Air Arms Around Intelligence

June 2012
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
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The Reaper remotely piloted aircraft carries Gorgon Stare, a first wide-area motion imagery that can videotape a 4-kilometer radius of the surveillance area from 12 angles.

The U.S. Air Force crafts plans to harvest knowledge from increased information flow.

A flood of new sensors has the U.S. Air Force awash in data, so now one of its priorities is to determine how to best process, exploit and disseminate information both today and in future operations. Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, USAF, the service’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, says his organization needs the tools to fuse and format data using technology to facilitate data sharing even in hostile physical or cyber environments.

Over the past decade, the amounts of information have burgeoned exponentially as innovative sensors have been introduced into the field. No longer receiving intelligence solely from ground sensors and people in the field, the U.S. military finds itself in need of both technology and personnel that can sift through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data more efficiently and effectively. To address this beneficial yet overwhelming situation, the Air Force has developed several tasks it plans to achieve in the near future.

Gen. James and his team are following the lead of the U.S. Defense Department and executive branch as they examine where to direct their energy, including possible future operations in the Asia-Pacific region. “We have to be focused on what we are doing today, but we can’t forget that the environment will change. You’ve seen that with the strategies the secretary of defense and president have laid out. We’re going to focus more on the Pacific, not necessarily on an Afghanistan type of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism fight. So, there are many more challenges in that area,” the general says.

Another Air Force priority is to improve intelligence command and control (C2) to find the best ways to enhance the execution of ISR applications, processing, exploitation and dissemination now and in the future. The Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is the foundation of C2 operations, Gen. James relates.

The service also must develop ISR in new domains. “We need to take the traditional intelligence tradecraft and apply it to the cyberdomain,” he states. The goal is to incorporate the lessons learned over the past decades from air-domain intelligence activities and to ascertain how to continue those actions in both space and cyberspace, he adds.

Among the other Air Force goals is to increase collaboration with the other services and nations as well as across the intelligence community. “In an era of declining resources, we have to work together better,” Gen. James emphasizes.

Accomplishing all of these tasks will take more than new technologies, he admits. The Air Force recognizes that to take advantage of innovative capabilities, its people must be well-trained on a constant basis as tools become available. As a result, developing the ISR professionals of the future will continue to be a significant part of the service’s strategy.

“As we look at how much we’ve changed in the past 10 years and predict how much we’re going to change in the future in terms of sensors, the amount of data and the ability to fuse data, we must give our people the education, training and tools that make them the best at processing, exploiting and disseminating the data,” Gen. James declares.

The increased employment of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is one reason the Air Force must find innovative ways to handle so much data. The general shares that the service has tremendously ramped up the capabilities that fly aboard Predator and Reaper RPAs.

For example, the Reaper was outfitted with the first wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) sensor, called Gorgon Stare, in spring 2011. WAMI sensors capture video at a slower frame rate than full-motion video capturing capabilities; however, Gorgon Stare enables troops to see more of the battlefield. It can videotape a 4-kilometer radius of the surveillance area from 12 angles and can operate both day and night.


While visiting an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Gen. James (c) meets with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance commander (l), and Chief Master Sgt. Adam Watson, USAF, career field functional manager for the deputy chief of staff, the Pentagon, to discuss future ISR capabilities.

According to Gen. James, warfighters have found this capability valuable. The persistent surveillance enables them to conduct forensics as Gorgon Stare collects data about a large area over a long period of time. Warfighters and analysts can identify patterns in activity, he explains.

Gen. James is in a position to truly appreciate the advances in intelligence gathering over the past decade because his experience in current operations began in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Compared to his initial experience in the Middle East, the capabilities available to gather intelligence information from across the battlespace have increased exponentially, he states.

However, the general admits that the ability to collect an overabundance of intelligence information comes with a price tag. “We created tons of data; now, we have to do something with it,” he says. And, technology is only a tool. “We have created a cadre of people who are very skilled and capable and have built up the numbers across the DCGS enterprise so we can handle all of this data,” Gen. James explains. “Without the people making sense of the data and providing feedback about it to the warfighter, it’s useless.”

