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Attritable Intelligence, Surveillance, And Reconnaissance (ISR): Concepts and Employment

  • Published
  • By Captain Cody “Swarm” Crawford

The concept of Attritable ISR is not exactly new, but rather a return to warfare between great powers. Having engaged primarily in conflicts with non-peer countries with long-range ISR aircraft (such as the U-2 or SR-71) and satellite imagery, the US is not used to the idea of losing its ISR capabilities. Yet, these platforms are increasingly threatened by potential adversaries developing anti-satellite (ASAT) and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. While ASAT weaponry can neutralize space-based assets, new developments in A2AD may limit our ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance. Therefore, the US must begin to think about the problem differently. The concept of Attritable-ISR capabilities can help fill the gap when space capabilities are unusable, and aerial reconnaissance is not possible without untenable mission risk.

ISR assets in space are particularly vulnerable to attack.  Not only can they be directly attacked with new ASAT weaponry, but there is also a risk that the use of such a device could create debris that leads to an increasing number of collisions and debris fragments in a negative feedback loop known as the Kessler Syndrome.[1] A recent study of worldwide low-earth orbit (LEO) ISR constellations found that this problem will grow as more satellites are placed in LEO. Further, the study calculated that the configuration of satellites in 2019 had only 0.05% chance of a collision of a large fragment (> 10 cm) and 10% chance of a fragment down to 3mm, a future scenario of 65,000 satellites increased the probability of a large fragment collision to “roughly 30%” and smaller fragments to nearly 100%. Non-negligible damage can occur even with mm-sized damage, and the risk increases with satellite saturation as the Starlink and OneWeb constellations project to reach 42,000 and 7,000 satellites respectively.[2]

Therefore, when planning for a conflict against a peer adversary with ASAT weaponry (and the political will to use them), the US must have backup ISR capabilities on the assumption LEO will become unusable. Not only has the PRC been fielding both ground-based ASAT missiles, as well as ground-based ASAT lasers, but there is also a growing potential that any nation worldwide could conduct an ASAT test that leads to the LEO ISR constellation’s destruction.[3] For example, India’s 2019 ASAT missile test produced debris at the same altitude as the international space station (ISS).[4] The concept of Attritable-ISR has gained ground in recent years, but only as an extension of modeling Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) as a combat capability. An example is the XQ-58 Valkyrie under the “loyal wingman” concept. However, these are still based on an expensive, bespoke asset. Even if DoD technically deems something as “attritable” if it costs between $2M and $20M, these ideas are cost-prohibitive.[5] Still, such small-scale UASs are unlikely to be able to penetrate peer competitor missile engagement zones (MEZs) absent mass quantities to sufficiently exhaust an adversary’s surface-air or air-air missile asset inventory.

Capability Requirements

Therefore, the US needs a new class of Attritable capabilities that can provide backup ISR coverage after space-based and aerial reconnaissance capabilities are incapable of supporting military missions within acceptable levels of risk (ALR). In order to overcome A2/AD capabilities, this class of Attritables needs to have the following requirements:

  1. Inexpensive and fielded in the hundreds of thousands of units
  2. Support Global Persistent Awareness, and Resilient Information Sharing, as defined in the US Air Force’s 2019 Science and Technology Strategy[6]
  3. Can be lost, or exposed, with minimal Intel Gain Loss (IGL) and Technical Gain Loss (TGL), emphasizing “commercial off the shelf” (COTS) sourcing
  4. Able to be fielded without dedicated manpower and logistics
  5. Resilient to peer adversary countermeasures as an ISR constellation, when employed in sufficient numbers
  6. Can be “seeded” in a conflict zone either pre-conflict or post-conflict
  7. Can be “donated” to a supported nation without IGL/TGL concerns

Having been prevalent in mainstream science fiction, these ideas are becoming possible due to technological advances in miniaturizing computing resources, solar-powered flight, and automated intelligence processing. Analysis of the provided data from the Attritable ISR constellation should feed into a neural-network backend that filters out baselined environmental noise and sub-selects for important data (such as ships on the water, planes in the air, tanks on the ground, etc.) that can be sent for human review, analysis, and production of reports. That automated intelligence backend significantly reduces the need for scaling analyst manpower increases to account for the massive increase in data provided by such an ISR apparatus.

