Satisfying ISR Requirements in Stabilization Missions – Is Contracting the Right Option?

A Reflection from a Robust UN Peacekeeping Mission towards NATO’s Future Operations

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, GE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2019)

 December 2019


The trend of outsourcing services and parts of businesses to third-party manufacturers or service providers has become more and more fashionable since the 1990s. One main reason is businesses wanting to focus on their own core strengths in high-tech aspects of the work, while leaving baseline work and services to others that specialize in that field, for short-term financial gains. Likewise, the military services have embraced similar ideas and practices. Since the end of the Cold War, but especially from the 2000s, non-core functions of militaries have been outsourced around the world, ranging from maintenance services of equipment and infrastructure to logistical support1. The gains envisioned were similar to civilian counterparts’ and largely motivated by budgetary concerns2.

However, despite early trends to limit outsourcing to so-called ‘non-core services’, core functions have also increasingly become outsourced. This paper will discuss outsourcing trends in the Alliance’s Intelligence field and whether this trend is a worthwhile option, or perhaps even a necessity. In order to draw conclusions regarding NATO, another actor in the area of peacekeeping, the United Nations (UN), is used as a reference to debate the advantages and disadvantages of using non-military Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) service providers in an actual mission area.


The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), is currently utilizing two Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) as its main theatre ISR collection assets. One is an Israel Aerospace Industries HERON 1 system provided, manned and employed by Germany as part of their ISR Task Force contribution to the mission3. The other UAS is an ELBIT HERMES 900 system provided, manned and employed by the private company THALES UK. Both systems share similar features with respect to their capabilities and both are tasked by the MINUSMA Force Headquarters (FHQ) U24 ISR cell for long-endurance mission sets. These missions include ISR collection in accordance with the Intelligence Collection Plan (ICP) and direct support to operations, including force protection. Another similarity of these systems is their embedded analytical capacity, both having imagery analysts who conduct first-level analysis on-site. Of note, the HERON UAS utilizes a reach-back component at the home base of the squadron in Germany for the ‘level 2’ analysis while Thales UK conducts all analytical work in theatre. Even though they operate from different Main Operating Bases (MOBs)5, both UAS share the same overall constraints of state-of-the-art MALE UAS. Issues such as airspace integration, airspace risk management, weather limitations and a high dependency on the availability of satellite communication bandwidth are foremost areas of concern when employing either a military-owned or a contracted MALE UAS system. Nevertheless, how the employing unit/vendor deals with these inherent limitations can be quite different.

Role of the ISR Forces in a Peacekeeping Mission and NATO Stabilization Operations

Before delving into the advantages and disadvantages of different ways to provide this ISR ‘service’, one must consider the baseline role, considerations and assumptions of ISR air assets in peacekeeping operations (and their relationship to NATO stabilization operations).

The current Areas of Operation (AOO) of NATO and Coalitions fighting against terrorism, such as ISAF/Resolute Support, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) and UN missions such as MINUSMA, predominantly consist of large geographic areas with stakeholders and parties of multiple affiliations. Typically, the participants have limited numbers of both ‘boots on the ground’ and ISR resources to satisfy the Intelligence Requirements (IR) of Force and Mission leadership6. This is especially true given the dynamic and ad-hoc taskings that are derived from the need to have ‘eyes-on’ various situations on the ground, many of which overextend available capacities7.

Notably, employing a MALE ISR asset in a mission requires a substantial effort by supporting elements and infrastructure to actually get the asset airborne.

More to the point, only a few nations have a MALE UAS capability in their inventory at all. Within NATO, only 11 countries have or are in the process of acquiring MALE-like systems, limiting the number of possible Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs). For UN missions, even though in theory there is a bigger pool of possible contributors (states), the actual number of nations contributing to UN missions, with contingents big enough to host a MALE UAS, are mostly limited to TCCs that do not have this capability available8. Therefore, to be able to satisfy even current ISR requirements, additional [non-military (or non-governmental or non-state)] providers of ISR capabilities often have to be considered.

As a result, this demand-that-exceeds-supply has given rise to various organizations that are able and willing to provide such capability and expertise. Specialized ISR know-how is now commonly available to commercial entities due to the employment of MALE UAS systems in military operations for the last 20 to 25 years and the military’s subsequent loss of personnel to the civilian sector. Consequently, the experience gained in the field by operating MALE systems in diverse environments, such as the above described AOO, is harnessed by employing these former military operators and catalysed by utilizing a wide range of commercially available, or self-developed systems. Hence, a wide range of companies are now at the disposal of governments and multinational organizations and not only offer technical and logistical support, but an entire range of effects from employing the aircraft to analysing the data.

Considerations of Employing a Civilian Contractor

In order to derive an assessment and recommendation on the future use of civilian ISR contractors in NATO operations, their participation in the Tasking, Collection, Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (TCPED) process shall be examined with respect to the operational value of the two UAS in the MINUSMA mission. Due to the focus on the ISR results in this paper, the second major aspect of the topic, the legal dilemma of contracted civilians in armed conflicts, will not be evaluated9.

Tasking: By their nature, UAV ISR missions are either deliberate, dynamic or ad-hoc. Deliberate missions entail detailed planning and subsequent tasking by analysing Requests for Information (RFI). Dynamic and ad-hoc missions are completed by re-tasking UAVs that were conducting other assignments, such as deliberate missions. Still, all tasking types require the tasking authority to provide the asset with a detailed set of questions in order to answer the IR. With a civilian contractor, the challenge in this step lies in comprehending the tasking with regard to access and knowledge of the operating environment and situation. The main issue is the constant risk of missing available background information due to the lack of direct access and/or ‘membership’ in military Intelligence product distribution chains. Consequently, a higher degree of communication between tasking manager, requestor and asset is required, creating more workload at the Information Requirement Management/Collection Management (IRM/CM) cell and, potentially, less detailed analysis.

Collection: Considering the collection part of the ISR process, the overall environmental framework in which a contracted asset is operating is not much different from a military one as they basically use similar versions of UAS. However, when considering the actual availability of an asset, especially in cases of activation in ad-hoc or emergency situations, the contractual boundaries and framework of civilian assets do create constraints. For example, the focus of a civilian contractor will almost always be driven by economic circumstances, therefore minimizing available crew and assets and therefore costs within the contractual limits. Conversely, a military-operated asset is normally assessed to have greater flexibility and reachability, especially in crisis situations. For real-time viewing of collected information, connectivity to, and potential requirements for the training of units in handling of remote video terminal technology provided by the contractor needs consideration. It is considered to require more coordination to include external training to TCC units than from organic military assets but still this requirement needs to be included in military training efforts for units to reach Full Operational Capability.

Processing: The third step in the ISR process is considered a primary technical one. Still, permission to connect to the Command and Control (C2) systems of the mission could be a show-stopper for civilian entities. Even if it is not, the level of classification of the collected data, and the possible security concerns that arise when having a civilian contractor store the data on commercial drives, must be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, available framework concepts and NATO standards that provide reference to interoperability should be utilized at the early stages of the contract development to avoid challenges in this technical step.

Exploitation: Exploiting data that is collected is a time consuming and crucial step in the Joint ISR process. It requires access to sensitive reference data and is, therefore, an important factor in the decision to contract an all-inclusive (civilian only) package of the TCPED process. Both of the last steps of the process, exploitation and dissemination, include similar restrictions and considerations concerning operations security. These considerations lead to an assessment that either allows full access for the contracted analyst to get the highest quality product, or exploitation will otherwise inherently be limited to ‘level 1’. If that limitation is imposed and in-depth analysis is left to military analytical capacity, monitoring of the efficiency of the tasking and collection, plus the quality of the first-level interpretation by any sensor operator, is to be considered most crucial and requires additional manpower to understand the ‘why and how’ of the collected information. This factor is also one of the main considerations of use (or not) of reach-back analysis units outside the theatre, as a ‘break’ in the chain between first and second level analysis is more likely.

