Lt. Gen. Robert Otto is seen during an interview at the Pentagon on Jan. 23. (Mike Morones/Staff)
One lasting impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has been the growth of the Pentagon’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. Previously seen as a support service, ISR is now viewed as indivisible from combat operations around the globe.
Charged with leading the Air Force’s ISR strategy forward is Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR. He talked with Defense News in January about ongoing challenges from budget cuts and contested environments alike.
Q. When you look to the next decade of ISR, what themes will emerge and how do you prepare for them?
A. Some of the next decade is going to look very similar to what the past decade has looked like. Counterterrorism is still going to be one of our mission sets.
Where I think it will change is the president has talked about a pivot toward the Pacific. That implies to me that we need to rebalance and optimize our integrated ISR capabilities. We believe we are overinvested in permissive ISR, and we are probably underinvested to deal in contested or highly contested scenarios. In an environment where budgets are certainly not going to be growing, there needs to be a realignment of our means. I talk about optimizing because I do believe there are things we can do that don’t cost a lot of money. We talk about normalizing everything from cyber to space and human intelligence.
Q. Cyber, space and human intelligence — are these the big focuses?
A. Cyber, there has been a lot of talk, almost daily, about the National Security Agency. I think America is starting to appreciate, with the exploitation of people’s personal data from Target, just how powerful that domain is; so the Air Force is investing quite heavily in cyber, in support of these national mission forces that we are standing up for US Cyber Command.
There are assets and capabilities in space that we have been either underutilizing or that we have not integrated as well as we could into this holistic [ISR] picture. The Air Force essentially disinvested in human intelligence in the past decade. So in the next decade, I think we recognize that we need to have some investment. It will be modest, but we do need human intelligence.
Q. Do you have an example of how you can optimize current operations?
A. There are times today when we have satellites taking pictures of U-2s and Global Hawks taking pictures of MQ-9s or MQ-1s taking pictures of Ravens. You can literally see a stack of ISR that is focused in the same general area. Is there a way that we can be more effective or efficient with the resources we have? I believe the answer is yes. I believe we can deconflict what we are doing from a national standpoint, from what we are doing from an airborne ISR standpoint. Then within airborne ISR, I think we can look at that whole portfolio and find ways to maximize it. So we have assets that we have put into the theater where we have soldiers and Marines at risk. I think there’s general recognition that they are somewhat suboptimized.
Q. Each service has its own ISR fleet. Could we see some consolidation between the services?
A. I think we would have to be really specific with it. The Air Force’s niche is that we supply theater-level ISR, just like we do theater air power. The Navy’s first priority is protecting the fleet and combat operations from the sea, which are necessarily different than operations over land. And the Army is focused primarily on direct support of their brigades and divisions. So the focus of the three services is different. But I think as budgets get tighter and tighter, there’s utility in continuing to look at this and see, are there areas where we have redundancies that we can reduce?
Q. Is increased budget stability giving you the freedom to plan the future of ISR in a more coherent manner?
A. It is, and it is also giving me the opportunity to figure out what’s really core to us. One of the areas that’s core is analytics, and the kind of analytics that we need to be successful in a contested, or highly contested, environment are very different than what makes us successful in counterterrorism. My sense is that we are not as prepared from an analytic standpoint as we need to be. We need to do a reset on analysis, and that will involve everything from doctrine to training, to investment, to exercises, to collaboration, to bringing in some of what space can offer. So that’s an example of an area where we are going to see change. I mentioned that we probably need to look at some different platforms than what we have.
Q. What other areas need to be developed?
A. It is really five things. You have the platforms and analysis, which we have talked about. There’s the data path — do we have the data paths that will be required in contested and highly contested situations? What are we doing to work on assured communications? There is the sensor that rides on the platform; I think there is certainly areas there where we can improve. If you look at standoff ranges, then you need much greater, more powerful sensors than what we have today. And then the fifth one is data storage and retrieval. Think about the price of sending megabytes of data downrange. We can’t ignore how we access that data, how we meta-tag that data, how we make sense of that data.
Q. Are there research and development areas you think need to be a focus for ISR going forward? And how do you fund those in this budget environment?
A. One of the areas that we believe we need to be focusing on is on penetrating ISR, so that is certainly an area that I will advocate we devote some attention to. In this environment, it is a tough case to make. Essentially, all of the easy decisions have been made. We are left with difficult tradeoffs. That is healthy, but it also means we have to be very persuasive in order to get the resources we need.
Q. Is there enough guidance from the service to industry to help develop new technologies?
A. I think that to the extent that we can be clear about the direction that we want to go and it allows industry to focus their IRAD, their [independent] research and development dollars, ultimately we both win. The military gets a product, perhaps sooner, because there’s already been research and development going on, at the best possible price because the overhead for the company is focused and not wasted. I think that is great. And we try to help in that regard.
Q. The need for survivable air assets in a contested environment is forcing a move from the 65 combat air patrol figure for MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reapers. What will that look like going forward?
A. It’s lower than 65, significantly. The requirements, if you take requirements to be what combatant commanders will ask for, probably take you north of 65. So we are entering a time when there’s a disconnect between what the combatant commanders desire and are asking for, and what our nation can afford. As I look at this whole equation, I would say that 65 is much more than what we can afford holistically and we will ask for a significant reduction in order to be able to invest in highly contested scenarios. There will be debate over that number, and that is kind of what’s going on now.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Global Hawk versus the U-2?
A. We have long maintained that the platforms are in many ways complementary, and if we could afford to keep both, we would. Kind of like the 65 CAP discussion, I believe we are at the point where there are only hard choices and we cannot afford to keep both. This is another area where there is a robust debate over which platform should we keep as we go forward. [Overall] I think that this is why we need a penetrating platform. The U-2 certainly has a defensive system that allows it to perhaps be used in a slightly higher threat environment than the RQ-4, but it does not get you to a highly contested environment.
Q. When it comes to contested environments, does it make sense to look more toward space?
A. I think you have three areas that we can look at. I think that we have space, as you mentioned, that has overflight that is, for the most part, uncontested. We have cyber capabilities that are pretty high-end, and that we can explore and see what kind of ISR we could get from that. Then you have airborne platforms. The question would be what’s the right mix within those as we move forward to best address our requirements.
Q. Can increasing international partnerships help drive some of those efficiencies you’ve discussed?
A. I do believe that integration and partnerships is a great way to produce more effect without necessarily spending more of your own money. We have a wonderful partnership in collaboration with the United Kingdom. They purchased three Rivet Joint [reconnaissance aircraft] and we just delivered the first one in November. So if there is an area that both countries have an interest in, like Afghanistan, then there would be a willingness on the part of the UK, presumably, to deploy a Rivet Joint. Their crew, we get the product, and likewise, we fly our Rivet Joint, they get the product. That is a great collaboration, and it saved us both a fair amount of money. Then, when it comes time to do upgrades on that fleet, they pay the percentage of their participation in the program. I think that’s a model of something the United States can look toward as we move forward. ■
By Aaron Mehta in Washington.