Examples from Science Fiction

Science fiction often forecasts or inspires “what if?” changes in human society and technology far in advance of the actual development, including examples of “Attritable ISR” assets. One of the most common examples is that of a “probe” which is usually depicted as a single ship-launched disposable ISR platform with the purpose of identifying enemy assets or surveying areas. While these probes may seem to be “high-equity” ISR platforms, they are depicted as a “low-equity” assets in popular series, such as The Expanse, The Dark Forest, or Star Trek, due to the production capabilities available to the forces that use them. Probes have also been depicted as a single mesh networked ISR constellation. One example is Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight. Based on a “First Contact” scenario that is bound within normal “hard-science fiction” rules, Watts presented a case where there were 65,536 probes evenly dispersed along a lat-long grid that barely left any square meter of planetary surface unexposed.”[7]  

While most science fiction has focused on their use for reconnaissance, some have explored their use in exposing enemy weapons systems or forcing a shortage of munitions. The Bobiverse series by Dennis Taylor features “recon by fire” missions in which thousands of unmanned assets are used to expose enemy locations, reporting either live feeds or the enemy’s presence by loss of contact with the platform.[8] John Ringo’s Troy Rising series features thousands of distributed solar-powered laser-based firing platforms to counter the enemy’s missile inventories. These platforms both tracked and destroyed enemy missiles, as well as provided a diversionary target for the enemy’s limited munition supply.[9] This trope is more common in cinema due to the implicit action scenes and is featured in Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back during the scene where imperial drones recon the rebel base.

Small-form tracker devices are an example of science fiction becoming a science reality. Having been a staple in science-fiction movies and novels, they are now readily available as GPS trackers, like in personal smartphones, or Bluetooth trackers, such as the Apple AirTag or Tile. A scaled-up version usable for modern ISR needs would be a clandestinely deployable beacon or emitter, seeded in a conflict zone to attach to surface combatants or targets of interest.   

Examples in Use

Examination of current projects underway provides us with some interesting potential capabilities in the near future.  The Chinese have recently conducted the maiden flight of a solar-powered drone, the Qimingxing 50 (Morning Star). According to Chinese news outlets, this high-altitude low-speed drone can fly solely on solar energy with a battery capacity to even continue during the night. They hope that it can fly for months or years without needing to land, making it a “quasi-satellite”.[10] Depending on production costs, it could be feasible to launch large numbers of them pre-conflict for a significant ISR advantage in the event of the loss of space capabilities.

Iranian Attritable ISR assets have received lots of attention thanks to the extensive use of the Shahed-136 in the current Russo-Ukrainian War. With a 2.5m wingspan and a max speed of 185 km/h, this UAS can carry an explosive front charge and a suite of optical sensors.[11] With an estimated cost of only $21K-$52K each, they can impose a disproportionate cost in countermeasures. For example, it is estimated that Ukraine spent $28.14M to shoot down around 280 Shahed-136s whose total production costs were around $5.8M to $14.6M.[12] Furthermore, Ukraine’s use of surface-air or air-air missiles to destroy these Shahed-136s has degraded its capacity to counter Russia’s ballistic missiles which have devastated Ukraine’s energy grid, absent resupply through its supporting nations. This is a prime example of how cheap platforms can be utilized for their ISR capabilities while depleting an adversary’s magazine stockpiles. While limited countermeasures do exist, almost none of them are cost-efficient. For example, two of Rheinmetall’s Skynex air defense systems are expected to cost $192M which means they would need to shoot down at least 3,600 Shahed-136s or 15 Kh-101 cruise missiles to break even on expenses.[13]

SpaceX’s Starlink system has also seen action in the current Russo-Ukrainian War. Designed to be attrited due to debris or atmospheric re-entry, Starlink satellites cost only below $250K-$500K per satellite. SpaceX plans to expand this network of over 2,000 small satellites into a constellation of over 40,000 units in the next few years.[14] The large satellite network and rapidly reprogrammable communications array have allowed it to respond to Russian jamming attempts in Ukraine within 24 hours.[15] The next logical step will be to add cameras at an inflection point between affordability and useful resolution in order to provide real-time footage across the globe. However, the massive expansion of Starlink satellites in LEO increases the likelihood of collisional cascading in the aforementioned Kessler syndrome.

In the realm of microelectronics, the Chinese have made some advances that could have interesting military applications. Designed for disaster relief or search and rescue, Zhejiang University has developed a swarm of 10 drones that can follow and track down humans in a dense bamboo forest. This system even features a mesh network that allows each drone to tip the others when it encounters obstacles.[16] The military application of these small-scale “cheap” drones is obvious in urban or forested environments.