Despite its best efforts to develop and provide training, keeping up with the amount of data currently pouring in is a challenge for the service today and likely will continue to be if the machine-human relationship does not improve. Gen. James quotes a RAND study that proposes that if the processing, exploitation and dissemination of data continues to be done as it is today, by 2016, 110,000 analysts will be needed to handle all the data. Today, there are approximately 5,500 analysts across the DCGS enterprise. To narrow the gap, technologies, tools and systems will be needed to allow machines to sift through the majority of the data and present humans with the most important items, he adds.

Gen. James believes this is where C2 will be crucially important. “We need to determine the tools that we have to give to analysts so they are not overwhelmed by the data. That’s another area that we know we’re going to have to work on,” the general states.

Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley also understands today’s challenge very well, and he believes it is likely to continue into the future, Gen. James relates. As a result, in spring 2011 the secretary requested an ISR review to determine how to handle large amounts of data in the 2020 to 2025 time frame. From this review, Air Force intelligence leaders were able to determine their current priorities.

The communications architecture will ensure that information can be transmitted from theaters of operations to a DCGS node. Currently, two major nodes are located in the continental United States, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. Additional nodes are located in Germany, Korea and Hawaii. “The architecture must be robust and reliable, and we didn’t design it initially with a holistic view of the ISR enterprise. Now, we’re stepping back and asking, ‘As we look at this enterprise, what is the communications and information infrastructure that’s needed to support it?’” Gen. James explains.

Future architectural designs also must take into consideration that information collected in the field today is used to train intelligence personnel. For example, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency handles large quantities of imagery, so the Air Force needs to partner with the agency to build the right training for its people, the general relates.

“If you look at our new sensors like LIDAR [light detection and ranging], where is my LIDAR expert? Well, we didn’t grow those years ago, so how do you build the right training to know how to use that information?” the general asks. “We’re absolutely looking at what the future looks like. What’s the sensor mix? What do the tools allow us to fuse, and what can machines do versus the humans? All of these are keys to training our people for the future.”

Cloud computing is one approach that is being used as the DCGS continues to develop. The Air Force currently is in the middle of instantiating the cloud architecture with the East Coast and West Coast DCGS nodes. Using the standard approach toward technology, this will be developed into a systems-oriented architecture where applications will be made available.

“We’re absolutely marching down that path,” Gen. James says. “Our vision is that the DCGS is an all-source data repository that we then utilize to create intelligence and knowledge. We’ve become used to the airborne piece of intelligence—Predators overhead, signals intelligence. But as we look to the future, it’s everything. It’s open source, it’s Twitter, all of those nontraditional sources of intelligence. In fact, one of the tasks coming out of the secretary of the Air Force’s office is an ISR review looking at nontraditional ISR [to determine] the road map for the Air Force to take advantage of it. We recognize that that also is a source of future intelligence that we have to be able to gather and utilize.”

While examining nontraditional intelligence-gathering means, the Air Force is investigating how it can assist the other services with the data surge they are experiencing from sensor systems recently introduced into the field.

For example, earlier this year, flight tests of the first developmental multifunction active sensor (MFAS) radar took place. The U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) will host the MFAS, giving the Navy 360-degree persistent coverage of oceans and littoral regions from long range. Gen. James says the Air Force is now determining how best to help the Navy with processing, exploitation and dissemination of the information the MFAS radar-equipped BAMS UAS gathers.

Although the Air Force has a number of priorities, the general believes commercial-sector expertise can be useful especially in discovering effective ways to deal with the overabundance of data and creating the communications infrastructure to handle it. Specifically, the service is interested in how to fuse data in appropriate formats so that machines can do 90 percent of the sifting—lifting some of the burden off of intelligence personnel.

In addition, these technology tools should be able to identify valuable data that analysts would then further investigate and pass on to commands and warfighters. Sharing intelligence with the appropriate people requires a communications infrastructure with enormous capacity that can ensure connectivity even in areas where access may be denied, Gen. James says.

In addition, the speed at which new technologies are being introduced into the field requires new approaches to training. First, the service must determine the educational tools and techniques that are needed for this new generation of warfighter. “An 18-year-old doesn’t learn or use the technology the way I do. We have to reach down and train from the ground up,” the general allows. “When it comes down to the end of the day, how fancy the hardware or technology is doesn’t matter—somebody has to make sense of it, execute it and provide it, and that’s the people. We have to make sure they are properly outfitted with both equipment and training.”

U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency:
U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft System video:


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