Modernizing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance to ‘Find’ in the Era of Security Competition

Great power competition means U.S. adversaries are deploying capabilities across continents and in every domain to challenge the United States and its interests. Correspondingly, U.S. intelligence agencies are under pressure to deliver timely and accurate warning against an increasingly wide range of disruptive adversarial activities occurring across the competition continuum.

Unfortunately, collection assets capable of conducting long-term, persistent threat monitoring are often overcommitted. Despite U.S. intelligence joint doctrine highlighting the value of persistent collection to intelligence planners, that doctrine rightly assumes that these platforms are limited in supply. Many intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, particularly uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), are shared assets in high demand.

For the United States to overcome this resourcing challenge and strengthen its ability to persistently monitor for global threats, it must embrace an ongoing revolution in emerging technology and commercial data. In particular, it should expand its use of open-source intelligence (OSINT) as well as collection conducted with expeditionary edge computing capabilities and low-cost attritable UAVs.

Paradoxically, this approach requires already data-saturated intelligence organizations to collect even more information in pursuit of the “information advantage” that is increasingly at the center of U.S. military planning. Modernizing software, data architecture, and infrastructure will be essential if the United States is going to successfully operationalize its collection and adapt to the realities of global security competition.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first describes the intelligence challenges associated with “finding” in the digital age. The second discusses the current U.S. approach to ISR and how it is intersecting with developments in commercial technology. The third proposes a vision for how OSINT, edge computing, and attritable UAVs could be integrated into a broader ISR strategy. The fourth highlights the challenge of synchronizing these efforts to enable timely and accurate warning.

The Intelligence Challenge of ‘Finding’ in the Era of Security Competition

In a recent research brief entitled Hiding and Finding: The Challenge of Security Competition, CSIS’s Seth Jones outlined how the United States and its partners are locked in a long-term competition with China, Russia, and other adversaries over global power and influence. The contours of this competition are familiar, but the geographic areas and tools that adversaries are using to pursue and conceal their activities will require significant recalibration of how the U.S. intelligence enterprise collects, analyzes, and warns. U.S. adversaries are increasingly engaging in disruptive and potentially destabilizing activities outside of their geographic spheres of influence. China’s economic and military activities in Africa have been widely reported, and Russian private military companies are active in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

As James Bruce has written, the history of intelligence is defined by “a cyclical structure between the ‘hiders’ and ‘finders.’” In the current era of this cyclical struggle, the most disruptive force is technology and the advantages it grants to both hiders and finders. Hiders benefit from emerging and disruptive technologies that allow them to frustrate and evade finders. This includes capabilities such as ubiquitous end-to-end encryption, misattributed cyber operations, deep fakes, and artificial intelligence (AI). Hiding is further enhanced by state and non-state actors’ ability to weaponize cyberspace to conduct plausibly deniable cyber, disinformation, and covert influence operations. Criminal, insurgent, and terrorist organizations also continue to offer nation-states convenient cover for action.

At the same time, the central role of technology in all aspects of society renders these hiders more vulnerable to detection. Digital indicators of malign activity may be unintentionally generated by adversaries across multiple domains. Finders can compensate for disadvantages through savvy exploitation of a wide array of OSINT, from commercial satellite imagery, to social media, to the data generated by smart cities, to the so-called digital exhaust created by the internet of things (IoT), smartphones, and other edge devices.

The global nature of this competition, improvement of denial and deception capabilities, and a declining U.S. military global footprint will require the United States to think creatively and embrace new tools to monitor and detect adversary activities across the world.

The Current ISR Picture

In the past, development and control of collection capabilities were monopolized by nation-states. Today, however, intelligence collection is increasingly privatized. This shift has ushered in an era of rapidly transforming OSINT capabilities. In this new environment, OSINT still includes traditional, publicly available information, such as foreign broadcast and social media. However, decreasing technical barriers and lower costs to entry are facilitating the growth of robust commercial markets for satellite imagery, signals intelligence, UAVs, and vast volumes of commercial data.

The expanding universe of OSINT comes at a convenient time, when U.S. joint intelligence doctrine emphasizes significant resource constraints impacting intelligence planners. First, access to persistent collection against a target is ideal in many scenarios, but it “depends heavily on resources that are in high demand and usually few in number.” Second, with specific regard to UAVs, intelligence planners must balance their requirements against the “high demand for the limited capacity of unmanned aircraft systems.”

Enhancing ISR to ‘Find’ in the Era of Security Competition

Optimizing the U.S. approach to intelligence collection in the era of security competition should begin with a clear vision of how ISR can most effectively deliver meaningful, timely, and accurate insights to decisionmakers at all levels. Essential to this process will be adopting a broader understanding of the types of technologies that should be considered part of the ISR enterprise. This includes assets that have traditionally been at the core of U.S. ISR efforts—satellites, piloted and uncrewed aircraft, and ground and sea sensors—but it should be expanded to also include a range of smaller, cheaper, and potentially expendable systems, such as expeditionary edge computing systems and attritable UAVs. U.S. intelligence should also capitalize on opportunities to enhance global situational awareness by embracing the promises of commercial and open-source intelligence.

