Q&A: Major General Robert P. "Bob" Otto

Connecting the Dots Across an
 Ever-Evolving Battlespace

Maj. Gen. Otto

Major General Robert P. "Bob" Otto
U.S. Air Force Intelligence,
Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency


Major General Robert P. “Bob” Otto is the commander, Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Otto is responsible for providing multisource ISR products, applications, capabilities and resources, as well as Cyber ISR forces and expertise. The AF ISR Agency includes the 70th and 480th ISR Wings; National Air and Space Intelligence Center; Air Force Technical Applications Center; 361st Special Operations Forces ISR Group; and all Air Force cryptologic operations.

In his position as AF ISR Agency commander, he also serves as the commander of the Service Cryptologic Component. In this capacity, he is responsible to the director, National Security Agency, and chief, Central Security Service, as the Air Force’s sole authority for matters involving the conduct of cryptologic activities, including the spectrum of missions directly related to both tactical war fighting and national-level operations. In addition, as the Air Force Geospatial Intelligence Element commander, Otto facilitates AF GEOINT federation and integration into the National System for Geospatial Intelligence; orchestrates programmatic, policy and systemic requirements developed by the deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance at Headquarters U.S. Air Force; and organizes, trains, equips and presents AF GEOINT forces.

Otto entered the Air Force in 1982 as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has served as a squadron, group and wing commander. His staff duties include three tours at Headquarters U.S. Air Force, one tour with the Operations Directorate on the Joint Staff, and one tour at Headquarters, Air Education and Training Command. He has also served as the chief of staff of the Air Force Chair and professor of military strategy at the National War College.

He is a command pilot with more than 2,800 hours in the U-2, RQ-4, F-15, AT-38, T-38, O-2 and OT-37, with combat and combat support hours in Operation Southern Watch. His most recent deployment was in 2011 as the Air Forces Central Command Combined Air Operations Center director, overseeing Air Force operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Southwest Asia.

Q: You’ve been in the job for over a year now. What has “the enterprise” accomplished?

A: I’m glad you called it ‘the enterprise,’ because that’s truly what’s involved in everything we can count as accomplishments this past year. First, I want to call out our talented airmen—military and civilian—and the close relationships they maintain with our service and coalition partners. They are key to our many successes.

This past year we’ve increased our processing, exploitation and dissemination [PED] capabilities with the addition of new platforms and sensors. We are also operating in new theaters with existing ISR platforms.

Before expanding on our accomplishments, though, let me give you a brief reminder about our weapon system, the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System [AF DCGS], because many of our accomplishments relate directly to that system. Not everything we do is tied into DCGS, though, because we strive to be a domain neutral, multi-intelligence source organization.

AF DCGS, our service’s globally networked ISR weapon system, produces intelligence collected by the U-2, RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-1 Predator, and most recently the MC-12 Project Liberty platforms. It also relies upon national imagery and signals intelligence. Combining these sources, DCGS provides multisource, near real-time ISR products in response to theater-prioritized needs. The DCGS creates intelligence to answer requests for information. They serve the warfighter at the joint task force level and below. DCGS is composed of geographically separated, networked locations, including five distributed ground stations that provide the core production capacity, 13 distributed mission sites that provide unique mission-essential skill sets, and deployed liaison officers and elements that ensure the warfighters in theater are able to leverage the maximum benefit from our ISR products. AF DCGS is not just active duty—it’s total force, with significant contributions by the Air National Guard and reserves. Mission sites are a mixture of active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units working as an integrated combat capability.

With that background, here are some of the advances we’ve seen this year. First, we are employing the airborne cueing and exploitation system-hyperspectral, or ACES-HY, sensor. In concert with Air Combat Command, we deployed ACES-HY to the Central Command theater, standing up cooperative exploitation between our National Air and Space Intelligence Center and our 480th ISR Wing to ensure complete support for this new capability. Another first was adding the ability to process and exploit data from the MC-12 via a reachback process. This was in response to a U.S. Air Forces Central request to reduce in theater deployed ‘boots on the ground.’ We are now processing all MC-12 full motion video in our DCGS enterprise via reachback, and are proud that we’ve maintained the same level of ISR quality and support.

We also stood up a capability to support the Global Hawk RQ-4 in the Pacific Command theater. This now gives PACOM a long dwell ISR asset for intelligence collection over that vast area of operations.

