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By Miguel Alejandro Laborde 

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force. 

Warfare, as history shows, must progress, and armies must adapt in order to maintain the winning edge. In today’s threat environment, where near-peer competition dominates the landscape, it is important to recognize that nation-states are not the only threat to a superpower’s position. 

In fact, great technological advances have made it possible for squad-size elements to not only evade nation-states, but act offensively – particularly in an irregular fashion – and secure both tactical and strategic gains.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

One of the most notable technical areas that has been vital to battlefield success – but that is undergoing rapid change now with real implications for the future of defense – is the field of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). 

Digging a bit deeper, the greatest strides that our adversaries have made in this arena are tracking ISR capabilities, defeating those capabilities, and training their operators to evade our ISR.

To counter this, the ISR paradigm has shifted away from aircraft and towards satellites; those who have not acted on this are resigned to disappear from this marketspace. The fact is that ISR has shifted and due to this shift, several trends have emerged – primarily including:

· ISR has shifted to satellite-based (LEO CubeSats);


Two of the 28 Dove cubesats that make up Planet Lab's "Flock 1" constellation are seen deploying into orbit from the International Space Station on Feb. 11, 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

· Aircraft are too expensive, relatively inflexible, have fixed packages, and higher risk;

· Fast-mover ISR will fill a niche but not last long; and

· UAV's will fill the void that satellites cannot

Modular Open Systems Approach – “MOSA or Die”

The Modular Open Systems Approach – “MOSA or die” – was the cause celeb for some time, but original equipment manufacturers resisted. Additionally, the costs of operating manned aircraft have risen steadily and the high-risk to crews and risk of shoot-down/capture is too high to pay. 

MOSA non-compliance, and fixed packages that do not fit the mission profile and cause added costs to modify have also caused problems. Also, fixed-wing ISR platforms are often trackable and can negate the benefits of the asset. In addition, the aircraft purchased are have often been models that are out of production, thereby increasing operating costs with diminishing spares issues and further exacerbating operational cost issues. 

In today’s environment, with no more Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, most special units cannot afford manned ISR thus eliminating it from consideration operationally. 

OCO Funds

Since 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) has regularly requested large appropriations to supplement its base-budget funding. Most of that nonbase funding has been designated for overseas contingency operations (OCO) that began after 9/11. CBO examined how DoD’s use of OCO funding has affected its spending.

Fast-mover ISR can avoid most shoot-down scenarios, thereby mitigating some risk – however, the operational support footprint required for fast-mover aircraft often places more humans at risk of kill/capture. All of these issues have combined and conspired to kill – with very few small-scale exceptions – the fixed-wing ISR model.

Satellites & UAVs

As a result, the USG has shifted away from manned ISR and moved more to satellites and other platforms. As an example, CubeSats can now be placed into orbit at will, and some companies have developed UAVs to deliver these to target areas within hours. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can be used to fill the void, are low footprint, low-cost, well supplied, and can capture signals from low-power emitters (one of the few drawbacks to satellite-based operations).

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In fact, all the old staple sensors such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR), as well as most intercepts can now be done from satellites or even High Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) UAV systems. 

The ISR niche will be further honed to UAVs as LEO satellites do everything aircraft used to cover in between standard satellites operations (to avoid relocating costs and telegraphing operations). UAVs can be popped up and circuited to remain on-station 24/7, hit 60k feet to deploy localized CubeSats, and deliver satellite-based connectivity to a ground force commander (GFC) as well as relay capabilities.

Further, laser communications between satellites, to the GFC, and between the aircraft and satellites can now be applied to high orbit UAV's, as well as fast-mover aircraft in niche roles. 

Direction finding (DF) arrays will increasingly be a specialty filled by UAVs to capture low-power emitters, and close EO/IR images (given that EO/IR cannot pierce clouds). That said, while POL can be done with satellites, to go kinetic, there will be a need for on-site systems (which will mostly be fulfilled by UAVs). Anti-spoofing technology previously reserved for satellites has been applied to aircraft and as size, weight and power (SWaP) has been reduced, these technologies can now be placed on LEO assets and UAVs.

Certainly, some USG agencies that have significantly invested in their own manned fixed-wing ISR fleets – such as Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations – will continue to operate these legacy platforms.

CPB Air and Marine

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) safeguards our Nation by anticipating and confronting security threats through our aviation and maritime law enforcement expertise, innovative capabilities, and partnerships at the border and beyond.

But for private sector entities – the business model of ISR as a manned, fixed-wing aircraft-based model is obsolete. 

The market has shifted, and companies that have not moved to the new spaces are behind the power-curve. Dreaming and betting on fixed-wing ISR contracts will drive many companies into financial trouble or out of business – and the market has already begun to sift and sort itself out. Of course, there will be limited opportunity in fixed-wing ISR in support of foreign military sales and other security assistance – but that is nuanced, restrictive and often fraught with ITAR/DOS peril.

As an example of the shrinking USG fixed-wing ISR market, look at the military intelligence battalions which had large fleets of aircraft up until one year ago. With the end of the ground operations in Afghanistan, that aircraft fleet has been cut by ~70%. The market is further complexed by the final steps of the Shyu memo being implemented, as all the key-stakeholders have and continue to shift.

In the near future, all sensors from satellites, UAV’s, operators, will need to be weaved together. Analysts will have to be able to access, manipulate, sort, and turn the data into actionable intelligence at the source and deliver the product to the operator in real-time. 

The new marketspaces are miniaturization of sensors for satellites, UAV’s capable of operating instantly over targets for better DF’s, UAVs for satellite deployment over specific target areas, systems that provide overlays for ease of data sorting and target triangulation, and Open System Architecture. Companies that build closed systems that only operate on their proprietary aircraft or networks – or are not networkable – will die on the vine.

Overlay systems that are commercially available and cost-effective eliminate the need for expensive and single use systems like the USG currently uses in ISR aircraft. 

Conversely, closed/proprietary systems tie the government’s hands and limit competition, thereby raising prices and ultimately costing the taxpayer more while limiting operational integration or rapid adaptation when operationally required. On that note, an interesting concept would be for the USG to require all systems to feed into Minotaur – which was developed by Johns Hopkins under USG contract and is already operational at no added cost.

In terms of organic analysis – rear-echelon ground exploitation teams do not have the time to process the troves of collected data and turn it into actionable intelligence, and that data is typically placed in repositories for later dissection. 

Manned ISR has on-board operators (ASO’s, who are in the battlespace), who can complete a report and submit it immediately, while passing actionable intelligence to the GFC. UAVs, or satellites do not currently fill this role, while manned ISR platforms do so inherently.

In order for the proposed migration to succeed, the USG will have to adapt current systems and operational paradigms under a unified strategy. That strategy will need to absorb the operational practices of manned platforms, adapt them to the new hybrid operations paradigm, and force the change to be rapid. 

Doing so will generate a field wherein the current manned programs feed into the new blended architecture and yield the best of both worlds for all stakeholders – most importantly the operator on the ground. 

The support to the ground force will be the ultimate marker of success. Intelligence by nature is actionable, but if it is not provided to the decision-makers in a timely fashion it becomes history to be analyzed as case-studies.

In the end, our operators need accurate, and actionable intelligence that is provided instantaneously. If we as a Nation are to maintain a sharpened edge against state and non-state adversaries alike, we need to keep moving forward on the path to innovation, sensor synthesis and platform flexibility in the ISR space – new challenges and technology paradigms demand nothing less.

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force.