Steve Aftergood: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Acquisition: Issues for Congress, April 16, 2013

Corruption, Government, Ineptitude, Military
Steven Aftergood
Steven Aftergood

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Acquisition: Issues for Congress, April 16, 2013


Increasing calls for intelligence support and continuing innovations in intelligence technologies combine to create significant challenges for both the executive and legislative branches. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems are integral components of both national policymaking and military operations, including counterterrorism operations, but they are costly and complicated and they must be linked in order to provide users with a comprehensive understanding of issues based on information from all sources.

Relationships among organizations responsible for designing, acquiring, and operating these systems are also complicated, as are oversight arrangements in Congress. These complications have meant that even though many effective systems have been fielded, there have also been lengthy delays and massive cost overruns. Uncertainties about the long-term acquisition plans for ISR systems persist even as pressures continue for increasing the availability of ISR systems in current and future military operations and for national policymaking. These challenges have been widely recognized.

A number of independent assessments have urged development of “architectures” or roadmaps setting forth agreed-upon plans for requirements and acquisition and deployment schedules. Most observers would agree that such a document would be highly desirable, but there are significant reasons why developing such an architecture and gaining an enduring consensus remain problematic.

First, ISR technologies are not static; whereas it is possible to plan for aircraft, ships, or tanks that can be used for decades, it is doubtful that today’s inventory of satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and manned aircraft will still be the right mix a few years hence. Some believe that a “cast-in-concrete” plan would inhibit the ability to take advantage of new technologies or techniques as they emerge. Secondly, achieving consensus on such a plan would be greatly affected by the separate priorities of different parts of the intelligence community, the Defense Department, and Washington policymakers. The needs of policymakers and military commanders are different and are usually reconciled only on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, different congressional oversight committees may also have different perspectives on priorities and some may seek to emphasize funding for specific systems.

The Director of National Intelligence could be given authority to reach across current organizational boundaries to define requirements and priorities. Some propose establishing a position for a separate “ISR Czar” to do this. Few observers believe that ISR programs could be carved out of the intelligence budget and/or the defense budget, and placed under the control of a single officer or lead agency.

There is a strong likelihood that separate needs and concerns that affect the current systems will not disappear, even if one official has a new and expansive charter. Similar concerns would exist in regard to the jurisdictions of congressional oversight committees. ISR issues will continue to be an area of concern for the 113 th Congress, especially in light of the lack of a long-term investment strategy and the pending impact of sequestration. In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated that sequestration would delay major systems acquisition and require older reconnaissance systems to be decommissioned. The DNI and the President’s FY2014 budget request indicated an effort to protect the intelligence community workforce, suggesting that hard choices in response to budget cuts will focus on ISR systems and other expensive collection platforms.


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