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Intelligence at the Edge: Dual Qualify Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Officers as Special Warfare’s Tactical Air Control Party Officers

  • Published
  • By ​Maj John H. Long, Jr., USAF


Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) officers should stay on the tactical edge alongside the experts in joint all domain command and control (JADC2), the Special Warfare Tactical Air Control Party (TACP). The ISR Dominance Flight Plan highlights the need to analyze and disseminate data at the speed of relevance and includes the mandate to function across all domains of military competition. Although talent management is a major component of this effort, there is no pathway to mastering the C2 of ISR assets in great-power competition. This is a dangerous omission. All the aspirational ISR technology mentioned in the flight plan will require dedicated expertise. The Air Force refers to the programs and future network of all these technologies as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), described in greater detail in the future applications section of this article.1 ISR operations at the tactical level will require the right experts to adopt at the pace of agile combat development expected to realize the aspirational ABMS.

The best way to accomplish this goal is to recruit, assess, select, and train intelligence officers for dual qualification as TACP officers, earning both 14N and 19Z Air Force specialty codes (AFSC). The current model for ISR integration into multiple domains assigns Airmen to TACP units as ISR liaison officers (ISRLO). Both ISRLOs and TACPs are set for an expansion of their core mission as the TACP modernizes to include all aspects of JADC2. Exchanging qualified intelligence officers between the TACP and ISR communities provides benefits to both functional codes. These officers should also follow an established template in the Air Force, like the 14N and cyber officer (17D) exchanges. Joint services have similar programs.

Assigning intelligence officers in combat arms is an enduring practice in the Army and the US Marine Corps. While Marine ground intelligence officers are credentialed in multiple combat leadership professions, Army officers can branch detail between infantry and military intelligence for three to four years after attending the basic infantry schools in their respective services.2 Similar programs in the Air Force, like Air Force Special Operations Command’s combat aviation advisors, offer a compounding pool of experience in support of sensing grid operations. As the Air Force experiments with ISR C2 nodes at the tactical edge, dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers would stand ready to integrate a sensing grid from joint, coalition, or autonomous ISR platforms into JADC2 across the spectrum of competition against great-power rivals. As dual-qualified officers flex between JADC2 and ISR units, they could improve practices in air and space operations centers (AOC) and distributed common ground stations (DCGS) on par with recommendations from other JADC2 experts. This will be especially relevant as commercial and joint force capabilities rapidly phase in and out of military missions in various battlefield scenarios.

The Challenges of Command, Control, and ISR:

Qualification and Equipment

Dual qualifying TACP-ISR officers is a novel solution to professionally develop experts for JADC2 of ISR at the tactical echelon. The myriad of challenges surrounding resilient C2 in any domain is described in greater depth by other articles and doctrine.3 The most important ideas for this discussion is the need to effectively collect information from any sensor, and analyze it so commanders can make the best decision. Simply put, if air and sea are contested, true JADC2 can use sensors in the ground, cyber, or space domains to collect information against the adversary and some form of machine analysis to process it. If air and cyber are contested, however, sensors and processing power on the tactical edge will be disconnected from the established ISR centers in AOCs and DCGS. This will force a model of JADC2 on the tactical edge.

Commanders at the operational level JADC2 will remain in AOCs and the DCGSs, and both weapon systems will continue to develop along the ISR Dominance Flight Plan.4 Multiple tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for ISR tactical control at the AOC or Joint Force Command elements evolved over the years. The notable ISR tactical controller (ITC) was a unique creation to try and answer ISR C2 questions for precision engagements in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. ITCs shifted from a special operations peculiarity in 2005 to proliferate throughout every major operations center.5 While the Air Force doctrinally keeps sensor tasking authority at the AOC, the Army and Marine Corps keep ITC functions at the tactical level.6 This distinction is a crucial pillar in the dual-qualification argument. Separating ISR C2 from tactical elements to over-the-horizon operational centers is physically disconnected from a world where conflict may require C2 at the tactical edge.

