Gadgets That Collect Information Are Also Gathering Success

By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 15, 2008

"ISR" has become the new silver bullet in counterinsurgency. It stands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but it really means a series of new sensors and other electronic collection and analytic gadgets. It also includes the manned and unmanned airborne platforms from which they primarily operate.

Last July, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved shifting more than $1 billion to ISR programs from other fiscal 2008 Pentagon budget accounts. In detailing the reprogramming request to congressional committees, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England wrote, "These funds are being made available for ISR based on the view of the Secretary of Defense that the ISR effort is a higher priority and needs to be addressed at this time."

Last week, without detailed explanation, the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee announced that it had provided an additional $750 million "to fund high priority intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance initiatives" in the fiscal 2009 defense appropriations bill.

For the best and most dramatic description of how useful ISR has become in Iraq, there is an article in a recent issue of the Joint Force Quarterly journal written by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who is scheduled to become the new commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq tomorrow, and two of his subordinates, Lt. Col. Nichoel E. Brooks and Lt. Col. Francesco P. Mastracchio.

"Employment of ISR, according to the current counterinsurgency doctrine, sets the conditions for the initial success of the surge in Iraq," they wrote. Threats come not just from insurgents but also from "militias who at any time might be working with or against each other," but "most are consistently working against coalition forces."

They attribute new successes in meeting these challenges to the recent increase of ISR, featuring "full motion video assets." These are devices that can keep what they described as the "unblinking eye" on targets. There are enough that they can be placed at the level of combat brigades.

Four years ago, there was no such video capability and limited top secret communications channels. Couriers were often used to synchronize intelligence databases at unit command posts.

Now, they wrote, brigade combat team commanders have a platoon with unmanned aerial vehicles that can provide 18 hours of full motion video coverage and signal intelligence teams that can collect and analyze intelligence, as well as tap into classified national data resources.

The result? "On any given day," they wrote, a brigade combat team commander "might be simultaneously focused on targeting a cell leader in an IED [improvised explosive device] network, providing security for a very important person convoy, monitoring a potentially violent demonstration, or responding to troops in contact -- to name only a few potential operations." That commander needs to have not only his own ISR assets but also the ability to call in those of higher commands, such as Predators, the larger, more costly, unmanned aircraft that have longer range and additional capabilities.

The trio described a recent combat operation in which a variety of ISR assets were used to destroy an insurgent mortar team. Initially, a counterfire radar detected, tracked and determined the location of a firing point and sent that data to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). That UAV maintained contact through full motion video with the mortar site while information was sent to alert close support aircraft.

The brigade tactical operations center brought in another UAV which, they wrote, "provided clear evidence of mortar tubes being transferred to a second truck." The close air support plane destroyed the mortar team, and a UAV immediately verified its destruction. Success was attributed, they wrote, to the brigade commander being able "to orchestrate FMV [full motion video] assets based on rapid feedback from intelligence analysts supporting the commander and tipping and cueing from multidiscipline intelligence sensors."

Being Army officers, Odierno and his colleagues wrote that while close air support is an "invaluable capability that brings large amounts of firepower to the fight in short order," they think that brigade commanders need more ISR rather than armed UAVs. ISR assets, they concluded, "are some of the best tools our ground commanders have in breaking through that fog [of war]."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

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