Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance in the Littoral Fight

April 2012
By Lt. Daniel T. Murphy, USN, SIGNAL Magazine

A significant force multiplier in the asymmetric ground fight must be applied to a new area.

The next time U.S. forces fight in the littorals—whether it be in the Persian Gulf, Africa, Asia or elsewhere—adversaries, if they are smart, will adopt the land tactics that have made insurgents effective in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, if the U.S. military is smart, it will bring to the asymmetric maritime fight the same force-multiplying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools that have kept casualty rates surprisingly low in the ground fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The past two decades have seen naval strategies, orders of battle and tactics change considerably. What has become clear in recent years is that, in a conflict with U.S. or Western coalition navies, adversaries will not carelessly deploy their blue-water assets in a traditional fight against highly equipped and highly trained forces. Rather, they likely would pursue a spectrum of operations starting with the highly asymmetric and deniable, then building potentially to the highly kinetic and overt.

Most potential adversaries’ naval operations would focus on restricting the freedom of movement at sea and delivering an adverse economic impact on the enemy. Having seen the successes of insurgent ground-based asymmetric tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan, adversaries will be emboldened in their ability to deliver similar asymmetric effects at sea.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) has been, and will continue to be, the military’s most significant force multiplier in any asymmetric ground fight. Now, planners need to begin to build strategies and tactics for how the force would take that advantage to the littorals. Multiple potential adversaries on multiple continents could create, with a small bit of coordination, a perfect storm of littoral hotspots for western coalition navies to cover. Even with a thousand-ship navy, the challenge would be significant.

Leaders need to start preparing now to be able to bring the latest highly persistent and highly economical land-based ISR platforms to the littoral fight. Those platforms must be integrated with traditional ISR order of battle in the littoral space in the same way they have been in the Afghanistan and Iraq ground fights. That integration, combined with the Western military’s unmatched ability to fuse, process and disseminate information, will be the essence of information dominance in the littoral space.

In the asymmetric fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, a “new ISR” has been the West’s most significant force multiplier. New-generation unmanned platforms such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper significantly have extended ground forces’ areas of observation outward. Forces have the ability to utilize the new ISR platforms in concert with some older-generation manned—and in some cases, re-sensored—ISR platforms.

The ability to fuse, process and disseminate the integrated intelligence from these assets will continue to provide an exponential advantage in information dominance. Allied ground forces today have earlier indications and warnings of threats, along with invaluable persistent overhead views of the daily pattern of life and potential enemy intentions in an operational area. Observers can watch for changes in patterns, interpret those changes, assess the enemy’s intent and capabilities, and plan and execute their own operations accordingly.

In addition, the new platforms have the ability to go kinetic quickly without the need to put ground forces in harm’s way. The result of these new capabilities is that, compared with previous conflicts, coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been tough to kill, and operations have been difficult for the enemy to counter.

The U.S. Navy clearly sees the at-sea potential of new ISR tools, and the chief of naval operations (CNO) said recently that he wants to see stealthy, unmanned aircraft on U.S. carriers before 2018. Given the complexities of unmanned ISR platforms, the blue-water fleet needs to move with a measured approach. According to the CNO, “Those complexities include landing an aircraft without a pilot in the cockpit onto the deck of a carrier bursting with electromagnetic energy.” However, although the new generation of ISR platforms are not quite ready for the blue-water Navy, they certainly are ready for the littoral fight.

Around the world, multiple littoral flashpoints loom where, if a conflict began, the Navy potentially would become the “supported command” in the protection of commercial sea lanes, port facilities, choke points and riverine areas. To the littoral fight, the Navy and Coast Guard would bring an expeditionary capability set in riverine forces, maritime expeditionary security squadrons, port security units, mine warfare platforms and other specialized units. However, as the supported force, the Navy must be ready to request effects from other services—especially ISR effects.

Mine warfare is among the most asymmetric and deniable of naval operations, and it delivers a big bang for the buck. Adversaries potentially could wreak havoc in the shipping lanes by using dhows and other civilian-type vessels to lay mines during seemingly routine transits through choke points and congested areas. These operations likely would be conducted at night. By laying mines in a free-floating state, an enemy would make the origin of the mines more difficult to trace. Even if forensics did prove their origin, the enemy regime still would have a measure of deniability. If a determined enemy initiated a mine-warfare campaign in just one major commercial traffic area, traditional U.S. and coalition mine countermeasure capabilities would be stretched thin.

Compared with traditional mine warfare platforms, ISR assets such as the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and the new U.S. Air Force MC-12 Liberty, a manned aircraft, are relatively ubiquitous and quick to deploy from land-based airfields in friendly littoral areas. Using synthetic aperture radar, video cameras and forward-looking infrared (FLIR), these platforms have the persistency to watch over a chokepoint or waterway for an extended period of time. They also could detect mine-laying vessels and activities. With an airborne signals intelligence payload, a platform also can listen to adversaries as they broadcast.

The MQ-9 also carries ground moving target indicator (GMTI) technology that potentially could track contacts at sea. A Predator or a Reaper could either cue a seaborne platform to intercept a vessel engaged in a mining operation or, with its own armament, conduct a kinetic strike against the vessel. Depending on atmospherics and sea states, these platforms may even be able to hunt for mines along a narrow vector transit line and cue scarce traditional assets to the location for sweeping and clearing. New ISR potentially could extend the battle commander’s optical view of the battlespace significantly beyond what can be seen from the bridge wing of a minesweeper, and these assets have significantly more persistency than ship-based rotary wing aircraft.

