When it comes to intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) operations, wartime lessons tend to be definitive. The US military learned quickly in Afghanistan and Iraq what it did not know, what it could not do, and what took too long to accomplish. These lessons are being rapidly incorporated into the Air Force’s plans for improving its ISR capabilities.
US strategy today is based not on “mass” but on “overmatching power,” which stems from speed and precision. War planners must quickly know exactly what things are and where they are located. This is the essence of the ISR mission.
Because fleeting targets must be struck quickly, the Air Forcehas placed a high priority on shortening the “kill chain,” the sequence of steps taken to detect, find, and attack such a target. The Air Force’s standing goal is to compress the required time to single-digit minutes, a standard that, today, cannot be met consistently. The key to shortening the kill chain is use of machine-to-machine connections, so that attacks are not slowed by human intervention at every stage of the process.
At other times, the key is persistence. USAF Maj. Gen. (sel.) Donald C. Wurster, intelligence director for US Special Operations Command, noted in Congressional testimony earlier this year that “persistent observation of a target” can sometimes be more important than a quick strike because of the “need to be able to locate and track a specific person.”
He told lawmakers, “We need to find a person and then dwell on that individual to gain information about who he interacts with, where he goes, and what he does until we arrive at the point where either we want to pick him off or take him out to achieve our objectives.”
There is an offensive aspect to good ISR as well. In 2003, the Unified Command Plan was updated to give US Strategic Command authority over the global information operations and command, control, communications, computer, and ISR (C4ISR) missions. STRATCOM quickly identified a need to give the US a lopsided advantage in this area.
Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., STRATCOM’s recently retired commander, noted that DOD’s “desired end state” is to have an ISR capability so good that it has a deterrent character all its own. The Air Force agrees, and the obverse is also true. In its latest “Transformation Flight Plan,” released in February, officials note that denying ISR effectively forces an enemy to “fight blind, deaf, and dumb.”
The US currently has “limited” ability to disrupt adversary C4ISR assets and the flow of information, the flight plan concedes, but keeping good ISR data from potential enemies will help bring information superiority “under most circumstances.”
This is a never-ending cycle. Ellis said that the US is “already in the ISR campaign” for future wars.
USAF Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, considers the term “ISR” obsolete. He favors “battlespace awareness” to describe the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance mission.
Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Myers said, “I don’t think that there’s a distinct enough difference between the terms I-S-and-R anymore.” He went on, “They’re not really helpful as we try to define our own current strategic environment.”
Improvements at Work
The lessons derived from recent conflicts are being studied closely, and, in some cases, they have yielded quick improvement. A case in point: Airmen operating ISR assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles have been given the ability to communicate with troops in the field.
During Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Predator UAV operators, working in the United States, watched the battle unfold in real time but were unable to relay critical tactical information to the battlefield airmen and soldiers who needed it most. This need for real-time intelligence in the field brought a change. US-based intelligence personnel interpreting UAV data can now communicate directly with fielded forces via laptop computers that the troops carry into battle.
US Joint Forces Command, during its review of lessons from Operation Iraqi Freedom, found that the hardest task was getting critical data into the hands of the “shooters”—those who need it most. Improving tactics and procedures is a big part of the solution, but new and improved systems will continue to play a vital role.
Brig. Gen. (sel.) Paul A. Dettmer, deputy director of ISR operations for the Air Staff, noted that the service is “investing heavily” in better systems. Global Hawk and Predator UAVs, for example, are now combat proven and are being procured aggressively.
Much of USAF’s current ISR strength comes from its existing network of manned systems such as E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft and unmanned spy satellites. Existing systems will remain in service for decades. The Air Force has extensive modernization and sustainment programs in place.
Officials also are hard at work on the next generation of capabilities. Air Force Secretary James G. Roche noted last year that space systems “are integral to modern warfighting forces, providing critical surveillance and reconnaissance information, especially over areas of high risk or denied access.”
