ISR After Afghanistan

Jan. 1, 2013

For more than a decade, the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance enterprise. The unique demands of those conflicts have pushed USAF toward an “airborne-centric” ISR architecture—exemplified by flying platforms from the Predator to the U-2—but that’s not necessarily the ISR structure needed for the future.

So said Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, the Air Force’s ISR chief, in his November address to the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium, held in Los Angeles.

A pilot flight checks a USAF MC-12 Liberty aircraft at Beale AFB, Calif. The new ISR aircraft can collect two football seasons’ worth of video in one day—and that’s still not enough to meet the ISR demand in CENTCOM. (USAF photo by SrA. Shawn Nickel)

The Air Force has established a “gold standard” in ISR, James said, but the service is rethinking its perpetual pursuit of an ever-increasing number of combat air patrols by ISR platforms. The ISR mission is evolving rapidly, now that the US exit from Afghanistan is in view, he said.

USAF now focuses on data: where it comes from, where to put it, and how to use it quickly and decisively.

“We don’t care about the platform [or] the sensor,” James said. “We just want the information to feed into this apparatus we’ve created” for the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of battlefield information.

As a result, priorities have changed. The service has slowed its pursuit of the MQ-X, a putative stealthy successor to the MQ-9 Reaper. It has proposed retiring the Block 30 version of the Global Hawk fleet of remotely piloted aircraft and has openly debated whether it should go forward with its stated commitment to building 65 CAPs’ worth of remotely piloted aircraft.

Rather, the Air Force is now leaning forward to adapt its global ISR network to a new security environment, service leaders and others noted at the symposium.

The force of the near future will have to respond to needs outlined in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. The strategy demands an ISR capability that can function in a range of scenarios, concentrating on operations in US Central Command and the Asia-Pacific region—from the permissive environment of Afghanistan to countries sheltered behind formidable anti-access, area-denial systems.

In Afghanistan, the Air Force continues to provide enormous amounts of ISR to ground combatants and the Distributed Common Ground System, which has nodes around the world. Predators and Reapers covering some 59 CAPs operate in Southwest Asia, James said.

SSgt. Tony Deaton, an MQ-9 crew chief, runs maintenance on a Reaper engine at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by Capt. Tristan Hinderliter)

Over the last year, the lion’s share of U-2, Global Hawk, and RC-135 Rivet Joint missions has been carried out in US Central Command’s area of responsibility. USAF’s MC-12 fleet, rushed into theater to fill the demand for full-motion video and sensor data, collects two football seasons’ worth of video in one day, and requests still pile up, James said. Airmen in the ISR field gather and use data in new and innovative ways every day, bringing together information from all sources—signals, imagery, geo mapping, and others.

“We’re not one ‘int’ focused. … Our teams utilize all these domains to create information,” James said, and the demand testifies to the effectiveness airmen have brought to the mission. But future battlefields will not likely offer the benign airspace of Afghanistan.

The Air Force’s “global vigilance” enterprise faces demands on multiple fronts, as the US shifts its strategic priorities. Its moves to cut force structure indicate the Air Force has some tough choices to make.

While the Air Force and DOD draw down involvement in Afghanistan, a “broader range of challenges and opportunities” now rises from the strategic guidance, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said in his symposium address. The Air Force is rebalancing its priorities as they might have stood had events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war not intervened, he observed. Those conflicts got top priority in an era of finite resources in procurement and force structure.

The joint force must be “agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced,” Donley said, and these characteristics are well-suited to airpower.

Drawing a historical analogy, Donley said “island hopping” during World War II often provided a means to gain access to and control of airfields—highlighting the centrality of air superiority and long-range strike to strategic plans.

Congressional deadlock, however, has now paralyzed force planning, Donley said. Defense officials at all levels have warned repeatedly the sequester mechanism set up by the 2011 Budget Control Act would slash hundreds of billions of dollars from future DOD budgets and make the strategic guidance nearly unworkable.

“The days ahead will call for us to fine-tune our strategic decisions,” Donley said, and “as we follow through on … planning and execution, … we [are] staying focused on readiness and modernization.”

A Reaper is manually taxied at Kandahar. The aircraft is launched and recovered from there, but controlled from Creech AFB, Nev., while in flight. (USAF photo by SSgt. Clay Lancaster)

While there’s little disagreement on the need for readiness and modernization, there remains “real resistance” in Congress to reducing force structure.

Carpe Diem

Still, uncertainty in the budget has helped spur a renewed push for innovation. James believes the Air Force should seize the opportunity. USAF’s force structure for ISR will not see significant change in the near term, he said, and many of the assets used in US Central Command also see a great deal of use in the Asia-Pacific region—a trend that will accelerate in the future.

For example, of the U-2 fleet’s 1,400 sorties since November 2011, nearly 300 were in response to taskings in US Pacific Command. As forces become available from Afghanistan, many senior officials anticipate the number of PACOM taskings to grow steadily.