Another significant obstacle to ISR tactical C2 implementation is the contention concerning intelligence personnel executing “command” and “control” functions. Some airpower experts challenge the word “controller” unless it directly pertains to air traffic control, so ITCs are inconsistently referred to as ISR tactical controllers or coordinators—depending on the supported command—to stress the limitation in authorities.7 The objection to ISR tactical controller is understandable, especially as ITCs are sometimes casually referred to as “ISR JTACs” but strictly prohibited from actually exerting any control over terminal engagements.8 Positioning ITCs and joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) at adjacent computer terminals in air and ground integration centers and combined operations and intelligence cells is a best practice to merge the two disciplines. There is no joint publication to dictate the proper employment or qualifications of an ITC and its mutability in the sensing grid. There are, however, multiple joint and service publications referencing the C2 roles of JTACs and the TACP.9 Since TACPs are mentioned consistently across C2 literature, they offer a method to ensure true JADC2 for tactical sensing and effects integration if the professionals fluent in both disciplines are created and maintained.

Tactical JADC2 overwhelms the current ISR C2 models, which are primarily focused on precise, unbroken application of full-motion video capabilities. This process requires more humans on each ISR collection stream than great-power competition will allow.10 The ISR Dominance Flight Plan repeatedly stresses the need to move past single discipline constructs and personnel-heavy approaches toward machine-enabled, multi-domain effects. The Air Force needs to prepare for a tactical environment where human professionals are experts in tasking undefined quantities of machine partners.11 Some of these may be machine learning algorithms like Project Maven while others may be autonomous sensing platforms in any domain.12 None of this addresses the cyber, information, and human terrain requirements Air Force ISR experts will be expected to integrate from joint partners at the tactical level. Due to the complexity of implementing the concept of JADC2 over the sensing grid, the Air Force needs a team of experts fully accredited in multiple components of JADC2 in the ABMS to lead the experimentation and integration of sensors and effects.


Dual qualification offers flexible solutions to major problems within the sensor and effects integration of the JADC2 challenge. The C2 mechanism stays within a doctrinal echelon on par with multi-domain partners. Qualifying JADC2 experts specifically for ISR operations would build off joint curriculum recognized in the TACP community, perhaps superseding the requirement for an ISR pure control qualification.13 Both operations and intelligence functionals would build on the historical context to keep tactical ISR control where it enables the most lethality. The positions for this shift already exist in the TACP ISRLOs and other TACP intelligence professionals.

The ISRLOs began around 2008 to help Army division commanders and staff better plan and request air component ISR. The experiment resounds as a successful corps of mature ISR integration professionals. ISRLOs are doctrinally recognized TACP members in joint publications and TTP manuals and are regarded as honest brokers in ISR capability utilization.14 The value of putting ISR professionals at the right echelon for the right effects continues to shape the discussion of ISR C2, so much so that ISRLOs are frequently expected to exert mission command and sensor control at brigade level and below during tactical operations and major exercises.15 ISRLOs, then, are requested and empowered on occasion to exert greater control than just liaison authority, yet they are not provided the training, certification, and community recognition to advertise this capability.

The ISRLO function extends beyond its traditional role in TACP units as well. It is not uncommon to see ISRLOs serve as flight commanders, assistant directors of operations, or other milestone TACP officer positions as the air support operations squadron commander sees fit. By design, leadership positions over TACPs are filled only by recruited, selected, and trained TACP officers, but the career field suffers from limited qualified candidates and strained retention. This means ISRLOs are often already doing TACP officer work without the prerequisites. Anecdotal evidence includes combat events where ISRLOs led TACPs and other special warfare Airmen.16

Dual qualifying ISR officers as TACP officers corrects these issues and is a natural evolution of the ISRLO program. Doctrine would still apply in that TACPs lead the JADC2 efforts at the tactical level. Squadron and combatant commanders increase their force employment options as the lines between sensing, processing, and effects begin to merge around information and electromagnetic warfare. And both TACP and intelligence officers gain career broadening options that improve individual and community expertise on how to employ limited personnel most effectively for the maximum impact in future operations.

