leverage commercial space, notably hoisted payloads, in supporting air-breathing C4ISR D assets.

The role of proprietary military space becomes a default capability: what CAN NOT be provided by the powerful conjunction of air breathing assets and commercial satellite capabilities?  The relatively un-agile DOD structure would then be put on notice to identify programs that are needed which can interact with such a conjunctive capability, but provide unique and core capabilities UNABLE to be generated either by air breathing military assets of the commercial space, notably hoisted payloads structure.

Savings would come from both sources.

First, DOD would have to ACT outside the box in leveraging its investments in unmanned and manned aerospace assets.  The deployment of the F-35 will provide game-changing ISR capabilities, which can be harvested to reshape the C4ISR D structure.

Second, the evolution of satellite capabilities in the commercial sector provides significant cost investments, which DOD does NOT need to make.  DOD by shaping long-term contractual service relationships can save scarce investment capital.  But this requires DOD to think and contract long term, not one of its core competencies.

Such an approach facilitates a strategic re-think, which parallels what we are doing with fifth generation aircraft.  The focus is upon distributed operations and shaping a honeycomb of decision-making supporting the deployed warfighter.  Such a focus allows one to tap into the emerging thinking about shaping a disaggregated strategy whereby space policy makers look to focus on overall capabilities from the enterprise rather than concentration of capabilities on single point of failure platforms.

Disaggregation and distributed operations further highlights the opportunity to build smaller payloads and to operate across a variety of launch platforms.  By reducing the cost impact of a launch failure and its impact on expensive and complicated satellites, innovation is enhanced as well.  With a diversity of assets distributed across the space enterprise, and leveraging commercial space and air-breathing assets, innovation and cost effectiveness are enabled.

At the same time, various air-breathing assets are key elements of a presence force with an ability to become scalable and tailored to specific situations. The potential of the fifth generation aircraft and their associated robotic systems can be exploited to shape C4ISR capabilities very scalable for the presence forces.

Here the onboard processing capabilities of the F-22 and F-35 would be recognized for what they are, namely, breakthrough capabilities to process data for their own use, for the network of air combat systems and to integrate their capabilities with maritime and ground forces.

As the manned systems are deployed and their capabilities better understood and exploited, the role of robotic vehicles in the air network will go up dramatically.  A wolfpack concept is likely to emerge within which the manned systems direct and are embedded within airborne robotic networks which, in turn, work closely with maritime and ground forces.

The capability of providing for collaborative decision-making among maritime, ground, and air commanders becomes possible as the interactive network shapes options and provides choices to the joint commanders.

The role of space in this world has the potential to become radically redefined.  The propriety U.S. military space network is most significant when the U.S. seeks to establish air superiority and conducts joint and combined maritime and air strikes against adversaries, either nation state or discrete adversary targets located on foreign territory.  Here the interaction among US military systems must be carefully protected and highly integrated for a successful insertion of force.  In a way, given the key role of the evolution of the F-22 and F-35, the military space network would be sized to support this initial air superiority and air dominance effort.

And as the fleets of 5th generation aircraft increase, the relationship between large manned aircraft, AWACS, bombers, tankers and lifters will change.  Some of these assets may well go away, such as the AWACS.  The tankers and airlifters can have key ISR systems and routers emplaced on them to be part of the honeycomb.  And the next generation bomber will become a core additive element whose requirements and capabilities may well be determined what it contributes from what is lacking from a forward deployed presence force – namely, a 5th generation aircraft and Aegis enabled force.

Cybersecurity challenges and the threats from some powers who are developing abilities to disrupt US-specific military systems simply re-enforce the advantages of a multi-layered architecture encompassing commercial, air-breathing, allied, and US military systems. The US cannot afford to build a proprietary Pentagon-funded layered and diverse architecture, which deal with Cybersecurity threats all by itself.

A diversified architecture in which commercial and allied elements are part of the foundation makes the task of disruption much harder and certainly for states not terribly desirable politically.

The augmentation of capability WHEN necessary is facilitated by a diversified architecture.  If a joint and coalition force is operating in an area of interest and needs shared data in an air permissive environment, the deployment of dirigibles as a system to provide persistent situational awareness can be provided.  And the ISR systems put upon on the dirigible can allow information sharing in such an environment.

If a Black Swan pops up and planning needs to be facilitated in an area of interest an operationally responsive space capability can deployed to up the tactical information necessary to insert a force or to re-inforce if an when necessary an already deployed presence asset or group of assets.

An example of a littoral operation where such a need was underscored was in Libya.  The Libyan military operation in Libya is not yet over. It is too early for scholarly and learned lessons. But it is not too early to look at the tactical experiences and how those experiences presage changes to come. We have done an initial look at the overlap between the experience of the French and of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Libyan operations and have discovered some significant overlaps in experience.

