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Future Land Warfare Collection 2021: Creating the Joint ISR Enterprise that Was Needed Yesterday

The acquisition of information about the enemy has always been considered one of the most important elements in war. A commander without information is like a man blindfolded, he knows neither where to strike nor what quarter to expect attack; he is unable to make a plan for himself, or guard against the plan of his enemy.[1]

Intelligence is fundamental to decision-making. Intelligence is derived through the analysis of unprocessed data generated through collection activities, generally referred to as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR). ISR serves as both a process and a product, with the aim to generate decision superiority.[2] The above three sentences summarise a process that presents as wonderfully simple, yet powerful in execution. While stating this is simple, it is equally true that a failure to effectively implement ISR can significantly degrade operational decision-making, incurring all of the costs of the process with none of the upsides. For this reason, the one thing that can make the joint force stronger is to redesign how ISR enables decision-making.

This essay argues that the operational ISR enterprise should be reformed. As will be detailed, the solution is to reimagine the ISR enterprise through the creation of ISR ‘precincts’, supported by a joint ISR training program. Each ISR precinct comprises a joint ISR training section; a processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) hub; and an attached dedicated all-source cell. The amalgam of ISR precincts with collocated all-source cells will enhance support to the decision-maker. A more effective ISR enterprise generates the tempo needed in decision-making to more efficiently respond to the challenges of the contemporary operating environment.

The Problem—‘Service First’, Technological Change, Inefficiency

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) ISR enterprise is not sufficiently prepared or postured to meet the challenges of the current or future operating environment. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) highlighted that Australia faces ‘the most consequential strategic alignment in our region since the Second World War’.[3] This is due to the confluence of increased strategic competition, more capable weapon systems enabled by technological change, and the increasingly aggressive use of diverse grey-zone tactics for inter-state coercion that remains under the threshold for a conventional military response. The ADF must simultaneously shape, deter and, if required, respond in this rapidly shifting environment.[4]

For the ADF to meet these demands, the key is situational awareness. The ISR process, which informs intelligence, enables the supported decision-maker to understand how, where and what the ADF can shape; who and how they need to deter; and the effect of response. The limitation on the ISR enterprise is that it lacks joint integration. First, joint ISR training hardly exists. Second, PED capabilities are separate from the integral all-source analysts who turn the outputs of collection into usable intelligence. Third, the systems or databases that support the current decentralised and disaggregated ADF approach are inadequate and insufficient.

There is an integration problem. The ADF’s capability acquisition relies on the three Services to generate capability focused on their own domains which the Chief of Joint Operations (CJOPS) and the Chief of Defence Force employ in the joint environment. Change is underway. The First Principles Review has been a driving force, shifting organisational structures to better enable integration, design and management of joint capabilities. Refinement of these structures continues, with greater clarity now provided in the roles of the Joint Force Authority, the Joint Force Training Authority, and the Joint Force Integrator. Joint culture is also slowly evolving through revised Service missions and common defence values.[5] Joint ISR and joint ISR multi-domain programs have been established for the purposes of some capability development and domain de-confliction.

Service ISR programs are, nevertheless, independent of the joint ISR capability program architecture. The ADF’s approach relies on the Services to grow before contributing to the centre. The rationale is that if capabilities were to grow from the joint centre, they would be ineffective in achieving their full potential in their respective domains.[6]

The effect of these arrangements is a competition for funding and resources, and a propensity to enable the Services’ capability needs rather than prioritise a joint ADF approach. This is particularly the case with ISR. Insufficient ability to process, exploit and disseminate collected ISR data, fuse intelligence or coordinate collection capabilities compromises the system. The result is ISR costs without potential benefits. One needs only to read the first two sentences of the 2020 Defence Intelligence Enterprise Review executive summary to see how stove piped and inefficient the ADF’s approach to ISR is.[7] Almost all of the targets that Distributed Ground Station—Australia (Interim) (DGS-AUS (I)) will process, exploit and disseminate on behalf of the ADF using RAAF or linkages to coalition airborne platforms are on the earth’s surface. Yet there are no Army or Navy PED professionals allocated within DGS-AUS’s sizeable PED workforce growth (Squadron-plus). The lack of joint integration misses a significant opportunity to apply expert knowledge to enhance the information being disseminated. It also misses an invaluable inter-Service training opportunity to learn how ISR assets are employed and their capabilities.