Ambitious plans for the bandwidth-enhancing Transformational Communications System and the Space Based Radar (which will take a portion of the Joint STARS’ ground-surveillance mission into space) promise to offer new options to the warfighter in the next decade. However, Congressional appropriators in July slashed the Administration’s 2005 funding request for these programs. Lawmakers cited concerns about cost and the technology challenges facing both programs. The Administration is appealing the cuts. The Air Force hopes to introduce the next air-breathing ISR platform—the E-10A—sooner than originally scheduled. The service now plans to field the system in three blocks—A, B, and C.
The E-10A will offer urgently needed cruise missile defense capabilities and an advanced ground moving target indicator capability. This variant will, eventually, assume the mission currently performed by Joint STARS.
The next variant, the E-10B, will provide an air battle management capability to complement and then replace the E-3 AWACS, when that platform needs to be retired.
Finally, the E-10C will provide a new signals intelligence capability to follow what is currently offered by the RC-135 Rivet Joint.
In an interview, Maj. Gen. (sel.) Stephen M. Goldfein said it was “past time to be very specific about a requirement” for this aircraft. Early support for E-10 development within DOD and on the Hill had languished because of a lack of understanding of the E-10’s mission. Goldfein said lawmakers and the regional warfighting commanders have all been briefed on what the program offers, such as a level of ground-target “clarity” that Joint STARS sometimes cannot offer.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense has directed the Air Force to have an “orbit” of four E-10s ready for combat use in 2013. Under current plans, this orbit of E-10As would offer round-the-clock fly-in ISR coverage.
The Defense Acquisition Board in summer 2005 will decide whether the program is ready to move forward to the system design and development phase. Pending approval, production could begin in 2008.
Total quantities of E-10s required have not yet been decided, but officials have said in the past that the aircraft will probably not replace the 69 existing E-3, E-8, and RC-135 aircraft on a one-for-one basis.
The E-10, Goldfein said, will offer commanders a “huge networked node in the sky,” which will lead to an overall improvement in ISR capabilities. It will provide “things we’d all desire but just can’t do right now,” he noted.
The E-10 serves as the centerpiece for the Air Force’s proposed command and control (C2) constellation. The C2 constellation will cut across systems to solve DOD’s long-standing problem: “stovepiped” systems that were not designed to work together efficiently.
Col. Norman Sweet, the Air Force’s C2 constellation group leader, described the situation in a paper: “An F-16 is a technological marvel capable of traveling several times the speed of sound and delivering pinpoint lethality,” because weapons, avionics, engines, and other systems all “efficiently interact.”
Achieving the same integration of multiple systems has been “lacking in military technology development,” he wrote. “Multiple systems, with multiple missions [must] interact seamlessly together,” continued Sweet.
The C2 constellation will help make this happen by ensuring that F-16s, E-10s, air operations centers (AOCs), and other systems can all coordinate. Horizontal integration (building connections between previously stovepiped systems) is the first step in connecting the various nodes needed to create an effective constellation.
The notional future C2 constellation will include “all the Air Force systems that provide input or receive and correlate” command, control, and ISR information, Sweet wrote. The ultimate goal is for everyone from combatant commander to battlefield air controller to have instant access to all necessary information.
An effective constellation will also address the problem of information overload. Senior officials have noted that some assets, such as Global Hawk, are so effective at collecting intelligence that they can’t be used at full capacity. Processing all Global Hawk data is simply beyond the means of the available intelligence personnel, noted Brig. Gen. Kelvin R. Coppock, intelligence director for Air Combat Command.
Coppock said automatic target recognition systems should greatly streamline the process, allowing USAF to use Global Hawk at more than the one-third capacity that was possible during Iraqi Freedom. Automation will help turn streams of data into actionable intelligence and quickly send it across systems to the desired users.
Sweet said the benefits of horizontal integration include optimal use of constrained resources, improved situational awareness, enhanced time critical targeting, and reduced theater footprint—which in turn means less risk to deployed airmen.
