How NATO Makes the Unknown Known

A Look at the Improvements to NATO Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

By Mr

By Mr



Head ISR, NATO Headquarters

 June 2016


Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) plays a vital role in all military operations. Decision-makers and action-takers use the information and intelligence gained from surveillance and reconnaissance missions to make informed, timely and accurate judgements.

While surveillance and reconnaissance can help to answer the questions ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’, the combined elements from various ISR sources and disciplines provide the answers to ‘how’ and ‘why’. When all of this is combined, you create Joint ISR.

Our experiences in Libya and Afghanistan demonstrated that, although we attached high value on the collection of information by Allies’ ISR assets, there were challenges in the way in which NATO interpreted, handled, and shared information within our own organization. Whilst NATO arguably had a sufficient number of assets for ISR collection, those challenges such as managing the quantity of information, disseminating the information, and verifying the correct formats and product quality proved difficult. These shortcomings were primarily driven by insufficiently trained Joint ISR personnel, outdated NATO Joint ISR doctrine and procedures, and a lack of connectivity. In response, NATO launched its Joint ISR initiative at the Chicago Summit in 2012 and re-confirmed this effort at the Wales Summit in 2014.

In February 2016, Allied Defence Ministers formally declared the Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of NATO Joint ISR. This achievement goes some way to addressing some of those shortfalls witnessed in both Afghanistan and Libya. Indeed, the IOC effort has been primarily focused on providing enhanced capabilities to NATO’s Response Force 2016 (NRF16).

What Joint ISR IOC Has Achieved

NATO Joint ISR is about people, platforms, processes, and networks. All of these components must synchronize correctly if we are to provide intelligence and information to the right person in the right format at the right time and at the right place. With this in mind, NATO Joint ISR IOC centred its efforts on, people and training, processes, and networking, working across many of the ‘lines of development’ which, when combined, create a genuine capability.1 To that end, the Alliance has delivered a number of improvements in these areas for not only NRF16 but also NATO as a whole.

People and Training. Through NATO’s Joint ISR IOC, a great deal of effort has been made in the area of training personnel. Over 100 training courses from Allies are now available to the Alliance. This is more than triple the amount available during NATO’s time in Afghanistan. In addition, advanced Joint ISR training objectives have been created for NATO exercises, ensuring NATO forces could conduct the business of Joint ISR together. In addition, an intelligence training STANAG has also been developed, which is a step forward for creating a recognized NATO baseline of standards for ISR personnel training across the Alliance.

Processes. Whilst efforts in training were ongoing, there was also a need to ensure our processes were up to date and relevant for the Alliance’s contemporary operating environment. As such, NATO undertook a rewrite of the Alliance’s intelligence capstone doctrine and also created a brand new ISR doctrine. Much effort went into ensuring these publications were mutually supportive and their development enabled further NATO ISR tactical publications and Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be developed as part of the IOC effort. This common understanding of what Joint ISR is within a NATO context has helped develop significant improvements in the planning and execution of NATO Joint ISR Missions.

Networking. To make sure NATO is in a position to provide decision makers with the right information at the right time and in the right format, NATO needed a robust Joint ISR architecture which would span the NATO enterprise and include the ability for nations to ‘plug and play’ with their national ISR assets. This has now been established through the NRF16 and NATO’s Joint ISR information exchange capabilities have been vastly improved. Indeed, NATO now has the ability to constitute a deployable mission network, which has been tested and verified in multiple scenarios. During the Joint ISR IOC process, the Alliance used various information flows to verify and measure its Joint ISR data and information abilities, including optimized bandwidth utilization whilst also employing significant numbers of operational ISR capabilities on these networks.

How NATO Joint ISR IOC Was Achieved?

It is important to understand how Joint ISR IOC was achieved because it highlights the array of committees, groups, Allies and staff involved and, more importantly, demonstrates that successful delivery involved much more than mere transactional interactions amongst actors.

Allies played a major role in the delivery of NATO’s Joint ISR IOC. Indeed, Allies provided a great deal of governance and direction to the NATO staff regarding the Joint ISR IOC effort. The primary group responsible for this was NATO’s Joint ISR Project Group which reported, and continues to report, to the Conference of National Armament Directors (CNAD). In addition, the Military Intelligence Committee had, and has, an active role in providing oversight for matters pertaining to the Capability Development for Intelligence, for which certain elements of NATO’s Joint ISR IOC were relevant.

With over ten NATO committees involved in the success of Joint ISR IOC2, a staff body representing as much of the enterprise as possible was needed to provide access to all pertinent areas of the NATO Joint ISR Capability Development and Delivery environment. This was achieved through the NATO Joint ISR Task Force led by NATO’s Joint ISR Capability Area Manager. This Task Force was a ‘team of teams’3unified by one single effort – the completion of IOC with a special focus on the NRF16.

The Multi-intelligence All-source Joint ISR Interoperability Coalition 2 (MAJIIC2) and the Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation Systems (BICES) also played very important roles in helping to develop and deliver NATO’s Joint ISR IOC. MAJIIC2’s development of technical and procedural standards regarding the processes for Information Requirements Management and Collection Management (IRM&CM) and the technical underpinning of the Coalition Shared Database (CSD) servers were fundamental to much of what was achieved.4

BICES utilization of CSDs on the BICES network and BICES subsequent developments, alongside the NCIA, of cross domain solutions have enabled the sharing and synchronization of data and information across multiple networks. This is a significant step forward for sharing information and intelligence in an Alliance setting, as well as delivering Joint ISR IOC.

All of the technical advances of Joint ISR IOC were vigorously tested through several trials and exercises, as depicted in Figure 1.

In the Unified Vision 2014 Trial, which was an evaluation of the first Joint ISR deliverables for Joint ISR IOC and NATO obtained a much better understanding of the Alliance’s Joint ISR capabilities. From this trial, the weak areas of architecture and processes were noted. These areas were then evaluated and subsequently addressed. In May of 2015, exercise Steadfast Cobalt took place. This large communications exercise allowed for a de-risking of activities for Joint ISR IOC and those NRF16 affected force elements by testing primary networking and communications equipment in an operational environment, all of which built on the lessons from Unified Vision 2014.

Finally, Trident Juncture 2015 was NATO’s largest exercise in over a decade and was a high visibility NRF16 event. It demonstrated Joint ISR in a collective training environment and was the final proving ground for the recognized fulfilment of Joint ISR IOC allowing NATO commanders to recommend to the North Atlantic Council the achievement of NATO’s Joint ISR IOC.

Challenges Joint ISR and IOC Have Faced

Joint ISR IOC was a challenging accomplishment, in that it involved so many people, organizations and Allies. Communication and cooperative agreements involving so many entities proved difficult at times, but challenges were eased with the creation of the Joint ISR Task Force, which helped communications amongst actors and provided a more holistic environment to track the progression of Joint ISR IOC.

Given its focus on the short-term delivery, the IOC programme did not rely on standard NATO resourcing methods. Instead, an ad hoc approach was utilized that proved workable. However, In future iterations of NATO Joint ISR improvements, a more stable resourcing methodology will be adopted.

The Future of Joint ISR

After the formal declaration of Joint ISR IOC, work is not slowing down. Due to continuously changing technology and the ever shifting geo-political environment, NATO Joint ISR will never have a Full Operating Capability (FOC) declared. Instead, NATO Joint ISR will be continually evaluated and enhanced via an iterative improvement cycle. This will enable the Alliance to keep up to date with current technology and improve NATO’s need for continued strategic awareness.

A very important future Joint ISR project is the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system. AGS is based on the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) platform RQ-4 Global Hawk along with its deployable ground stations. AGS will enable the Alliance to perform persistent surveillance over wide areas from high-altitude for long periods of time. Using advanced radar sensors, these systems will continuously detect and track moving objects throughout observed areas and provide radar imagery of areas of interest. However, the real jewel in the crown will be the advanced exploitation centre at Sigonella, Sicily, from where AGS missions will be commanded and intelligence produced. AGS will be a NATO-owned and -operated capability along with the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C), the airborne Command and Control platform.

Another important upcoming Joint ISR activity will be the trial Unified Vision 2016 (UV16). This trial will be a Joint ISR event that will test and verify National, multinational (BICES) and NATO networks for cross domain activity so as to facilitate, a relatively new concept in NATO colloquially known as Federated PED (Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination). Federated PED allows for a more joint operative environment by allowing the sharing of data between intelligence fusion centres known as PED sites. This trial will lead to a better architecturally equipped Alliance and will benefit future NATO activities including AGS.


Joint ISR IOC was initiated to address those operational shortfalls witnessed during NATO operations in both Afghanistan and Libya and to make the Alliance more capable and interoperable. Joint ISR IOC had the potential to be unsuccessful due to its complexity and breadth across the NATO enterprise. However, thanks to the exceptional trust and sense of purpose Joint ISR IOC engendered across the NATO community, a true desire to complete Joint ISR IOC was created and, indeed, IOC was achieved. However, it should be remembered that, whilst the business of ISR needs networks, processes and collection assets, at the heart of Joint ISR are our people. If we continue to develop well-trained personnel who understand the end-to-end business of ISR and who are then supported by those various STANAGS, processes and technical endeavours, NATO’s ISR development will continue to go from strength to strength.

NATO’s Lines of Development are: Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, Interoperability.
North Atlantic Council, Military Committee, Military Intelligence Committee, Military Committee Working Group (Intelligence), Military Committee Joint Standardisation Board, Joint Intelligence Working Group, Joint ISR Panel, Conference of National Armament Directors, Joint ISR Project Group, Joint Capability Group ISR, Consultation Command and Control (C3) Board, Resource Policy and Plans Board, BICES Board of Governors and Directors (non-exhaustive).
Joint ISR Capability Area Manager, Military Senior Coordinator for Joint ISR, NATO HQ – International Military Staff Intelligence Division; Defence Investment ISR Section; NATO Office of Resources; Defence Policy Plans; C3 Staff – Allied Command Transformation (ACT), SHAPE, Allied Command Operations (ACO – Joint Forces Command Brunssum and Naples), BICES Group Executive, NATO Communications and Information Agency, NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Programme Management Agency, NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Agency, NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force Command, Alliance Ground Surveillance Staff Element Implementation Office.
CSDs are a type of digital organizational library that the Alliance can utilize to help Process, Exploit, Disseminate (PED) and retrieve data throughout the NATO enterprise in a very rapid and efficient manner.
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Head ISR, NATO Headquarters

Robert Murray is the Head of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) within NATO Headquarters. He is in part responsible for NATO’s ISR Capability Development policies, plans and their subsequent implementation. Prior to joining NATO, Rob was a British Army Officer specializing in ISR and as such deployed on multiple national and multinational operations. Rob is a graduate of the UK’s Qualified Weapons Instructor ISR course and holds a Master of Arts degree in International Policy and Diplomacy as well as a Master of Science Degree in ISR Management.

Information provided is current as of June 2016

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