The Defense Department over the last decade has built up an inventory of billions of dollars worth of spy aircraft and battlefield sensors. Those systems create avalanches of data that clog military information networks and overwhelm analysts.
Intelligence experts say the military is drowning in data but not able to convert that information into intelligible reports that break it down and analyze it.
"The challenge for users of intelligence is that all the different types of information come in a stove-piped manner," says Michael W. Isherwood, a defense analyst and former Air Force fighter pilot.
Intelligence feeds include electronic signals, satellite imagery, moving-target data and full-motion video. "How do you integrate this into a clear picture?" Isherwood asks. "That is one of the enduring challenges in the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] arena for all the services."
Isherwood, the author of a Mitchell Institute white paper, titled, "Layering ISR Forces," cautions that success in future operations hinges on "timely, astute combinations of ISR resources."
The Pentagon would be wise to shift its future investments from sensors to data-analysis tools, he says.
"The awareness gained from integrated, multi-source intelligence data is of supreme value," says Isherwood.
In actual combat, a coherent picture of the battlefield is not a "routine event," he says. "Coalition forces in Afghanistan have suffered losses when they were surprised by a much larger insurgent force not detected in time by ISR assets."
Military drone operators amass untold amounts of data that never is fully analyzed because it is simply too much, Isherwood says.
In the Air Force alone, the buildup of data collectors has been dramatic. While its inventory of fighter, bomber, tanker and transport aircraft shrank by 11 percent over the past decade, ISR platforms--primarily unmanned air vehicles--increased by nearly 300 percent, says Isherwood.
Air Force leaders have recognized this problem and recently decided to cut its future purchases of Reaper drones in half--from 48 to 24--because there is not enough manpower to operate and process the data from more aircraft. "It didn't make sense to have the production out that far ahead of our ability to actually do the processing and exploitation and dissemination function," Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Budget Marilyn Thomas says at a February news conference.