Open-Source Intelligence as an Element of ISR

As numerous experts have argued, the revolution in commercial and open-source intelligence can greatly benefit U.S. intelligence. Within the context of “finding” global adversarial behavior, OSINT offers two primary benefits. First, the volume and variety of commercial data available globally can be instrumental in timely and accurate warning. Second, the presumed unclassified nature of this data provides U.S. decisionmakers with wider freedom of action in deciding how to confront malign behavior.

A robust open-source community has emerged that specializes in research and in-depth analysis of publicly available information, including social media, commercial imagery, and public records. Although some techniques raise questions about the lines between OSINT and clandestine collection—such as purchasing stolen or leaked data on black markets—these groups are able to produce timely, unique, in-depth, public analysis, often published alongside lengthy documentary evidence and a description of the tradecraft used.

The utility of expanding reliance on OSINT will be particularly important in areas where the United States maintains a limited clandestine collection footprint. Effective integration of OSINT into analysis of regions with fewer traditional collection assets could reduce the likelihood of strategic surprise. If tethered to systems that can persistently and effectively collect, exploit, and make sense of this data, OSINT tools could either independently detect indicators of adversarial behavior or assist broader U.S. collection efforts to analyze and attribute an emerging threat.

Commercial satellite imagery has demonstrated particular value to operationalizing OSINT in the public sphere. For example, in July 2021, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) relied on commercial imagery to report that China was expanding the construction of nuclear-capable missile silos. The report came in the wake of analysis from February 2021 about the expansion of silos at a separate site in China. Shortly after FAS released the report, U.S. Strategic Command issued a tweet highlighting how the revelations confirmed the command’s long-standing public statements about the Chinese missile threat.

This example parallels an April 2021 report in which nine U.S. combatant commanders urged the U.S. intelligence community (IC) to provide more unclassified information to publicly confront adversaries around the globe. The so-called “36-star Memo” called on the IC to better equip the United States and its allies to “win without fighting, to fight now in so-called gray zones, and to supply ammunition in the ongoing war of narratives.” This overarching requirement for unclassified intelligence further emphasizes the potential value of OSINT in expanding the range of U.S. options to respond to adversarial behavior. OSINT is typically collected outside of classified intelligence channels and can avoid the significant challenge of declassifying information collected via sensitive sources and methods.

Adding further support to this approach, a recent study evaluated how commercial imagery can influence public opinion when it is used to verify or reveal adversarial behavior. The study found that “commercial satellite imagery can be just as influential in shaping public attitudes as information supplied by government intelligence agencies.”

Forward-Deployed, Cloud-Based Platforms

Another enhancement to the ISR enterprise’s capability to “find” would be to embrace expeditionary edge computing. Currently, intelligence collection often works its way through lengthy processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) processes. Data is collected by sensors, captured at a ground station, copied to an operation center, tagged for analysis, prioritized for response, and then makes its way to a decisionmaker. Edge computing offers significant potential to expedite data exploitation at the point of collection.

Forward-operating, cloud-based edge systems have sufficient local storage, computing power, and analytic capabilities to perform field-level PED in support of intelligence operations. Largely built on consumer-grade hardware, these platforms are inexpensive and flexible in the types of intelligence missions they can execute. Moreover, these types of ruggedized edge computing systems are already widely available on the commercial market.

From a data collection perspective, these forward-operating cloud devices could be adapted to a wide range of missions and tailored to specific environments. For example, they could be placed in a city and fed a variety of publicly available information—television, radio, local news, social media—and trained to flag potential indicators of adversarial activity. These systems could also be deployed for more advanced OSINT tasks, like monitoring public records or other commercial data generated in the operating area.

Enterprise-scale, cloud-based collection and processing tools are already developed and managed at the headquarters level; however, forward-deploying smaller, independent cloud tools offers several advantages. First, providing them as an organic collection asset offers maximum flexibility at reasonable cost, enabling expeditionary units to adhere to existing doctrine to “task available collection assets first.” Second, these systems can better operate in remote or low-bandwidth environments. The onboard capability of these systems to conduct analytics—taking the first crack at separating signals from noise—substantially reduces the system’s bandwidth requirements. These systems are not suitable for all missions—some will be too data, computing, or bandwidth intensive—but they offer numerous advantages as stand-alone expeditionary capabilities or as onboard enhancements to aircraft, satellites, ground and sea sensors, or other collection platforms.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has evaluated several expeditionary cloud capabilities in recent years, the most notable of which is the current effort to integrate the EdgeONE capability into the Advanced Battlefield Management System (ABMS). Although the ABMS edge solution is largely focused on information management during conflict, access to these types of stand-alone, long-dwell edge cloud computing capabilities could significantly enhance intelligence collection.