The absence of joint ISR training only exacerbates the stove piped ISR problem. The synchronisation of ISR capabilities to support a joint effect is neither specially trained nor routinely practised outside of three situations. Understanding is only achieved experientially when one is posted in Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQ JOC), employed in Headquarters 1st Division for joint collective training, or force concentrated for deployment. In an environment of accelerated change, the ADF cannot afford for joint ISR practitioners to lack depth in their knowledge and application of collection capabilities and be unprepared for employment.

Technological advancements and the changing character of war will only increase the demand of the ADF ISR enterprise. Emerging sensor technologies are generating large, complex mission datasets which require massive data repositories and computing power. Improved imagery collection capabilities are capable of collecting 400 gigabytes of data per second. The time to process information and determine the relevance to a commander will only reduce in future, necessitating measures to improve the latency across multiple domains and command nodes. The speed of decision-making rapidly increases, and arguments are made that command-directed, automated response is the only effective treatment.[8]

The Australian Government recognises the need for the ISR enterprise to be enabled to meet the challenges of the contemporary operating environment. The DSU highlights the complexity of the contemporary environment and the requirement to shape, respond and deter in an environment of cooperation, competition and conflict. Indeed, the DSU’s companion resourcing statement, the Force Structure Plan 2020, recognises the challenge of simultaneity for joint ISR generally. Future investment is focused towards the provision of training and joint skilling, along with the enhancement of joint PED capabilities to achieve greater coordination and integration of ISR across the joint force.[9] Yet single-Service capabilities continue to maintain prevalence. In fact only the measures for enhancement of Army ISR capabilities refer to the joint force, with those of the Navy and Air Force focused on their respective domains.[10] If the Service-first mindset regarding capability development continues, the opportunity presented by the Force Structure Plan will be wasted, with the ADF still ineffectively postured to meet the challenges of both the current and future operating environments. This sentiment is supported by Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis:

 … ‘[a] fifth-generation force has to be capable of operating across, land, sea, air, cyber, EM and space, and that is a core component of the transition to the joint force. We have to systems of systems, not just stovepipe platforms that are capable of connecting across a network’ …[11]

Wing Commander Phil Hay, in a piece advocating for ISR centralisation, reinforces the point:

On the contemporary multi-domain battlefield, combining disparate sources and platforms for information gathering serves to overcome some of the challenges emerging from the increased proliferation of counter-ISR, EW and integrated A2/AD systems in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly throughout the Middle East and Europe.[12]

In addition, the current intelligence architecture to support operational decision-making is at odds with the principles of intelligence. A lack of clear command and control, task delineation and clear authorities for all-source support to operational priorities results in duplication and inefficiency and dilutes output quality. For example, there are currently no fewer than five ‘all source cells’, ‘fusion cells’ or reinforced unit-level intelligence teams conducting analysis on specific ADF operational missions. This number compounds across the National Intelligence Community.[13] None of these cells are enabled with an all-source PED capability; nor are any of the teams using the same data sources or systems to conduct their analysis. The reporting chains are also largely stove piped, with four of these intelligence teams supporting Australia-based commanders, largely for situational awareness, with ad hoc dissemination of the analytical reporting. These structures encourage duplication and are inefficient. In some cases, individual units are conducting ‘network analysis’ to support unit or formation situation awareness, ignoring the fact that their analysis is stymied by the absence of a single common database or shared systems across the enterprise. Granted, the process of analysis aids in individual training for the staff, but there are more effective ways of leveraging highly technical finite resources and assets across the enterprise.

The Solution—Training, Centralisation and Authorities

A more effective way of leveraging our workforce is to reform the joint ISR enterprise. This reform requires a whole-of-enterprise recognition that ‘Joint All Domain Operations is the new reality in modern warfare requiring simultaneous effect within and across every operating domain’.[14] Traditional boundaries of single-Service ISR no longer exist, and capabilities in the maritime, air, information/cyber and space domains are just as important in supporting decision-making in the land domain, and vice versa. HQ JOC’s establishment of the Joint Domain Awareness Centre and efforts towards agile command and control go some way to addressing this. But more than just structural change within HQ JOC is required. An enterprise approach to how intelligence supports decision-making can better posture the ADF to manage accelerating technological change.

