Small Wars Journal

Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance is Greater Than Aerial Surveillance

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 6:16pm

Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance is Greater Than Aerial Surveillance

Thomas Doherty

The Army continues to debate the use of the term Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR). This debate was triggered when ISR became a synonym for Unmanned Arial Surveillance (UAS). By focusing only on air assets we limit our current capabilities and simultaneously weaken our ground capabilities.

In the January 2012 edition of the Joint Publication 2-01 ISR is defined as, “An activity that synchronizes and integrates the planning and operation of sensors, assets, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination systems in direct support of current and future operations. This is an integrated intelligence and operations function.”[i]

In the 2004 FM 1-02 defined ISR as, “An enabling operation that integrates and synchronizes all battlefield operating systems to collect and produce relevant information to facilitate the commander’s decision making, also called ISR.”[ii] If we think about it within the context of those definitions the ISR manager is the collection manager and the collection manager should coordinate “… all battlefield operating systems to collect and produce relevant information ...”[iii] and not just rely on air platforms. Doing this will allow us to answer more of our Critical Commander’s Information Requirements by increasing our ability to leverage available assets to collect intelligence.

Widening What We Consider ISR

While stationed in Afghanistan I looked at several ‘ISR Synchronization Matrixes’ from the Battalion to Regional Command level. They are no different than the ones I used to see as an Observer Controller Trainer at the Joint Readiness Training Center. They are predominately a display organized by time, location, and function with absolutely no non-aerial assets shown. The typically ‘ISR Synch Matrix’ looks like the example in Figure 1. I propose that the ‘ISR Synch Matrix’ look like Figure B-3 Example ISR synchronization matrix from TC 2-50.5(Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Our ISR managers and collection managers are supposed to be the same person as such for the rest of the article the ISR manager will be referred to as the collection manager. Collection managers need a wider understanding of assets they have available to them. According to JP 2-01 the collection manager “develops a collection strategy to optimize the effective and efficient use of all available, capable, and suitable collection assets and resources.”[iv]

I recommend synchronizing ISR by capabilities, similar to how the requests are processed for air assets. It is very common to hear the ISR manager state ‘ISR for mission X was not supported.’ This almost always means no air assets were allocated. We would be more effective if, “Intelligence officers use ISR synchronization tools with staff input to synchronize the entire collection effort, including all assets the commander controls, assets of lateral units and higher echelon units and organizations, and intelligence reach to answer CCIRs.”[v] It seems that a basic knowledge of non-Military Intelligence branch assets is lacking. In the next section I will break down a few of the ground assets according to the categories used in Table B-2 in the TC 2-50.5.

Typical Ground Assets

Conventional Forces Soldier

Availability: The soldier is the most prolific organic intelligence asset to any unit and should be used as such. Although we often say ‘everyone is a sensor’ how often do we utilize this asset correctly? This is the most abundant ISR asset organic to every unit in the military we should leverage it more towards answering CCIRs.

Capability: All are equipped with the Mark 1 eye ball, self-propelled, dual mounted and can provide ‘Boots on the ground’ intelligence. Capable of photos, Full Motion Video (FMV), atmospherics, Biometrics, Key Leader Engagement (KLE), surveillance, boots on the ground battle damage assessments (BOGBDA), provide security for or emplace other assets, can be retasked to conduct kinetic operation based on real time intelligence, and a host of other non UAS capabilities.  The standard soldier on patrol can go places, see, and report things that no air asset can. It is able to report on the sights, sounds, and smells of an area. Unlike aerial assets it can report things like enemy recruitments signs on doors, graffiti, and interact with the local populace.

Sustainability: Without resupply this asset can be expected to stay on station roughly four days. If mounted they can add several days of station time depending on the cargo capacity brought in.

Vulnerability: Some disadvantages are the typical conventional unit patrol is an overt asset producing the “Observer effect”. The observer effect in reconnaissance is similar to its Physics equivalent. Meaning the act of observing will cause a reaction. When used asymmetrically this reaction can be tracked by other assets and help confirm or deny an enemy most likely/dangerous course of action. All ground assets can be engaged by the enemy with ground fire.

Unmanned Ground Sensors (UGS)

Availability: UGS are widely available in multiple forms. Most units can acquire UGS and the training to use them.  

