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Gateway to ISTAR

Ian Kelly
Defence Management Journal
June 2010

Understanding the changing face of current operations offers the key to maximising ISTAR’s potential, argues PA Consulting Group’s Ian Kelly

The Defence Select Committee report ‘The contribution of ISTAR to operations’, published on 16th March 2010, follows the 2008 report ‘The contribution of Unmanned Air Vehicles to ISTAR capability’, and raises a number of key issues that will impact future ISTAR capability:

• limitations on bandwidth and frequencies available for ISTAR use
• investment requirements for processing and dissemination activities
• the need for improved skill levels across the ISTAR community
• the effectiveness of the joint command and control of ISTAR assets.

Of these issues, the Defence Select Committee has rightly focused on the need to improve the processing and dissemination of information and intelligence as a key area. However, the importance of this investment can often be diluted by the ‘realpolitik’ of the equipment programme. To really understand its relative priority, a critical look is required at how the changing face of current operations is potentially shifting the priorities and needs of ISTAR to operational commanders.

Target the insurgent or protect the population?
In order to understand the impact of current operations on the balance of future ISTAR investment, it must be recognised that terrorism is a tactic of an insurgent organisation, not a description of the organisation itself.  Insurgents use terror as a tool to mobilise a population to their viewpoint.  The ‘vital ground’ for an insurgent is the political loyalty or acquiescence of the people rather than the physical ground on which they fight. Insurgent organisations, not being governed by a morality that sits easily with the masses, can and do trade lives for political advantage.  In the competition between the insurgent and the government for the support of the population, the insurgent needs to do very little to tip the balance into disorder, whereas the counter-insurgent forces will most likely need to wage a costly battle to maintain order.

The traditional, high technology-led approach to counter-insurgency has been to focus on precise and timely delivery of ordinance. However, a balance of ISTAR investment focused on reducing collateral damage by enabling precision strike is perhaps more indicative of how the counter-insurgent forces wish to fight, rather than how the insurgent intends to fight.  If the insurgents are willing to accept civilian loss for political gain, this creates a paradox in which, irrespective of technology, the focus on precision does not fundamentally deter the insurgent will to fight, nor significantly weaken their grip on the population.

Linking ISTAR investment to strategic aims
When considering where future ISTAR investment might lie in terms of counter-insurgency, the strategic vital ground must be fundamentally revisited; for both the insurgent and counter-insurgent alike, it is the population. Ultimately, defeating the insurgent depends not on military muscle, but on the ability to distance the insurgent from the population and the political will to provide economic stability in a physically secure environment.  Future ISTAR investment therefore needs to focus on those efforts that improve the commander’s understanding of the population, which drives the need to improve collaboration, anomaly discrimination and back room processes:

Experience has shown that in order to defeat the insurgents, they need to be distanced from the population: traditional military methods are not always well suited to getting close to a civilian population. As demonstrated in Afghanistan, for example, it is the monitoring or ‘policing’ activities such as border control, identity cards, census and information operations that offer some of the tools needed to overcome the insurgent activity.

While ISTAR already plays an important role in developing a commander’s understanding of the situation, the future focus must be on delivering a more collaborative ISTAR effect. No one system or sensor can, or is ever likely to, hold all the answers to the motives and intentions of a civilian population. Furthermore, the information generated by policing activities is outside of the scope of current ISTAR networks; future ISTAR capabilities need to be connected to a much wider pool of multi-agency assets in order to access the information in cross-cueing, correlation and fusion of information, as well as in the commander’s required to generate the acute level of intelligence required. This will require a significant improvement understanding of the traditional and non-traditional ISTAR capabilities available and how to best concentrate the ISTAR assets for the desired effect. Improved ISTAR collaboration also implies a seamless linkage between tactical and strategic ISTAR from ‘all sources’, which is in turn enabled by national and international methods of handling multiple levels of security and also the provision of both physical and virtual collaboration environments.

Anomaly discrimination
Although the need for achieving precision will not go away, investment must, at least in part, shift towards enabling operators to pick anomalies out of the ‘noise’ in order to identify and understand changes.  Wide area electro-optical surveillance, electronic intelligence and human intelligence should all provide input into a more coherent data set where ‘state changes’ relating to the population and their environment can be deduced. This will help to identify when, how and where insurgents act upon the population, and may therefore provide commanders with the opportunity to remove the insurgents’ ability to coerce the public.  Much like collaboration, discovering small changes out of the ‘noise floor’ requires a coherent approach across all the Defence Lines of Development in order to enable ISTAR systems and operators to act in concert.  It also requires bringing data into the ISTAR world that might not currently exist, for example, bio-identity, border crossings, and check-point information (essentially the elements of policing that relate to population control).

Back room processes
Some credible ‘dot com’ companies failed because they did not put in place back-room processes to deal with a hugely increased flow of data: they had created the front-end business change, but could not harness its potential.  Similarly, developing a more acute view of the population demands that attention is paid to exploiting the information made available. If a collaborative ISTAR effort, which enables the accurate discrimination and identification of subtle changes in the population and environment, is not supported by qualified and experienced analysts, then the true potential of ISTAR may not be realised.

Future front-end investment in ISTAR platforms and sensors needs to be balanced against improved back-end processes, enabled by high bandwidth and high quality of service information feeds from across the political, military and policing spectrum of operations.  The future shape of ISTAR will also need to recognise that the military will not always be the lead element, which suggests that a permanent multi-agency capability should be established. Providing innovative ways of working to facilitate work-flows that can handle large volumes of data, virtual teaming and perhaps more importantly developing joint financing mechanisms will also prove critical to exploiting future ISTAR effort.

Realising the potential of ISTAR requires a coherent approach that matches investment with the strategic imperative
If it is accepted that the future strategic intent is shifting towards a desire to intervene between the insurgent and the population rather than directly targeting the insurgent, the future balance of ISTAR investment needs to recognise the changing paradigm and match the strategy with capability. This needs to be supported by the recognition that when the traditional operational drivers for precision effect, such as reducing collateral damage, are not effective strategic levers to defeating an enemy intent on coercing  population into support, regardless of cost or time, then the approach to doing so must be changed.

The nature of current operations is shifting the emphasis of ISTAR away from a concentration on platforms and sensors aimed at individual insurgents towards developing a more holisitic understanding of the intentions the general population.  As the Defence Select Committee recognises, serious consideration is required with regards to collaboration, anomaly discrimination and the effectiveness of the back room ISTAR processes in order to optimise the UK ISTAR capability.

Article contribution also received from Adam Boothby.

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