The establishment of all-source ISR precincts or PED hubs enabled with dedicated all-source analysis is a re-imagined approach to achieving decision advantage. The intent is for greater investment using reapportioned Service and agency assets to support up to three ISR precincts. These precincts comprise at least three elements: an ISR training section, a PED node and a dedicated joint all-source cell. Each precinct must be federated and enabled by the same data sources; a solution may in time be the expansion or federation of DGS-AUS supported by Joint Project 2289. Each precinct should be interchangeable and enabled with ISR professionals to support prescribed missions. However, the federated approach also means they are capable of mutual support, can conduct seamless transitions as platforms transit over areas of interest, or can work together in the case of any threat associated with the defence of Australia. Critically, the ISR precinct must be centred on supporting decision-making. Therefore collocation with the supported commander is imperative.

Understanding of joint capabilities must be a dedicated component of the training continuum. For intelligence personnel, a focused joint ISR training course for everyone at E6 level and above, sequenced immediately following promotion courses, should be mandatory. This course must extend beyond sensor capability update briefs. Instead, the minimum proficiency should be an understanding of process to task, de-confliction, debriefing and synchronising tri-Service, and National Intelligence Community and coalition collection capabilities to support complex joint warfighting scenarios. The training should require students to lead joint ISR inputs at all stages of the joint military appreciation process and in all battle rhythm events, and must include PED coordination. Biennial refresher training should be implemented, vectored around procedural or capability updates supported with either simulation or scenario activities in order to remain current. The creation of a joint ISR training system will professionalise the workforce and enable more effective consideration and employment of collection capabilities to support a commander’s decision-making.

Increasing joint ISR training and investment in improving PED capabilities is only one component of redesigning the joint ISR enterprise. The other is to centralise PED with an optimised, dedicated joint all-source capability to support operational decision-making. The recommendation is to reapportion Service and agency assets to fully enable the existing HQ JOC Joint Operations Intelligence Fusion Cells (JOIFCs). Here, to illustrate the merits of the proposal, it may be useful to give the example of how a legacy HQ JOC organisation, the Insurgent Network Analysis Cell (INAC), was constructed.

The INAC’s mission was to provide operational-level analysis in support of CJOPS and deployed ADF elements. The INAC comprised between 16 and 24 staff from the (then) Australian Intelligence Community (AIC), the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Public Service, and repurposed tri-Service Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) and HQ JOC J2 analysts. The analysts worked within the DIO, using their systems with unrestricted access to all operational reporting. The INAC became the ADF experts on the threat, environment and culture affecting personnel deployed to Afghanistan. This tangibly aided ADF units through regular reporting on Afghanistan, pre-deployment briefings, immersion training and a routine four-week deployment which spanned the extraction and insertion of new joint task forces into theatre to provide context and support for new intelligence staff.

Testament to the INAC’s effectiveness was its success in leading whole-of-government efforts to apprehend the perpetrator of an insider attack in 2012. Most importantly, the INAC was empowered with authority as the Defence lead for apprehension efforts, but critically, there was a clear understanding across the senior leadership group of INAC’s expertise. This meant that it was a central point of trusted data to inform senior commanders’ decision-making. While this was tangibly demonstrated with the apprehension of the insider attacker, the INAC’s reputation was formally recognised through two AIC medallions of excellence. This is significant in itself, considering that the INAC, as a Defence organisation, was not part of the AIC.

Enabling the JOIFCs to achieve the same level of deep subject matter expertise is critical to providing the level of analysis that technology alone is unable to achieve. To do this, each JOIFC needs analytical mass (i.e. squadron/company size (around 30 personnel)) and relevant agency liaison offices. Its remit must be driven by the leadership, aligned either to CJOPS geographic focal areas[15] or to a blend of geographic focus and themes aligned to ADF operational force constructs. Critically, the JOIFCs are not just about enabling CJOPS. They are a function of operational preparedness. They must be resourced to provide analytical reach-back, thereby enabling small, more discrete teams to deploy forward. They will be required to support J35/J5 planning and act as the central authority and expertise for tactical and operational intelligence assessments on their assigned remit. Targeting missions should inherently be supported by each JOIFC; therefore the current target systems analysis cell within the J2 targeting should be repurposed into the JOIFC. Each fusion cell should be led by an O5, who answers to the JOC J22, which should become a tri-Service competitively selected appointment. To reduce duplication across the organisation these fusion cells should be designated as the sole producers of intelligence on their respective topics.

