Cover: Assessing the Value of Intelligence Collected by U.S. Air Force Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Platforms

Assessing the Value of Intelligence Collected by U.S. Air Force Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Platforms

Published Jun 11, 2021

by Abbie Tingstad, Dahlia Anne Goldfeld, Lance Menthe, Robert A. Guffey, Zachary Haldeman, Krista Langeland, Amado Cordova, Elizabeth M. Waina, Balys Gintautas


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Research Questions

  1. How can the U.S. Air Force better assess the value of airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance?
  2. What types of changes in technology, training, policy, and other areas are needed to facilitate better U.S. Air Force airborne ISR assessments?

The changes in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) capabilities over the past two decades have led to ever-increasing demand from warfighters. Commanders, planners, and operators across the U.S. Air Force (USAF) ISR enterprise face difficult decisions about how to best meet ISR needs at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Yet USAF currently lacks a consistent, quantitative, empirically grounded method of assessing the value that the service's airborne ISR provides — which is essential to good resourcing decisions. This report presents an approach to ISR assessments that seeks to articulate the costs and benefits of USAF airborne ISR in specific operational contexts. Though aspects of this may be applicable across different USAF ISR organizations, this work focused primarily on the Distributed Common Ground System and the operational theaters it does or could support. The assessment methodology is designed to be flexible enough to support ISR resourcing decisions at different echelons, yet consistent enough to foster feedback, standardize data collections, and make use of empirical analysis methodologies.

Key Findings

USAF has no way to consistently measure ISR

  • The process of planning and conducting USAF airborne ISR operations, along with the databases that support this process, are not designed for systematic, real-time, or retrospective analysis of how well ISR activities support particular overarching goals.
  • As a result, there is no common assessment approach between (or even within) USAF airborne ISR organizations; very limited reliable, accurate data for conducting assessments about USAF airborne ISR; a lack of common terminology and data standards for assessments; and, in many cases, lack of either feedback from end users or access to the contextual information necessary for USAF airborne ISR analysts to make assessments.


  • Guidance is needed for a consistent approach to ISR assessment.
  • A common lexicon is needed for assessments; requirements articulation; collection management; and processing, exploitation, and dissemination.
  • Short-term and long-term plans are needed to improve fidelity and discoverability of ISR data.
  • Airmen skills and resources should be enhanced to perform assessments.
  • USAF should coordinate with the Intelligence Community, Joint Community, and industry partners to identify opportunities for gathering feedback.
  • Further analysis is needed to determine the advisability of changing processing, exploitation, and dissemination force presentation and the impacts on assessments.
  • USAF should identify when simulations are needed to support assessments.
  • USAF should continually refine and update the processes and guidance for ISR assessments.

Research conducted by

Assessing the Value of Intelligence Collected by U.S. Air Force Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Platforms

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