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Maj. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan
Maj. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan (Air Force)

The Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency supports the Air Forceís mission to ďfly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.Ē From its home at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, the agency provides and operates integrated, cross-domain ISR capabilities in concert with service, joint, national and international partners. Maj. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan took command of the agency in June, after serving as special assistant to the deputy chief of staff for ISR at Air Force headquarters. He spoke with C4ISR & Networks Editor Barry Rosenberg about operations in contested environments, coping with big data, and moving beyond processing, exploitation and dissemination.

With support of the warfighter a given, what is at the top of your to-do list?

SHANAHAN: What I think about now is what we should look like 10 years from now. I think the end state will be a smaller, more capable, modernized Air Force ISR enterprise that is really capable of conducting full spectrum operations through what I like to call Ďcross-domain integrationí of not just Air Force, but also joint and coalition national theater and tactical ISR capabilities.

We are in a fight now that we are very good at. Weíve spent 12 years focusing on the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Weíre very good at the counterinsurgency, counterterrorism type of fight. How are we going to approach the next one? I do not have a crystal ball, none of us do. I donít know exactly what the fight will be or what it will look like, but I am positive it wonít look like the fight we are in today. So I need to start moving the ISR Agency from a focus on what we would call Ďpermissive non-contested operationsí to higher-end operations in more contested, degraded environments.

But let me say very definitively we will not stop doing some of these other types of operations. There will be some sort of an ongoing need for what we would call the Ďpermissive operations,í sort of the lower-end environment. That doesnít mean the intensity is any different, I am just saying these operations wonít be in a highly contested environment. I am comfortable that we have the ISR enterprise capable of handling these operations. What we arenít as ready for yet is operations in more highly contested, degraded environments.

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So what is it going to take to get there? I will tell you right now I call it the three ĎRs.í We need to reduce, reset, and reconstitute the ISR enterprise. And the reduction is not necessarily by choice.

And by that you mean the reduced force is being driven by the fiscal environment?

SHANAHAN: It is. I donít know exactly yet what we will look like in terms of budget. There is no question there will be cuts. Leaders from the secretary of defense on down have made it clear that we cannot afford the budget weíve had in the past. So, we will take this opportunity to get smaller in a way that is smart. Weíre not going to just decide to Ďsalami sliceí cut, but really figure out how do we shift the enterprise to a more capable, modernized force that can still do the uncontested or more permissive environments, but really begins to shift toward the higher end, highly contested environments.

And by more capable you meanÖ?

SHANAHAN: For example, developing low-observable, penetrating capabilities capable of operating in a heavy electronic countermeasures environment and in cyberspace. Letís face it, our adversaries and our potential adversaries have been watching our fights very carefully, and will be developing, or have developed, countermeasures against our capabilities, whether ISR or anything else in our Air Force and the other services. I need to make sure we know how to operate and are effective at operating in those degraded environments.

When we look at Operation Enduring Freedom, I hope historically it will almost be looked at as the ISR war, because weíve put so much capability in theater over the past 12 years. But today we need to start looking at a different threat in the future and how we address that threat.

You mentioned three Rs, with the second one being reset. To me reset typically means returning hardware systems from Afghanistan back to maintenance depots in the U.S. for repair and refurbishment. What does reset mean as far as ISR is concerned?

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SHANAHAN: Let me give you one way I think about this. Much of my capacity today is absorbed in global operations, and a very high percentage of that is in the war in Afghanistan, which is a certain type of fight. But what are my analytical requirements going to be for a different type of fight? Letís say itís a higher-end fight in a non-permissive environment. Some of the analysis capabilities for these types of fights have atrophied a little bit in these 12 years of war. We have been focused on this problem set and now our defense strategy requires focus on different problem sets.

I need to rebuild our analytical capability, which requires a bit of time to reset. I have to figure out the best way to reset that ISR force. I canít stand it all down. Itís simply not possible because there is an insatiable demand for ISR across the world every day. The lionís share of our capability right now goes to Central Command, but that doesnít mean the other combatant commanders donít have requirements. They do. They have far more requirements than we have capacity. At the same time, Iím trying to make the case that as we begin to drawdown in Afghanistan we need to take a little bit of a breather in the right areas at the right time in order to reset the force and start focusing on these other type of fights.

So is operating in contested environments a platform/UAV issue or a sensor performance issue? For example, maybe unmanned systems have to fly at altitudes beyond the range of ground-to-air defenses.