Capability: UGS can be used to gather a variety of intelligence depending on the model. Most of the UGS emplaced by dismount soldiers include photo capability. Some of them are monitored by state side support assets, freeing the in theater personnel from going through the non-relevant intelligence, and being sent alerts for relevant intelligence.  Use it to replace air assets for maintaining constant eyes on specifics areas of interest. Asymmetrically, placing false ground sensors in an area specifically to be compromised can be used to cause a desired enemy reaction.

Sustainability: UGS have the advantage of being active for days or longer depending on the programmed reporting criteria and batteries.

Vulnerability: Some disadvantages include the fact that it is fixed if you point UGS at the wrong area then you will get information on the wrong area until it is moved. If you do not emplace UGS clandestinely they could be compromised. They have built in features for that contingency but your equipment may still be lost.

Battalion Scouts and Reconnaissance Surveillance Target Acquisition (RSTA) Squadrons

Availability: Battalion scouts and RSTA Squadrons are an asset available to different command levels however they have roughly the same capabilities.

Capability: These units have all the same capabilities of any basic unit. In addition when properly trained they provide an increased knowledge of proper reconnaissance techniques compared to line units. These techniques include proper vehicle identification, bridge load capacity, and better use of terrain and camouflage to prevent compromise. Some units have additional systems such as Long-Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System (LRAS3) drastically increasing their range and the different spectrums they can use to identify targets. Better able to camouflage they are less likely to create the observer effect.

Sustainability: Without resupply this asset can be expected to stay on station roughly four days. If mounted they can add several days of station time depending on the cargo capacity brought in.

Vulnerability: These ISR assets are vulnerable to the temptation of being misused as line infantry equivalents.

Special Forces Operational Detachments Alpha (SFODA) / Long Range Reconnaissance Surveillance Teams (LRST) / Regimental Recon Teams (RRT)

Availability: These teams are a limited in number and availability. However they bring a new level of capabilities to the ISR world.

Capability:  These units are capable of real time photo or FMV, atmospherics, biometrics, KLE, clandestine surveillance, BOGBDA, provide security for or emplace other assets conduct Direct Action (DA) on real time intelligence, Sensitive Sight Exploitation, the ability to apply specialized read on project, and a host of other non UAS capabilities. These teams are also able to utilize specialized insertion/ extraction techniques making them one of the few assets that have a chance of conducting their missions uncompromised. They are equipped with advanced communications equipment and capabilities. SFODAs can also conduct Special Reconnaissance (SR).

Sustainability: Without resupply this asset can be expected to stay on station roughly four days. If mounted they can add several days of station time depending on the cargo capacity brought in. If linked up with indigenous forces SFODAs can be expected to stay on station for extended periods.

Vulnerability: Their disadvantages are the same as line units. Both have security clearances and are capable of read on projects.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of organic assets available to the ISR/ collection manager. If we were to slightly restructure the collection manager a generic organization chart would look like Figure 3. This would allow for a request for intelligence gathering on a high value or payoff target to take into account non air assets and a synchronization of all assets could be achieved. 

Figure 3

When a target is identified the initial Warning Order (WARNO) is supposed to be written. A target profile is built with the initial intelligence available and a reconnaissance plan developed. This initial information normally put into WARNO 1. It is used to develop the reconnaissance plan and intelligence collection plan. This plan is then laid against other collection requirements based on the priorities of the commander. Including all the assets available to the collection manager will increases not only the option but the number of targets a unit can gather on at any specific time.

The collection manager then coordinates with the S-3 section for ground units to conduct patrols and reconnaissance’s to confirm or deny intelligence. The other forms of ISR could be synchronized to provide over watch and gather enemy reactions not detectable to the ground units.  As the target area is narrowed down, special teams emplace UGS and or conduct surveillance mission in unison with air assets. If actionable intelligence is confirmed with these units in place they can act as an interdiction, outer cordon or emergency assault force.


As a stereotypical ground pounder I thought I had effectively used the Socratic Method to create a more efficient collection system. In the process of conducting research to validate my thesis, I was surprised to find out I had talked myself from current common practice back into doctrine. By expanding ISR to its true meaning our ‘ISR’ options will increase and become more coordinated. This will expand our intelligence gathering capabilities in the present and prevent long term atrophy of our ground reconnaissance capabilities and therefore intelligence gathering capabilities in the future.     

Works Cited

(2010). Headquarters, Department of the Army, comp. TC 2-50.5 Intelligence Officer’s Handbook. Washington DC: Department of the Army.

(2004). Headquarters, Department of the Army, comp. FM 1-02 Operational Terms And Graphics. Washington DC: Department of the Army.

