The Diverse Landscape of ISR Platforms

The Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) mission is one of our most important customer bases, and we talk about them often. One of the most common misconceptions is that ISR encompasses only aerial assets. We talk about the aviation side of ISR a lot, but there are many facets to the overall ISR picture. Let’s look at the diverse landscape of methods, tactics, and equipment that makes up ISR. 

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)

First and foremost, while ISR is used extensively in military operations, it is not an inherently military function. Numerous civilian agencies or organizations utilize ISR assets as a stand-alone operation or a supplement to their military peers and counterparts. 

So, what exactly is ISR? 

More than anything else, ISR is a process. It is the process of gathering, analyzing, and correctly disseminating information through the appropriate channels. The endgame of ISR is to provide accurate and timely information to the decision-maker. Now, these decision-makers operate throughout all levels of the government, both civilian and military. 

A satellite in orbit.

For example, a Garrison Commander at even the smallest installations has access to a staff of intelligence analysts and specialists to cultivate, research, and present their findings. Every commander in the military has access to some ISR assets, all the way up to the Joint Chiefs. On the civilian side, enormous swaths of personnel are wrapped up in ISR activities. 

Our interest in this article is discussing the different types of apparatus and methods to monitor areas of the AOR, region, or world.  

Airborne ISR Systems

Airborne ISR systems are one of our primary focuses at Greenwood Aerospace. We have proudly supported the U.S. Army & Air Force with their respective ISR missions. Airborne ISR assets are one of the most popular methods of ISR for a few reasons:

  • They are efficient: a single aircraft can cover hundreds or even thousands of square miles. 
  • Airborne ISR systems are diverse: they can be used for kinetic or non-kinetic threats, SIGINT gathering, and a host of other uses.
  • They are very fast and simple to move into the AOR or between AORs. The Army’s new ARTEMIS II takes this up several levels over the practical but much slower RC-12 Guardrail.  

There are basically two broad categories of airborne ISR assets that we talk about: manned and unmanned. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Since the turn of the century, unmanned aerial vehicles have been a go-to apparatus for aerial ISR. Some argue that we overused them, which is another discussion. But the truth is that UAVs carved out a highly useful and generally effective niche.

UAVs used for ISR have evolved significantly over the years to include all shapes and sizes. The battlespace can be observed at varying levels and altitudes, creating almost seamless imagery of the AOR.

UAVs used in the battlespace range from portable devices similar to commercial off-the-shelf (e.g., DJI) drones, fixed-wing portable drones (RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma, etc.), medium-size UAVs (MQ-1 Gray Eagle, MQ-9 Reaper), and large, high-altitude systems (RQ-4 Global Hawk). 

With this tiered approach to UAVs, warfighters can gather information from a few meters up, all the way to FL500, observing hundreds of miles of surface area. 

UAVs are used for several distinct missions in the military, including

  • Surveillance, 
  • Reconnaissance
  • And target acquisition
An MQ-9 is loaded on the ramp, waiting for a mission.

UAVs have also famously been used as a weapons-carrying platform for air-to-ground strikes, but this is not their primary purpose. The main advantage of using UAVs for ISR work is the ability to loiter almost indefinitely. The only limitation is fuel capacity. Also, UAVs can (and are) sent into areas where the risk posed to manned aircraft is too high. UAVs are flown into areas with too high a risk profile for manned aircraft. Also, small UAVs can operate at such low altitudes and airspeeds that no manned aircraft could effectively operate, creating a battlefield imagery profile to mitigate risk for ground warfighters substantially.

Manned Reconnaissance Aircraft

A more traditional approach to aerial ISR is manned reconnaissance aircraft. Manned aircraft have been used for reconnaissance since World War I and used with great effect since World War II. The jet age was particularly powerful for aerial reconnaissance. Jets fly much higher and much faster, making them an excellent platform for aerial imagery-gathering efforts. The RF-4 Phantom was a dual-service photography platform, while the Navy used RF-5 Vigilantes and RF-8 Crusaders on dangerous imagery-gathering missions. 

