Britain Reforges Its Intelligence Assets

October 2007
By Henry S. Kenyon

The United Kingdom’s Dabinett program seeks to link all of the nation’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) platforms, such as this Sentinel airborne stand-off radar aircraft, into a single architecture capable of providing continuous battlefield surveillance.
New structure will manage, control platforms and spread data to services.

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence is integrating all of its intelligence and reconnaissance platforms and systems into a single architecture capable of providing 24-hour battlefield surveillance. The effort also will provide a means of distributing and disseminating collected data to warfighters down to the tactical level.

Named after a type of apple, the Dabinett program was launched in 2005 with a series of studies designed to establish how the British military’s various intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities could be managed and coordinated. The program is now beginning its first five-year development and implementation phase.

Dabinett is separated into four “strands” covering specific activities and missions, and these occur in five- to seven-year development periods. The strands, in order of development, are direct, collect, process and disseminate (DCPD); urban ISTAR; adaptable ISTAR platforms; and deep and persistent ISTAR. According to Barry Trimmer, technical director, Thales Aerospace U.K., Crawley, England, the effort will concentrate on immediate development needs and move on to long-term development aspects over time.

During the next several years, the program will focus on DCPD and its information management, processing and dissemination aspects. These technical qualities have different forms, says Trimmer, noting that some systems have their own processing and dissemination capabilities. But an operational consideration remains whether data should be spread more widely. “You’re left with the question of where processing is provided. Could it [processing] be made common to help systems that are inadequately provided with processing?” he shares.

Trimmer admits that the United Kingdom’s ISTAR distribution capabilities are limited. He explains that much work remains on the dissemination aspect of DCPD, specifically what data should be sent to which users. Another factor affecting information sharing is that a great deal of material also must be gathered from an ongoing operation to inform any decisions to pass along data. For example, current missions might demonstrate a need for full-motion video from imaging sensors. But, this capability may be impossible to apply to larger operations because not enough bandwidth is available. Trimmer adds that these limitations can be circumvented by using lasers to increase bandwidth or with bandwidth managing techniques.

One potential technology that might be included in a future Dabinett architecture is Thales’ imagery-on-demand system. It can be used as part of a platform, such as the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Trimmer explains that it is a method for trading time for bandwidth. He notes that if a person conducts a Google Earth search, he or she can zoom in and view a low-resolution map and then zoom in again for greater detail on a specific area. Imagery-on-demand applies this feature to full-motion video.

Watchkeeper UAVs using wideband datalinks use only their optical sensors at less than full resolution. Imagery-on-demand allows operators to compress the incoming data to focus on images of interest. When an operator indicates a picture of interest, the system requests a high-resolution still image from the UAV. This can be a high-resolution full-motion video still because, Trimmer explains, high-resolution still images do not require as much bandwidth as video. He says that it is a useful tool for bandwidth-strapped systems operating in the field. The system also includes an assessment to determine whether a better way to present a certain image exists. There is a brief time lag of one or two seconds as the operator selects an image of interest. This image is then transmitted in high resolution, but because it is a still, it uses a fraction of the bandwidth used for full-motion video.

After the program has examined processing and dissemination aspects for ISTAR systems, it will move on to develop adaptable ISTAR platforms, urban ISTAR and deep and persistent ISTAR capabilities. Adaptable ISTAR will support the Royal Air Force and consist of advanced UAV platforms such as the Predator B. Urban ISTAR will enhance the capabilities of dismounted soldiers for urban operations and consist of unattended ground sensors, lightweight thermal imagers and very small UAVs. Deep and persistent ISTAR systems may include unattended ground sensors, unmanned aerial platforms or space systems such as reconnaissance and surveillance satellites.

The strands will begin to provide capabilities to the military after the first five-year development phase. An early example of this focus was the recent purchase of U.S. Predator B, or Reaper hunter-killer UAVs, by the Royal Air Force for the adaptable ISTAR strand. However, Trimmer speculates that this purchase is a short-term stopgap that does not necessarily establish long-term requirements for the program and that it also may apply to the deep and persistent ISTAR missions strand. “Deep and persistent should be the compilation of all the things you need to do to have persistent ISTAR remote from your operating base. I suspect there will be a number of assets and systems required to operate together in order to deliver that,” he explains.

