Amateurs Talk Collection, Professionals Talk PED

RC-135 Rivet Joint, Wikimedia Commons

By James Dickey, Columnist


According to various news reports over the past several months, the United States does not have enough aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to meet ballooning world-wide demand. The oft-cited reasons for this include too few aircraft, [1] budget shortfalls,[2] and even a shortage of drone pilots.[3] However, the hard truth is that the US already collects more data from its aerial ISR then it can effectively use. The Department of Defense does not have enough personnel to process, exploit, and disseminate (PED) the overwhelming amount of information currently collected by the hundreds of manned and unmanned aircraft flying over the world’s hotspots.[4]

US ISR assets are keeping an eye on North Korea, getting into near misses with Chinese fighter jets, looking for the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, identifying improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, and pinpointing targets for air-strikes against the Islamic State. These missions are largely carried out by aircraft which fly anywhere between treetop level to the upper atmosphere. They use a dizzying array of sensors to collect images, listen to communications, and track targets. While it is best to have a soldier on the ground with a radio, more often than not, decisions are made based upon the information gathered from aerial ISR.[5] Yet, in March 2014, the Commander of AFRICOM told a Senate committee that he only had enough assets to meet 11% of his ISR requirements.[6]

One reason for this gap is often attributed to a lack of aircraft. However, since 9/11 there has been an increase in tactical airborne collection units paid for out of both the base budget and with supplemental Overseas Contingency Operations funds.[7] The DOD unmanned aerial system (UAS) fleet grew from 163 aircraft in 2003 to 7,454 in 2012.[8] Include manned platforms such as the RC-12 Guardrail, MC-12 Liberty, U2 Dragon Lady, EP-3 Orion, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and others. The US has more ISR available than at any other time in its history.

Another cited constraint on the availability of ISR is money and the impact of sequestration. Recently, the Air Force announced that sequestration might force the retirement the venerable U2 spy plane as well as halt development and fielding of the Global Hawk Block 40.[9] These systems are irreplaceable by other aircraft, but the ISR fleet is still growing. The Army recently contracted for 118 MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAS.[10] Budget cuts matter, but Congress and the Services continue to find a way to build aircraft.

Pilot shortages are also a problem. A recent article entitled “U.S. Drone Fleet at ‘Breaking Point,’” cited an internal Air Force memo which claimed that increased requirements for UAS missions was forcing the Air Force to pull pilots out of training schools and cancel vacations. As a result, drone pilots were leaving the service in large numbers.[11] This begins to get at the Achilles heel of ISR, manpower, but the problem is more than lack of pilots.

The biggest shortcoming of ISR is a lack of trained personnel to PED collected data. Most drones collect a non-stop stream of data from their cameras called full motion video. Imagery analysts have to look at all of that video, usually in real-time, and extract useful information. This process requires multiple analysts since it is generally too much to expect one or two people to maintain focus while watching up to twelve hours of landscape roll by beneath the camera lens.[12] Since most ISR platforms have multiple sensors, a mission may also require linguists, specialists in interpretation of radar data, or other esoteric experts. It usually takes a team of between five to ten people, per work shift, to PED a mission. Missions run 24/7, so manning must accommodate three, eight hour shifts daily, 365 days a year. A 2012 Rand study estimated that each Predator or Reaper combat air patrol requires 192 people, of which 84 are associated with PED.[13]

The Army and Air Force, which own the preponderance of aerial ISR, are well aware of their PED shortfalls.[14] In the late 1990’s, the Air Force consolidated most of their personnel dedicated to PED into the Distributed Ground Stations allowing better management of its workforce.[15] The Army, due to both technological and bureaucratic shortfalls, only began consolidating its PED personnel over the past couple of years.[16] More efficient ways to share workload across the services are also being explored. Unfortunately, personnel management and process fixes can only go so far and DOD has frequently turned to contractors to provide the needed additional capacity.

While some systems come with their own “organic” PED personnel, other newer systems do not. A 2014 DOD white paper identified the need to better manage a “disjointed” ISR force that included numerous contractor owned and operated systems.[17] As the best of breed sensors and platforms are transitioned to the base budget, DOD needs to find the organic personnel to PED these resources.

As Congress and the Services seek to address America’s ISR shortfalls, it would be wise for them to remember PED in their calculations. Otherwise, we are likely to build more systems to meet demand, but still fail to provide needed intelligence to warfighters and policymakers.

LTC (Ret) James Dickey has 22 years of international experience in risk analysis, strategic planning, operations, training and leadership. His assignments as an intelligence officer with the United States Army took him from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Germany, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan. He commanded a military intelligence company operating out of Fort Meade, Maryland and served as the senior intelligence analyst for Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2006. He was also appointed the director of the Theater Ground Intelligence Center – Central which provided intelligence and knowledge management services to US and Coalition Forces operating in the Middle East and Central Asia. Prior to matriculating in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, he served as the chief of operations at the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command.


[1] Dave Majumdar, “Drone ‘Shortage’ Hampers ISIS War,” The Daily Beast, November 18, 2014. Available at

[2] Sam Brannen, “The Gap Between Supply and Demand for Spy Planes Just Got Bigger,” Defense One, May 29, 2014. Available at

[3] Dave Majumdar, “Exclusive: U.S. Drone Fleet at ‘Breaking Point,’ Air Force Says,” The Daily Beast, January 4, 2015. Available at

[4] Angus Batey, “New Intell Challenge Is Separating Wheat From Chaff,” Aviation Week, May 1, 2012. Available at

[5] Marcus Weisgerber, “A Look Inside a Secret US Air Force Intelligence Center,” Defense One, November 18, 2014. Available at

[6] Testimony of General David M. Rodriguez to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, March 6, 2014. Available at

[7] FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations Request, Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Fund, June 2014. Available at

[8] Jeremiah Gertler, “U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems,” Congressional Research Office, January 2, 2012.

[9] Amaani Lyle, “Sequestration Casts Shadow on Shrinking, Aging Air Force Fleet,” DoD News, Defense Media Activity, Jan. 28, 2015. Available at

[10] Marina Malenic, “Pentagon budget 2015: HASC subcommittee markup reveals funds for Improved Gray Eagle,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, April 28, 2014. Available at

[11] Dave Majumdar, “Exclusive: U.S. Drone Fleet at ‘Breaking Point,’ Air Force Says,” The Daily Beast, January 4, 2015. Available at

[12] “The Future of Air Force Motion Imagery Exploitation; Lessons from the Commercial World,” The RAND Corporation, 2012. Available at

[13] ibid

[14] LTG Mary A. Legere, Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence (G2), “Army Intelligence Industry Day, Army Intelligence 2020 and Beyond,” Briefing, 2013.

[15] Weisgerber

[16] Legere

[17] Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Joint Force 2020 White Paper, June 2014. Available at

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