Application in Developing Technology

Dual qualifying TACP-ISR officers helps create a cadre of experts in ISR JADC2 as the Air Force sets its goals on agile combat development with commercial and government sensing grid capabilities. As discussed earlier, the Air Force’s ABMS seeks to tie sensors, data, processing, connectivity, apps, and effects integration together in an “Internet of Things.”17 The major components that dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers can help address are how sensors and effects are bridged by connectivity and apps. Figure 1 overviews these various efforts.18

Figure 1. Air Force’s Internet of Things. Dual-qualified 14N/19Z TACP-ISR officers could add value to the ABMS ambitions by providing a cadre of professionals to test apps and connectivity between sensors and effects. (Source: DOD)

The implementation of JADC2 sensor integration and connectivity in intelligence operations is most apparent when discussing the recently identified tactical ISR nodes the Air Force is currently testing.19 On a technical level it seems likely they will succeed. Commercial and government partners constantly innovate a variety of methods to ensure secure communications across the electromagnetic spectrum. Storing and rapidly updating intelligence products while dynamically collecting off the sensing grid may one day be as simple as dropping a pin on a cloud-shared map. This should be true whether the ISR node is tied to a robust cloud in a permissive environment or is “island hopping” across contested domains.20 But developing the capability without dedicated professionals to implement them to have functional JADC2 authorities is insufficient.

As resources across the DOD approach Congress for funding, interservice capabilities will be compared against any new additions. One example is the Army’s Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN), which reads remarkably similar to the aspirational Air Force ISR node.21 Since TITAN is an envisioned follow-on to the Army’s existing tactical intelligence ground station, this is for good reason.22 New capabilities from commercial partners might seem more capable in a technical demo, but the training and implementation plans can be too costly to generate a lasting capability in military operations.23 Further, after-the-fact commercial development can meet or exceed existing requirements relying, in part, on legacy technology capabilities. Consider when Palantir, a commercial vendor, successfully sued the Army for inclusion in war-fighting functions over the government-developed Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A).24 ISR nodes will likely face similar challenges in finding the right vendors and service contracts, and legacy military expertise will ensure JADC2 training focuses on the mission over the tool. To overcome the lack of emerging technologies’ availability in the foreseeable future for testing, the ISR node integrated the use of existing technologies as test “stand-ins” to accelerate future post requirement validation to materiel solution fielding.

ISR nodes expect to work off the best technology available with service members trained on combat survivability and JADC2 at the tactical edge. In this structure, dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers are mission essential in multi-role platform utilization. An Airman tasking a pure ISR asset, like the U-2, with collection on a named area of interest is not something most organizations balk at when it aligns with established priorities. However, when intelligence professionals task collection capability on nontraditional assets or fighters like the F-35, certain communities (such as tactical controllers and TACPs) benefit from greater institutional trust. JADC2 across the sensing grid will blur the lines between ISR operations and analysis as publicly available information, low-cost unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and UAS swarms all enter the operating environment. TACP-ISR officers and all supported units will benefit from professionals who can blend comprehension between the domains and collection disciplines without jeopardizing sources, methods, multi-role platform priorities, or intelligence oversight authorities.

How to Do It (Joint Force Parallels, Air Liaison Officer History)

Dual qualifying officers is established practice in the Air Force and our joint service partners to solve similar challenges in service member professionalization. The Army Ranger Regiment’s Military Intelligence Brigade (RMIB) does not reassign random soldiers but takes only assessed and selected recruits for the privilege to serve.25 Soldiers in the RMIB may be career intelligence experts (35-series military occupational specialty [MOS]) or riflemen (11-series MOS).26 Likewise, the US Marine Corps’ ground intelligence officers (O203) complete infantry school and United States Marine Forces Special Operations Command or Force Recon selection before entering further qualification and training courses on the way to their battalions.27 Many of those USMC O203s go on to command scout sniper platoons as combat arms leaders. Air Force combat aviation advisors do the same thing for their elite corps.28 TACPs and ISR professionals should be the next communities to consider this option.

