Small Wars Journal

Resilient Command and Control of Airborne Intelligence Assets in the Theater Air Control System: A Contested, Degraded, Multi-Domain Imperative

Sat, 04/27/2019 - 6:36am

Resilient Command and Control of Airborne Intelligence Assets in the Theater Air Control System:  A Contested, Degraded, Multi-Domain Imperative


Jaylan Haley, John Long and Melissa Sidwell




Consistently, USAF senior leaders call for resilient command and control (C2) across all functions, domains and levels of war.[i]Airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations are not well-postured to succeed at the tactical level in major combat where air units support ground units, especially in a contested and degraded environment. The USAF is best postured to address this challenge because it is the service with a preponderance of air and C2 capabilities; additionally, the air component has inherent responsibilities of theater airborne intelligence collection management.[ii] For airborne intelligence assets, ISR Liaison Officers (ISRLOs) from the air component and joint ISR Tactical Controllers (ITCs) conduct close coordination with ground units to ensure effective use of high-demand, low-density capabilities resulting from years of lessons learned.[iii] Yet these ISR operators and the airborne assets they work with, lack a consistent, coherent and empowered framework to provide resilient C2 from the operational--or component level--to the tactical level of joint operations. Moreover, although a US Central Command (USCENTCOM) program exists, the USAF and joint community lack a theater and service-agnostic, training and certification system that ensures those who tactically control ISR assets are organized, trained and equipped to exploit the full range of platform capabilities.[iv] In major conventional operations, lack of a resilient C2 capability and appropriate forces that exploit our airborne ISR advantage may lead to future mission failure, one of many lessons from ongoing operations. 


Recently, an ISRLO conducted heliborne infiltration of a forward operating base alongside the 82nd Airborne Division, their aligned Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and ground based intelligence collection teams. The base’s isolation and time-constrained coalition presence meant limited communications. Due to constrained connectivity, the ISRLO could only use a direct video downlink from overhead assets, a bare bones chat function and a radio. With the base under regular attack from enemy forces, the intelligence professional leveraged supporting ISR crews to layer sensors for intelligence clarity and to reference historical data. In real-time, the ISRLO worked with ground intelligence teams and JTACs to fuse multiple streams of information, building a clearer picture of the environment towards ground commander priorities. Importantly, the ISRLO was able to focus collection on an internal report accessed from an Army AH-64 Apache--helicopter--crew that identified a previously unknown surface to air threat to low-flying aircraft. At the time, the report was not accessible by dislocated elements of the TACS. Were the ISRLO not duly positioned and empowered by appropriate commanders with which he built prior relationships to conduct tactical collection operations, the ground unit may have suffered significant losses from the unit’s new threat. This example is one of many that demonstrates the joint force need to empower personnel who are familiar with the capabilities and processes of ISR operations at a more tactical level, from planning through execution across components. In their empowered role, these professionals execute delegated C2 over appropriate assets to meet a supported commander’s needs.


In the current state of Multi-Domain Battle, and with limited assets, the US military must be at the cutting edge of battlefield management processes and training to replicate scenarios like the one above. To be clear, there should remain only one C2 structure. However, military strategists and tacticians must be prepared to address unique management requirements of low-density, high-demand ISR systems serving both operations and intelligence requirements. We assess that these systems can find harmony under the existing air control processes while acknowledging the AOC’s transition to a multi-domain operations construct by:  (1) bolstering the nascent Joint Air Ground Integration Center (JAGIC) with empowered ISR professionals like ISRLOs and (2) growing the TACP weapon system with ITCs as part of the organization’s intelligence capabilities. This article suggests tangible ways that current and future operators, staffs and commanders can implement change to bring about a future of resilient ISR C2.


At the operational level, the AOC is and should remain the senior echelon of air component C2. However, among other initiatives, we propose that the Air Force modify ISRLO authorities in existing air control organizations below the operations center to create a resilient, distributed control structure that enables ISR missions when the air component supports other components in a contested and degraded environment. Doctrine and theater guidance should reflect the proposed changes, across the spectrum of conflict. Like their fellow members of the air control party, ISRLOs control intelligence assets but on an ad hoc basis; this needs to be standardized and predictable for presentation to the joint community. Importantly, the first proposal is possible for the USAF today because the intelligence personnel are already embedded in the air control party, a key air-ground integration element at the tactical level where Airmen like JTACs reside. Additionally, the Air Force should continue work with joint partners to develop and implement a professionalized joint ITC corps focused on effective integration of airborne intelligence assets at the tactical level, for combat and non-combat contingencies.


ITC professionalization depends on resolution of issues surrounding the years’ long debate about the utility, employment and training of the intelligence professionals in full spectrum combat operations.[v] Within the joint community, senior leaders must now resolve this issue to enable future mission success. Fortunately, the joint force responded to its “intelligence people problem,” using ITCs in various scenarios across US Central Command (USCENTCOM), but they are not uniformly employed nor do the other combatant commands uniformly use ITCs.[vi] At present and on an ad hoc basis, commanders use intelligence controllers at the operational and tactical level to provide detailed planning, execution and assessment of collection missions; this is operational flexibility at its best but the defense department can do better. We propose that a reasonable addition of requisite ITCs organic to the TACP is a natural fit to the weapons system. For the joint community, ITCs should be sourced from the supported unit, augmented with Air Force ITCs and integrated into the joint air control system, as needed.[vii] More importantly, we argue that ITC training and certification as validated by the Joint Staff results in recognition of the ITC executed as part of the joint air C2 function. Together, ISRLOs and ITCs would form TACP-ISR teams that comprise the air arm’s consistent, coherent and empowered tactical C2 elements specifically to address insatiable ISR demand in a high threat and degraded environment.[viii]


If the USAF adopts the above changes, C2 can flow from the AOC at the operational level through the various echelons of the TACP at the tactical level, utilizing existing processes and communications technology to inspire more integrated, dynamic oversight of ISR assets. The proposed model acknowledges adjustment of the AOC into a multi-domain operations center construct with allowance for an “echelons below” structure of C2 in the emerging JAGIC as well as through the TACP, for partnerships with the land component.[ix] With few adjustments, the air component can duplicate these partnerships with the maritime component for added joint effects. Thus, the joint team can achieve deliberate, redundant and resilient C2 of ISR assets by bolstering pre-existing Air Force systems and TACP personnel. The requirement for this evolved system stems from two primary issues: the likely characteristics of future, contested battle environments and the presumed ineffectiveness of current ISR tasking responsibilities in C2 systems not well-postured to fight in a multi-domain, contested battlespace.[x]


The Need for Resilient C2 of ISR Assets


The inherent collection management responsibilities of C2 nodes, like the AOC, for ISR operations is a complicated process. Joint airborne ISR operations is broken into a variety of intelligence collection authorities and management responsibilities; the AOC plays critical roles in exercising these authorities. There are two primary authorities for intelligence operations, collection requirements management (CRM) and collection operations management (COM) authorities, usually delegated to the various component commanders--land, air, maritime--in joint operations. CRM is the authority to validate and prioritize a supported unit’s collection requests, COM is the authority to determine how requirements are answered with appropriate assets, in this case airborne capabilities. The AOC executes various aspects of CRM and COM.


The ISR Division (ISRD) of the AOC conducts requirements management for the air component and works with the Combatant Command and the other components to identify their collection requirements. The ISRD then matches prioritized requirements from the COCOM to airborne intelligence assets made available for tasking. This matching process of requirements to assets--COM--is something that is not duplicated below the AOC level in the current TACS. While the AOC temporarily delegates elements of COM to operators such as  ISRLOs through mechanisms like Mission Type Orders (MTO) and Layered Intelligence Operations (LIO), there are no enduring elements of the TACS-delegated COM below the AOC.[xi] In the absence of the air center, the other components and the COCOM will still have requirements that need to be matched to assets, even if not as optimally as the AOC or other distributed elements would be able to do at their full capacity.




Key Air Force and Army Components of the Theater Air Control System – Army Air-Ground Sytem


During major operations, the joint force expects limited communications and the need for mobility in response to emergent, versatile threat systems.[xii] Therefore, the TACS--depicted in Diagram 1--must be able to maintain air C2, on-the-move to achieve mission success.[xiii] At present, the air control structure is ill-suited to meet this challenge for ISR assets because of over-centralized command, control and execution of this joint function reliant on an extensive communications architecture in fixed positions like the AOC.[xiv] The C2 problem is particularly acute for airborne intelligence collectors because collection authorities do not extend, in an enduring manner, outside of the AOC. Thus, neutralization of the AOC and any similar contingency backups becomes a critical vulnerability to one of America’s greatest combat advantages, airpower. These communications, mobility and mission command vulnerabilities form the basis for why the USAF desperately needs a resilient C2 structure, particularly for ISR capabilities.  Weakened communications is chief among the most debilitating problems of contested, degraded operations.