USAF is adding the Link 16 data link to combat aircraft, providing a good example of horizontal integration. Link 16 transmits targeting information electronically, rather than through voice communication, which slows the process and increases the possibility of human error. Targeting information is sometimes passed by voice from a surveillance system to an AOC to an AWACS to a strike aircraft.
An initiative at the Air Force’s Command and Control Battlelab, Hurlburt Field, Fla., could further speed things by linking the AOC directly to fighters equipped with Link 16. Col. Bruce Sturk, battlelab commander, has said that the Data Link Automated Reporting System (DLARS) will “give operators unprecedented levels of situational awareness.” DLARS was to be evaluated this summer at the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2004 and could be pushed into the field in less than six months, if deemed a worthwhile initiative.
This sort of integration, which allows information to be sent efficiently across systems, long has been a priority of the Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, who has been an outspoken critic of “tribal” mentalities and systems that are only integrated internally. The Air Force’s creation of a three-star office of warfighting integration at the Pentagon, led by Lt. Gen. William T. Hobbins, is but one example of the priority being placed on big-picture solutions to ISR limitations.
The Pentagon also is counting on process improvements to help address tactical-level problems. Chief among those is a requirement to reduce fratricide, or friendly fire accidents. After operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, DOD identified fratricide prevention as its top priority. Although the rate of fratricide was low during the major combat phases of these two operations, military leaders believe the armed forces must do more to prevent such accidents. In its review of lessons from Gulf War II, JFCOM found that fratricide prevention “fell short of expectations.”
Army Brig. Gen. Robert W. Cone, who led JFCOM’s lessons learned study, said that eliminating fratricide requires two advances: accurate combat identification and advanced blue force tracking. (See “Better ‘Blue Force’ Tracking,” June, p. 66.)
“ In terms of combat ID, I don’t think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 10 years,” Cone said last October. He also noted that tracking capabilities are good at the operations center level, but the shooters are too often in the dark about where friendly forces are.
In nonlinear battlefields with mingled forces, friendly force tracking, known as blue force tracking, becomes more important and yet more challenging, Cone said. He emphasized that the information should be pushed down to the “lowest level”—to those pulling the triggers and releasing the bombs.
Emerging technologies will help. Radio frequency “dog tags” that broadcast positions and infrared “bug lights” visible only under night vision goggles are being deployed. DOD also is attempting to push the best practices developed in the combat zones into common use.
Officials at the Air Force’s C2ISR Center at Langley AFB, Va., note that there is still a lack of standardization in these blue force tracking systems but that much progress has been made.
A center fact sheet stated that the time in which updates of the locations of ground units are sent to the AOC, in some cases, has been “reduced from six to 12 hours to minutes.” Current intelligence about the location of friendly forces is the critical first step in eliminating fratricide.
The fact sheet continued: “Although friendly fire incidents cannot be totally eliminated, [the use of blue force trackers] will greatly reduce fratricide caused by improper combat identification.”
Center officials added, however, that technology is no cure-all. Doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures must also be refined to further reduce the number of friendly forces being accidently killed.
The BDA Delay
The Air Force wants to take ISR assets in a new direction to provide better and more timely battle damage assessment (BDA). The long-standing BDA process dictates that US forces confirm that a target has been destroyed before moving on to the next target. Historically, this served two purposes. Planners would know a target had been missed and send a new strike to finish the job. Conversely, planners would not waste sorties “killing” a dead target.
A new era of weapons effectiveness has now turned the existing BDA protocols into a limitation, however. As Maj. Gen. Tommy F. Crawford, C2ISR Center commander, said, the Air Force now has access to precision guided munitions offering better than 90 percent reliability. Perhaps the time has come to “make a leap of faith” and presume that targets have been destroyed, he said.
In most cases, performing BDA is a lower priority than eliminating additional targets. Yet, Crawford said, the ISR systems needed to plan the next attack are frequently held back to support BDA.