But imagery is not the only missing that manned ISR aircraft have been used for. The E-8 JSTAR has been a staple of the ISR community for decades and is being phased out by the E-11 BACN. Several iterations of the C-130 Hercules have been used for ISR work, and the Army has used the C-12 airframe for ISR work as the RC-12 Guardrail for nearly five decades. 

As intelligence-gathering technologies have evolved and warfare has shifted, so have the demands of the ISR fleet. The Army has selected Leidos to usher their ISR fleet into the next generation, adopting the Challenger 650 for deep ISR work

High-Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) Platforms

One of the most appealing factors about using UAVs is their ability to operate very high for very long durations. 

Aircraft that operate at high altitudes have special accommodations for pilots to breathe and function, whereas UAVs have no such requirement beyond the design limitations of the aircraft. A high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) vehicle can operate extremely high for many hours on end since the pilot has no limitations. Aircrews can swap out as frequently as needed, get up and stretch, and operate from remote locations. 

The downside is that HALE UAVs will eventually have to land and refuel without the ability to refuel aerially. The other two options for ultra-long endurance (satellites and airships) have no such requirements. But this may still favor the HALE concept for no other reason than that airships are slow and vulnerable, and satellites are in a fixed orbit. A high-altitude UAV like the Global Hawk is turbine-powered, so it can easily travel the globe quickly. Airships take many days to move from AOR to AOR and are highly sensitive to weather, especially winds.  

Ground-Based ISR Systems

While our focus is largely on aerial ISR assets, and while these may be the most prolific and visible assets, they are far from the only ISR resources on the battlefield. While intelligence gathered aerially is critical for mission planning, it is sort of a one-dimensional approach to gathering information. What the eyes in the eye can see is different from what eyes on the ground can see, and vice versa. Ground-based ISR assets are critical for combatant commanders, particularly ground commanders. 

Ground Surveillance Radars

It sounds like something from a Robert Heinlein novel, but ground surveillance radar is real. Ground surveillance radar is set up on a pedestal or a lower tower and angled down. It is designed to detect movements of large vehicles, troop formations, or basically anything else out of the ordinary. It is especially useful in garrison for physical security, especially in areas with visual limitations (chronic fog, dust storms, etc.).

Ground surveillance radars can be either fixed, usually on a low tower, or they can be mounted to a vehicle as a mobile unit. The major downside of a mobile ground surveillance radar system is the enormous energy demand of the unit. But, if the mission dictates monitoring a large area, ground surveillance radar should be added to the ISR mix. 

Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs)

In a vein similar to UAVs, you can find and utilize unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). 

UGVs are invaluable when a human presence is too inconvenient, dangerous, or impossible. Like UAVs, they are equipped with sensor packs for environmental observations. UGVs generally receive inputs from human sensor operators, although it is likely that UGVs (and UAVs, for that matter) will eventually operate autonomously. 

UGVs present an invaluable technological advantage to keep eyes (and weapons) in battle spaces where posting soldiers is too dangerous. Also, they can project power into remote areas as the only limitation is fuel. There are no stops for breaks or worries about running low on water or food rations. 

Fixed and Mobile Sensor Networks

Sensor networks are nothing new; Allied forces have been dropping sensors behind enemy lines for decades. It was a common practice for U.S. aircraft to drop seismic sensors on and around the Ho Chi Minh trail to listen for troop and material movements.  

The only real difference between our practices then and now is the technological difference. Our technology for sensing is lightyears beyond Vietnam-era technology, but the premise remains the same: place sensor networks in areas where enemy combatants are likely to operate. 

The purpose is also the same: gather approximate troop strength and equipment counts and types. 

Maritime ISR Platforms

The third dimension of all combat operations is the sea. Assuming that naval operations are a thing of the past is a great way to lose. Maritime operations are still absolutely necessary to establish and dominate the narrative. 

Surface-Ship ISR Systems

The backbone of the Navy is its surface warfare fleet. While the aviation branches are crucial, as are submarines, it all begins with surface warfare. 

The USS Michael Murphy at sea.