(2012). JP 2-01 Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff.

End Notes

[i] JP 2-01 Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012. Print.

p. GL-12

[ii] Headquarters, Department of the Army, comp. FM 1-02 Operational Terms and Graphics. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2004. Print. p. 1-102

[iii] Ibid, p. 1-102

[iv] JP 2-01 Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012. Print. p. III-14

[v]Headquarters, Department of the Army, comp. TC 2-50.5 Intelligence Officer’s Handbook. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2010. Print. P. B-6


About the Author(s)

Thomas Doherty has a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University and Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University. He has served in both the enlisted and officer ranks in both the National Guard and active duty Army. Originally commissioned through the Arkansas National Guard OCS program he was re-commissioned via a direct commission. He has served in multiple military occupational specialties. He has served in 3rd Ranger Battalion, 7th and 3rd Special Forces Groups, 51st LRS, JRTC, and other staff and instructor positions. He has deployed to Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan, Botswana, and Germany. Currently he is serving as a Special Forces officer. Follow him on Twitter at, @warfarebytom


Thomas Doherty

Sat, 07/26/2014 - 4:46am

I just got to watch our pentagon officials butcher the term ISR during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the 23rd. Even Pentagon officials cannot use their own terminology correctly. Something about a horse and water...........

Outlaw 09

Thu, 02/20/2014 - 12:45pm

Interesting that it takes a former OC to place a finger into a very deep BN/BCT staff issue that has been building since 2006 and has cost the US taxpayer a ton of USDs for defense contractors to "fix" which has not be "fixed".

The issue actually crosses two staff areas ie the targeting process and collection management tied to the targeting process. The largest single mistake that the Army has made was in the early 2000s when they eliminated the staff position Collection Manager and since 2009 via defense contractors the Army has again attempted to create a "collection manager" position without actually creating an official unit staff officer position outside of the three week CM "shake and bake" course at Ft. H.

The OC is correct in the assumption that the ISR Synch Matrix in most units focuses only on the air based assets and constantly "forget" what actual unit "organic assets" were available as depicted in Figure 2---try looking at a Target Synch Matrix---at the NTC through 2012 it was impossible in a number of BCT rotations to even find a TSM published by any BN or the BCT itself.

Some of the problems indicated by the author come from the fact that many of the new ISR assets through to the end of 2012 were air based and a defense contractor program ISR TOPOFF had been created by TRADOC G2 to increase the proficiency of BCTS in their use of these new assets thus in fact the units only thought in air assets.

In countless NTC BCT rotations in 2010 through 2012 it was almost impossible to get the BN or BCT to think about their own "organic assets" and place them into the ISR plan---or use say use Figure 2.

Maybe air assets are just more sexy than a LRS team or say a range finding laser being used by a Styyker recon team or say a HUMINT team---but it was almost impossible to get "organic assets" into a ISR matrix.

Why is the ISR matrix so critical ---it ties into the target synch matrix and targeting requires the full use and understanding of all ISR assets to include "organic".

The TRADOC G2 over the last four/five years has spent millions of dollars in trying to improve the ISR process in BNs and BCTs to include sending ISR "hold your hand teams" to AFG in 2013 and yet the problem is still as bad as it was in 2009.

Though great emphasis was placed on ISR planning training even TRADOC G2 seemed to not understand the targeting process and felt for years that ISR was not part and parcel of the targeting process. Maybe intel did not understand the artillery or vice versa.

It was not until late 2012 early 2013 that some of their training even reflected the targeting process intertwined with ISR.

So one had the unique problem of OCing the ISR planning side, but basically ignoring the targeting piece as that was not part of the defense contracting remit.

Now to the greatest staff failure of the Army since 2000 when they eliminated the Collection Manager---TRADOC G2 spent massive amounts of time working with unit ISR planners who usually had no prior experience or who had just come out of a three week CM course or who was the youngest 2ndLT or the last intel officer assigned prior to deployment.

Defense contractors spent hours building training for the ISR planner and the ISR process to include working with them at the training centers--while if one had simply taken the 1996 MOS manual for Collection Management the concept of "organic assets" would have been addressed already in 2009 at a great cost savings for the US taxpayer and the author of this article would not have to mention using Figure 2 in 2014.

Strange that the answer to a problem is sometimes directly in front of us, and yet it takes a defense contractor to create a job out of it costing the US taxpayer millions.

In the coming years of "smaller budgets" just maybe "financial responsibility" by DoD organizations will eventually reign supreme.