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Unconventional Information Operations Shorten Wars

August 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Warfighters use various methods to egrade adversary’s capability and will to fight.

Future U.S. Air Force combat missions will see the widespread use of nontraditional tactics designed to end a campaign quickly with a minimum of casualties and damage. By embracing these methods, the service moves toward effects-based operations where success is measured by an enemy’s decreased warfighting capabilities or outright capitulation rather than by counting casualties and destroyed equipment.

Often regarded as an exclusively computer-related doctrine, information operations embrace a spectrum of effects-based missions from psychological operations and system security to intelligence gathering and infiltrating enemy communications networks. The success of recent U.S. military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq has raised awareness about the value of this approach.

The Air Force Air Intelligence Agency (AIA) has been heavily involved in the war on terrorism and in recent operations across the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The AIA also is at the forefront of promoting and practicing information operations, explains Maj. Gen. Paul J. LeBras, USAF, commander of the AIA and Joint Information Operations Center, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas.

Information operations can cut both ways as they did during operation Enduring Freedom when al Qaida used the international media to promote its cause. But the tables were turned in operation Iraqi Freedom as U.S. forces wove information operations into all of their functions. “Before the bombs started dropping on downtown Baghdad, we were preparing the battlespace in southern Iraq,” Gen. LeBras explains. This effort consisted of dropping leaflets on Iraqi air defense and army units warning them not to fire on coalition aircraft. As military leadership prepared to launch the ground campaign, additional waves of leaflets provided precise capitulation instructions. He notes that surrendering Iraqi forces followed the directives on the proper placement of equipment such as tanks and artillery.

The change in attitude toward information operations also reflects a shift toward looking at the broader picture of degrading an adversary’s warfighting capabilities and morale. The Air Force was criticized for overestimating the number of Serbian tanks destroyed during the Kosovo campaign in 1999, but the general contends that knocking out a specific number of tanks was not the objective—driving the Serbian army out of Kosovo was.

“We didn’t make that mistake in operation Iraqi Freedom,” he says. When the Iraqi integrated air defense system had to be dismantled to protect coalition air operations, a range of options from bombing facilities to psychological operations and disrupting communications links was available. “We used all of those in combination and basically neutralized the Iraqi integrated air defense without the need to destroy very much of it,” he observes.

During the combat phase of operation Iraqi Freedom, there were more than 1,200 anti-aircraft firings and 1,600 surface-to-air missile launches against coalition aircraft. Only seven allied aircraft were lost to enemy fire. The same operational techniques were applied to the Iraqi air force, which was defeated without destroying aircraft and facilities. “That really gets into effects because in the old days, we would have been briefing about how many Iraqi fighters we destroyed on the ground. That was never the intent,” the general explains.

An important lesson learned by the U.S. military is that information operations can shorten military campaigns and save lives. Gen. LeBras considers this one of operation Iraqi Freedom’s major success stories. He notes that surrendering Iraqi units represented only 10 percent of the number of prisoners taken during operation Desert Storm. But the numbers are deceptive because psychological operations had already convinced many Iraqi units to abandon their equipment and go home. 

The general predicts that, in the future, emphasis will increase on information operations as a warfighting tool. He believes this will be applied across military missions, from electronic warfare to computer network operations. One reason for this change is that information operations are now under the control of the U.S. Strategic Command. Gen. LeBras notes that the command’s leadership understands the value of information operations in combat and noncombat efforts and is prepared to apply it.

The shift to effects-based operations reflects advances in technology that are enhancing AIA’s capabilities. A major advance has been the growing bandwidth rates available to forward units coupled with the ability, via satellite, to tie into fiber optic lines at established bases in the rear. The general notes that in the mid-1990s, an expeditionary air group’s intelligence unit would traditionally be allotted only 32 kilobits of bandwidth. Now bandwidth limitations no longer impede the transmission of large imagery files, he says. 

Virtual collaboration is another capability that supports intelligence operations. Collaborative software suites such as Info Workspace allow multiple users to share information on virtual whiteboards and in chat rooms. Forward officers can communicate in real time with analysts and experts in the continental United States.

The Air Force also is trying to move away from storing information in rigid databases by tagging and flagging data. Working with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the AIA is creating a metadata tagging system using Extensible Markup Language. Gen. LeBras offers that this tagging method makes it unnecessary for users to construct databases to catalog and access information because research queries are automatically updated.

In addition, the AIA is developing automated exploitation tools to help analysts sift through the thousands of images generated by platforms such as Predator and Global Hawk. “I can’t afford to put imagery analysts on every single frame. So I need a system that gives me a triage capability,” he says. A complex, 100 percent solution that can distinguish between individual armored vehicles is not necessary. “How about a system that tells me I’ve got a large rectangular metal object in this image, and I don’t in the next image?” the general suggests.