SHANAHAN: Without being able to penetrate threat defenses, standoff becomes very important. When I say Ďstandoffí perhaps space is one of the answers. Cyber is [also] one of the answers. In fact, maybe cyber is the ultimate standoff where I donít have to penetrate defenses at all, other than network defenses. Thatís not a given, but itís a different way of looking at it. If I have an airborne platform that I need to get close enough to collect, then either I have longer range, longer endurance, or more standoff with more power. We used to be able to look deeper, but now I really think very hard about low-observable, penetrating, long-endurance capabilities. If our platform is seen it is in danger of being shot down. For example, I think we all realize an MQ-1 is not very survivable if we were to fly it tomorrow over an adversary with air defense capabilities in a highly contested environment. Does that platform have applicability in a later phase of a conflict? It surely does. Look at whatís happening in Afghanistan today. But many of the platforms that are so successful in Afghanistan will be far less successful in an air defense network where someone is trying to make sure we canít send in our airborne assets. So itís a combination of concepts like standoff, stealth, low-observable platforms, cyber, space, and subsurface capabilities that we are beginning to think about a lot more as we look at the drawdown in Afghanistan and to what the future brings.

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And when you say cyber, whatís the connection between cyber and ISR?

SHANAHAN: To me they are inextricably linked. There are different philosophies on this, of course. Not too many years ago, SIGINT, or signals intelligence, was in many ways the precursor to what we call cyber today, and I donít mean that in the offensive cyber realm. When we talk about cyber network exploitation or ISR and cyberspace the intent is the same; we are gaining access to be able to pull information and exploit that information to create the actionable knowledge to help decision makers. As I said, we have ISR airmen today integrated into cyber organizations.

In the Air Force we are looking very carefully about what is the future, what is the right integration, and what is the right organizational framework for the integration of ISR and cyber in the Air Force. Those are very good questions. I donít have the answers yet but itís something our Air Force is looking at very closely. Weíll have those answers and some direction within the next couple of years.

So getting inside an enemyís network and surveying their network could be the ĎSí in ISR?

SHANAHAN: Exactly right, thatís a good way to characterize it. But of course there are also network operations that are just running networks day-to-day. I donít call that ISR and likewise I donít call offensive cyber space operations ISR. Thatís clearly crossed the line from ISR into what we would normally call Title 10 activities.

Letís talk about the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) aspect of ISR. What are your PED challenges today and how do you see them changing in the coming years?

SHANAHAN: Instead of ĎPED,í today we are using the term ĎPC-PAD,í or planning and direction, collection, processing and exploitation, analysis and production, and dissemination. Why is it important to move to that concept? The perception of PED is that itís more passive. Itís platform-based. PC-PAD to me is active, anticipatory, and that means it starts with planning and direction. We had a tendency in the past to look more at a platform. Now we are focused on a problem-driven approach.

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For example, a combatant commander has a problem set of some type, perhaps itís the Air Force component in a COCOM. Letís look at what we can do for that problem set from across the entire enterprise. When I say entire enterprise I donít mean just Air Force. I mean the other services, as well as the coalition piece, which is equally important. That drives us in a different direction and allows us to start using our assets more effectively.

Again let me bring in the cyber. We may be able to provide a cyber solution to an ISR problem set that previously we werenít thinking about because in the past the answer was, ĎWe just want to put a U2 over the target.í Weíre moving away from the target-specific planning approach to more of a problem-based approach. Another way to say it is a platform- or sensor-agnostic approach to ISR.

Thereís just more to it than the three letters of PED. It really begins back with the definition of the problem set.

And youíre actually putting steps in place to go in that direction?

SHANAHAN: Yes, we are. We are well down that path. We are seeing more and more people take that approach. And itís important to view it as PC-PAD, going back to what I said about operating in contested environments versus permissive environments. This is a very important point for me personally.

I mentioned earlier the analyst and analysis part of it that we may have lost or had atrophy. I know we have lost some capability that we had in our service and across the entire DoD 20 years ago because of the nature of the fight weíve been in. So, I need technology to help me, but I also need to rebuild the analyst skills to allow me to do the PC-PAD effectively. I need an apps-based approach to the world ó like the rest of the intelligence community is going to ó in order to simplify the problem.

I am not going to have the time or the people to deal with this enormous volume of data that weíre beginning to see more and more of in the next couple of years. All of the broad-area sensors, persistent stare, high definition, and multi-spectral systems ó you name it ó are giving us a data problem beyond anything weíve experienced in the recent past. I know youíve heard about this through NGA, NSA, and NRO, as well. Everybodyís thinking about this now. We need to find some way of automating, where possible, some parts of the processing and the exploitation, to really give us the time we need for the exploitation part of it.

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