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Ears and Eyes in the Sky: The Evolution of Manned Airborne ISR

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Technical Report

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Air University School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Maxwell AFB United States

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The fundamental purpose of this thesis is to enable students of air power to understand and appreciate the evolution of airborne ISR. The manner in which airborne ISR evolved and its subsequent importance to todays militaries has contemporary relevance. As the United States advances into a new postwar era, evaluating the historical treatment of ISR is important to informing current decisions. The thesis also aims to highlight the various challenges faced by decision makers dealing with fiscally limited budgets. There has long existed a question of whether airborne ISR forces are best suited as strategic intelligence collection platforms or if their true purpose indeed, the initial reason they were established is to provide intelligence directly to warfighters. While this distinction may seem trivial to some, within the airborne ISR community, tactical intelligence collection often requires distinct aircraft, and more importantly, distinctly trained personnel. As the USAF faces a period that is certain to be one of fiscal austerity, ISR leaders must make the distinction clear. In addition to recounting the evolution of airborne ISR, this thesis provides historical case studies of both strategic and tactical intelligence collection. The hope is that by reading this thesis, ISR leaders will have a better-informed appreciation of the travails of airborne ISR over history and will use the past to inform future decisions.

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