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Intelligence Enters the Fray

February 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

No longer an independent operation, battlespace awareness is now a part of the fight.

U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is relinquishing its separate identity and becoming an integral part of air combat operations. Sensor advances and the advent of network-centric warfare have both increased the discipline’s importance and compressed the time required to carry out its mission taskings.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms also are becoming more active participants in the battle. In addition to carrying vital sensors, many platforms will employ designators that illuminate the targets they have detected for precision-guided munitions. These same platforms could perform real-time battle damage assessment immediately after a warhead strikes its target.

Recognizing its importance to network-centric warfare, the Air Force added ISR to the mission area of the Air Combat Command’s (ACC’s) Command and Control (C2) Center at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, to create the Aerospace C2ISR Center. The Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency is being integrated into the Air Combat Command this month as a primary subordinate unit. Maj. Gen. Glen D. Shaffer, USAF, describes this as “a landmark move that acknowledges just how significant intelligence is to Air Force combat operations.”

Gen. Shaffer is the director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, deputy chief of staff, air and space operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force. He explains that the principles underlying Air Force ISR comprise commanding and controlling ISR as part of the aerospace fight, the appreciation that ISR is really leading the battle more than ever before and understanding that existing and future ISR assets must be integrated into the rest of the fight to avoid disjointed operations.

The general believes that if an adversary’s two worst nightmares are to die or to lose a battle, then Air Force ISR should be the enemy’s third-worst nightmare—guaranteed discovery. “We want to give them no place and no time to hide,” he declares. Without refuge, a foe will constrain its operations and probably lose the conflict. “In the endgame, we want him scared to death,” he concludes.

The general lists three priorities for Air Force ISR. The first is to establish effective command and control of ISR and to integrate ISR with operational command and control. The second priority involves force development of ISR operators. The Air Force is re-engineering force development of its intelligence operators.

The third priority involves team building. The ISR community must build an effective team of interconnected ISR airborne and spaceborne platforms as well as a team in the air operations center between the ISR operators and the command and control teams and the shooters. This requires teaming with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the other military services.

These steps are necessary to ensure that the joint force commander has the right mix of ISR platforms that enter the battlespace well before the fight begins and stays in the middle of the battle until it is over, Gen. Shaffer states.

In addition to all of the traditional aspects of providing information superiority, ISR’s most important mission is targeting. This targeting assignment lies at the heart of most ongoing ISR improvements and future programs, and its timeline is measured in minutes.

To achieve this goal requires several elements. First, the Air Force must be able to run “a mean, aggressive, in-your-face ISR campaign,” Gen. Shaffer declares. The ISR campaign must be an integrated operation across air and space, platform to platform throughout the battle.

Another key mission is to predict target locations. Intelligence preparation of battlefield (IPB) and predictive battlespace awareness (PBA), which the general describes as a refinement and maturing of IPB, provide more accurate forecasting of battle direction. This includes intelligence preparation of the battlespace from an air component standpoint as well as predicting how that battle will move.

Gen. Shaffer notes that Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF, ACC commander, hopes that future ISR will have to do less target searching and will be able to perform more target confirmation based on PBA.

And, ISR must present a fused target picture for commanders and operators without devoting large amounts of time during the heat of battle. “If we have properly interconnected all those platforms and the operations, we will be able to present quickly fused target information,” the general states.

Commanding and controlling ISR is undergoing significant changes. Saying the Air Force “has the world’s best individual ISR platforms,” Gen. Shaffer notes that the service has improved capabilities to build integrated planning for these systems. However, one item that has been missing is the ability to command and control multiple ISR platforms in battle. The directorate’s first emphasis is on improving command and control of ISR assets in a fight, he continues.

This is a multifaceted effort that encompasses several activities. These include networking ISR platforms, cross-cuing the platforms, ensuring that the right information is collected over the right area of the battlefield and concentrating levels of effort where time-critical targeting is essential, and effectively and efficiently using the force, the general offers.

Another activity involves the directorate’s second priority—ensuring ISR throughout the entire aerospace campaign. “Too often, people think of an ISR campaign as something separate from the rest of the ongoing fight,” Gen. Shaffer posits. “In effect, the ISR campaign itself must be an integral portion of an aerospace campaign.”

Removing this seam between ISR and aerospace campaigns is necessary to avoid running two separate operations, he continues. Achieving this commonality will require—and lead to—increased integration between command and control and ISR. “The conduct of ISR will be far tighter, with how we do command and control as part of an aerospace campaign,” the general emphasizes.

He continues that this is a switch from current doctrine that calls for using ISR to locate targets and passing the relevant information to shooters. Instead, the new approach will find targets and command and control the related ISR assets to have them “staying on the wing of the shooters” throughout the campaign.

Achieving this goal is less of a cultural problem and more of a technological challenge, Gen. Shaffer notes. The Kosovo operation “erased the cultural issue,” concerning this integrated approach, he relates. Participants quickly grasped the utility of combining ISR with air combat operations.

The general cites the Air Combat Command’s new Combined Aerospace Operations Center–Experimental, or CAOC-X (SIGNAL, November 2000, page 23), as an important element in achieving this goal. It will host key ISR battle management initiatives that are critical to moving into the new capabilities.

