The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. This implication by the National Defense Strategy Commission stands in contrast to the past several decades during which the U.S. possessed military power without equal. Great power competition has returned, marked by Chinese and Russian malign activities occurring below the threshold of armed conflict, an area of competition called the grey zone, while they simultaneously advance warfighting capabilities with increased lethality, range, and speed. The result is the potentially significant erosion of the military advantage possessed by the United States.
A key capability to ensure the U.S. military maintains its dominance is in its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have both taken an increasing interest in U.S. military ISR capabilities vis-à-vis China and Russia. The House has emphasized in particular the importance of joint airborne ISR capabilities and established a Future of Defense Task Force to review and assess U.S. defense capabilities to meet emerging threats. The Senate has stressed command and control and both legacy and future ISR systems that can provide tactical forces with targeting data needed to perform their mission within a highly contested environment. Most recently, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees each drafted legislation calling for appropriations to enhance military modernization, to include funding for ISR, in the Indo-Pacific region.
Senior military leaders at the Pentagon are also rethinking modernization priorities to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), and are aiming to build a more lethal force given concerns that China and Russia may surpass the United States in military capability. ISR is one of their modernization priorities. More specifically, the Department of Defense (DOD) aims to connect ISR sensors across all warfighting domains (space, air, land, sea, and cyber) directly with commanders and weapon systems, sharing data at an accelerated speed. This will enable U.S. and allied forces to outthink, outpace, and outmaneuver its adversaries. Congress may consider whether the DOD-wide modernization programs and budget requests for developing advanced sensing capabilities and connecting those sensors to shooters, match the strategies identified in the National Security Strategy (NSS) and NDS.
The current DOD ISR enterprise does not yet possess the readiness to effectively support operations in the grey zone or support combat operations in a highly contested environment, according to senior DOD ISR leaders. To meet the demands of the new global strategic environment, the DOD ISR enterprise intends to shift from a manpower-intensive force optimized for operations within a permissive environment to an automation-intensive force capable of defeating a peer adversary within a highly contested environment. To achieve operational success within a high threat environment, the Services have indicated they would like to invest in resilient and collaborative ISR capabilities that enhance situational awareness, aid rapid decisionmaking, and reliably find, fix, and target elusive targets deep within enemy territory. The objective is to generate an information advantage for U.S. military forces, which is paramount to effective operations both in the grey zone and highly contested environments.
To achieve an information advantage, each military service has highlighted a number of initiatives unique to their specific primary missions and in support of creating an all-domain sensing and sense-making capability. In other words, the aim of the future DOD ISR enterprise is to gain access to data from multiple domains (space, air, land, sea, and cyber); make rapid sense of that data; securely deliver that data to weapons, weapon systems, and commanders; and possess a workforce that can execute its mission in competition and combat, at a pace greater than the enemy. However, each service faces significant challenges with harnessing the exponential growth in data to realize the potential of disruptive technology and shaping the future workforce to employ these warfighting capabilities.
This report offers Congress a conceptual framework for understanding unclassified DOD ISR modernization initiatives for great power competition. Congressional interests include funding levels, strategy, plans, and programs relative to military ISR investments for the new global strategic environment as defined in the NSS and NDS. Congress’s decisions on these issues could have significant implications on the U.S. military’s competitive advantage versus China and Russia and its ability to compete, deter, and win in this environment.