Jumper frequently has stated that operations planners must take into consideration the fact that a Global Positioning System-guided bomb will hit its target “more than 90 percent of the time” even though “you still don’t know if you did the job or not until you have a chance to look to see if the [desired] effect was achieved.”
In the current era of nonlinear battlefields—meaning battlefields with no fronts—incrementally stepping from one target to the next can slow things down to an unacceptable degree. Jumper said USAF needs to consider innovative ways to get its BDA information faster.
In combat, the Air Force often has hundreds of airplanes with advanced sensors flying over target areas. USAF carefully plans missions into a target area, so it follows that the same care can be used to plan missions out of a target area. “We can send those same airplanes over certain places ... to check the damage,” said Jumper. He added, “Something as simple as that, using equipment that we have today, could profoundly help our BDA problem.”
The Air Staff’s Dettmer said that Jumper has instructed Dettmer’s office to check into its BDA assumptions, because “federated BDA” had tremendously slowed down target planning and impacted operations in recent years.
“You couldn’t get an agreed-to position [on whether a strike was successful] out of the federation of BDA producers,” Dettmer said, even for targets the Air Force was “98.9 percent” confident had been destroyed.
Unfortunately, “because of the lengthy BDA process we traditionally go through, you may wind up having to restrike [the target],” he said.
The problem also aggravates future planning. When a Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft or a U-2 spyplane is tasked to do BDA, “you’ve taken that asset away from target development and time-critical targeting and impacted a whole preplanned problem set,” Dettmer noted.
Smoothing out BDA is not a systems problem, he said. It is a problem primarily of tactics, techniques, and procedures. The means for collecting the intelligence are out there. The solution is in “breaking down long-existing barriers, in a lot of cases within elements of the Intelligence Community that ... refused to share what we call ‘crown jewels’ of intelligence for a variety of good reasons—and in some cases a variety of bad reasons,” Dettmer said.
Meeting an Insatiable Demand
Officials have said for years that restraining demand is the key to moderating overuse of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) systems, the lion’s share of which are bought and operated by the Air Force. The Joint Staff, for example, has attempted to regulate calls for the Air Force’s ISR systems, such as E-3 AWACS aircraft.
Combatant commanders are encouraged to ask for capabilities needed to accomplish their missions, not for specific platforms. Officials say some theater commander requests, particularly for AWACS, have actually been declined by the Joint Staff. (See “It Means ‘We Didn’t Buy Enough,’ ” July 2003, p. 62.)The insatiable demand for battlefield knowledge means that today almost all the systems dedicated to ISR missions are considered low-density, high-demand (LD/HD). The demands are only expected to grow, and one official said the last thing the Air Force wants to do is create additional LD/HD capabilities.
The Air Force is now working more closely than ever with the combatant commanders to keep ISR demands and requirements in check. There is both a push and a pull to this coordination.
On the one hand, the Air Force went to the warfighting commanders to brief them on the E-10 program. This was done to ensure that the ISR “customers” understood the E-10 and its benefits and to ensure they would be on board and supportive of the program.
On the other hand, US Strategic Command was recently given oversight of DOD’s global information and ISR operations (as part of the recent Unified Command Plan update). This should help align the Air Force’s ISR plans with those of the primary warfighting customer.
As Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., then STRATCOM commander, told lawmakers in March, “Strategic Command is uniquely positioned to provide a global view of both intelligence needs and required future capabilities.”
Ellis said that “combining a composite list of theater requirements with emerging technologies allows us to develop a comprehensive list of capabilities” needed to support the warfighter.
STRATCOM is “actively engaged in determining future airborne ISR needs,” Ellis said, but “to be truly effective, we must find a more efficient means to influence the shape of DOD ISR procurement programs.”
After dealing with a shortage of ISR capability and funding for years, USAF probably appreciates the support. But the Air Force also needs cooperation and input from the other services, as USAF’s latest “Transformation Flight Plan” makes clear.
“What the Air Force needs from the other services and agencies,” the plan explains, is a common, coordinated understanding of what the joint ISR requirements really are.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, air power, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag