Aggressive ISR in the War on Terrorism: Breaking the Cold War Paradigm

By Danskine, William B. | Air & Space Power Journal, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Aggressive ISR in the War on Terrorism: Breaking the Cold War Paradigm


Danskine, William B., Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract:

This article proposes a strategy to disrupt global terrorist groups by employing airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions to deny them sanctuary in weak states. The author argues against placing too much attention upon network-centric warfare and too little upon traditional strategic reconnaissance. Intelligence projection may prove more important than force projection in a global counterterrorism strategy.

Due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces, a suitable means of fighting must be adopted i.e. using fast moving light forces that work under complete secrecy. In other word[s] to initiate a guerrilla warfare, were [sic] the sons of the nation, and not the military forces, take part in it.

-Osama bin Laden

FOLLOWING THE ATTACKS of 11 September 2001, the United States found itself in a new type of war, one for which existing military doctrine was ill suited. It now faces a dispersed, loosely organized, nonstate threat. No longer afforded safety by the oceans and no longer able to employ the logic of deterrence that proved useful against traditional state actors, the United States is searching for a proactive strategy for countering threats before they arrive upon its own shores. The US National Security Strategy of 2002 outlines such a strategy-a global war on terrorism: "We will disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations by: denying further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists by convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities."1

This approach proposes two different strategies, depending upon an assessment of a state's (designated here as either "capable" or "weak") ability to counter terrorist groups within its own borders. The first strategy takes a traditional, statecentric approach against capable states, to which we may add the employment of military force to other instruments of national power, thereby coercing a state to cease support of terrorist groups. US decision makers will find this perspective familiar. The second strategy is tailored for weak states that, because of their inability either to detect or counter terrorist groups, may unwillingly provide them sanctuary. According to the National Security Strategy, "where governments find the fight against terrorism beyond their capacities, we will match their willpower and their resources with whatever help we and our allies can provide."2

The second strategy seeks to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups desiring safe haven (which would allow them to plan, recruit, train, and recoup) in states unable to control their own territory. The United States intends to deny such refuge by implementing programs to assist these weak "host nations." Known as foreign internal defense (FID), such programs primarily take the form of diplomatic efforts led by the US State Department to strengthen local governments.3 Overall responsibility for all US military and economic security assistance to a particular country belongs to the chief of mission (the US ambassador to that country). Regional combatant commanders of the US Department of Defense (DOD) have instructions to support these chiefs in FID missions. This article seeks to alert State Department officials to the benefits of employing one of the combatant commander's most valuable military tools-airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems-in cooperation with a weak host nation to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups and thus support the effort against global terrorism.

This study has no intention of downgrading other sources of intelligence (such as collections from satellites or human intelligence [HUMINT]); rather, it proposes supplementing these sources with airborne ISR, whose sensors, now predominantly employed for tactical support, can instead play a greater role in counterterrorism. Further, it recommends that the chiefs of mission increase the use of airborne ISR sensors in their FID programs and offers suggestions to the regional combatant commanders and the US Air Force (as the primary provider of airborne ISR sensors) for improving the availability and usefulness of this capability in a global counterterrorism strategy. …

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