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The Future Mix of U.S. ISR Forces

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Research brief

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In recent conflicts, the U.S. Air Force has consistently demonstrated its ability to destroy almost any target effectively and efficiently with precision-guided conventional weapons. One avenue of improvement in the Air Forces operational effectiveness may lie in its ability to find, precisely locate, and identify some kinds of critical targets e.g., mobile missiles and enemy leadership, particularly in a hostile environment. The Air Force currently relies on a fleet of manned aircraft, supplemented by national intelligence collection satellites and recently by a limited number of unmanned air vehicles UAVs, to provide the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ISR support that it needs. While these systems provide considerable capability, they also have limitations. Current sensors are not always adequate against difficult targets. Existing platforms may not be able to provide the necessary ISR coverage of all geographic areas of interest, particularly in areas of high threat. Better sensors and processors are becoming available that could improve the capability to detect, identify, and track some kinds of difficult targets. New platforms, such as different kinds of UAVs and satellites, may offer performance advantages and, in some cases, cost savings over current ISR systems. The Air Force asked RAND Project AIR FORCE to identify the most cost-effective force mix options for meeting the United States future ISR requirements. Rands conclusions were as follows a force of large, stealthy UAVs would be cheaper and more effective than maintaining the current ISR force the same performance could be achieved with new radar satellites supplemented by other systems, but at a much higher cost and at greater technical risk and a mixed force of stealthy UAVs and a few satellites would cost about the same as maintaining the current force and would be much more effective.

Subject Categories:

  • Pilotless Aircraft
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics
  • Unmanned Spacecraft

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