Getting it right: integrating the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance enterprise

Defence National security Surveillance Intelligence services Australia

This paper examines the nature of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance challenge confronting Australia and how that challenge is currently being met.


Understanding the environment in which a conflict is being or will be conducted has always been a central element of military thinking. In today’s world, this understanding is embraced by three elements: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Whilst ISR has traditionally focussed on military operations, the last century has seen an increasing emergence of ISR as a construct and capability that might support a broader ‘national interest’. Indeed, today the national security community is engaged as both a user and contributor, and the need has recently emerged for an ISR capability that supports border protection in which a ‘national’ or ‘sovereign’ interest, as opposed to a ‘military’ paradigm, has come to the fore.

Conceptually, an ISR capability allows for the observation and analysis of events and the production of useful, timely information to support a national interest. In reality, this simple ISR construct is challenged by several factors: the number of events; the ability to observe; processing the observed events and the increasing amount of data; the time taken to conduct an analysis; the time to determine a course of action; and the time taken to respond.

The simple ISR construct is further challenged when the many networked and linked sensors used to observe events are taken into consideration. Increased sensor inputs provide greater situational awareness and better predictive intelligence necessary to achieve superior decision-making and, hence, more effective operations. However, modern-day ISR systems have also significantly reduced the available time in the decision cycle for making sense of what is occurring and for carrying out an action as a result. The challenge, therefore, is to balance the greater situational awareness and better predictive intelligence with ensuring that decisions are not delayed waiting for additional information.

The purpose of this Kokoda ISR Project is to develop new ideas for a future Australian ISR Enterprise that complements the emerging national security framework and positions ISR as a sovereign capability. Concerns have been expressed that the opportunities, challenges and risks confronting the National ISR Community have increased and become more diverse in recent years. Consequently, the potential for extending the current Whole-of-Government approach to exploiting ISR and better accommodating Industry into the National ISR infrastructure needs to be explored. Innovation and integration of new ISR methods, systems, and concepts will be important for future success.

For the immediate future, Australia’s military and law-enforcement organisations will need to embrace strategic, operational, organisational, technological, process, and cultural change in a tough fiscal climate, and demonstrate how they can achieve more with existing assets and organisations. They will face challenges as they seek to cooperate more closely, yet feel the need to retain some of their traditional boundaries (noting that many of the traditional boundaries are set in legislation). They will need to meet the public expectation of effectiveness, responsiveness and accountability, and a well-integrated and robust ISR function will be critical in this respect.

This Kokoda Paper examines the nature of the ISR challenge confronting Australia and how that challenge is currently being met. It argues that an extension of current policy approaches that involve making the most of Australia’s organisations, capabilities, and international and national cooperation is called for. It identifies those other key areas for improved policy and argues the importance of adopting a whole-of-nation approach, improving public engagement, accelerating the data-to-decision cycle, and synchronising ISR capabilities; and recommends specific proposals for pursuing these policy outcomes.

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