Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

  • Last updated: 07 Mar. 2024 16:31

Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) is vital for all military operations. It provides decision-makers and action-takers with a better situational awareness of the conditions on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space and in the cyber domain. Allies work together to collect, analyse and share information to maximum effect. This makes Joint ISR a unique example of cooperation and burden-sharing across the Alliance.

Officers analyse data coming in from the field at the trial control room during Unified Vision, NATO’s main event for Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.


  • NATO has established a permanent JISR system providing information and intelligence to key decision-makers, helping them make well-informed, timely and accurate decisions.
  • JISR is a key element of NATO operations and missions and a cornerstone of the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture.
  • JISR brings together data and information gathered through projects such as NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system or NATO Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, as well as a wide variety of national JISR assets from the space, air, land and maritime domains.
  • Both surveillance and reconnaissance include visual observation (from soldiers on the ground) and electronic observation (for example from satellites, unmanned aircraft systems, ground sensors and maritime vessels), which are then analysed, turning information into intelligence.
  • In February 2023, a group of NATO Allies, together with former Invitees Finland and Sweden (now NATO member countries), announced plans to launch the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) initiative, which will transform the way NATO gathers and uses data from space, significantly improve NATO’s intelligence and surveillance, and provide essential support to the Alliance’s military missions and operations.



Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) provides the foundation for all military operations, and its principles have been used in warfare for centuries. The individual elements of ISR are:

  • Intelligence: the final product derived from surveillance and reconnaissance, fused with other information;
  • Surveillance: the persistent monitoring of a target; and
  • Reconnaissance: information-gathering conducted to answer a specific military question.

Both surveillance and reconnaissance can include visual observation (for example soldiers on the ground covertly watching a target, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with cameras), as well as electronic observation.

The difference between surveillance and reconnaissance has to do with time and specificity; surveillance is a more prolonged and deliberate activity, while reconnaissance missions are generally rapid and targeted to retrieve specific information.

Once surveillance and reconnaissance information has been obtained, intelligence specialists can analyse it, fuse it with other information from other data sources and produce the intelligence which is then used to inform military and civilian decision-makers, particularly for the planning and conduct of operations.

While all countries have their own sources and methods for the production of intelligence, it is not always easy for them to share their intelligence with Allies.  Sometimes this is due to security concerns, sometimes to internal procedural requirements, and sometimes to technological constraints.

The objective of NATO Joint ISR is to champion the concept of “need to share” over the concept of “need to know”.  This does not mean that all Allies will automatically share everything, but rather that NATO can facilitate the procedures and technology to promote sharing while simultaneously providing information assurance (i.e., the protection of data and networks).  This way, Allies can have a holistic picture of whatever crisis is occurring and NATO decision-makers can make well-informed, timely and accurate decisions.



The experience the Alliance gained from its operations in Afghanistan and Libya has resulted in collection assets (for example information gathering equipment such as surveillance aircraft) becoming far more accessible to military personnel, even at the lowest tactical levels. Assets that would have been used only for strategic purposes at the discretion of military generals years ago are now widely available and their use is decentralised. This shift occurred because NATO member countries procured significant numbers of maritime, land, airborne, cyber or space collection assets to help them locate adversaries, who often operate in complex environments and among civilian populations.

To enable information-gathering to take place, and to ensure that information is analysed and intelligence is produced for decision-makers, there are a number of primary actors involved, including:

  • Surveillance and reconnaissance collection assets
    Their role is to collect information. Examples include Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) and Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, which use radar, observation satellites, electronic assets and special ground reconnaissance troops to gather information.
  • Intelligence analysts
    Their role is to exploit and analyse information from multiple sources. Examples include national military and civilian analysts working at the strategic level in intelligence organisations, imagery analysts at all levels, and encryption experts.
  • Decision-makers
    Their role is to use intelligence to inform their decision-making. Examples include political leaders and military commanders.

The Alliance also regularly exercises its Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities. In June 2020, NATO conducted the Unified Vision event. With over 250 participants from 12 NATO countries and multiple intelligence systems in space, in the air, on land and at sea, the event allowed Allies to exchange and analyse large amounts of intelligence data in an operational environment. The next Unified Vision event is scheduled for 2023.

