Information-Gathering Needs Intensify in Afghanistan

December 30, 2010
By Rachel Eisenhower

From Aerostats to chat rooms, the demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in Afghanistan is at an all-time high. As coordinators work to allocate and organize the largest number of capabilities ever deployed, the challenge remains to maximize the potential of what already exists.

In her article, "Data Collection Resources Expand in Afghanistan," in this issue of SIGNAL Magazine, News Editor Rita Boland explores the issues that arise as coalition allies employ information-gathering technology in the field.

Col. Scott F. Murray, USAF, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command, explains that ISR usage in Afghanistan is four times greater than usage at the height of the surge in Iraq. And the increase accounts for more than just a shift of resources. The colonel says emerging technology has increased the assets available.

The process for asset allocation is different in each of the two theaters. Col. Murray describes the process of distributing ISR resources in Iraq as a "peanut-butter spread." Commanders share the platforms, which guarantees everyone receives something. However, the method limits certain areas from gathering additional resources based on individual needs.

In Afghanistan, a priority-driven system provides commanders with capabilities based on a prioritized list. Commanders request new capabilities when current resources fall short of a need. If troops can't use small unmanned vehicles because of the terrain in a certain geographic area, Col. Murray's division can handle the request for a larger unmanned vehicle.

Almost four dozen countries across six regional command areas in Afghanistan contribute to ISAF and require coordination and support. Collaboration is enhanced through mission-type orders, which give lower units an objective without specific details for accomplishing the goal. Once the orders have been issued, the commanders have the ability to handle the processing, exploitation and dissemination of the data collected as they deem necessary.

In these and other types of situations, the colonel has noticed that young troops use chat capabilities to communicate. "This war is being fought by chat," remarks Col. Murray, and the quick sharing reduces the time for information to pass from sensor to shooter from minutes to seconds.

ISAF members also are communicating better thanks to a push for a common network. The Afghan Mission Network connects multinational systems together making information sharing among different countries simpler.

In addition to traditional intelligence gathering means, information is often gleaned in untraditional ways in Afghanistan. Likewise, assets typically used to support violent situations also can be employed for governance and development, such as monitoring traffic patterns.

The challenge remains for ISR coordinators to find the most effective ways to use all the resources available. Col. Murray reflects that while there often are many great solutions for issues, the analytical pieces aren't always ready.

But one of the biggest challenges for ISR experts isn't technical at all. Mother Nature can present its own battles in Afghanistan, where winter weather coupled with geographic features makes information gathering especially difficult. "There are vast regions in the country that are not conducive to ISR," the colonel says, and those problems won't be solved this year.

Col. Murray says in the ISR world, plans often don't survive. Between events, maintenance and weather, coordinators must adapt to a flexible schedule and the ever-changing needs of the troops on the ground. As the conflict in Afghanistan intensifies, how do you believe information-gathering technology will adapt? How can industry help support ISR needs on the Afghanistan battlefield? If you are now or recently were in Afghanistan, what ISR capabilities would you like available in theater?

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