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Let’s try smart intelligence gathering

It’s time to create a free-standing Defense Department agency to handle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

It’s especially necessary given the growing technological capabilities and the need for this primarily airborne collection of data.

Let’s not even mention the pressures of the limited Pentagon funding or the insatiable desire of the military and intelligence services for their unmanned intelligence-gathering aircraft.

But do let us mention them as more reasons to compel action. We need some rational order to ISR and an end to overwhelming and overlapping approaches.

Think of it this way: It’s a chance to attain a goal of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act to limit interservice rivalry by creating an integrated agency that represents all interests.

Create a staff of experienced military and civilian experts for whom ISR becomes a career. And stop rotating service personnel after one-to-three-year tours.

Currently, ISR activities are funded in multiple ways, with the bulk of the money coming from the national intelligence and military intelligence programs. Funding also comes from the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which pays for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other counterterrorism activities abroad, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report.

The undersecretary of defense for intelligence has the ISR task force in his shop, while the coordinating and oversight body is run by the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence for warfighter support, Lt. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo.

But in its 2011 report, the GAO described the task force as not having “full visibility” into several budget sources that fund the Pentagon’s ISR programs. The GAO said that “multiple organizations conduct strategic planning, budgeting, and data processing and analysis across intelligence disciplines in accordance with their own priorities.”

A year after the GAO report, with fighting in Afghanistan winding down, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said that the Pentagon “has failed to strategically plan for how . . . (ISR) investment relates to future requirements.”

It noted that about $44 billion had been spent since 9/11 to procure new and enhanced ISR capabilities “without a strategy for how these systems fit into its future ISR.”

At their joint Pentagon news conference on Thursday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh talked of today’s ISR issues, showing elements of cooperation and how various services still think they must continue going their own way.

“Our combatant commanders expect and demand the unique ISR capabilities that only the Air Force can provide,” James said, praising how those who fly the remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, work at an “unrelenting” pace.

Not mentioned were the intelligence analysts who work with the Air Force’s distributed common ground system (DCGS).

The DCGS instantly feeds data from airborne ISR-manned and unmanned craft to “several core (ground) sites and over 30 smaller sites both within the United States and around the globe,” according to an Air Force-sponsored 2012 Rand Corp. study.

James talked about the pressures on Air Force drone pilots and the plan to train more of them and increase their pay.

Welsh said there may be a look at other services that “might be divesting themselves of aviation assets and see if there’s an interest in those crews” moving to the Air Force program. He also said the Air Force could adopt the Army practice of allowing noncommissioned officers to serve as drone pilots.

The Rand study dealt primarily with the burn-out rate and health issues among analysts working long hours to pull together the data from ISR collectors and to prepare intelligence assessments. Rand proposed prioritizing “the retention of trained intelligence analysts” in place of normal tours that military personnel have in their various assignments.

I remember talking to former CIA director David Petraeus in early 2011. He marveled about being able to deal with CIA analysts whose knowledge came from working on a country or problem for 10 or more years, as compared with military intelligence officers who rotated after a year or two to another position.

But the current ISR setup has another element that would make change difficult. Each service not only has its own ISR programs, but its own facilities, too.

In December, as the Army held nationwide hearings on possible downsizing, Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sought consideration of “the far-reaching negative effects” that would come from cutting anything at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

The critical element at Huachuca, McCain said, was the “Army’s unmatched leaders, capabilities and platforms in the areas of cybersecurity, network communications, unmanned platforms and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (that) are forged right here at Fort Huachuca.”

Any unification of ISR would inevitably face similar congressional opposition based not on money saved, but rather legislators’ unwillingness to permit reduction of any military facilities in their districts or states.

I’m not optimistic that this idea will go very far. It’s too rational for today’s Washington. But fighting for what makes good sense is always a worthy cause.

© 2015, The Washington Post