The surface warfare commanders must have valid ISR assets to work with to make the best decisions. But this doesn’t mean that the assets themselves will be surface-based; UAVs are one highly effective asset to monitor the surface. Also, the Navy is working to deploy unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), which will be used to monitor areas where human presence is not required or desirable. USVs are also a great option for anti-mine operations, which are notoriously dangerous. Taking the human element out of dangerous operations is always a win.  

Finally, there are hull-mounted sensors which are both radar and sonar. Wartime ships are some of the most advanced pieces of war machinery the world has ever seen. They are equipped to see in all conditions and can sense in all directions, including underwater. 

Submarine ISR Systems

Submarines are silent killers. They are the most invisible asset in the entire military, which gives them an incredible ability to gather information. Of course, they are also one of the most sensitive vehicles in the military. 

Submarines are equipped with a huge array of sensors and can sense in the following arrays:

  • Imagery intelligence (IMINT: conning tower has sensors and cameras)
  • Photographic intelligence (PHOTINT)
  • Visual intelligence (VISINT)
  • Electronic intelligence (ELINT)
  • Communications intelligence (COMINT)
  • Foreign instrumentation signals intelligence (FISINT)
  • Measurement and signals intelligence (MASINT)
  • Acoustic Intelligence (ACINT)

Space-Based ISR Systems

The fourth dimension of ISR work is space. Space affords an incredible opportunity for observation, although it is not the one-size-fits-all battlespace that it has been made out to be. 

IMINT (Imagery Intelligence)

Of course, the first thing we think of is the product we have in our pocket: imagery intelligence. 

Google Maps satellite image of Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota.

You can pull out Google Maps and find all kinds of imagery information, like the Ellsworth AFB, SD screenshot. IMINT is this, but far more powerful and with no information blocked out or blurred. It is incredible for observing huge areas, but since satellites are in regular orbits, targets can track these cycles and avoid being seen. Also, the intelligence can be outdated by the time the satellite is on station again. 

SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)

Space-based systems represent one of the most reliable and efficient ways to monitor global signals. Again, the major hurdle with satellites is their fixed orbits. But as with all ISR aviation work, no one single tool is used for the multifaceted data and intelligence collection approach. Space-based SIGINT is a tool to be used in collaboration with aerial assets and ground-based SIGINT assets.  

MASINT (Measurement and Signature Intelligence)

Satellites afford a type of intelligence that few other platforms can perform to the same scale or quality. Their view of huge areas is paramount for MASINT, given the satellites' height. 

MASINT is used to identify distinctive characteristics of their targets, such as source, sender, or emitter type and location, and identify the measurement and identification of the target. 

Tasking and Exploitation

The combatant commander is the end-user and needs ISR data packaged into a usable brief. It is up to his subordinates to task the ISR platform appropriately to gather the information. ISR packages are assembled depending on the mission profile. It might be a mix of space assets, aerial ISR assets, and ground-based assets. It is a system within systems. No two targets require the same ISR assets or the same approach. There are no generic ISR packages that fit every mission profile. 

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in ISR

It’s impossible to see a world in ISR without AI and machine learning being implemented into it. And why wouldn’t we? AI and machine learning are not Skynet; it is a way to streamline huge parcels of data from all-source information and create one cohesive operational picture. Humans have been doing this for a long time, but AI and ML create the shortest distance between raw data and a finished product. 

AI will be used to create multiple enemy courses of action that the combatant commander can use to study and analyze, and AI produces them quickly. 

Of course, AI has potential drawbacks in the C2 and ISR systems. For one, AI needs to have a contextual understanding of the situation when analyzing the operation picture. Also, it is susceptible to being deceived by human foes or generally being caught by surprise. Putting all of the ISR analysis eggs in the AI and ML basket is not prudent, at least not yet. 

Final Thoughts

ISR is a far more complex system of systems than we have time or space to delve into here. It is used in all dimensions of the battlefield, from ground and sea to air and space. ISR and ISR analysis is the difference between minor losses and potentially catastrophic failure. 

But gathering the information is only part of the equation. Analyzing is equally important and sometimes even more time-consuming and difficult. The warfighter requires a number of important assets to gather as much information as possible. To learn more about aerial ISR assets in the Army, we suggest you check out our articles on ARTEMIS and on their fixed-wing ISR platforms