The exquisite communications architecture used for current missions may be inaccessible or inoperable during future battles, requiring simpler hand-carried line of sight systems or other methods to fill the void. For instance, planning airborne ISR asset integration many times requires days or weeks of constant communication among geographically separated units. Once collection assets arrive in their operating area, they require brief and well-developed taskings for collection and reporting.[xv] Today, ISRLOs can and should be allowed to provide these capabilities in an enduring manner. For example, ISRLOs in Afghanistan work directly with airborne crews to dynamically collect intelligence towards critical requirements. Supported units rely on the battlefield Airmen to provide information like real-time infiltration area status, intelligence-based operational triggers and strike area situational awareness. As a result, oftentimes, communication for ad hoc planning and execution happens without any AOC interaction with high-context feedback from the crews. Later, ISRLOs backfilled the collection management C2 requirements with the AOC to ensure good stewardship of assets.


Unfortunately, TACP ISR teams are not empowered to do this in an enduring manner.  Without the development and implementation of consistent workarounds--technical and human--limited communications in chaotic contingencies can place significant constraints on planning and execution of ISR missions, removing a key force enabler for US forces. In the time sensitive and contested scenario above, the ISRLO could pass all tasks directly to the platform via radio, instead of through internet chat relays to accomplish dynamic collection requests. This is just one of many issues for which ground-based intelligence Airmen find utility.  In addition to limited communications in an MCO, those conducting C2 should be highly mobile.


The AOCs are fixed in publicly acknowledged locations making them lucrative targets; this is a major problem in light of ballistic missile, long range artillery, infiltration and electromagnetic threats.[xvi] Further, mobile and highly capable surface-to-air missile systems can target manned-airborne elements of the TACS like the E-3 Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) and E-8 Joint Surveillance, Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) causing some of our coalition partners to even question the applicability of these assets for future high-threat contingencies.[xvii]Tasking organizations must be ready to conduct the matching of intelligence requirements with airborne ISR assets as well as the overarching targeting process, while on the move. Moreover, once assets are on-station, those organizations with C2 responsibilities must have the situational awareness and direct communications, albeit limited, with tasked assets to ensure effective integration with joint forces as well as the ability to assist the assets’ movement and maneuver through complicated airspace.


The only TACS components postured to deal with a variety of threats while on the move are the TACP and Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) which exploit ground unit alignment, providing cost-effective and well-defended C2 nodes. As members of the TACP, ISRLOs already provide basic ISR tasking functionality at the operational and tactical level of planning and execution; they can do so on the move, embedded with the land component. ISRLOs advocate on behalf of their supported unit to the broader collection enterprise, forging relationships and ensuring effective and efficient ISR execution as the air component’s integrated intelligence professional. Again, the only elements of the TACS able to address likely problems in a contested, degraded environment are not empowered to conduct all aspects of C2 for ISR assets, especially for collection management.


With few modifications to existing training and field systems, the joint force can leverage USAF CFACC ISRLOs to operate in austere conditions who can leverage airborne ISR assets, including COM in varied contingencies. Further, with an increase of ITC-capable intelligence professionals, the USAF can posture itself to provide augmentees for resilient C2 of airborne ISR assets for the joint force. The USAF can buttress its C2 system by:  (1) empowering the TACP ISR team, particularly the ISRLO, with authorities ensconced in doctrine and reflected in combatant command guidance and (2) professionalizing the ITC corps with requisite authorities and training, coordinated with the joint community. Solidifying these positions, connections and authorities now ensures the joint force can exploit capabilities and expertise when they are needed. In these ways, existing C2 organizations can exploit matured and maturing capabilities brought by ISRLOs and ITCs to overcome gaps in the collection management aspect of C2 in various elements of the TACS.


Towards Resilient ISR C2 in the TACS:  ISRLO Empowerment


Today, the TACP is embedded with Army units and is the primary entity responsible for air control at echelons below the AOC. The ASOC is the bridge between the TACP and the AOC, primarily for close air support operations. Doctrinally, the air support center provides C2 for air operations supporting land component units; importantly, the support center does not exercise any collection management authorities over intelligence missions.[xviii] In part, the lack of empowerment is a result of  intelligence personnel within the ASOC serving  in an intelligence support role as opposed to collection operations, these functions have a distinct delineation.[xix] Around 2010, the Army and Air Force began development of a concept known as JAGIC.  The joint organization is a scalable, multi-role mission oriented operations center--sometimes used as a “strike cell”--that ensures better integration of air assets into the joint fires scheme of maneuver, and attempts to span across a spectrum of multiple combat capability domains. Developers of the concept recognized differences in intelligence roles, integrating ISRLOs into the center in an operations capacity.




