Resolute Hunter: Shaping a New Paradigm


By Robbin Laird

During a visit to Naval Air Station, Fallon in November 2020, I had a chance to visit the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC).

My visit occurred as the US Navy was hosting the 3rd iteration of a relatively new exercise called Resolute Hunter which is being designed to shape a new paradigm for how 21st century Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities can be worked to provide for enhanced mission execution.

Much like how NAWDC has added two new warfighting competencies to its program, namely, dynamic targeting and Maritime ISR (MISR), Resolute Hunter is complementing Air Wing Fallon (AWF) for the U.S. Navy and the Red Flag exercise series for the US Air Force, but in some important ways launching a new paradigm for the ISR forces to provide a more significant and leading role for the combat forces.

With the significant upsurge in the capabilities of sensor networks, and the importance of shaping better capabilities to leverage those networks to shape an effective mission, the role of the ISR platforms and integratable forces are of greater significance going forward in force development and evolving concepts of operations.

Rather than being just collectors of data and providing that data to the C2 decision makers, or to specific shooters, the ISR force is becoming the fusers of information to provide for decisions distributed in the battlespace to deliver the right combat effect in a timely manner.

When I returned to the East Coast, I had a chance to discuss with Rear Admiral Meier, Naval Air Force Atlantic, how Resolute Hunter was different from Red Flag and AWF.

“The origins of Red Flag and of TOP GUN were largely tactically focused. Resolute Hunter is focused on shaping an evolving operational approach leveraging the sensor networks in order to best shape and determine the operational employment of our forces and the delivery of the desired combat effect.”

The Exercise

The exercise was shaped around a crisis management scenario. In a fluid political and combat contested area, where friendly and hostile forces were operating, ISR assets were deployed to provide proactive capabilities to assess that fluid situation. A number of U.S. Navy and USAF assets were deployed along with USMC Intelligence capabilities to operate in the situation.

The assets were working together to assess the fluid situation, but the focus was on fusion in the battlespace by assets operating as decision nodes, not simply as collectors for decision makers elsewhere in the battlespace.

What the exercise was working was the importance of assets being used in a broader ISR lead role which evolving sensor networks can provide, as well as training the operators to both work the networks as well as to consolidate what these asset operators judged to be happening in a fluid battlespace.

It was about how ISR and C2 are evolving within a fluid battlespace with the ISR assets moving from a subordinate role to hierarchical decision making to becoming key members of the overall tactical process itself.

The joint and coalition aspect of this exercise is a key one. Because of COVID-19 neither the Brits nor the Aussies were there but will be at the next one. This exercise will provide a key input to the Brits working their “integrated operating concept” and the Aussies their fifth-generation warfare approach.

The Marines were there in terms of an expeditionary Intelligence unit operating with their core equipment which had been delivered by a KC-130J. The package which was deployed could be delivered by CH-53s as well, notably by the new CH-53Ks. 1st MEF was part of the pre-planning process and will be there for the next iteration of Resolute Hunter.

Clearly, part of what the organizers have in mind is working USN and USMC integration. When I had a chance to discuss Resolute Hunter with the head of NAWDC, Rear Admiral Brophy, he underscored how significant he viewed USMC participation in the exercise, which will expand as the exercise series plays out.

And next iteration is a key point really.

This is a walk, run and sprint exercise approach but rooted in the clear understanding that the role of ISR in an integrated distributed force is significantly changing, now and accelerating in the future as a diversity of sensor networks are deployed to the battlespace, notably through the expansion of maritime and air remote systems.


Not surprisingly, this is MISR-led exercise. Frankly, until I went to San Diego this past February, I had never heard of MISR Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI). And looking at the web, it is apparent that I am not alone. But now NAWDC is training MISR WTIs and they have their own warfighting patch as well.

The importance of MISR cannot be understated. As Vice Admiral Miller, the recently retired Navy Air Boss has put it: “The next war will be won or lost by the purple shirts.  You need to take MISR seriously, because the next fight is an ISR-led and enabled fight.”

CDR Pete “Two Times” Salvaggio is the head of the MISR Weapons School (MISRWS), and in charge of the Resolute Hunter exercise.

MISR prides itself in being both platform and sensor agnostic, along with employing an effects-based tasking and tactics approach that allows for shaping the ISR domain knowledge which a task force or fleet needs to be fully combat effective. What is most impressive is that CDR Salvaggio has been present at the creation and is a key part of shaping the way ahead in a time of significant change in what the fleet is being asked to do in both a joint and coalition operational environment.

What is entailed in “Two Times” perspective is a cultural shift. “We need a paradigm shift: The Navy needs to focus on the left side of the kill chain.”

The kill chain is described as find, fix, track, target, engage and assess (F2T2EA). For the U.S. Navy, the weight of effort has been upon target and engage. As “Two Times” puts it “But if you cannot find, fix or track something, you never get to target.”

There is another challenge as well: in a crisis, knowing what to hit and what to avoid is crucial to crisis management. This clearly requires the kind of ISR management skills to inform the appropriate decision makers as well.

The ISR piece is particularly challenging as one operates across a multi-domain battlespace to be able to identify the best ISR information, even if it is not contained within the ISR assets and sensors within your organic task force.

And the training side of this is very challenging. That challenge might be put this way: How does one build the skills in the Navy to do what you want to do with regard to managed ISR data and deliver it in the correct but timely manner and how to get the command level to understand the absolute centrality of having such skill sets?

“Two Times” identified a number of key parameters of change with the coming of MISR.

“We are finally breaking the old mindset; it is only now that the department heads at NAWDC are embracing the new role for ISR in the fight.”

“We are a unique weapons school organization at NAWDC for we are not attached to a particular platform like Top Gun with the F-18 and F-35. The MISR school has both officers and enlisted WTIs in the team. We are not all aviators; we have intel specialists, we have cryptologists, pilots, aircrew-men etc.”