Dual qualification is already something the Air Force conducts with rated air liaison officers (ALO) in TACP units. The major change is increasing the talent pool from pilots, navigators, and career TACP officers to functional communities already deeply invested in the JADC2 mission, like ISRLOs. Instead of a permanent Air Force functional code change, dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers could flex between ISR assignments and TACP requirements—in a 19Z billet sometimes and a 14N billet other times. Both communities gain in the short term. Additionally, the institutional requirements on rated career fields decreases, so fewer pilots, navigators, and air battle managers are sent to TACP officer requirements without seeking the opportunity.

The inherent training would only marginally increase for ISR professionals. To create a combat mission ready ISRLO, the curriculum is almost identical to battalion ALO certification. ISRLOs attend close quarters shooting courses, tactical combat casualty care, survival school, and even infiltration courses alongside their TACP cohorts. At a minimum, dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers would require assessment and selection and the TACP officer qualifying schools, but ranks could extend to whatever the TACP functional community needs. These schools can fit into a three- or four-year assignment at air support operations groups or squadrons, depending on the proficiencies commanders expect for their TACP leadership and the decision for JTAC certification, described below. Follow-on assignments at AOCs and DCGSs would take the tactical C2 lessons and help shape the way that TACP and ISR communities view the sensing and effects integration of JADC2, instead of just progressing in functional silos. These efforts would enhance the ISR operations pathway within the ISR talent management framework and human capital annexes without increasing operational or organizational requirements.

Discussing JTAC training and qualification as a TACP officer can be contentious, but there are advantages to keeping dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers away from JTAC duties. Qualifying JTACs is the TACP’s legacy mission, but it can take anywhere from one to three years with all the prerequisites involved in live and simulated air missions to accurately train for close air support engagements.29 Keeping JTAC currency demands resources from TACP squadron commanders and the flying units involved. As it stands now, the TACP officer career field is not designed around JTAC qualification in the Air Force career development brief.30 Individual TACPs express multiple reasons in support of and against officer JTAC missions. Since the qualification is so specific to close air support, and so demanding on time and resources, dual-qualified TACP-ISR officers benefit both communities by focusing more on mission planning and system integration than on precision engagement with airborne kinetic effects. Individual commanders may vary in their opinions.

Dual qualification is already included in the talent management framework for other career paths. Cyber operations careers fluctuate between 17D and 14N assignments in the Cyber Intelligence Experience Exchange Tour (CIEET) for at least qualification and a follow-on assignment of about three and a half years to fully qualify officers in both AFSCs.31 In 2019, the CIEET selected only two officers out of seven eligible candidates.32 Dual qualifying TACP and intelligence officers would probably follow a similar selection and training rate, and would follow the intent to bolster 19Z manning strength without sacrificing overall 14N strength.33 A similar balance of TACP training and joint leadership courses can help keep the JADC2 mission a primary pathway to merge the sensing grid and combat effects. Once the initial assignment and training were complete, deployment blocks in the cyber example would be a direct template for TACP or intelligence deployments as required.

The similarities between the 14N and 19Z functional experiences and education are highlighted in figures 2 and 3 below. Both graphs are from the Air Force’s career development briefs. The highlights and some notional titles were added. Many of the TACP functional experiences are already found in ISRLO career summaries. Operations officer, special operations, and interagency experience from the 14N community could significantly increase the educational opportunities in TACP assignments, where sensitive compartmented information facilities are generally not available.


The intelligence officer career progression could add TACP qualification within established developmental pathways. Gray text is the original Air Force publication, and yellow highlights are the author’s submission on additional focal points for JADC2 development. Of special note, the ~18 months of TACP qualification would occur within a 3-year assignment to an air support operations squadron or group. Current TACP-ISR training usually takes about 9 months to complete.