We formed an ISR Studies and Analysis section here at the Agency in order to perform long-range analysis and assessments of ISR needs. Initially we completed small, focused studies on ISR capability gaps. Now, we are in the final stages of completing three major studies on ISR capabilities. Those include AF ISR capability planning baseline, ISR capability future/projected baseline, and ISR capability gap analysis.

Another initiative is to create an enhanced presence at Nellis Air Force Base by establishing the 526th Intelligence Squadron [IS] at the U.S. Air Force Information Warfare Center. This will allow the intelligence community and our joint and coalition partners to exercise with current war fighting assets. Intel has never been able to ‘play’ in this manner before. In the future, this can allow us to test new tactics, techniques and procedures [TTPs], and provide a venue for testing and training soon-to-be fielded ISR equipment. For aircrew familiarization in operational environments, there is no better place than Nellis. Our presence puts us in the heart of training and pre-deployment mission rehearsals. The 526th includes national tactical integration and tactics analysis support element teams that will showcase our capabilities and train our airmen in realistic settings. The warfare center will be able to send operators to the 526th for handson ISR immersion training, where real-time ISR inputs to the cockpit will provide pilots exposure and training with an integrated ISR exploitation and production cell. While the operators will be physically separated to accurately simulate the challenges of reachback operations, their co-location at the warfare center will allow direct interaction between the agency and USAFWC. This steepens the learning curve and accelerates the maturing of our TTPs. By providing enhanced ISR at Nellis through the 526th IS, we see a true win/win/win situation, benefiting combat forces, the Warfare Center and us.

Q: What are your top challenges to effectively provide ISR capabilities to the warfighter, and what is the AF ISR Agency doing to address these challenges?

A: First is the explosion of data and required expert analysis to create usable intelligence. The requirements for more full motion video have skyrocketed because the input we get from these sensors is critical to the fight. In response to these requirements we’ve fielded more and more platforms, on which we’ve hung even more sensors. Many of those sensors are now more capable in terms of the area they cover, the length of collection time, and the complexity and density of the data collected.

We have invested in more airmen analysts, but the growth in our force cannot keep up with the growth of raw data. To meet this challenge we’re shifting from a collection-based model, where crews are organized based on the collection platform, to a model where the teams are formed specifically to support a prioritized operation. Our teams will pull whatever data is necessary to support their assigned operation, then analyze and report directly to the warfighters working that operation. This model allows us to open the aperture on what data we’ll be pulling to provide that support. In today’s operational environment, data collected from any platform may be relevant to support operational needs at any level. While this model addresses the problem of keeping up with all the data, by only looking at the data we care about now, it creates other issues. First, ‘Why collect that other data if we will not look at it?’ We collect and expose it so that others, such as the Army or national agency analysts, can look at it if it satisfies their needs. Second, by acknowledging we use all the data out there, we have increased the volume of data we need to sift through. To deal with this we need to develop more advanced, more automated search and analysis tools.

Another challenge is to make smart decisions on effective use of ISR capabilities after we leave Afghanistan. Our national leaders have set an aggressive timeline to get us out of Afghanistan. No one is exactly sure what the requirements will look like post-Afghanistan, but we anticipate a shift to look at more traditional threats. The Secretary of the Air Force directed a comprehensive review of all ISR assets to determine what we need for future capabilities.

Our direction assumes that we will be dealing in air environments that are not as permissive as we’ve seen in Afghanistan or Iraq. The medium altitude platforms we’ve relied upon during those conflicts may not work in future conflicts. So, we’ll have to look to different sensors and platforms to deal with contested airspace. It’s likely we’ll need to retrain airmen to deal with a challenging Integrated Air Defense System. Analysts will have to recognize missile systems and radar signatures we haven’t had to worry about since the Cold War. The good news is the airmen we have in today’s force are second to none. They are an all-volunteer force who joined when they could reasonably expect to go into combat. They are the most educated and highly motivated fighting force we’ve ever known and they are ready for the task of returning to world-class status in traditional threat environments.

A third challenge will be helping our customers understand ISR capabilities. The last few years we’ve fielded some pretty astounding capabilities, from wide-area FMV to hyperspectral sensors, and we’re tapped into a vast national intelligence system. We need to be better at marketing how we can help Component Numbered Air Force [C-NAF] commanders with their intelligence questions. I’ve also mentioned to you the benefits of participating in the exercise environment at Nellis. That interaction will help customers better understand leading-edge capabilities and legacy ISR systems.

