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Reconnaissance Task Force on Target

February 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
Task Force ODIN’s Alpha Company is the only U.S. Army aviation unit using the Warrior Alpha unmanned aerial vehicle. In conjunction with information-gathering technologies and other aircraft, Task Force ODIN—which stands for observe, detect, identify and neutralize—currently is helping eliminate the dangers posed by improvised explosive devices. A similar task force armed with applicable equipment is being set up to support warfighters in Afghanistan.
Norse god of wisdom and war lends his name to specialized counter-improvised explosive device unit.

A U.S. Army aerial reconnaissance support team successfully assisting warfighters in Iraq is expanding its reach to protect ground forces in Afghanistan. Comprising members of the active and reserve forces, as well as a sizeable number of defense contractors, the task force currently is using technological elements of the future modular force in a cavalry role to assist U.S. theater commanders and their subordinates in Iraq. Some of the capabilities already have been moved into Afghanistan, and during the next 12 months a similar task force will be in place to improve the sensor-to-shooter cycle and provide intelligence while conducting operations.

Task Force ODIN—which stands for observe, detect, identify and neutralize—centers around aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA). It was rapidly organized—less than a year between idea conception and boots on the ground in Iraq—beginning in late 2006 to fight against improvised explosive devices. It has been built over time in an incremental process, and a comparable though not identical task force will take a similar incremental development path to support fighting in Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. James Cutting, USA, commanded Task Force ODIN late last year. He explains that the task force was formed in response to a general need for more aerial reconnaissance in Iraq. Task Force ODIN does not provide the entire solution; however, the Army continues to work on improving the capabilities to meet the requirements of military leaders in theater, he says. “I can’t speak for the Joint Staff, but in general we’re trying to attack this from all angles, including what other services can bring to the fight to fulfill an overall requirement to provide aerial reconnaissance,” the colonel offers.

Task Force ODIN is one of the newest aviation battalions in the Army; the task force’s Alpha Company is the only one equipped with the Warrior-Alpha unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Warrior-Alpha is an extended range, multipurpose hybrid UAV that includes electro-optical/infrared or synthetic aperture radar payloads as well as both a laser rangefinder designator and a laser target marker. Bravo Company, a manned Army Reserve aviation unit, employs C-12 Cessna platforms that have been retrofitted as either aerial reconnaissance multisensor or medium-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance platforms for RSTA.

It took some time to build up the battalion-size organization that Task Force ODIN is today, Col. Cutting allows. And, as new technologies are maturing and the programs to integrate them into the force become available, they are added to the task force. “So, there is not necessarily a well-defined end-state as to exactly what the organizational structure should be. What it does provide is a command and control structure that can absorb the new systems and figure out the best way to use them to achieve the best effect on the battlefield,” he states.

For example, when an offensive operation is being planned, Task Force ODIN personnel are under the tactical control of the brigade commander. Before launching the mission, the task force’s capabilities are integrated into the mission plan. When the commander needs information about the area of operations, Task Force ODIN and its assets provide baseline information about the current status of the location that military analysts use to help the commander refine the plan. Then, Task Force ODIN platforms can be deployed to monitor changes in the area up to and including the time throughout the execution phase. “In general, the assets that we use are not seen or heard,” Col. Cutting allows.

One of the centerpieces of Task Force ODIN is the ability to take information it gathers, then disseminate it through all of the signal nodes. These operational and strategic links do not reside in other units. “For example, if you had the right credentials, you could be sitting at FortGordon and observing, in near real time, what’s going on,” the colonel notes.

The information, which includes voice, video and data, can be exploited at several levels, from the task force itself all the way up to strategic levels of command, he adds. Near-real-time access to information affords decision makers at many levels the opportunity to refocus forces and kinetic power rapidly to the areas where they are most needed.

“If I didn’t see something that was significant [the first time around], somebody contacts me and says, ‘You just missed the mother lode.’ So the more people who are looking for the mother lode while it’s happening, the better probability that somebody’s going to see something, recognize something that’s important and then—it’s not five days later, we’re talking five minutes—you can actually act on it,” the colonel explains. This nearly instant exchange of communication also opens the possibility for different capabilities to be brought to bear on a single problem set, he adds.