Close Air Support Immediate Request Process


ISRLOs in the center--sometimes called “a strike cell”--are a key enabler to airborne intelligence operations because of personality-based relationships they develop with supported and supporting unit commanders, staffs and operators. This ad hoc relationship-building works in a permissive environment when there is time to cultivate relationships. During a major, potentially contested, operation there may not be time to cultivate a relationship; rather, the joint force should develop doctrinal, deliberate, transferrable authorities that can adapt to the volatile battlespace. JAGIC’s driving principle is that “when airspace control is combined with the joint integration of intelligence, targeting and fires, the [supported land] commander can employ [ISR] assets such as unmanned, fixed and rotary wing aircraft effectively.”[xx] Towards this goal, JTACs who conduct airspace control sit next to the ISRLO that exercise COM-like authorities within a given battlespace. With COM-like authorities, the intelligence professionals work with their Army counterparts to move assets within and across land unit boundaries to best meet the needs of the supported commander. Additionally, ISRLOs sometimes exercise Sensor Tasking Authority (STA) for specific aircraft and missions that entail more detailed tactical direction of assets.[xxi] The intelligence professional’s proximity and coordination with the JTACs within the integration center ensures seamless transitions in mission-types and integration with ground units.


Joint forces validated variations of the JAGIC concept during recent contingencies like Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) where ISRLOs exercised control of ISR assets working with JTACs to provide devastating effects on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In some cases, the land component commander allowed air component ISRLOs to exercise COM-like authority over ground component ISR assets to optimize joint collection efforts. These achievements are the result of a series of personal relationships, not as the result of a deliberate and formalized process.  ISRLOs exercised COM-like authorities because they gained trust, not because they were inherently provided control authorities. Worse still, personality based successes are recorded as distractions from the ISRLO mission, instead of consolidated into best practices for future conflict. While relationship-building is admirable in a permissive environment, there will likely not be time for such efforts during a major conflict.


ISRLOs are the best organized, trained and equipped personnel in the TACP to assume COM, as an aspect of C2, at echelons below the AOC when the air component supports the land component. The ISR professional’s close proximity to ground forces and understanding of the ground scheme of maneuver often provide them with situational awareness of the battlefield from a ground perspective, but also best postures them to make informed decisions regarding ISR asset placement and focus of effort as an Airman. Direct access to ground forces give ISRLOs the best understanding of desired collection requirements and the assets needed to address those requirements within the air component. Moreover, ISRLOs are present during the planning process to understand the aligned unit’s intent and courses of action as well as the unit’s organic ISR capabilities. The ISR professionals should be equipped with the authorities necessary to provide the most appropriate collection through control of sensor management, placement, and dynamic re-tasking to preempt and pursue real time joint operations. Further, with the assistance of ITCs, who are trained and certified to control airborne ISR assets, the TACP ISR team can make JAGIC and resilient ISR C2 a deliberate, repeatable reality. This can be done by incorporation of appropriate COM authorities for the TACP ISR team within joint doctrine and theater airborne intelligence tasking guidance.[xxii]


Updating ISRLO core missions in Air Force doctrine and regulations to reflect legacy roles as well as the ISRLO’s capability to exercise COM on behalf of the air component commander is the best way to codify ISRLO successes and make ISR C2 truly resilient. Today, ISRLOs frequently move throughout their aligned unit’s tactical elements to balance their current role of advising, assisting and educating.[xxiii] Often, aligned units use ISRLOs to task airborne intelligence assets to achieve their commander’s intent. In these situations, the intelligence professionals frequently conduct detailed ISR coordination and exercise sensor tasking--control--over ISR assets as well as the organizations that analyze and convert collected data into actionable intelligence. During real world operations and exercises, ISRLOs perform various functions in austere environments, with limited communication bandwidth that mirrors expected conditions in a contested and degraded battlespace. It should logically follow that ISRLO roles align with their counterparts in the TACP weapon system: Advise, Assist, Control.[xxiv]  This is the most fundamental and necessary change to C2 and intelligence regulations to bring about a resilient framework. With ‘Control’ as their first responsibility, ISRLOs can work with the TACP Commander as the forward echelon of the joint air commander’s C2 enterprise; together, they can better leverage Airmen in the conduct of joint fires and airborne intelligence collection as envisioned under the JAGIC concept of employment.


