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Better Eyes in Sky, Ears to Ground for Afghanistan

January 7, 2011
By Beverly Schaeffer

Over the past year, situational awareness (SA) in Afghanistan has received a huge boost via the new Afghan Mission Network, which is transforming how U.S. and coalition partners share intel that's classified secret and below. Formally approved by NATO in early 2010, it reached IOC in the summer. In this month's issue of SIGNAL Magazine, Technology Editor George I. Seffers examines the high-level U.S. Defense Department push for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in his article, "Situational Awareness Surge Pays Off on the Battlefield." According to Richard Wittstruck, chief systems engineer, Army PEO, Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, the mission network was the brainchild of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, USA, former commander, ISAF-Afghanistan:

He saw the need for a network capability to inform the coalition-all 40-plus nations of it-of common command intent and common situational awareness. And what we've seen is the birth of the [network]. So now, we have the ability to communicate across the coalition in near real time using what I'll call commercial Internet-like search capabilities to share secret-level information with the coalition.

Army officials say the added SA battlefield capabilities have already paid off. The ISR surge resulted in greater ground surveillance capabilities as well, such as the Prophet Enhanced signals intelligence vehicle, housed on a Panther variant of the MRAP vehicle. By November, unmanned air systems logged more than 1 million combat hours, and 89 percent of total hours flown by unmanned systems have been in combat support. But the aerostat has captured the Army's respect. And to garner the necessary support, Wittstruck in essence says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease:

If you want to save time getting equipment to the field, have the number-three man in the Pentagon receive a briefing each month and in turn brief the secretary of defense on a monthly basis. When you have that level of interest, you get time saved all over the place.

According to Terry L. Mitchell, senior ISR integration adviser to Lt. Gen. Rick Zahner, USA, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, aerostats are less expensive and easier to operate than manned/unmanned recon planes. Northrop Grumman received an Army contract to build and deploy a hybrid airship in the next 18 months that measures just a bit longer than a football field and will stay aloft for up to three weeks. ISR surge results may influence future combat operations. Mitchell says he's seen Vietnam and Desert Storm, as well as the current irregular warfare fight:

In between, I've seen Somalia and Grenada. The next war doesn't necessarily mean the same war. I think the next conflict could be more of a hybrid where you have both major combat operations and irregular warfare. The lessons learned and the capabilities we're investing in will help that hybrid fight.

The U.S. Army saw the need for more ISR support in Afghanistan, asked for it and got it-from the defense secretary-in the form of the Afghan Mission Network. The services now can increase their battlefield SA capabilities, but some may question whether the turnaround time was too fast for the network to be fully effective. Has it proved its mettle, or will time tell? Share your thoughts.

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