Dissemination: Finally, the ISR results need to get to the right person and unit to be of value. Because this stage is closely linked to the tasking step, and assuming the C2 connection from the asset to the IRM/CM cell is working, it is considered to be as efficient as a military asset. Still, the requirements for ad-hoc and dynamic reporting is assessed to be more challenging when working with the contracted asset, especially when limited secondary methods of communication are established. This is largely due to the location of the asset and accessibility of communication equipment that is only available to the military requestor.

Additionally, factors beyond the TCPED process, like human factors and business models, have to be considered. A staff of civilian contractors posted to a remote location has different dynamics than a military unit deployed in the same area. In the author’s experience, the relationship within a military unit, especially when working together as a team towards a military objective, is different to a collective staff of civilian individuals, each with different duty durations, leave days and working in a company-salary based system. It can be argued that the motivation of the latter ‘to go the extra mile’ to make a flight, mission and product happen is less than a functioning military unit.


Not all experiences from a UN peacekeeping mission can be transferred to NATO stabilization operations but both missions share similar ISR requirements. Therefore, with regards to experiences from MINUSMA, the following are notes and recommendations for NATO when contracting unmanned (or manned) ISR:

Contracting an ISR asset to deploy a full-service package, especially to austere locations, cannot be handled like any standard service contract. The architecture of how the system is supposed to function within the mission framework is crucial to success and requires detailed preparation and validation. Consequently, a high satisfaction rate can only be ensured by considering operational experience when negotiating the contract.

A contracted ISR asset is most valuable in a relatively static environment with a clear focus on recurring tasks and with a clear baseline of information. Contractors can fill gaps in an environment such as that and deliver satisfactory results, often because of their military backgrounds. Solely relying on them in a dynamic environment, especially when only very few overall sensors are employed, should be avoided as units completely embedded in the military structure proved to be more efficient.

The emphasis for the future should then be on establishing more combined, multinational ISR units, each with NATO-owned systems, which can be accessed and deployed directly in a flexible manner within the NATO Command Structure.

In summary, with the constant and continuous growth of conventional threats, a sole emphasis on contracted ISR is not very practical but can assist in bridging gaps and satisfy basic requirements. Overall, a too great focus on contracting may limit the experience and counter the willingness of the nations in employing MALE ISR systems in missions and not deliver the best results possible.

Level 1 Interpretation:

Real-Time observation resulting in oral near real-time description and written summary of list of events.

Level 2 Analysis:

Deliberate IMINT analysis including cross-referencing and production of requested JISR result.

Moore, Adam, ‘U.S. Military Logistics Outsourcing and the Everywhere of War’ 2015 [cited 31 Jan. 2019]. Available from SSRN:; Internet.
Petersohn, Ulrich, ‘Privatizing Security: The Limits Of Military Outsourcing’. CSS Analysis in Security Policy No. 80 (2010): p. 1.
Interestingly, Germany is also using a third-party service provider for technical maintenance and support of the UAS but is employing a dedicated unit for the flying operations and ISR operations.
UN equivalent to a CJ2 branch at operational level.
HERON is deployed to GAO, while the HERMES 900 is deployed to TIMBUKTU.
Sloan, Elinor C., Modern Military Strategy, Oxon: Routledge, 2017 p. 50.
Wong, Kristina, ‘US commander: Lack of intelligence assets slowing down ISIS war’. 2016 [cited 31 Jan. 2019]. Available from:; Internet.
See Ranking of contributions by country to UN led mission. Available from:; Internet.
For more information on this particular subject see Haider, André, ‘Contracting Civilians for Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Operations. Blurring International Law’s Principle of Distinction?’, JAPCC Journal No. 22 (2016).
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2019)

Lieutenant Colonel Michel Busch was commissioned to the German Army as an artillery officer in July 2003. His subject matter expertise comprises Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). He was recently deployed to the UN Peacekeeping Mission in MALI as U2 Deputy Chief ISR. In previous assignments, he was an Instructor for NATO Aerial Imagery Analysis and Head of the Full Motion Video Section at the German IMINT Training Centre. Major Busch holds a university diploma degree in Social and Political Sciences from the Bundeswehr Universität München and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Applied Sciences in Kempten.

Information provided is current as of December 2019

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