Figure 2. Intelligence officer (14N) career progression similarities to 19Z. (Adapted from Department of the Air Force, “Intelligence Officer (14N) Career Progression,” 28 April 2020,

The TACP officer career progression chart has not been altered beyond yellow highlights to demonstrate similar career milestones between intelligence and TACP officers as they currently exist. Dual qualification provides a larger talent pool for functional managers at all levels without sacrificing essential development.


Figure 3. Tactical air control party (19Z) officer career progression similarities to 14N. (Adapted from Department of the Air Force, “Tactical Air Control Party,” 28 April 2020,


The potential to dual qualify TACP-ISR officers matches existing precedent in the Air Force, Marines, and Army and could help solve integration problems at the lowest level. If this proposal were approved immediately, there would still be concerns for how to rectify the differences in promotion categories between operations and information warfare.34 Command opportunities, milestone positions, and competitive joint leadership schools would need to be discussed. Perhaps the simplest mechanism to keep promotion and education opportunities along clean lines are to keep core AFSCs as the primary developmental ones. Intelligence officers should continue to promote against other information warfare officers, but operational experience and secondary AFSCs should be added to their records. The Air Force already records acquisitions experience certifications, special experience identifiers, and individual experience tags. There are multiple methods to demonstrate subject matter expertise in TACP skills and qualifications.

Opening dual qualification would likely extend beyond Air Force intelligence officers (14N) to other functional codes. The ABMS indicates that commercial low Earth orbit satellite constellations will be essential in sensing and communicating for JADC2. 35 Keeping celestial platforms tactically relevant suggests that Space Force officers would be great candidates for dual qualification if the Air Force 14N/19Z experiment delivers. Cyber officers (17D) are already included as close partners with intelligence officers in the above career development charts and in Air Force organization at the headquarters and numbered air force levels.36 Discussions concerning career fields beyond 14N and 19Z exceed the scope of this article. Since Air Force 14Ns have over a decade of successful combat experience in the TACP, the ISRLOs are primed to develop the template for others to follow. Dual qualification cannot be accomplished without engagement from talent management architects after the need to professionalize JADC2 is recognized.

The most important benefit through all these challenges is the enduring requirement to keep JADC2 of ISR operations with the right professionals at the correct echelon for the mission. It benefits both TACP and ISR communities to start asking the questions about the immediate gains now and allow the developing talent management systems for both communities to figure out the specifics as dual-qualification programs succeed or fail over time. TACP-ISR dual qualification provides a venue to accomplish these goals within doctrinally recognized organizations for command, control, and ISR.

No one can predict the most essential technology or the “killer app” that will win the next war. One factor within Air Force commanders’ control is the need to recruit, assess, select, and train the right Airmen to implement the technology into current TTPs. Winning great-power competition cannot succeed without building the human capital and talent management framework the Air Force intelligence community aspires to, but the framework must include JADC2 as part of the pathway for ISR operations. Dual qualifying capable ISR professionals as TACP officers bridges the two most essential communities for JADC2 success at the tactical level of the sensing grid in a doctrinally sound method and at a time both functional codes are open to change.

Maj John H. Long, Jr., USAF

Major Long is a USAF intelligence officer currently serving as a troop commander in Joint Special Operations Command. His previous assignments include ISRLO, 9th Air Support Operations Squadron; flight commander, 432nd Wing; and targeting officer, Defense Intelligence Agency. He is an expert panel member for Wild Blue Yonder.


1 Steve Trimble, “U.S. Air Force Defines Radical Vision for Command and Control,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10­–23 February 2020, 20,

2 Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3, Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management, 3 December 2014,

3 See, for example, Jaylan Haley, John Long, and Melissa Sidwell, “Resilient Command and Control of Airborne Intelligence Assets in the Theater Air Control System: A Contested, Degraded, Multi-Domain Imperative,” Small Wars Journal, 27 April 2019,; and Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Annex 2-0 Global Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance Operations,” 29 January 2015,

4 Lemay, “Annex 2-0,” 2.

5 Jerry “Marvin” Gay, “Modernizing C2 of ISR – Part 2: Breaking ISR’s Industrial Age Chains,” Over the Horizon Journal, 23 November 2018,

6 Air Land Sea Application Center (ALSA), “ISR Optimization: Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Optimization,” September 2019.

