February 1, 2011  

Think beyond targeting

For the Army, distinguishing ISR’s three functions is important

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula asserts that the military activities of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are indivisible because the effect they provide military commanders depends on their synchronization and integration [“Think different,” AFJ, November]. While perhaps understandable from an Air Force perspective, such a contention presents a variety of problems for ground forces and for the Army in particular.

According to Deptula, contemporary armed conflict demands that precision supplant mass in battle. In the information age, he argues, operations are primarily about dominant knowledge and effects. Such claims make one wonder how closely he was watching operations in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City in recent years. To develop his argument, Deptula cites Adm. Bill Owens, one of the more prominent supporters of the late 1990s’ “revolution in military affairs” and a strong advocate of the concept of net-centric warfare. However, such ideas neglect many of the more important continuities of armed conflict and fail to acknowledge the limitations associated with new technologies. In particular, the emphasis on the ability to target enemy forces using long-range precision munitions tends to separate war from its political, cultural and psychological context. Recent and ongoing combat operations highlight the enduring nature of armed conflict on land and the need for ground units to fight under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. Given war’s political nature, its human dimension and the requirement for continuous interaction with determined enemies and local populations, such conditions will likely persist in the future.

The Army has addressed this issue squarely in two recently published concept documents. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-0, “The Army Capstone Concept, Operational Adaptability: Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict,” and TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, “The U.S. Army Operating Concept,” both explain the need to distinguish the war-fighting function of intelligence, the tactical task of surveillance and the various forms of reconnaissance and security operations. Army commanders direct reconnaissance operations to determine the size, composition, morale, location and direction of movement of the enemy. Army forces also conduct reconnaissance to gain knowledge of routes, terrain, infrastructure and people in their areas of operations. When necessary, reconnaissance forces operate in an economy-of-force role independent of, and in the terrain between, friendly units in both contiguous and noncontiguous areas of operation.


Army forces at all echelons develop the situation through action, and learn and adapt concepts based on continuous interaction with the enemy, civilian populations and other friendly forces. In this regard, close collaboration between operators, the various intelligence disciplines and other players is essential. A network of technology-heavy ISR systems can rarely deliver the level of situational understanding via a flat-panel screen that comes from such close interaction.

In addition, a good amount of the information processed very efficiently by networked data systems is confusing, contradictory or wrong, and the very conduct of operations changes conditions on the ground, sometimes very quickly. To amalgamate these very distinct activities as simply ISR strips each activity of its unique meaning and reduces an otherwise very complex series of actions down to little more than a targeting process.

Many different military activities require a level of synchronization and integration, yet we do not amalgamate them all by alleging they are one process or term, and certainly not a single acronym. With our military lexicon already so heavily burdened by an overuse of inappropriate acronyms, one area where we really should employ precision is in our use of language. If what we seek to describe are the surveillance activities that produce data for targeting, then perhaps a single, integrated process might suffice. However, given the wide array of purposes for Army reconnaissance operations, the fact that so much of the useful information in combat comes haphazardly from the bottom up rather than from some alleged process, and the wide array of outcomes to which such information can be put at various echelons, it is far more useful to disaggregate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. AFJ

LT. COL. MARK ELFENDAHL is chief of the Joint and Army Concepts Division at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command. He has served in a variety of command and staff positions as an armor and cavalry officer. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.