Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the US Air Force's ISR Agency, said he wants to reboot the concept of the 'thousand-ship navy,' only with unmanned aerial vehicles and through pooling resources with international partners. (William Belcher / US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The future of ISR operations will increasingly rely on international participation, according to the head of the Air Force’s ISR Agency.
“How can we not be multinational in the future? We’re not going to fight alone again. I’m convinced of that,” Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan said. “The momentum is building.”
Shanahan spoke Tuesday at the C4ISR and Networks Conference outside Washington, D.C. He spoke on how the international community could create a modern-day version of the “thousand-ship Navy” concept from the mid-2000s, which relied on the idea of drawing a number of international partners together and pooling resources.
“I haven’t heard that phrase in a long time, but if you think about a 1,000-RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] ISR environment, it’s how we put this all together and train together so we’re prepared to operate together,” Shanahan said.
“Most of these other countries have not invested the amount they would all, as militaries, have liked to invest in ISR. They see the importance of it,” he added, citing the U.K., Australia, Japan, South Korea and Italy as partners all working with U.S. forces on ISR issues. “And every place I have gone, there’s an excitement about how we work together on ISR.”
It’s not simply an issue of sharing hardware. As head of the service’s ISR Agency, Shanahan has put a priority on increasing the human intelligence capabilities of the Air Force, which he worries has atrophied due to the daily intelligence grind in Afghanistan and Iraq. Working with coalition partners would help bring another level of human intelligence to the scene, particularly as the US continues to shift its focus toward the Pacific.
“Who knows more about the [Pacific] theater than some of the partners we work with every single day?” Shanahan asked. “The culture, the capabilities of some of the other threats they’re facing — they have access we don’t have and probably vice versa.”
He acknowledged the challenge of sharing potentially classified information with partners, but indicated that the service is finding ways to work through that.
In order to make those partnerships work, the service needs to maintain its commitment to large-scale training exercises such as Red Flag.
“If we don’t train in the environment with our coalition and international partners, we’re not going to get it right on Day 1, Day 2 or Day 10. We have to train that way,” Shanahan said.
However, those exercises are often the first to fall when budgets tighten. The sequestration budget crunch of 2013 saw large-scale exercises around the globe severely curtailed or outright cut. Shanahan acknowledged that was a concern, and insisted it is an investment that has to be made to prepare for the ISR fight of the future.
“Sometimes those are the first to go. I think many times they should be the last to go. You fight like you train so you have to train like you plan to fight. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to succeed,” Shanahan said.
“What I hear from the leadership across our Air Force today is that’s not where they’re looking to make those cuts,” he added. “In the grand scheme of things, they’re expensive but they’re not enormously expensive. The return on investment, to me, makes up for whatever you pay to put those exercises together.”