Further, the ISRLO mission re-alignment answers Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Air Combat Command (ACC) requests for innovation across multiple domains and functions in contested and degraded environments.  The proposed change updates C2 procedures that delegate COM of ISR-tasked assets to the appropriate tactical element, when necessary. Furthermore, in the course of collecting intelligence to answer a supported commander’s information needs, the ISR team can work with ground intelligence professionals to seamlessly build targets and pass them to the JTAC, so that the joint fires mission can be quickly and effectively accomplished. Additionally, in a contested environment, airborne intelligence assets may need to conduct collection sometimes to answer a commander’s information needs which may not always end in a strike.  For instance, a commander may need to know if an enemy armor unit is moving into a certain position; the ISRLO can help commanders decide to avoid the enemy unit for better positioning during a later engagement or some other course of action like shifting ISR assets. Regardless of the commander’s decision, the ISR team is already there to work with the joint team. More importantly, all members of the joint team would have an understanding of ISRLO authorities that are consistent and coherent as ensconced in doctrine and theater guidance.


Assigning ISRLOs the ‘control’ mission in doctrine and operational guidance can be accomplished on the battlefield today with current technology, more discriminatory recruiting efforts as well as necessary adjustments to training and quality checks. Moreover, the “liaison officer” title is just that, a title.  It can be changed to reflect the update in mission.  Considering the advancing multi-domain command and control is a CSAF priority undergoing a much-needed cultural shift, bolstering ISR-C2 capabilities is well-timed.[xxv]Additionally, ISRLOs benefit from tests and lessons learned from on-going operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Equipping ISRLOs with slightly more communications and tactical computers, similar to other members of the TACP, provides multiple immediate benefits. The technical knowledge for the radios used by ISRLOs needed to exercise COM is already present within the TACP, since JTACs and their apprentices are radio experts. ISRLOs are already required to train on basic radio operation and maintenance as members of the TACP; their level of training would need to deepen. Using small, tactical computers and humvees with an array of antenna, ISRLOs could replicate much of their operations center TTP on-the-move using vehicles already assigned to the TACP’s intelligence shop under the current outfitting guidance. ISRLO empowerment is one critical component to a more resilient C2 structure for ISR assets, ITC professionalization and air control integration makes up a second critical pillar.


Towards Resilient ISR C2 in the TACS:  ITC Professionalization


In contested operations, ISRLOs will likely be in even higher demand than they are during counter-insurgency type operations given the complexities of a degraded environment. In such scenarios ITCs can fill-the-gap, but, to do so, they should be organized, trained and equipped in a deliberate, coherent and consistent manner. The ITC position currently means different things, depending on which command fields them. This poses a significant challenge to resilient C2 in permissive and contested operations.[xxvi] We refer to ITCs as “a small cadre of primarily intelligence operations personnel who are trained specifically to integrate and coordinate tactical airborne intelligence collection.”[xxvii] For conventional operations, ITCs are integrated into the lower echelons of the air control system under the auspices of the ISRLO.  Like ISRLOs, they are collocated with the supported commander to which ISR assets are tasked, should have a significant understanding of ISR capabilities and employment techniques, and they are delegated STA as needed. At the tactical level, they generally possess the necessary skills to complement ISRLOs in execution of COM. There are a variety of situations where this teaming could prove crucial in a contested environment.

For instance, if the AOC has limited operability due to incidental or deliberate blackouts, the TACP ISR team could implement techniques that help mitigate any effects on the ISR C2 structure. Temporary cells within the ASOC or JAGIC could be deliberately stood up to assume COM responsibilities for short periods of time, during emergencies and when the AOC needs to focus on other air-related priorities. ISR units relying on the AOC for tasking and direction would take direction from the small ground-based ISR teams to provide tailored instructions, in some cases resembling MTOs, to achieve the needed ISR mission. While the AOC’s backup organizations stand-up, ISR operations can seamlessly continue and, when ready, COM can be transferred to the appropriate node.[xxviii] Regardless of what the joint force faces in major operations, the ISR C2 structure must continue to function. The small teams can distribute COM in manageable segments, allowing the AOC and its backup organizations to slowly reallocate authorities once the center’s systems come back online.