We are clearly in a constrained fiscal environment and we face uncertain ISR budgets. This compounds the challenge of dealing with increased data from advanced sensors. The investments we make in our people, sensors and analytic tools must align with the warfighters’ needs as efficiently and effectively as possible. We must reduce redundant or overlapping capabilities while reinforcing the importance of multi-intelligence fusion.

Finally, to meet the ever-increasing demand signal for ISR products, we must invest in our people—and we are. The Air Force has or will soon implement numerous initiatives to improve the capabilities of our already effective analyst force. The overall idea is to create a phased analyst training continuum, to build better analysts from the beginning, and to provide intermediate and advanced level training at designated career or assignment milestones.

Continuing to improve our analysts’ skill level begins with integrating additional analysis and critical thinking techniques training into our initial skill-level courses. That’s followed by the Analysis Formal Training Unit designed for first-term ISR airmen who are assigned to analytic positions. In the current fiscal year, we’re working with our higher headquarters, the office of the deputy chief of staff for ISR [HAF/A2], to finalize an Advanced Analysis Course. This will become a normalized Air Force intelligence analysis course under Air Education and Training Command for mid-level commissioned officers, enlisted members and civilians who perform analytic duties at their current or projected organizations.

HAF/A2 is also considering an executive-level ‘analysis and critical thinking’ seminar for senior Air Force intelligence leaders. In addition to critical thinking, this macro-level course would also include an overview on the total ISR force.

Q: What sort of partnering activities would you like to see out of the intelligence community?

A: Our relationship with the intelligence community isn’t simply a partnership; it’s even closer than that. Our missions, systems and people are inherently woven together—we’re inseparable. Complementing this is a deepening relationship with our sister services. The conflicts we’ve been involved in over the last decade have been largely ground actions. So, we have had to optimize our ability to support ground operations. This fight has highlighted strengths and differences between the Army’s ISR capabilities and ours. One key area of difference is in the AF-DCGS and DCGS-Army; each provides different strengths. The services have unique fighting missions and capabilities and we have tailored DCGS resources and capabilities to match our service’s roles and responsibilities in that fight. We create synergy through our service differences.

But we need to ensure our systems and processes are compatible and complementary. We need continued collaboration to ensure the joint force commanders get the full benefit of all the services’ ISR capabilities. At the AF ISR Agency, we engaged with the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command to tighten the bonds between its DCGS-A and our AF-DCGS. That relationship will ensure that all the work the Army has done in developing its analytic tools and use of the ‘tactical’ cloud is easily accessible from any AF-DCGS terminal. It will also give the Army access to the Air Force’s vast collection and analysis capabilities. We want to allow seamless access to all our collected data as rapidly from a DCGS-A terminal as from our own terminals.

The challenge is to focus on the common areas of support and cooperation and ensure our investments are compatible, especially in tasking, training and operations standards. I believe the strength-through-diversity model will hold for the foreseeable future.

Finally, we’ve made great strides in working with partner nations. Most notable is our effort with The United Kingdom’s Tactical Intelligence Wing [TIW], which receives coalition tasking through our 480th ISR Wing’s operations center. The TIW handles airborne collection missions that would previously have been sent to one of our DCGS units. We call this ‘burdensharing.’ It lets us benefit from the skills of our British partners and increase the overall capacity of the coalition ISR enterprise. Today the TIW exploits FMV missions on a 24/7 basis.

We also work with the Australians in a DCGS node we call Joint Airborne ISR Exploitation Environment, which allows us to partner missions in the Pacific. This effort is not as mature as our partnership with The United Kingdom, although we have trained 25 Royal Australian Air Force airmen in various ISR specialties and have established data paths that will support future joint missions.

Q: Last time we talked, we focused on the Distributed Common Ground System and real-time intelligence. What can you tell us about secondary and tertiary intelligence products?

