For the past 15 years, U.S. Central Command has hogged the military’s intelligence-gathering aircraft to keep an eye on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the demand signal is expected to continue, according to the current chief of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Gen. Joseph Votel, currently chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9 for a hearing on his potential confirmation as CENTCOM commander.
In his written testimony to SASC, Votel said he would be reluctant to relinquish any intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets because demand already exceeds the platforms that are available for intelligence-gathering missions.
“Over the last 15 years, CENTCOM has received the overwhelming majority of the ISR support that DoD has been able to generate,” Votel says. “However, the demand for more ISR has continued to outstrip the supply, even though the Secretary of Defense has taken extraordinary actions to ramp up the acquisition of more and more capable and varied ISR systems.”
Platforms that can gather and transmit full-motion video are particularly prized for their ability to help follow potential targets for long periods of time and reduce collateral damage. ISR provided by unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are used in ongoing counterterrorism and conventional conflicts in the region, he said.
Combatant commands elsewhere have seen their ISR requirements sidelined to fulfill the priority mission needs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf, he said. Still, the supply of ISR assets falls short of what CENTCOM needs, meaning all combatant commanders are “operating at a deficit with respect to ISR demand versus assets available,” Votel said.
“CENTCOM does not believe there will be any reduction in ISR requirements in the near future,” he said. “The extension of current operations and force levels in Afghanistan, combined with the growing scope of operations in Iraq/Syria, continues to expand CENTCOM’s requirements…As a result, we are not likely to recommend any asset relinquishment from CENTCOM’s AOR.
Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, who has been tapped to replace Votel as SOCOM chief, agreed in his testimony to SASC that there is a “critical shortfall in airborne ISR across the Department of Defense.”
“The lack of ISR slows the pace of operations and inhibits our ability to put decisive pressure on enemy networks,” Thomas said.
“The current system does an adequate job in prioritizing and allocating ISR, but it lacks the flexibility and agility to rapidly move assets across a changing battlefield. In particular, moving ISR across combatant command boundaries is problematic, and creates seams which our enemies exploit….The greatest challenge to our ability to employ ISR is the lack of capacity. There simply is not enough.”