7 Jaylan Haley, “An Evolution in Intelligence Doctrine: The Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Mission Type Order,” Air and Space Power Journal 26, no. 5 (September―October 2012): 40,

8 Adam B. Young, “Employing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance: Organizing, Training, and Equipping to Get it Right,” Air and Space Power Journal 28, no. 1 (January―February 2014): 33,

9 See, for example, Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3, Close Air Support, November 2014,; and Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Annex 3-03, Counterland Operations,” 5 February 2019,

10 John R. Hoehn and Nishawn S. Smagh, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Design for Great Power Competition (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 4 June 2020), 5,

11 Secretary Heather Wilson and Gen David L. Goldfein, “Next Generation ISR Dominance Flight Plan 2018―2028,” 24 July 2018, 19.

12 Hoehn and Smagh, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Design, 34.

13 Haley, Long, and Sidwell, “Resilent Command and Control.”

14 JP 3-09.3, Close Air Support; Lemay, “Annex 2-0”; and ALSA, “ISR Optimization.”

15 F. Jon Nesselhuf, “Stop Bombing Dirt: Resolving a Decade of Failed Aerial ISR Management,” War on the Rocks, 30 July 2019,

16 Maj Gen James B. Linder, “Narrative to Accompany the Award of the Joint Service Achievement Medal with ‘C’ Device to Captain John H. Long,” 9 September 2017.

17 Trimble, “U.S. Air Force Defines Radical Vision,” 20.

18 Amy McCullough, “ABMS Experiments Pick Up Steam,” Air Force Magazine, 28 February 2020,

19 F. Patrick Filbert, “Island Hopping – Feet Dry!: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Indications and Warning in Austere Environments,” Wild Blue Yonder, 22 June 2020,

20 Filbert, “Island Hopping.”

21 Hoehn and Smagh, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Design, 27.

22 Jaspreet Gill, “Army Seeking Information for Mobile Ground Station,” Inside Defense, 6 December 2019,

23 Jonathan Wong, “Why You Can’t Call in an Air Strike with an iPhone,” War on the Rocks, 2 July 2020,

24 Jen Judson, “Palantir – Who Successfully Sued the Army – Has Won a Major Army Contract,” Defense News, 19 March 2019,

25 75th Ranger Regiment Recruiting Video, “75th Ranger Regiment: Join the Military Intelligence Battalion,” YouTube video, 2:15, 19 February 2019,

26 US Army, “How to Become an Army Ranger,” accessed September 2020,

27 Rod Powers, “Marine Corps Officer Job Descriptions – MOS 0203,” The Balance Careers, 14 January 2019,

28 US Air Force, “Combat Aviation Advisor,” fact sheet, 14 September 2011,

29 Air Force Special Tactics (24 SOW), “100 Percent . . . And Then Some,” accessed September 2020,

30 Department of the Air Force, “Officer Career Development Briefs: Narrative Guidance,” 28 April 2020, 15,

31 Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), “2021 Advanced Academic Degree (AAD) and Special Experience Exchange Duties (SPEED) Selection Process Guide” (Randolph AFB, TX: AFPC, March 2020), 18―19,; and AFPC, “2019 Advanced Academic Degree (AAD) and Special Experience Exchange Duties (SPEED) Selection Process Guide” (Randolph AFB, TX: AFPC, April 2018), 23,

33 AFPC, slide 8.

34 Stephen Losey, “New in 2020: New Promotion Categories for Officers,” Air Force Times, 28 December 2019,

35 Theresa Hitchens, “Esper Orders SDA to Link C2 Networks for All-Domain Ops,” Breaking Defense, 6 May 2020,

36 Sharon Singleton, “Contracting Offices Join Forces to Tackle Sixteenth Air Force Information Warfare mission,” Sixteenth Air Force (Air Forces Cyber), 31 July 2020,

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