In a reaction to economic sanctions, or as part of a territorial sea or exclusive economic zone (EEZ) dispute, naval adversary forces could disrupt significantly the commercial vessel traffic flow simply by threatening or conducting basic visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations. In the shipping industry, time is money, and margins continue to narrow. Just slowing down vessel traffic through key shipping lanes would have an economic impact that would ripple across the globe and down to the consumer. This would be exactly the enemy’s desired effect.

To counter such a strategy, a land-based Predator or Reaper could persistently watch over a commercial traffic area, vector merchant traffic away from the VBSS operations, vector friendly maritime security assets to provide protection and, if necessary, use kinetic force to prevent an enemy VBSS operation. Compared to the traditional mix of blue-water assets and embarked security teams that would escort vessels through densely trafficked high-threat areas, an ISR-focused solution would be more rapid-reactive, cost-effective and sustainable.

Some adversaries have built up their small-craft inventory significantly in the last two decades, including fast-attack missile and torpedo craft. These assets, even if they were used in feint swarm attacks rather than actual strike operations, could have a significant adverse impact on commercial vessel traffic flow. The large number of fast-attack craft, their small size, high speed and small radar signature all make them difficult to detect, track, deter and defeat. They are an especially dangerous foe when operating in congested sea lanes, in and around archipelagos, around oil platforms and in disputed territorial seas and EEZs.

Traditionally, the Navy would counter a fast-attack craft threat using blue-water Navy and Coast Guard assets as escorts. If the waterway were a highly trafficked area such as the Persian Gulf—and if the threat continued for any significant period of time—the operation quickly would become unsustainable for the fleet. Commercial traffic likely would need to move into highly resource-intensive convoys, which would cause shipping delays and economic impacts. Inevitably, a determined adversary would launch a successful small-craft attack against an escorted vessel, or possibly even against one of the escorting vessels.

Similar to the VBSS scenario, and in the same manner that shore-based aircraft helped protect shipping against German wolfpacks in World War II, shore-based Predator, Reaper or MC-12 aircraft could extend an area of observation outward. They would watch over the traffic area and provide early indications and warnings of enemy small craft mobilizing for an attack against merchant vessels. They could vector surface and air-based assets to provide protection or go kinetic against a fast-attack craft. ISR can extend the commander’s view of the battlespace significantly beyond what can be seen from the bridge wing of an escorting vessel. These aircraft can provide persistency over a waterway that a ship-based helicopter cannot. Again, these land-based platforms would be more fast-reactive, cost-effective and sustainable for long-term operations.

In dense commercial shipping areas around the world, adversaries that opt for an asymmetric fight would have a target-rich environment against pierside vessels, port facilities, fuel farms, refineries, oil rigs, desalinization plants and other key infrastructure elements. Protecting port facilities against shore-based and sea-based threats is the mission of the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) and U.S. Coast Guard forces. These forces already are operating at a high operational tempo in the contiguous United States, in the Persian Gulf and in other locations worldwide, protecting Navy and Military Sealift Command shipping in various ports and while they are in transit. If the threat level escalated in the Persian Gulf or in one or two other hotspots in the world,  NECC and Coast Guard forces would be stretched thin.

Against the threat of individual or unit-level attacks from the shore side or from a waterway, the keys to success are indications, warnings and reaction time. Similar to force protection at sea against fast-attack craft, the aim is to extend the area of observation as far outward as possible. However, rather than defending a high-value asset transiting a shipping lane, the challenge instead is to extend the area of observation around a static vessel or facility, both on the land side and across the waterways. To provide force protection around a high-value asset in port or around a port facility, the Navy and Coast Guard employ shoreside security teams that patrol and defend assigned land-based sectors, along with small-boat units that patrol and defend waterway-based sectors. Both rely on threat indications and warnings. The earlier the indication can be detected, the earlier the reaction forces can be warned. The earlier those forces can be warned, the earlier they can counter the threat and the greater their chance of defeating the threat.

On both the land side and the water side, visibility, and therefore elevation, is the key to reaction time. When forces are able to place a lookout on an 80-foot crane in a high-threat port facility, their area of observation increases exponentially. Elevation can help landside security teams gain visibility over multiple blocks in a commercial port area, rather than the single block that they would be able to observe from street level. For patrolling boat units—when elevation allows the horizon to be extended—friendly forces gain visibility over piers, islands, vessels and other blind spots.

ISR assets can extend the area of observation even farther than an 80-foot crane. And, because full-motion video feeds can be networked, analysts can be brought to the fight to study and understand a port’s pattern of life and to identify indication and warnings trends. According to Chris Ames, director of international strategic development at Predator manufacturer General Atomics, “At the heart of it, we’re delivering persistent situation awareness, which is really the most valued of commodities. That creates a transparent battlefield where you know where the threats are and can counter them.” Persistent full-motion video ISR potentially could make port security a less resource-intensive effort because the same density of force protection assets would not be needed. For a longer-term operation, an aerostat-based sensor that could cue a kinetic platform or quick reaction force would be a cost-effective option.

Lt. Daniel T. Murphy, USN, is a graduate student at the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C. He previously served with the 609th Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CENTCOM CAOC), Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where he was forward deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

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