Manned Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance:
Strategic, Tactical . . . Both?
Since the inception of Operation Enduring Freedom, manned airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) forces have evolved from their precounterinsurgency mission of conducting long-term strategic intelligence collection to become the world’s premier purveyors of tactical intelligence. Today’s manned airborne ISR forces provide battlefield intelligence directly to ground war fighters in near real time through a variety of communications methods. This intelligence often gives our ground forces the information they need to engage hostile forces and to protect themselves from imminent attacks. Although these ISR forces are immeasurably valuable to today’s fight, the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rebalance of our mission focus to the Asia-Pacific herald a concomitant shift for those forces. By means of a brief historical survey of the collection of strategic and tactical intelligence, this article examines and highlights the difficulties of making such a transition. Ultimately, by studying the past, we hope that we can inform our impending decisions regarding the employment of our manned airborne ISR force. Historically, the Air Force has tended to wash its hands of tactical capability following the termination of hostilities. This article argues against making that mistake and further advises that a return to a preponderant emphasis on strategic collection will take considerable time, resources, and personnel.