Sensors and Sensibility

April 2006
By Vice Adm. Herbert A. Browne, USN (Ret.)

The military is on the cusp of a new generation of sensor advances. Signal processing and detection technologies are uniting to provide better information and understanding than ever before. Combine that development with the global network being extended to the warfighter and you have the potential for the greatest situational awareness picture ever envisioned by a military planner.

But the pitfall that the military must avoid has not changed: sensor overload. Information that is collected by a sensor must get to the person who needs it in the right format and in a timely manner. How to do that without overwhelming the user has been a topic of debate for years.

For now, the collective decision in the defense community is that the building of sensors and their architectures is a national responsibility, and the distribution of sensor data down to the warfighter is the responsibility of the individual services.

That approach may not be conducive to solving the problem. We always seem to have an issue of “where is the plug and where is the receptacle.” This boils down to the division of financial responsibility. Each service must make the necessary investments to move sensor information down to the user who needs to take action on that data.

This formula is not unique to the United States. It is similar among most allied nations. Western forces tend to divide taskings between building sensors and distributing information.

But now it is time to quit debating that division and to begin ensuring a better future. To achieve that, we must change the way we design and build sensors and architectures. We need to build future sensor systems with the human in the middle of the architecture.

Collecting massive amounts of data just because we can is at best a waste of time and at worst counterproductive. Instead, we need to gather information and change it into its most useful format. Then it must be delivered as quickly as possible to the user who waits to take action on it.

The key to our future is to focus on the person who has a trigger—the ultimate customer—and build an end-to-end architecture for the sensor to deliver its product. Taking this approach will end the debate on who pays for collection and who pays for distribution.

We are not collecting too much information. We may be giving the individual customer unnecessary information, but again that is a result of not designing sensor architectures with that person at the center.

Focusing on the user does not mean that we must abandon existing sensor suites. Nor does it mean that we cannot integrate sensor data from diverse platforms such as satellites, fighter aircraft and ground-based systems. When we put the human in the middle, we enable development of an end-to-end architecture encompassing collection, processing and delivery to the individual who will take action.

Nor does this approach conflict with the vital goal of persistent surveillance. That concept seeks to provide definitive 24-hour situational awareness by noting changes instead of merely conducting constant observation.

Persistent surveillance is more than just collection. It includes presentation as well. The goal is to provide the right situational awareness information and intelligence to the warfighter. This information would be a true product, not just a collection of varying sensor data subject to different interpretations. The warfighter would be given understanding, not just knowledge.

Persistent surveillance has a better chance of success if it adopts the principle of the human-centric system. For example, if planners decide to build an unmanned aerial vehicle that would observe a 10-square-mile area, the vehicle also would require a datalink to get its sensor information down to the corps level. Planners also would have to consider spectrum analysis and electromagnetic interference requirements at that level. All of those factors must be considered from the start of the development process. With the human in the middle, those and other factors would be taken into account from the start.

Nor would a human-centric design inhibit new technology input. A good analogy would be high-performance military aircraft. If sensor suites were designed in the same manner that we design our top fighter aircraft—as a manned system, not a collection of technologies—then innovations could be incorporated as a matter of course. All of our existing fighter aircraft—the F-14, the F-15, the F-16, the F/A-18 and the F-22—have been the beneficiaries of new technologies and new roles that gobeyond their original purposes. And, at the core of these design efforts always was the pilot.

We need to view the individual warfighter as the pilot of the sensor suite. That person is the one on whom our operational goals rise or fall and is the key element in any military machine. And, with sensors now occupying a vital place in the force, that human must be at the focal point before, during and after sensors are designed and deployed.