Airborne ISR assets may arrive on-station according to predictable allocations; in particular, FMV assets may be able to maintain unchallenged orbits but the AOC may be unable to retask assets. While fixed-wing manned, assets like AWACS and JSTARS have ISR-C2 capabilities, they are constrained by sortie time limits that do not apply to grounded airmen. Furthermore, they are not collocated with the units to which the ISR assets may be tasked so they do not share an understanding of the supported unit’s collection requirements. In these situations, the TACP-ISR teams would work through their positions in the ASOC or JAGIC to provide C2 for allocated platforms, communicating directly with crews, if possible, through radio traffic like the Joint Air Request Network, to task collection appropriately.[xxix] Products or voice reports could be transmitted via radio networks. ISRLOs and ITCs would use common lexicon of brevity terms and C2 procedures for scenarios when robust networks including mIRC and e-mail systems, are no longer available. Further, because the TACP-ISR teams have a deft understanding of the various specifications of the platforms, ISRLOs and ITCs could use the platform and sensor capabilities to enable alternative communications methods and meet additional mission essential requirements. The process to organize, train and equip ITCs to overcome issues mentioned above and exploit future gains requires greater and more nuanced attention and action. More specifically, joint ITC professionalization will need sister service concurrence and additional manpower with a Joint Staff-approved training process.


We assess that the addition of joint ITCs, as a standard facet in the existing TACS structure will be critical to the future success of US forces; moreover that quality, certified ITCs are a vital and hotly-awaited commodity. Organizationally, each service should source its own ITCs. Logically, for the USAF, if ITCs were to embed with the TACP in order to better control, advise and assist for supported ground commanders, they will reside at or be deployed to the appropriate TACP units. ITCs from outside the USAF can be embedded or deployed into the TACP as augmentees under the direction of the unit’s senior ISRLO, ensuring TACP-ISR integrity in the context of providing resilient C2 for airborne ISR assets as an air component function. This organizational construct also portends that ISRLOs within the TACP assume overall responsibility for development of control procedures for ISR assets below the AOC.


In much the same way that the TACP works with other service representatives to establish and proliferate CAS procedures, we argue that the TACP should be designated as the lead organization for coalescing airborne ISR C2 procedures at levels below the AOC. Among other things, this means that ISRLOs and ITCs within the TACP would work with service representatives to develop and proliferate joint standards for ITCs. A multi-service conference or board led by USAF ISRLOs and ITCs would be empowered to provide the Joint Staff with certification requests and requirements for validation. After validation, each service determines how it will best achieve joint standards; these standards would flow from a joint training pipeline or curriculum.


In 2017, GEN Votel, commander of USCENTCOM officially recognized the importance of these intelligence operators; he designated Air Forces Central as lead for the pipeline to produce them for his command; resultantly, an excellent course was developed and implemented.[xxx] Though a COCOM-focused ITC training pipeline is essential for today’s operations, the joint community must look to the sustainability of such a model and its applicability to global requirements. A long-term, joint training program must be comprehensive to ensure that a “just in time” training model does not become the standard for ITCs as it once did for ISRLOs before the USAF implemented a standard, theater-agnostic pipeline. Elements of a replicable ITC training system include:  (1)  ITC training tailored to the level of warfare where the ITC will be certified to serve, whether operational or tactical, (2)  an instructor cadre for long-term implementation and (3) a home station ITC role to prevent skill atrophy  when not in a deployed environment.


To be sure, readers should not misconstrue operational-level and tactical ITC operations.  Importantly, operational level standards will differ from those ITC-certified intelligence personnel operating in the field at the tactical level. ITCs operating out of the AOC or from the COCOM headquarters do not execute the same mission as those in the field. Indeed, some long-time AOC operators argue that the ITC function already exists within the AOC organization as executed by the ISR and combat operations divisions, like the ISR Operations Duty Officer (ISRODO).[xxxi] We assess that “ITCs” at the operational level is a question that should be adjudicated by the AOC community. This article deals specifically with ITCs below the AOC.


We recommend the joint community agree to a single curriculum where all ITCs at the tactical level and their cadre are trained and certified. Agreements would be the result of multi-service discussion that meet COCOM requirements and are validated by the Joint Staff. The outcome of an ITC training program coupled with relevant continuation training will be joint ITCs certified to execute ISR C2 at the most practical echelon below the AOC. Commanders will be provided with appropriate ISR advice and control while echoing and supporting the partner unit’s mission objectives. For a robust ITC pipeline that enables resilient C2, the most basic resources required are money, time, and future tactical equipment similar to the ISRLOs, the right personnel, and most importantly, empowerment.  Through the training of qualified individuals who are able to harness not just ISR assets, but layered intelligence effects, the joint force can gain and maintain the forefront of resilient ISR operations.


For the USAF, the TACP-ISR community should incorporate Air Force ITCs and conduct currency maintenance standards. While this arrangement necessarily portends a construct of pairing ITCs with ISRLOs similar to JTACS with ALOs, during deployed operations, training ITCs becomes more streamlined and can be done from varied locations. For ITCs stationed at a TACP unit full-time, the TACP community with a full complement of combat-ready ISRLOs and ITCs would ensure continuation and currency training, to include required real-world exercises and simulator controls to optimize ISR C2 and operations. Moreover, the training can include opportunities to implement ASOCs and JAGIC in the field with partnered ground units before deployment. Resultantly, when USAF ITCs hit the battlefield at the tactical level, they are trained to do so having built important relationships with TACP and ground unit teammates and perhaps even other relevant USAF units in the process before major hostilities begin.