Several initiatives must bear fruit to attain this target. Gen. Shaffer cites the need for an ISR battle manager that would be placed in air operations centers. A joint office is tasked with the specifics of integrating ISR with command and control. Yet another effort focuses on networking the ISR platforms, which the general describes as a significant technical challenge.

“If you run an ISR campaign properly, you put the right sensors over the right part of the battlefield at the right time, and they are sharing data,” the general declares. “You are building what many people call a metasensor, and that requires networking the platforms both in the air and from the air to the ground. You have to command and control those assets as part of the rest of the air campaign, so you will have to connect them to the air operations center,” he explains.

“If we’re not commanding and controlling effectively where the ISR platforms are or what they are doing, it would be very possible for us to be collecting more than we need on the wrong parts of the battlespace.”

Carrying out an integrated ISR operation smoothly will require critical decisions to determine the optimum force mix. The general cites the Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), U-2 aircraft, space-based sensor systems and a modernized Rivet Joint sensor aircraft as just some of the factors that must be considered as part of a whole for joint force requirements.

The 1990’s force mix “delivered pretty well,” the general observes. This comprised a balance of high-, medium- and low-altitude platforms that complemented each other well, he relates. The fundamentals of that mix likely will remain largely unchanged. What will change, the general emphasizes, are the platforms that operate in those environments and the sensors that they carry.

These changes also encompass roles and missions. The Predator UAV, for example, has been equipped with a laser designator to mark targets for precision-guided munitions. Once it finds a target, the UAV can designate it for an attacking warhead. “This cuts out a lot of steps in between,” the general observes.

Future conflicts are not likely to involve any targets that have not been located by ISR, Gen. Shaffer predicts. Conditions prevalent toward the end of the Gulf War, where allied attack aircraft were dispatched to hunt for their own targets, are not likely to recur. “We just don’t want to do that anymore,” he explains. “As weapons systems continue to improve—and as their sensors continue to improve—their ability to do ISR will improve.”

One increasing trend is the use of weapon system data for battle damage assessment. Weapon system video can, in some cases, provide requisite damage assessment without committing a dedicated sensor platform to observe the post-strike target. The general notes that, with new weapon systems approaching deployment, the requirement to increase ISR with them will be more important than ever. The lines between weapons and ISR “are all blurred,” he stresses.

Another key Air Force ISR program is the distributed common ground system, or DCGS. This system allows remote exploitation of multiple sensors by groundstations in the continental United States (CONUS). Operators now have the choice of sending the sensor information to CONUS-based headquarters or to line-of-site centers in theater.

DCGS will be compatible with all National Imagery and Mapping Agency and C4I standards. It will be able to distribute imagery and other data into infrastructures such as the global command and control system and the intelligence broadcast service or the joint broadcast service.

Gen. Shaffer relates that, during the Kosovo operation, U-2 and Predator data were sent back to California via DCGS. With more than 99 percent reliability, DCGS obviated the need to forward-deploy hundreds of troops and large amounts of equipment with the accompanying interruption in exploitation. Simultaneous with the Kosovo operation, DCGS was able to exploit U-2 data from Southwest Asia operations. DCGS ultimately will evolve into a network of multiple sites across which the Air Force can federate and distribute its exploitation, the general notes.

Many collection platforms, such as the U-2, are being equipped with dual datalink capabilities. Ultimately, individual forces will be able to tap data directly from some of these sources.

Gen. Shaffer warns, however, that the key to full interoperability is a common operating picture. Many initiatives are underway, and substantial progress has been made for integrated air pictures. However, much work remains to achieve integrated ground pictures in which all users view the same vista.

Among sensors, radar is increasing in importance among its users, the general suggests. “People are more comfortable with radar today than they were before,” he notes. As ISR radar imagery has improved in quality, so has its acceptance.

Streaming video also is gaining acceptance, although at a lower level. The ISR community has not been used to dealing with streaming infrared or electro-optic video in an operation area, the general notes. Users must become accustomed to exploiting and reporting it as well as learn how to “gracefully handle” large numbers of people who could be simultaneously watching a video broadcast from a collector.

Hyperspectral sensors also are important to the future of ISR, Gen. Shaffer warrants.

Measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) sensors are key players in future ISR. Gen. Shaffer continues that many military activity phenomena that do not fall into traditional collection “-INTs” are a great untapped intelligence source. These include acoustic, vibration and other unintentional emissions.

Air Force ISR technology requirements include “any family of technologies that allows us to fuse better and push more data,” Gen. Shaffer offers. Exploitation algorithms are another vital area. While the general doubts that systems will achieve true automatic target recognition, the closer target cuers can come to this goal, the better.

Bandwidth always will be the biggest technological challenge facing ISR, Gen. Shaffer observes. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic about addressing the bandwidth challenge, noting that conditions have improved in the past three years.

The biggest challenge for technology development, however, is to get new technologies into operation sooner, the general declares. “We need to be able to operationalize technologies sooner—so we can fight with them—rather than wait for a perfect endgame solution that may be five to 10 years away.

“The challenge for the people in the technology business today is to be able to help the military field spiral incremental changes in an operational environment, sooner rather than later, in ways that we can afford,” he emphasizes.

Gen. Shaffer also stresses the need to maintain capabilities with existing assets while upgrading existing platforms to keep current with threats and making capital investments in new platforms. “This is a tremendous recapitalization challenge that we are facing on these platforms,” he allows. Solving the problem calls for implementing capabilities incrementally in cost-effective packages.