All the program strands are being undertaken as assessment phase studies. Unlike programs in the United States, the assessment phase examines specific things at its beginning and end. Following the concept phase, the assessment phase sets an established need and at least one credible method to meet that need. This phase also determines funding and confirms that a solution is achievable. 

Dabinett will support tactical forces by managing and processing their ISTAR systems requirements.
The end of the assessment phase is referred to as main gate. This is the last step before development and production. “To get through a main gate, you need to have a level of risk that is under control. The IPT [integrated product team] needs to have all the development lines arranged. It needs to be credible in terms of force and equipment development,” he says. 

Assessment phases have two stages. The first step is an evaluation of competing technologies and their respective doctrines and concepts. Trimmer explains that a proper assessment will compare solutions with their full lines of development and associated life-cycle costs. Some solutions have completely different approaches to implementation, maintenance and use. He notes that the idea is to compare each approach holistically.

Once the solution or solutions have been selected, the remainder of the assessment phase consists of risk mitigation. Trimmer explains that the phase includes both assessment and “de-risking.” When main gate is reached, a number of issues must be answered, such as technical risks against performance requirements, financial risk and time-scale risks. Time risks include meeting required in-service dates. Another hurdle is meeting technology readiness levels, which are based on U.S. Defense Department measurements. “You have to be at an ideal technology readiness level of six or seven,” he says.

The programs coming out of Dabinett as a result of this development approach will resemble a group of interrelated or “stacked” efforts. Trimmer explains that there will be a number of main gates as the program moves on, each with its own requirements. 

Dabinett will not have a single prime contractor overseeing the entire effort. Individual firms will bid and compete for contracts in each of the program’s strands. Industry can be involved with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in three places in the program, says Trimmer. The first is providing contracts for strands that will be competed for by individual firms or consortia. Another method will support the program office. This program support organization will review companies that can provide expertise for the office to help it manage the overall effort.

The third method still has to be fully delineated, but Trimmer believes that it will probably support part of the Dabinett IPT, which is responsible for managing the high-level design aspects of ISTAR systems. This high-end approach will provide the structure that all of the separate program threads will exist and operate in. “At a full ISTAR level, you can’t just have a group of programs and hope for the best. You have to have some form of overarching architecture that will give you standardization, common functionality and additional functionality if you’re going to use two or three of these threads to do something neither of them will do individually,” Trimmer shares.

Trying to ensure that several separate technologies work together in a larger system is a relatively common problem with ISTAR applications, explains Trimmer. However, this design approach creates more value from a number of programs operating collaboratively out of their stovepipes instead of leaving them to operate alone. No company would be awarded a prime contract for this level because it is an MOD architecture level. He says that this layer will probably be managed by the IPT staff and the Defence Science Technology Laboratory, the MOD’s scientific advisory organization. 

However, there also will be room for industry advice at this high level. An industrial advisory board is being established to help manage the process, but Trimmer cautions that its exact structure and role have not yet been fixed. This new body will work with the IPT to make overall ISTAR architecture decisions. 

Although this government body has no power, it is involved in discussions about the shape and function of the overall architecture. The board will be an entity that will consider ideas brought forth by companies such as Thales. This group will try to inform the MOD about the architectural background in which the program threads operate. The government hasn’t run a program with this type of oversight structure before, so it is still feeling its way, he says. However, Trimmer cautions that at this time he can only speculate about the MOD’s intentions.

The program is drawing firms from across the ISTAR spectrum. Trimmer notes that Dabinett’s goal is to coordinate these various activities into a single effort. He is unsure how the program’s various lines of authority will operate within the MOD, but he expects that Dabinett will influence how the government conducts almost all of its ISTAR acquisitions.

The key issues for Dabinett or any other large ISTAR system will be to fuse data and task ISTAR assets, perhaps away from their command stovepipes. Questions of acceptable doctrine are important. But choosing hardware at this early stage of the program would be premature, he says.

After the first five years, there may be more possibilities regarding platforms and their capabilities. Trimmer notes that it may be possible to do more things with smaller, expendable systems such as remote sensors and that these changing capabilities may alter perceptions about deep and persistent mission profiles.

Web Resources
United Kingdom Ministry of Defence:
Thales Group, U.K.:


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