European Command Node Ready for Action

September 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Mobile system provides real-time command, planning capabilities.

French and NATO air forces are operating components of a networked air operations center for air defense and mission planning. Designed to coordinate tactical- to theater-level operations, the components feature a number of command and control as well as data management technologies in a compact, transportable package that can be deployed in containers or installed in an aircraft. Combining several operational technologies, the center provides commanders with enhanced situational awareness via real-time links to sensors and weapon systems.

Because modern precision-guided munitions require highly accurate targeting information, command facilities must handle and coordinate large volumes of data in real time. Speed is required to sift through information collected from a range of sensors—from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to satellites and ground-scanning radars—to detect and counter mobile ballistic and anti-aircraft missile launchers. By accumulating and filtering this raw data, battle management technologies provide commanders with more flexibility in fluid combat situations.

The Thales Air Operations Centre (TAOC) is an example of networked command and control systems beginning to enter service with European armed forces. Manufactured by the Thales Group, Paris, it is a fully deployable facility and part of a system of systems designed to coordinate missions during a campaign. It consists of different components such as airborne combat, intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition, reconnaissance and communications systems linked in a single network.

The TAOC can be deployed in as few as two shelters or in an aircraft, explains Laurent Maury, director of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR/ISR) information systems at Thales Communications, Paris. Average crew size for the center is about 15 personnel.

The modular system can be tailored for a variety of operations. Maury notes that major components of the TAOC already have seen service with U.S. and French coalition forces in Afghanistan. He adds that most of the center’s systems have been fielded or operationally tested in several configurations. However, he does not believe the configuration recently displayed at the Paris Air Show has ever been used operationally.

Two computer-based scenarios demonstrated during the air show highlighted the TAOC’s capability to direct ground-to-air defenses against medium-range ballistic missiles and to direct operations to suppress mobile enemy air defenses. One scenario involved locating an enemy missile battery and destroying it. Speed is essential to suppress mobile air defense systems because they often can relocate within 30 minutes, Maury says. Because launchers transmit intermittently to avoid detection, sensor fusion systems combine input from a variety of sensors to determine the launcher’s location. Once the target’s position is acquired, decision-making tools push the information to the TAOC, which issues the order to attack the launcher with guided munitions. At this point, even after the launcher stops transmitting, the attack will likely be successful because most anti-aircraft systems cannot move in less than 20 minutes, he says. After the attack, visual reconnaissance verifies the launcher’s destruction.

The second scenario involved an extended air defense operation simulating the detection and destruction of cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles. Launched missiles are located and intercepted based on data from infrared detectors carried by tactical UAVs. The information is used to locate the missile’s launch point and calculate its target. This data is then fed to a battery of interceptor missiles that destroy the incoming ordnance. As the ballistic missile is intercepted, its launcher also is located and attacked based on collected sensor data. 

The TAOC comprises a series of workstations clustered into long-loop and short-loop functions. Based on the observation, orientation, decision and action (OODA) loop, short-loop systems deal with the rapid collection of data to counter real-time threats, while long-loop workstations provide intelligence assessment and mission planning.

Interface coordination support tools (ICST) manage the center’s communications network, tactical datalinks such as Link 16, network location, operational setup, operational monitoring and remote network reconfiguration. An important ICST function is facilitating data transfers through Link 16, a multifunction datalink used to move information between aircraft and groundstations, permitting real-time updates to coordinate joint operations. Link 16 also enables enhanced command and control, coordination and management of weapon systems during an engagement. Already operational in U.S. and NATO command and control systems, ICST will soon equip combat aircraft such as the Rafale, Mirage 2000 and Eurofighter Typhoon, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and some helicopters, Maury notes.

Two workstations manage short-loop functions for extended air defense. In the demonstration, they collected data from simulated surveillance radars to establish an air situation and present the distribution of allied and opposing forces for fire control. An air inter est situation display, which is a visualization tool, presents sensor data for command and control purposes. The electronic support measures processing and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) targeting stations fuse data from multiple sensors. This fused data is used to locate mobile radar systems rapidly in real time.

The station then uses data from fighter and UAV-based SAR systems to pinpoint opposition mobile air defenses for targeting. SAR-based detection, reconnaissance and location-finding techniques permit UAVs to find targets under any visibility conditions and feed the data back to the workstation where it is combined with information from ground-based sensors and photograph analysis to provide an updated picture of the combat situation. Thales officials note that, in its current version, the station relies on the simulations to validate air defense system architectures, train personnel and test antiballistic missile planning and mission control.

A new concept demonstrated in Paris is the Flexcell system designed to allow short-loop action from data gathered by multiple networked UAVs. Maury explains that this capability currently is being evaluated by the French military. However, he observes that the French and many European military force organizations are not decentralized enough to take advantage of network-centric technology. This challenge is not only a technical issue but touches on operational and organizational doctrines as well, he adds.

Dealing with large volumes of sensor data is another challenge because organizations must determine who in the chain of command has priority to examine the information. “The whole OODA acceleration and surveillance area poses questions to the current organization of these forces. It’s not only who gets what data, but who has what decision level. That is an issue because the current decision chain is not organized to enable fast sensor-to-shooter decisions,” Maury maintains.

Long-loop functions are carried out by an air tasking order (ATO) generator and a multisensor image interpretation and dissemination system (MINDS). The ATO generator allows commanders to plan operations based on a variety of factors such as the division of forces and the availability of resources to stage missions. Software in the workstation automatically creates an ATO based on this data. Only a few minutes are needed to generate an ATO, permitting the quick evaluation of different hypotheses so commanders can weigh their options more quickly. The ATO generator soon will be a standard feature of Thales’ air operation and command and control centers, company officials say.

Already in service with French and NATO forces, MINDS is an imagery processing platform that allows intelligence analysts to examine and share reliable, timely information with commanders and tactical users. The automated system uses data fusion techniques to process raw data from all types of NATO intelligence and surveillance sensors. MINDS workstations can be networked as part of a command center or can operate as individual stations to carry out specific tasks such as preparing missions and creating digital terrain models and maps.

In use since 1998, MINDS is interoperable with NATO intelligence systems and has been employed by coalition forces in recent conflicts. New capabilities include enhanced surveillance data processing functions to use and share intelligence over a secure intranet. The workstation also coordinates all the systems for ISR information processing in a command center.

Another new feature is stereoscopic analysis of surveillance imagery. The system can correct blurred, high-speed images taken by low-flying aircraft and drones. It then creates an added layer of depth to a two-dimensional image. Operators wear special glasses to view the three-dimensional effect, which allows analysts to determine if a structure has been damaged by an air strike. For example, a two-dimensional image may give the impression that a facility is undamaged, but the stereoscopic system adds shadows and depth to reveal whether the building’s roof, while intact, has collapsed, destroying the structure.

This new feature is still being assessed by the French air force, Maury says. Like the rest of the MINDS station components, it can generate images from a variety of sensors such as infrared, electro-optical and thermal systems. Digital video data from UAVs also can be collected and processed. He notes that images for the stereoscopic models can be generated in one or two minutes.

More than 60 MINDS stations are in service worldwide in a variety of configurations ranging from integrated intelligence imaging workshops to surveillance stations linked to a sensor system. The stations can process image data at all echelons, from tactical to strategic theater-level operations, says Maury. The French military has connected its stations into a network to link forces in remote theaters with the national image intelligence and surveillance chain. The interoperable system also permits allied forces to access image sources to support joint operations.

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