The USAF’s existing ISR inventory is not suited for a peer fight in which the adversary is able to fight back. As evidenced by new Chinese and Iranian autonomous capabilities, there is a growing trend in the development of both small-scale drone swarms and large-scale UAS platforms to provide ISR capabilities in a cost-efficient manner for the warfighter. Autonomous control over large UAS formations is now possible, as shown by any modern light show, such as the GeoScan 2019. At present, there are very few countermeasures for these UAS types that are cost-efficient and extensible. As a result, there is an opportunity for developing mass-quantity “Attritable ISR” platforms to provide robust coverage for the warfighter, mitigate risks to the USAF’s limited aerial and space-based reconnaissance capacity in a peer fight, and take advantage of adversary limited surface-air or air-air munitions prior to air campaigns.

The prevalence of solar power in drone technologies suggests that we have reached the inflection point of self-powered flight over long periods of time; at least as shown by the PRC’s Morning Star 50.[17] Additionally, Lincoln Labs is currently experimenting with such balloon concepts as a high-altitude (60-90,000 feet) network of communications relays; adding additional sensors would be the next step.[18] This suggests that mass quantities of cheap, loiter UAS or balloon platforms are an attractive alternative to expensive ISR assets with existing countermeasures. A network of mass-produced loiter UAS or balloon platforms over a large geographic area, tied into a neural network backend for reviewing footage in real-time, would be a resilient ISR constellation to track peer adversary naval vessels and air assets. These systems represent an Attritable series of platforms that can be afforded to be lost at a given “non-zero rate”, compared to exquisite and expensive systems.[19]

These ideas are no longer science fiction, but rather a potential emerging technological gap in the immediate future that the USAF needs to overcome if it wishes to be competitive in a peer fight. The miniaturization of electronics, the continued proliferation of cost-effective cellular and space-based communications, and the reduction of cost associated with autonomous control over UAS units have begun to lead to a new world of ISR platforms. If the US does not take advantage of it, then our adversaries will race ahead of us and exploit it to their geopolitical benefit.

Captain Cody “Swarm” Crawford
Capt Crawford is a Cyberspace Effects Operations Officer. He is assigned to the 341st Cyberspace Operations Squadron stationed at Fort George G. Meade and currently works as the unit’s Weapons Officer. He previously served as a Cyberspace Operator at the 390th Cyberspace Operations Squadron at JBSA Lackland, and as a Flight Commander in the 51st Communications Squadron at Osan AFB. He commissioned through AFROTC and is a graduate of Oregon State University (2015), the University of Maryland Global Campus (2018), the United States Air Force Weapons School (2022), and Squadron Officer School (2022).



[1.] Donald J. Kessler and Burton G. Cour-Palais. “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt,” Journal of Geophysical Research 83, no. A6 (1978): 2637.

[2.] Sarah Thiele and Aaron Boley, “Investigating the risks of debris-generating ASAT tests in the prescence of megaconstellations,” 2021 Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference proceedings, Maui, HI, 2021.

[3.] Joe Gould, “China aims to weaponize space, says intel community report,” Defense News, April 14, 2021.

[4.] Sarah Lewin, “NASA chief slams India's 'terrible' anti-satellite test,” NBC News, April 2, 2019.

[5.] Dr. Steven M. Fendley, “Interview by BreakingDefense,” BreakingDefense, December 13, 2021.

[6.] United States Air Force, United States Air Force 2019 Science and Technology Strategy (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, April 2019),

[7.] Peter Watts and Elizabeth Bear, Blindsight (New York: A Tom Doherty Associates Book/Tor, 2020).

[8.] Dennis E. Taylor, We Are Legion: (We Are Bob) (New York: Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency, 2017).

[9.] John Ringo, The Hot Gate (Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2012).

[10.] “Explained: Why China’s first solar-powered, semi-satellite drone is a big deal,” FirstPost, September 08, 2022,

[11.] Pierre Bouvier, “With the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, Putin puts faith in poor man's weapon,” Le Monde, October 18, 2022.

[12.] David Boffey, “Financial toll on Ukraine of downing drones ‘vastly exceeds Russian costs’,” The Guardian, October 19, 2022.

[13.] “Rheinmetall supplying international customer with Skynex air defence system,” European Defense Review, December 9, 2022.

[14.] Tom Bateman, “SpaceX Starlink satellite's flaming re-entry caught on camera after geomagnetic storm,” Euronews, February 11, 2022.

[15] Kate Duffy, “A top Pentagon official said SpaceX Starlink rapidly fought off a Russian jamming attack in Ukraine,” Insider, April 22, 2022.

[16] James Vincent, “Watch a swarm of drones autonomously track a human through a dense forest,” The Verge, May 05, 2022.

[17.] “Solar-Powered Semi-Satellite,” FirstPost, 2022.

[18.] “Balloon-Based Resilient Communications “, Lincoln Laboratories: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed November 10, 2022.

[19.] Fendley, “Interview,” BreakingDefense, 2021.

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