Attritable UAVs

Relatively cheap, small, and potentially disposable systems can be thought of as “attritable.” Continuous improvements in UAV technology are increasing the viability and decreasing the cost of UAVs, many of which do not require an airfield for launch or recovery. Low-cost, attritable UAVs could be “good enough” for a range of mission needs.

Though less capable than higher-cost, more sophisticated designs, attritable UAVs would reduce the global overdemand for scarce aerial surveillance assets. Further, as the size and cost of signals, electronic, and imagery intelligence sensors decreases, smaller UAVs will only become more capable. This not only benefits the expeditionary units using these UAVs, but it enables the broader ISR enterprise to focus additional resources on fielding sophisticated, exquisite systems that can execute more complex missions.

Moreover, the increasing likelihood of contested air and electronic warfare environments necessitates the use of drones that can be used, lost, and replaced. Much recent interest in attritable UAVs has focused on their potential utility in conflict scenarios with near-peer competitors, but these assets—equipped with increasingly cheaper, smaller, and more capable collection sensors—could become a core capability in the competition phase.

Synchronizing for Success

As the United States considers how to effectively integrate new platforms and data into meaningful insights and decision advantage, it is important to recognize that intelligence operations are often simultaneous, not sequential. New data is continuously introduced into the system while intelligence officers work to ascertain what they do and do not know about an evolving situation.

In seeking clarity of potential malign activity, the recommended ISR enhancements—OSINT, expeditionary edge computing, and attritable UAVs—are intended to complement, rather than replace, the main elements of the national intelligence enterprise: the global signals intelligence (SIGINT) system, human intelligence (HUMINT) collection, geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), and the Open Source Enterprise (OSE). Synchronizing and synthesizing these elements will enable better-informed insights earlier in the decision cycle. This is essential for achieving an information advantage as malign activity emerges, potentially providing leaders with insights at mission speed.

Achieving this level of integrated insight will be no small engineering feat. The current ISR enterprise is hindered by poor interoperability, limited communications bandwidth, and inconsistent data management and software development processes. Modernizing these elements is at the heart of the Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC) and the associated Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative, which includes the aforementioned ABMS. These efforts—along with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) and the AI and Data Acceleration (ADA) initiative—envision an era where the DOD enterprise’s data can be accessed, exploited, and overlaid with advanced data analytics. In tandem with the IC’s similar Augmenting Intelligence with Machines (AIM) effort and the Commercial Cloud Enterprise (C2E), these are the key national security technical modernization challenges of our times.


U.S. global ISR leadership is currently undisputed. However, without continuous recalibration of the assets that comprise the ISR enterprise and the data it collects, the United States risks losing its strategic advantage.

As the U.S. overseas footprint declines, global access to already-limited, traditional air, ground, and sea systems will be even further constrained. Overseas basing challenges, adversarial anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD), and the global nature of security competition are already limiting U.S. options to quickly deploy collection assets into peripheral or contested environments. Enhanced OSINT collection and expanded utilization of platforms like the forward-operating cloud and attritable UAVs can only partially compensate for the tyranny of geography. The overall enterprise will need to be complemented by platforms that can quickly reach targets across long distances, sustain collection over those targets for extended periods, and remain resilient in denied areas.

Finding adversaries in urban environments will also continue to be a significant challenge. Organic data analytic capabilities, like the forward-operating cloud, should help intelligence collectors identify signals in particularly noisy urban environments, but these tools will only be successful if they are backed by the right software and talent. Similarly, sustaining GEOINT in urban areas is notoriously difficult and an area of particular emphasis in current machine-learning efforts. Modernizing efforts to “find” in urban environments will be primarily a software challenge, and it will hinge on the development of tools that can facilitate rapid and accurate identity matching and resolution. These types of analytics will be essential in correlating indicators across multiple methods of intelligence collection and to specific entities or individuals.

Just like the trends that are enabling advances in consumer electronics and cloud computing, the technology enabling the broader U.S. ISR enterprise benefits from Moore’s Law. Highly capable sensors, platforms, and analytic capabilities are getting smaller in size and cheaper to produce. This trend carries significant potential to disrupt and transform U.S. ISR doctrine. Cheap, highly capable alternatives to scarce collection tools are fundamental to resolving resource constraints and advancing the intelligence mission. Adversaries are using tradecraft new and old alike to hide. The United States must embrace the promises and challenges of the information age to find them.

Jake Harrington is an intelligence fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Riley McCabe is a research assistant with the CSIS International Security Program.

This commentary is made possible by support from General Atomics and general support to CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jake Harrington

Jake Harrington

Former Intelligence Fellow, International Security Program
Riley McCabe
Program Manager and Research Associate, Transnational Threats Project