The ISR process is critical to how intelligence supports decision-making; therefore it is necessary for each JOIFC to be collocated or have a habitual link to and share systems with each ISR precinct in the location of the supported decision-maker, as mentioned above. This construct is aligned to how ADF force elements are employed in operations and as practised during joint exercises. A combined facility also enables the ISR enterprise to be ‘always on’. The other efficiency resides in resources and timeliness. An approach which forms an enabled ISR enterprise, through collocation (or habitual relationship) with ISR collection asset and all-source capability avoids the duplication associated with intelligence analysts separately assigned to the product dissemination of ISR serials. Instead, a combined approach delivers all-source analysis for consideration better aligned to the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements. This construct realises the timely and fused analytical enterprise required in the era of accelerated warfare which is specified in the 2020 DSU.

An example of how these proposals can be realistically applied is through an ISR enterprise approach to support the remit of the Deployable Joint Force Headquarters (DJFHQ) South-West Pacific remit. One ISR precinct can be created in direct support of DJFHQ. The Force Structure Plan’s joint PED funding can purchase one all-source PED node through federating an instance of DGS-AUS, applying a Defence Science and Technology Group ISR concept demonstrator, or acquiring a US PED system such as the Distributed Common Ground Station. The existing 1 Intelligence Battalion Fusion Cell is renamed as a JOIFC, and reinforced with agencies’ liaison officers currently working to DJFHQ’s J2 team and air/maritime analysts. All elements of this joint workforce are collocated within the precinct, assigned permanently to DJFHQ. This example demonstrates that there are existing resources which can be leveraged to achieve an ISR enterprise approach permanently in support of operational decision-making.


The joint force can be made stronger through the restructure of our operational ISR enterprise. From a collection perspective, the establishment of up to three ISR precincts increases our ability to synchronise and prioritise ISR assets in a way that complements capabilities in support of prescribed mission sets. These precincts provide a level of redundancy and control for ADF collection capabilities while also allowing for mature ISR handover procedures, thereby ensuring maximal employment of collection capabilities. Critical to supporting the joint ISR enterprise must be joint ISR training. The above steps will help change ADF culture and mindset from a ‘Services first’ approach to a targeted system where Services complement and integrate into one joint force.

To complement the establishment of ISR precincts, the JOIFCs should be fully resourced and become prescribed all-source fusion cells. Leadership is critical. To reallocate Service personnel and authorities and enable the JOIFCs to be the sole producers of intelligence for tactical and operational support will require strong support from the senior leadership group. Finally, collocation of (or habitual relationships between) the JOIFCs and the ISR precinct is integral to achieving the decision superiority necessary for the accelerating warfare to which the Australian Government expects the ADF to be able to respond.

[1] David Henderson, 1911, The Art of Reconnaissance (London: John Murray), 1.

[2] Department of Defence, 2015, Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 2.0—Intelligence (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service), para. 1.10.

[3] Department of Defence, 2020, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), 3.

[4] Ibid., 4, 11.

[5] Department of Defence, 2020, DEFGRAM 276/2020, The Defence Strategic Update and Australian Defence Force Mission Alignment, 1 September.

[6] W McDonald, 2019, ‘Presentation to ACSC—Chief of Joint Capabilities’, 31 January.

[7] P Gilmore and S Merchant, 2020, Review of the Defence Intelligence Enterprise (Canberra: Department of Defence), 1–78.

[8] RA Vagg, 2020, ‘Data Analytics and Decision Superiority’, Defence Innovation Hub Conference, 25 September.

[9] Department of Defence, 2020, Force Structure Plan 2020 (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), 29.

[10] Department of Defence, 2020, 2020 Force Structure Plan (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia), 42, 52, 76.

[11] S Kuper, 2019, ‘Maximising ‘Defence in Depth’: Linking JORN, AIR 6500 and A2AD’, Defence Connect, 3 May, at…, accessed 15 September 2020.

[12] P Hay, 2017, ‘An ISR Force by Design’, The Central Blue—The Sir Richard Williams Foundation, available at… (accessed 29 September 2020).

[13] This does not include all the individual intelligence cells which are not all source, but are still writing individual assessments to support their own commanders’ requirements. Notably, there is no single system that all of these organisations can access to inform their analysis.

[14] Australian Defence Force, 2020, Joint Operations Command Business Plan 2019–20 (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia).

[15] Ibid.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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