If we look at the congruence of the French with the USMC Marine experiences, several things can be highlighted.

First, the centrality of leveraging multiple bases in a littoral operation is significant. The French used several land bases and incorporated the sea base — whether the carrier or their amphibious ships — to work with land-based aircraft. The Marines used their land base largely to supply the sea-based air ops via Osprey transport.

Second, having the C4ISR — command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — forward deployed with the pilot as the key decision maker is crucial to mission success. The classic USAF U.S. Air Force CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center) is challenged by what the Marines demonstrated in the operation; the French experience also challenges it.

If you have a long C4ISR chain, the information in a fluid and dynamic situation must be provided in a more timely fashion than a system built for 1991 air operations permits.

Third, new air capabilities make a significant difference. For the USMC, the Osprey was the game changer in this operation. For the French, it was the new recce reconnaissance pods off of the Rafale fighters.

Fourth, the dynamic targeting problem experienced by the French was also highlighted by the USMC Marines’ experience. Getting accurate information from the ground is central to operations. The USN-USMC Navy-Marine team has a number of new capabilities being deployed or acquired which that will enhance its ability to do such operations. The F-35B fighter will give the USMC Marine Corps an integrated electronic warfare and C4ISR capability. The new LPDs have significant command and control capabilities. For the French, acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which that could become wingmen for the Rafales would be important, and the role of the C2 command and control capabilities of the new amphibious ships were was underscored as well.

Fifth, the pickup quality of this operation may be more a norm than an aberration moving forward. If it is, then the old paradigm (significant planning and roll out of a fleet of C4ISR aircraft and capabilities) may be challenged by a new one: Deploying air assets that can be tapped by the sea base to shape an operation may become one of the key requirements moving forward.

Let us now hover over the C4ISR aspect a bit more. The French officers in charge of the operation were keenly aware of how little time they had to plan for the it, and putting UAVs and combat aircraft over Libya prior to a U.N. authorization was not a great idea. President Nicolas Sarkozy decided considerably before the U.N. resolution that France would operate in Libya, but to the French military leaders, this meant that the political roll out did not mesh with what their planning requirements.

This discussion about the comparative U.S.-France experiences in the Libyan intervention raises the question about space systems: Could they be used, in the future, to provide a much more operationally reactive and efficient role, in the spirit of what is called in the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)?

For instance, if such ORS systems had been available in Europe, France could have used the insertion of a small constellation of LEO small satellites into low Earth orbit by quick launch to allow a couple-of-months cushion for planning, and then to provide efficient tactical support to the intervention.

Not only would such an ORS capability be essential to operations where the political dynamic is determinant, but the military capability decisive, it would also enable significant manpower savings compared to with UAVs. Contrary to the common wisdom, UAVs are not cheap; they are vulnerable to ground fire and cyber-attacks,; they require significant manpower to support an “unmanned” asset,; and of course they cannot be used before an official green light since they operate in the airspace of a sovereign country. Once the satellites are launched, the manpower support is minimal to deliver the capability. And their intelligence information can be downloaded directly to the cockpits of the pilots, who then, after initial destruction of enemy capabilities, can transition to dynamic targeting.

An ORS capability would be a very valuable complement because the main issue is not the strategic intelligence but the tactical input to the commanders and pilots in the field, which has to be put in place, tested and exploited before the beginning of the operations. A constellation of a few small satellites, launched on- demand, and injected in very low altitude orbits tailored to provide the best coverage of the countries of operations, would add enormously to the efficiency of the combat syste

The world is changing in an accelerated way. New military challenges like the Libyan intervention call for new ways to operate, with focus on local C2command and control, and tailored tactical means.

In effect, the middle layer of the ISR service structure will grow and with it the ability to push decision making down to level of the deployed forces.  With the emergence of the F-35, a true revolution in ISR capabilities will be available to US and allied forces. The F35 has significantly greater processing power than current aircraft and has an open-chip architecture. With this level of processing power available, the F35 will be capable of simultaneous multi-mission operations, rather than current combat aircraft’s approach to sequential multi-tasking.

Additionally, remotely piloted aircraft developments part of the future of shaping high-mid-low altitude C2 and ISR capabilities. Additional introduction of dirigibles and other assets will contribute as well to an expanded mid-layer role in the C4ISR or C4ISR D (shared decision-making) enterprise.

All of this depends on how permissive the air environment is in an operation and the scope and nature of the strategic objectives and the tactical conditions.  But the core point is rather simple: by shaping a distributed and diversified structure, the National Command Authority can leverage normal presence capabilities and scale up or down dependent upon the situation.

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This article is a contribution to the Strategic Whiteboard


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