The role of space in JISR

Space-based assets, such as satellites, play a critical role in providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to NATO Allies and partners.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underlined the need for the Alliance to have a clear picture of all developments on the ground, in the air and at sea. The space domain offers NATO an intelligence edge and allows Allies to gather insights while reducing vulnerabilities (i.e. replacing the need for assets in the field).

The last several years have also seen a significant expansion of the commercial space-based intelligence sector. This represents both a risk and an opportunity for the Alliance. The proliferation of private actors in space increases the risk of ISR activities conducted by potential adversaries against Allied populations, territory and forces. But commercial actors can provide cost-effective and scalable solutions that meet NATO's demands and complement publicly owned capabilities, reducing the dependency on a limited number of national space assets.

At the Defence Ministers’ meeting in February 2023, a group of NATO Allies together with former Invitees Finland and Sweden (now NATO member countries) announced their intent to launch the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) initiative. APSS plans to deliver increased ISR capabilities using data from a large-scale, virtual constellation of national and commercial surveillance satellites, called “Aquila”. This new mechanism will provide the Alliance with faster and better intelligence, integrate even more space-based data into NATO’s intelligence ecosystem and leverage technological breakthroughs from the commercial sector. Luxembourg's early contribution of EUR 16.5 million has laid the groundwork for this transformative initiative and will allow participating countries to contribute to Aquila through their own assets, data and/or funds. The 19 participating NATO Allies are: Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Türkiye, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The APSS initiative – which focuses on assets looking down at Earth – will complement the Strategic Space Situational Awareness System (3SAS), which focuses on assets looking up at space and is currently being developed at NATO Headquarters. The 3SAS capability will allow the Alliance to better understand the space environment and space events, and their effects across all operational domains. The 3SAS system is also supported by EUR 6.7 million funding from Luxembourg. The project will support NATO’s Space Centre, which was established in Ramstein, Germany in 2020.



Based on the experience NATO Allies gained in recent operations, the Alliance has established a permanent, effective ISR system. NATO aims to provide Allies with a mechanism that brings together data and information gathered through the AGS system or AWACS aircraft, as well as a wide variety of national ISR capabilities, including troops on the ground, maritime and air assets, space-based platforms such as satellites, and Special Operations Forces.

To provide a foundation for NATO’s Joint ISR ambition, the Alliance has developed a JISR capability aimed at providing the following pillars:

  • Training and education
    The personnel involved with the Joint ISR capability in NATO will possess expertise to guarantee the efficiency of the JISR enterprise. This area of the project examines ways to ensure that NATO personnel receive the highest standard of ISR training and education.
  • Doctrine and procedures
    To improve interoperability, efficiency, coherence and effectiveness, Joint ISR doctrine and procedures will be continuously developed and reviewed, from strategic thinking to tactical procedures.
  • Networking environment
    NATO communication and information systems (CIS) will guarantee efficient collaboration and sharing of ISR data, products and applications between the Allies. This is the core business of NATO’s Joint ISR effort.

During the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, Allied Heads of State and Government expressed the ambition to provide NATO with an enduring and permanently available JISR capability, giving the Alliance the eyes and ears it needs to achieve strategic decision advantage. At the 2014 Wales Summit, Allies reconfirmed that Joint ISR remained a high NATO priority.

At their meeting on 10 February 2016, Allied Defence Ministers declared initial operational capability (IOC) for Joint, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. This represented a significant achievement, enabling better connectivity between NATO and Allies’ capabilities and enhancing situational awareness throughout the NATO Response Force (NRF).

IOC was only the first milestone for the JISR initiative. Further work was conducted to sustain these achievements and expand them beyond the scope of the NRF. In view of today’s rapidly changing security environment, JISR continues to adapt to ensure that the Alliance has the information and intelligence needed to make the right decisions at the right time. This is why NATO Allies endorsed a new strategy in October 2020. The strategy and its implementation elements guide the development and fielding of interoperable intelligence capabilities in a more agile manner, harvesting the power of cutting-edge technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.