The USAF is well known for its precision strike capability as well as space and airborne ISR expertise. With this consideration, a resilient ISR C2 model that offers embedded expert joint controllers for leveraging ISR C2 capabilities is appropriate; in other words, a single, integrated structure that fully empowers the TACP through its ISR team to execute C2 of ISR missions. This ensures that the USAF’s expertise is leveraged and optimized through streamlined and synchronized joint operations. In the TACS, the TACP should represent and provide the tactical integration of air support to ground forces. Traditionally, this entailed CAS capabilities calling for detailed integration of precision strikes, with a secondary mission of directed electronic fires. With the integration of resilient ISR C2, the joint force will be equipped with experts who can provide the best situationally-informed near real time intelligence control echoing the overarching definitive directives of the supported commander. Further, future ISR ideas like swarm, space- and cyber-enabled technologies possess a C2 conduit through which to apply when they are ready for implementation.


Over the past 30 years, America’s competitors and enemies witnessed and learned from the mistakes of those who chose to engage in combat with US forces. They observed that, increasingly, Americans fight as a joint force, are heavily dependent on technology, and that they typically do well when they are uncontested in one or more domains.[xxxii] American competitors and enemies will do all they can to remove or limit these advantages. We can see it in the fielding of high-end SAM systems, the testing of anti-satellite capabilities and the use of various cyber technologies. American strategists and tacticians must be one step ahead of these limitations. A good way to do that is by exploiting and bolstering organizational structures, competencies and capabilities already at our disposal; one area where this is extremely critical is in building resilient ISR C2 systems. These systems can be merged under the existing TACS by transforming the AOC into a multidomain capability, bolstering the JAGIC with empowered ISR professionals like the ISRLOs who are already there and by building up the TACP weapon system with ISRLOs and the ITCs in their ranks. This article suggests tangible ways that current and future operators, staffs and commanders can implement change to bring about a future of resilient ISR C2.


End Notes

[i] Ben Hazen and Ian Slazinik, “Global Command and Control for the Future Operating Concept,” Air and Space Power Journal (Winter 2017): 34-35,

[ii] Joint Staff, JP 3-30 Command and Control of Joint Air Operations, Department of Defense, II-10, III-26 - III-27, accessed 1 August 2018 from  The TACS is the commander, Air Force Forces (COMAFFOR) mechanism for commanding and controlling component air, space and cyberspace power. It consists of airborne and ground elements to conduct tailored C2 of aerospace and cyber efforts during military operations, including air defense, airspace control, and coordination of space mission support not resident within theater. The structure of the TACS should reflect sensor coverage, component liaison elements, and the communications systems required to provide adequate support. As an organic Air Force system, element of the TACS remain under OPCON of the COMAFFOR. In multinational commands, the name and function of certain TACS elements may differ, however, multinational air components have similar capabilities.  The air operations center (AOC) is the senior C2 element of the TACS and includes personnel and equipment of necessary disciplines to ensure the effective planning and conduct of component air and space operations (e.g., communications, operations, ISR). The AOC is designed to expand with joint augmentation to form the JAOC when the COMAFFOR is designated by the JFC as the JFACC.

[iii] Multi-service, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Optimization, Air Land Sea Application Center (April 2015), 5, 21-65.

[iv] Certification involves training followed by a certifying event administered by an instructor.  Qualification involves training with qualifying events administered by an evaluation.  Additionally, qualifications require mandated currency and continuing training requirements that must be met by instructors and evaluators.

[v] Adam Young, “Employing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance: Organizing, Training, and Equipping to Get It Right,” Air and Space Power Journal 28, no. 1 (January–February 2014): 26–44,; and Mike Snelgrove and Jaylan Haley, “Ricochets and Replies: Employing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnais- sance: Organizing, Training, and Equipping to Get It Right,” Air and Space Power Journal 29, no. 2 (March–April 2015): 166–70, -Apr-2015.pdf.

[vi] Jaylan Haley, “Putting the Right Man in the Loop: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Tactical Controllers,” Air and Space Power Journal (Spring 2017): 41-50,

[vii] United States Air Force, Program Action Directive 15-06 Tactical Air Control Party Weapon System.