At the battalion level, Task Force ODIN is sectioned into functional companies, and Army personnel as well as contractors work in each area. It is not a standard structure as part of the Army’s modular force; however, many of the organization’s parts will become pieces of the modular force structure, the colonel predicts.

Integrating command and control into operations from the start is one task force attribute that is likely to move forward. “The lessons learned can be propagated back to the Army, or sometimes to the joint force structure, and will pay dividends so that those lessons don’t have to be relearned when a new system gets put into a regular piece of one of the services,” he relates.

Accountability is one of the many reasons this command and control structure is so important in Iraq. In the purest sense, Col. Cutting explains, when Americans set foot in a combat zone, someone has to account for them. When a system is being operated—sometimes owned and operated exclusively—by contractors, activities must be coordinated. First, their locations must be known, and second, their efforts must be folded into an integrated effort, so systems providing a capability are not being applied in a vacuum, he notes.

“Task Force ODIN is supposed to be employed as a complete system to go after specific target sets. If you don’t integrate certain aspects of what the task force brings with what everybody else is doing, then you won’t achieve the desired effect. So it has to be integrated at the battalion level, brigade level, all the way up into the theater level so that you have a synergistic effect,” Col. Cutting explains.

 
The Task Force ODIN aerial reconnaissance support team includes imagery analysts who assess full-motion video and images transmitted from aircraft in real time.
To achieve this synergistic effect, members of the task force work with commanders from the beginning during the mission-planning stage. While theaterwide intelligence gathering via aerial platforms is standard operating procedure, and Task Force ODIN supports this work at times, its primary purpose is in a cavalry role, the colonel shares. “This is at the maneuver level, because some of the systems that we have in the Task Force are part of the future modular force. And in the Army, the purpose of that modular force is support to the ground fighter,” he notes.

“The difference in the two concepts [theaterwide and maneuver-level intelligence gathering] is that if you had an Army aerial RSTA platform, that unit, whether you’re talking about Task Force ODIN or a modular aviation brigade of the future, is working regularly with the same ground forces,” the colonel explains. “The capabilities of systems—both on the ground and in the air—are known, understood by the operators at both ends. And, until you work together for a little while, you will never get really good,” he states.

The commander also can count on these assets because they are directly supporting the mission. “Also, he can understand the capabilities and limitations, and the people actually know each other, which is important.

“It really boils down to details,” the colonel adds.

This concept is not considered futuristic. While the technology is constantly changing, the missions and roles are not. “But the future of Army aviation is to have some of these capabilities that are in Task Force ODIN reside in the combat aviation brigade at the division levels,” Col. Cutting notes.

In some ways, the future is now. Some of the same or similar capabilities resident in Task Force ODIN are in Afghanistan and have been there for some time; however, no organization currently exists in Afghanistan called Task Force ODIN, the colonel emphasizes. “The Army is building a unit that looks a little bit like what’s in Iraq, with some of the same capabilities built on the same backbone but adjusted for a completely different environment. That will be deployed for use by those commanders in Afghanistan in the near future, but I won’t get any more specific,” he says.

Although he declines to share details, the colonel does note that a task force similar to ODIN—with adjustments made for the specific features of fighting in Afghanistan—will be in place within the next year. He emphasizes, however, that complete insertion into Afghanistan will involve an incremental approach similar to the one taken in Iraq.

Given the difference in terrain, communications capabilities will be one consideration. “That’s one of the differences in the design of the organization that will be moving into Afghanistan. The systems are designed to deal with those challenges. It’s a different enemy. It’s a different culture. It’s a different force structure that we’re supporting. So it’s not an identical cookie-cutter approach. And we haven’t done it yet, so I’m sure when we get there, we’ll have learned some lessons that will make clearer whatever additional modifications we’ll need for the next increment. We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” Col. Cutting relates. The Army is keeping jointness in mind as it moves forward and is meeting the requirements of the ground commanders as best and rapidly as it can, he adds.

A rapid fielding approach has been engaged to meet the needs of the task force. The colonel allows that the technologies that Task Force ODIN is employing are maturing quickly. Although many of the capabilities are still in their infancy, even those that would be considered mature are not commonplace. And, as these capabilities are being introduced into the theater of operations, users are providing feedback to developers so these capabilities can be improved.