A: We’ve been successful in uniquely positioning our National Air and Space Intelligence Center [NASIC] to deliver specialized secondary and tertiary intelligence products to operational customers. We’ve established a distributed mission site [DMS] at NASIC that uses Air Force DCGS resources to better leverage NASIC’s time dominant and content dominant analytic capabilities. These in-depth products enhance and complement, but don’t duplicate, existing national and AF DCGS ISR capabilities. DMS-NASIC produces activity-based and forensic intelligence analytic products derived from a wide range of national, service, space, airborne and surface based geospatial intelligence and measurement and signature intelligence sources. NASIC analysts are pulling data from synthetic aperture radar, overthe- horizon and line-of-sight radar, infrared, multi- and hyperspectral imaging, overhead persistent infrared, space object identification, ground moving target indicator and traditional electro-optical sources. To provide operational customers the full spectrum of battlespace threats, DMS-NASIC collaborates virtually with other service centers, national-level agencies, and the operational intelligence community. That collaboration creates timely, accurate and tailored ISR.

Q: We hear a lot about cyber ISR in the news lately. What part does the AF ISR Agency play in the cyber arena?

A: The attention devoted to cyber ISR will continue to increase. In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that future cyber-attacks ‘could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11’ and have the crippling impact of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbor.’ Preventing such a blow demands robust cyber capabilities, to include cyber ISR. Just as ISR is critical in the other domains—air, space, land and maritime—ISR is also essential for operating effectively in the man-made domain of cyberspace.

Cyber lines of operation are ISR intensive. For defensive cyberspace operations, ISR provides indications and warning so our defenses can be postured against attacks, as well as analysis and attribution when our networks are threatened. Offensive cyberspace operations could require months or even years of ISR preparation before an operational mission, and significant analytical expertise is required to assess post mission effectiveness. Even DoD global information grid operations depend on ISR to expand, maintain and defend Air Force networks.

We’ve established strong relationships with our Air Force and joint cyber partners. Just over two years ago, we stood up the 659th ISR Group under the 70th ISR Wing, at Fort Meade, Md. The 659th provides direct cyber ISR support to the 24th Air Force here at Lackland. The 659th is composed of two squadrons at Fort Meade and Lackland. They work closely with the National Security Agency, 24th Air Force, the 624th Operations Center and the Air Force Computer Emergency Response Team. We also present cyber forces through the 480th ISR Wing and NASIC. We gain access to NSA’s training, support national intelligence requirements, and ensure cyber ISR informs not only Air Force cyber operations, but operations in all the war fighting domains.

In April 2012, USCYBERCOM issued an operational directive assigning functional and geographic responsibilities to each of its service components. Since then we have worked with 24 AF and USCYBERCOM to identify manpower requirements and hammer out the most effective team structure to support the directive. What remains clear is the need to grow our cyber ISR forces to meet the increasing demands in this domain—to prevent a potential ‘cyber Pearl Harbor.’ This is no easy task given the current and future fiscal environment.

Q: Space is another important domain for the Air Force. How is the agency involved in space ISR?

A: General Kehler was prescient when he asked those of us steeped in traditional air operations to broaden our thinking to understand that space and cyber are domains, just like the air domain. To help us close the gap between the AF ISR Agency and the Air Force’s space operations community, a team of experienced former ISR operators were commissioned to conduct a study and provide senior perspectives on providing ISR support to the space operator and to explore exploitation of AF space-derived information that might have broader ISR value.

We are currently working to implement some of the team’s recommendations; we are partnering with Air Force Space Command, 14th Air Force and HAF/A2 to determine when and how ISR can inform critical decisions. We want to effectively share space-derived data with the rest of the IC, and better synchronize technologies employed by AFSPC and agency analysts to create a common operational picture that serves all operators—air, land, surface, subsurface, space and cyber— across all domains.

Q: Can you share a success story of how ISR has contributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

A: A mantra of mine since taking over as commander at the agency is ‘crew communications save lives!’ When I was deployed to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Southwest Asia, I saw instances where coalition aircraft wrongly engaged friendly personnel—either civilians or coalition military members. I felt that intel analysts, who can help commanders determine if people on the ground are friendly or hostile, could help reduce wrongful engagements. But they could not speak directly to our on mission aircrew. The establishment of Distributed Mission Crew Communications [DMCC] connected our Distributed Ground Station crews to the MQ 1/9 crew intercom systems. This way, the entire mission crew, from pilots to analysts, can talk to each other during the mission in real time. On May 7 this year, our analysts at DGS-2 at Beale Air Force Base saved the lives of eight Marines. DMCC enabled our analysts to know that there was an impending air strike—but the pilot was unaware that the strike would target our own forces. Our analysts called to stop the attack. The bottom line is that the analysts at DGS-2 with their situational awareness prevented fratricide because they had the ability to communicate with the pilots operating the MQ 1/9. ♦

Back to Top