[viii] Joint Air Ground Integration Center Handbook, Center for Army Lessons Learned (January 2017), 5-7; ATP 3-91.1 The Joint Air Ground Integration Center (June 2014).  The ISRLO is already recommended, in an advisory position, within the JAGIC.

[ix] Dwight Fullingim, “Resilient Multi-Domain Command and Control: Enabling Solutions for 2025 With Virtual Reality,” Air University (16 April 2017): 33,; David Perkins and James Holmes, “Multidomain Battle: Converging Concepts Toward A Joint Solution,” Joint Forces Quarterly 88 (2018): 54 - 57,; Jeffrey Hukill and Daniel Mortensen, “Developing Flexible Command and Control of Airpower,” Air and Space Power Journal (Spring 2011): 56-57,

[x] Jason Brown, “Strategy for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,” Joint Forces Quarterly 72 (2014): 45-46,

[xi] Jaylan Haley, “An Evolution in Intelligence Doctrine: The Intelligence,Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Mission Type Order,” Air and Space Power Journal 28, no. 1 (January to February 2014): 38,

[xii] Trent Carpenter, “Command and Control of Joint Air Operations through Mission Command,” United States Army War College, 2014, 19-22,

[xiii]  JP 3-30 Command and Control of Joint Air Operations, 10 February 2014, II-10; JP 3-09.3 Close Air Support, 25 November 2014, II-5; Stephen Price, “Close ISR Support: Re-Organizing the Combined Forces Air Component Commander’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Processes and Agencies,” Naval Post Graduate School, 2009, 219,

[xiv]“Command and Control of Joint Air Operations through Mission Command,” 12; David Deptula, “A New Era for Command and Control of Aerospace Operations,” Air and Space Power Journal (July - August 2014): 10-11,

[xv] Michael Hostage, “21st Century Warfare: The Combat Cloud,” Air Force Association Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, September 2014,

[xvi] Air Forces Central Command, Combined Air Operations Center” Air Force Link, July 2017,

[xvii] Justin Bronk, The Future of Air C2 and AEW E-3 Sentry, Threat Technologies and FutureReplacement Options,Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, June 2017, ix,

[xviii] JP 3-30 Command and Control of Joint Air Operations, II-9.

[xix] “Putting the Right Man in the Loop: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Tactical Controllers,”

[xx] Annex 3-03 Counterland Operations, United States Air Force, March 2017,

[xxi] Multi-service, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Optimization, Air Land Sea Application Center, April 2015,

[xxii] Doctrine documents that should be updated include Joint and Service-Specific publications of the -2 (Intelligence) and -3 (Operations) Series.

[xxiii] David McCowan, “Air Force Provides Army Dangerous Liaisons,” Air Force Link, 2012,

[xxiv] Joseph Swafford, “TACP Connects Army to Airpower in Afghanistan,” Air Force Link, 2015,

[xxvi] Jerry Gay, Moderning C2 of ISR - Part 2: Breaking ISR’s Industrial Age Chains,” Over the Horizon Journal, 2017,            

[xxvii] “Putting the Right Man in the Loop: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Tactical Controllers,”

[xxviii] Kristin Lynch, John Drew, Robert Tripp, Daniel Romano, Jin Yi and Amy Maletic,”An Operational Architecture for Improving Air Force Command and Control Through Enhanced Agile Combat Support Planning, Execution, Monitoring, and Control Processes,” Rand Corporation (2014): 18, accessed from

[xxix] Michael Grunwald, “Transforming Air Force ISR for the Long War and Beyond,” Air University (2009): 14, accessed from

[xxx] “Moderning C2 of ISR - Part 2: Breaking ISR’s Industrial Age Chains”; Jerry Gay, “Drop Zone: Modernizing ISR C2,” Over the Horizon Journal, 2017,

[xxxi] “Close ISR Support: Re-Organizing the Combined Forces Air Component Commander’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Processes and Agencies,” 21-37.

[xxxii] “Multidomain Battle: Converging Concepts Toward A Joint Solution.”


About the Author(s)

Major John Long is a career USAF officer with assignments in the Tactical Air Control Party, Remotely Piloted Aircraft, joint combat operations and interagency partners.

Captain Melissa Sidwell is an U.S. Air Force officer with multiple assignments including in the Tactical Air Control Party and Air Operations Center and to the U.S. Central Command area of operations.

Major Jaylan Haley is an instructor at the Air Command and Staff College in the Department of International Security.  He is a career USAF intelligence officer with multiple assignments across the Air Force and the joint community, including 3 deployments in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.