“Aviators follow a more rapid pace of actions by the mere nature of how fast the aircraft we are in physically move; non-aviators do not necessarily have the same pace of working rapidly within chaos. Our goal at MISR is to be comfortable to work in chaos.”

In my discussion with “Two Times” in his office during my November 202 visit as he sat down during various swirls of activity underway in the exercise, “This is the only place within the Navy where we are able to pull all of these ISR assets together to work the collaborative assessment and determination space.”

I would add that this about the whole question of ISR-led and enabled, which is focused on how to leverage sensor networks to accelerate the decision cycle.

New ISR/C2 capabilities are clearly coming to the force, but as he put it: “We need to take what we have today and make it work more effectively in a collaborative ISR effort.”

But to underscore the shift from being the collectors and delivering data to the decision makers, he referred to the goal of the training embodied in the exercise as making the operators in airborne ISR, “puzzle solvers.” Rather than looking at these airborne teams as the human managers of airborne sensors, “we are training future Jedi Knights.”

And to be clear, all of the assets used in the exercise are not normally thought of as ISR platforms but are platforms that have significant sensor capabilities.

It really was about focusing on sensor networks and sorting through how these platform/networks could best shape an understanding of the evolving mission and paths to mission effectiveness.

From the Kill Chain to the Kill Web

With AWF and Red Flag experiences preceding it with many years, one could think of Resolute Hunter in terms of training for the left side of the kill chain, in which find, fix, track (F2T) are key elements with target and engage being the right side of the kill chain with a shared overlap between the left and right side of the kill chain with regard to assess.

But this is not quite right.

For the ISR role is expanding beyond such an approach and such an understanding. In one sense, the ISR sensor networks with men in the loop can deliver decisions with regard to the nature of the evolving tactical situation, and the kinds of decisions which need to be made in the fluid combat environment. It may be to kill or to adjust judgements about what that battlespace actually signifies in terms of what needs to be done.

And given the speed with which kill decisions need to be made with regards to certain classes of weapons, the ISR/C2 network will operate as the key element of a strike auction.

Which shooter needs to do what at which point in time to degrade the target?

How best to determine which element of the shoot sequence – not the kill chain — needs to do what in a timely manner, when fighting at the speed of light?

The evolving role of ISR in a contested fluid battlespace also raises the question of rules of engagement. In the legacy land wars, the rules of engagement were shaped around a certain understanding of the OODA loop which allowed for the OODLA loop, with the lawyers entering the cycle to determine the validity of a targeting sequence.

With ISR systems determining the where and nature of how to execute a mission in a rapidly unfolding battlespace, the need to think through information engagement really pulls apart the inherited notion of rules of engagement as well.

Put another way, there is not going to be a carefully constructed common operating picture for the political-military commanders located far away from the moment of decision with regard to the dynamically unfolding contested battlespace. What the ISR capabilities can deliver are “moments of clarity” with regard to decisive actions.

This is how one Marine Corps general put it recently: “We believe that speed matters. Because in this next fight, if data is the currency of this war fight, we believe that speed matters. And it’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow.”

“We do not expect a persistent common operational picture (COP) in the future. Rather, in a contested operational environment, where we know that our adversaries are getting good and perhaps better than us, some days as systems confrontation, we know that we have to learn to provide moments of clarity on demand as opposed to that persistent COP.

“Domains like aviation or air supremacy, where in the past we would mark a good day by sortie generation, perhaps in the future we think that might be replaced by the ability to enable long-range precision fires as a measure of air superiority. And that’s going to require robust ISR, over the horizon communications, and the ability to enable sensor to shooter operations.”

In effect, the Resolute Hunter exercise can train Jedi Knights who can master operating in such combat situations. At a minimum, the ISR teams are shifting from providing information for someone else to make a decision to being able to deconstruct the battlefield decision to craft real time understanding of the situation and the targeting options and priorities,

But what is an effective metric of performance?

At AWF and Red Flag the measure is to make kills and avoid getting killed, With Resolute Hunter what are the metrics?

Clearly one is the speed to deconstruct the combat situation and determine actionable decisions. It is the speed to the kill enabled by the right information delivered to the right shooter at the right time. The speed function is complex in that it is not about simply determining for a particular platform a simple targeting solution; it is about situational determination, not simply awareness.

Perhaps one might put it this way. The evolving role of the C2/sensor networks are redefining the role of ISR. And that role is shaping domain knowledge of the extended battlespace and determining and detecting priority targets and then auctioning off in the battlespace to the platforms best positioned with the right payloads for rapid and timely kills.

This is a good definition of what a kill web certainly is. So, in my terms, Resolute Hunter is about shaping new capabilities, skill sets, and training for the evolving kill web fighting navy, one embedded in and capable of leading the joint force.

It is a question of evolving the relevant skill sets by the ISR teams of operators and decision makers and not some automated network. And a key part of the challenge facing the ISR teams is to understand adversary intent and not mis-reading the red side’s ISR actions or chess moves with weapons into the engagement area.

With USAF, USMC, USN, and allied participation, the challenge will be to be able to work together as collaborative teams operating in the battlespace to shape appropriate “moments of clarity” for combat decisions and mission effectiveness.

Clearly, Resolute Hunter is opening up the pathways to a new paradigm for the ISR world.

Editor’s Note: The USAF at Nellis has evolved as well and has shaped its  U.S. Air Force Weapons School Integration(WSINT) exercises to include cyber, space, ISR and strike within evolving combat con-ops approaches, notably with the coming of the F-35 as well.

Also, see the following:

Reshaping the Training Approach at the USAF Weapons School

Also see our forthcoming book, to be published in February 2021 on the strategic shift in training: