There is always a next war. Great power competition is here. Now is the time, while the United States maintains a position of strength, to ensure we are not outmatched, out-thought, or out-witted. Rapidly and realistically positioning the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance enterprise for first-mover advantage in today’s data-driven environment is beginning with purposeful urgency.

The past paradigm: crew-to-aircraft model

During our careers, the Air Force ISR enterprise grew in both capability and capacity. In the late 1990s, the Air Force operated an ISR enterprise dominated by manned aircraft, each with their own specialized team operating unique systems that turned data into initial intelligence. Only a few organizations could turn raw airborne sensor data into intelligence in near-real time. We were only beginning to move data to the analyst, versus deploying the analyst to the data.

As battlefield demand of ISR grew, we scaled up. We were fortunate to help build and execute airborne intelligence operations on a global scale, connected via a global network — we called them “reachback” operations. Reachback operations were the first step in transmitting ISR sensor collection across the globe in seconds. Even today, few nations can conduct this type of ISR operational design. The enterprise has continued to advance, achieving fully distributed operations around the world. We also made it possible to remove humans from aircraft, allowing missions to fly nearly three times longer and expand the data available to exploit. Correspondingly, the Air Force increased the number of organizations that could accept data and create intelligence.

Following 9/11, our nation’s needs changed; the fight necessitated the Air Force grow its capacity to deliver intelligence for expanded operations in the Middle East. We bought more unmanned vehicles, trained more ISR Airmen, and created more organizations to exploit data. Collection operations were happening 24/7 and most sorties required multiple crews to fly, control sensors and turn collection tasks into intelligence. As reachback operations grew, they became the Distributed Common Ground System and developed the ability to exploit aircraft sensor data. This growth was significant, but at the tactical level we employed the same crew model and simply grew at scale. This resulted in manpower growth, but also in disparate, distributed crews working similar tactical requirements with little unity of effort or larger purpose. This limited the ability of ISR airpower to have broader operational effects. While suitable for counter-terrorism, history tells us this approach is ill advised for great power conflict.

Observe and orient: the data explosion and sense-making

The traditional crew-to-aircraft model for exploitation must fast forward to today’s information environment. The Pentagon has shifted its guidance to this new reality. The Defense Department recently declared information a seventh core function, and the Air Force’s formal ISR flight plan maps a course for digital-age capabilities to turn information into intelligence. This “sense-making” must be able to handle both the complexity of a diverse information environment and scale to contend with an exploding volume of data. Access to expanded data sets, from diverse collection sources and phenomenology, is near and urgently needed. The Department’s focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning in this realm remains stable and necessary. The next step is to retool how we task, organize, and equip both intelligence collection and analytic crews.

As the Pentagon focuses on open architectures, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and data standards, the field is rapidly moving out. Air Combat Command , the Air Force lead command for ISR, is attacking the crew-to-aircraft model to test a sensor-agnostic approach using multiple data sources to address intelligence requirements. Cross-functional teams of Airmen are now assigned broader operational problems to solve, rather than a specific sensor to exploit. This will change joint and service collection management processes.

ACC is tackling this future. We are supporting Air Force commanders in Europe and the Pacific with a pilot project that allows Airmen to explore these sensor-agnostic approaches. An additional element to our future success is partnering with our joint and allied partners, as well as national agencies, to bring resources, tools, and insights to bear. As we field the open architecture Distributed Common Ground System, we are shifting the focus from airmen operating specific sensors to airmen leveraging aggregate data for broader analysis.

Headquarters Air Force and ACC are installing technologies to ensure readiness for the future ISR enterprise. Cloud technology paired with artificial intelligence and machine learning promises to speed human-machine teaming in generating intelligence across warfighting domains at the speed and scale necessary to inform and guide commanders. Underpinning this effort is a new data strategy and agile capability development for rapid prototyping and fielding. The Defense Department and the Air Force must continue to prioritize this retooling. Our adversaries see the opportunities; this is a race to the future.

Situational awareness in the next war will require the development and fielding of AI/ML to replace the limited and manpower-intensive processes across the Air Force ISR enterprise. Employing AI/ML against repetitive data exploitation tasks will allow the service to refocus many of its ISR Airmen on AI/ML-assisted data analysis and problem solving.

ISR and multi domain command and control … enabling decide and act

A headquarters-led initiative, with eyes toward a joint capability, is the creation of a collaborative sensing grid that operates seamlessly across the threat spectrum. Designs call for a data-centric network of multi domain platforms, sensors, and airmen that work together to provide persistent ISR. Equipped with manned and unmanned platform sensors capable of computing via AI/ML, these capabilities will link commanders to real-time information, plus tip and cue data from sensors-to-sensors, joint commanders, and weapons. This collaborative sensing grid is a foundational element for multi domain command and control . The vision of MDC2 is to outpace, outthink and outmaneuver adversaries.

Creatively and rapidly applying new technology to operational problems is a long-held characteristic of airmen. Our DCGS airmen are no different. Non-material solutions deserve as much attention as hardware. This pilot project is our vanguard initiative to prepare for rapidly changing future systems environments.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Gagnon is the director of intelligence at Air Combat Command. Lt. Col. Nishawn Smagh is a National Defense Fellow.