Other tools needed to help speed analysis are data mining capabilities to identify new connections between subjects, artificial intelligence capabilities to help sift through information, and visualization systems. “What we need is a visualization program that shows me where my assets are flying and where they are looking in terms of the field of regard,” he says. For example, a commander looking at a digital map of southern Iraq would see a symbol for a Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JointSTARS) aircraft and an outline for its ground-scanning radar. If a new target appears, the commander can determine whether the aircraft is in range or must be moved to cover the new threat.

Multispectral sensing techniques are poised to help warfighters. By using a variety of sensors such as radar, electro-optic, acoustic, seismic and infrared, detailed information about different types of targets can be stored in a database. “Once I detect some entity of interest, I can begin cross-cueing sensors, and one of those [sensors] is going to pick up phenomenology that I’ve got in a database. It might be a heat signature or a visual or radar signature. Then I can begin tracking that asset,” he offers.

The growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions is changing how the Air Force gathers intelligence. The general describes this as a shift from a reconnaissance to a surveillance paradigm. “I define reconnaissance as a periodic sampling of the environment. I’ll take a picture, and 20 or 30 minutes later, take another one. Compare that to surveillance, which is a constant sampling of that environment where I always have eyes on targets,” he says.

UAVs offer constant observation. Gen. LeBras explains that they are relatively inexpensive and survivable—their small size makes them hard to detect—and aircraft such as the Predator can loiter over an area for more than 24 hours. He notes that during operation Iraqi Freedom, platforms like JointSTARS were used to locate targets, and Predators would then be assigned to observe them. “Once I’ve got that Predator on it, I’m going to stick with that target until I figure out what I want to do with it,” he says.

Aside from using technology to enhance its capabilities, the Air Force successfully integrated communications and intelligence data with its sister services during operation Iraqi Freedom. One benefit of this coordination is the ability to move data quickly from the national level down to tactical units. “The seam between national and tactical is almost irrelevant or gone these days when we use satellite imagery to brief strike crews in the forward area and Predator imagery in the chairman’s press conference,” Gen. LeBras observes.

To improve vertical integration among the services, the Air Force stood up a national tactical integration capability. Primarily focused on cryptographic analysis, it consists of units at Fort Mead, Maryland; Fort Gordon, Georgia; and Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. This capability has two purposes: to push cryptographic data forward as quickly as possible and to provide situational awareness about in-theater requirements for airborne assets.

The integration permitted the coordination and tailoring of cryptological and signals intelligence products as they were moved to forward units. It also allowed analysts to determine which applications were timely for the air campaign and which could be delayed. An example of this cooperation was the “rock” drills conducted by the National Security Agency and the AIA. Named after the U.S. Army term that describes how soldiers arrange stones on the ground to plan unit movement, the drills brought together representatives from groups such as the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command to outline the cryptologic system needed to support upcoming operations in Iraq.

AIA is moving toward virtual and distributed operations. “What we have done is move signals to people rather than people to signals,” the general says, noting that many of the reconnaissance platforms such as U-2s, Predators and Global Hawks either had their sensors controlled or in some cases were actually operated by individuals on other continents. This allows the agency to use its capabilities immediately because they do not have to be airlifted into the theater of operations. A decade ago, the imagery component of a distributed common groundstation consisted of eight to 10 vans representing 10 or 12 C-141 loads. These systems often arrived in-theater nine or more days into an airlift, he observes.

Because imagery and intelligence analysis capabilities no longer have to be deployed, as soon as a sensor enters the theater, data is transmitted, analyzed and pushed forward to warfighters. “What that means is we’re able to move the signal to different places to bring additional expertise into it. In the old days, if my imagery vans were sitting in a place like Daharan, that’s where the imagery was going. If I got something that exceeded the skill level of a person in that forward van, I was out of luck,” Gen. LeBras says.

The new system is interconnected, permitting pieces of data to be sent to experts at specific facilities such as the National Air Intelligence Center or the Air Force Information Warfare Center. This allows questions regarding signals intelligence or language translation, for instance, to be directed to an individual or team of experts.

An example of this distributed capability is the ability to exploit precise geodetic coordinates. Once this was a difficult task that required a central analysis facility. Today, forward groundstations can now make readings. If a Global Hawk image has intelligence value, a precise set of geodetic coordinates can be placed on the location, pushed to an air operations center, moved to a combat aircraft and plugged into a precision-guided weapon. The general notes that it was this kind of time-sensitive targeting that was employed in a B-1 bomber strike against a suspected meeting of high-level Iraqi officials in Baghdad. “That vertical, distributed, horizontal kind of operation is what really lets us move more quickly than the bad guys,” he says.