The heavy lifting needed for the ISR mission’s problem solving will take place inside the DCGS network, where USAF’s analysts, data specialists, and others sort through a massive daily stream of information.

“That’s where the magic happens, … and frankly, there are a lot of challenges,” James said, noting that DCGS processes more than 1.3 petabytes of data a month—equivalent to 1,000 hours a day of full-motion video—and better sensor technology will only add to these figures.

The next generation of the Gorgon Stare wide-area sensor, a podded system fielded on the MQ-9 over Afghanistan, will soon see action. It will provide overwatch of a 6.2-mile by 6.2-mile square swath for as long as a Reaper can remain airborne. While not providing the same resolution as high-definition full-motion video, it will give an analyst or ground commander effective surveillance of wide areas.

All this information, however, still requires human eyes to sift through it. As a result, fusion, storage, and use of this torrent of data is becoming a larger problem, particularly as USAF copes with shrinking manpower levels.

A visitor to a DCGS node might see an NCO sitting in front of a row of screens watching video. That airman “may be supporting a task, a ‘pattern-of-life’ development—it could be a lot of things,” James said. “But if he’s watching video, … I would offer that’s a lousy use of the human brain.”

An RQ-4 Global Hawk is readied for takeoff on the flight line at Andersen AFB, Guam. USAF has proposed retiring the Block 30 Global Hawk. (USAF photo by SrA. Carlin Leslie)

Machines and artificial intelligence tools have to help the Air Force get control of all this information. Commanders, analysts, and others should have access to a fused product of cyber and human intelligence as well as other data from across the network, “as opposed to having eyeballs watching a video,” James said.

Data management and movement are vital to operations where control of air, sea, and space is contested, USAF leaders said. The Asia-Pacific region, much like the operating environment of the Cold War in Europe, has a host of potential cases in which adversaries would contest access to airspace, James said. The Air Force must fuse and leverage its vast data capabilities in new ways.

“We need to fundamentally change ISR,” said Bran Ferren, co-chairman of Applied Minds LLC and a veteran of DOD and government advisory groups, such as the Defense Science Board, for more than 20 years. The US military needs to change ISR “so we never look at a single sensor again; we look at how it contributes to all the other sensors,” he said during his speech at the symposium.

If a bomb were to go off in a city street in the US, Ferren observed, it would likely show up on YouTube almost instantly because there are now nearly as many video-equipped and networked cell phones on the planet as people.

The Air Force needs to rethink “network effects” exemplified by Facebook, he said; understand that it won’t always own the ISR platform; and that the generated knowledge is context-dependent for a given scenario.

James largely agreed with Ferren’s outside assessment, saying the Air Force must find a way to bring unconventional and open source assets into its ISR enterprise.

The RC-135 Rivet Joint (shown here), U-2, and Global Hawk have been largely operating in the US Central Command area of responsibility for the past 10 years, but are now receiving more requests from PACOM as well. (USAF photo)

James spoke of the proliferation of Twitter feeds, the accessibility of YouTube digital video, and crowd sourcing applications on mobile devices as suppliers of information—what he dubbed “Twitter-Int”—that often get overlooked. Analytics have been developed to build better ISR products using information from these places.

“Every person is a sensor,” James declared. “That really is becoming a reality,” and the Air Force has to think “more broadly than we have in the past” about how it will bring those sources into the process.

This has already come under discussion at the service’s highest levels. At a recent Corona meeting, USAF’s four-star generals discussed how the service would further meld space and cyber operations into the broader ISR mission and how it would operate in a more access-challenged situation.

Collaboration Is Key

Intelligence personnel are key to the cyber domain and they understand the importance of information gleaned from nontraditional sources.

“There is a lot of good discussion and work” in this area, James said.

ISR integration also touches the service’s tacair modernization programs. One of the taskings out of the last Corona meeting was to lay out a way ahead for USAF’s fifth generation fighters—the F-22 and F-35—and how to use their ISR capabilities. While these assets have huge capabilities, USAF officials have repeatedly noted, they still need to pass and receive data from networks via assets such as E-3 AWACS, ground stations, and other nodes of the ISR fleet which aren’t fifth generation aircraft.

“We didn’t design in the ability to bring that data [from the sensors and radars] off board,” James said of the fighters. “So how do we improve the storage capacity [on Raptors and Lightning IIs], … especially considering these assets will be the only assets we can fly in a contested airspace, initially?”

Another area of interest is how to improve operations from standoff distances, such as from U-2s flying outside the range of ground-based surface-to-air missiles and other threats.

Lt. Gen. Larry James (l) listens to Brig. Gen. Scott Dennis describe ISR capabilities at Kandahar Airfield. CENTCOM’s intelligence needs are insatiable but may decrease as the US draws down in Afghanistan. (USAF photo)

Collaboration will play a huge role as the US draws down from Central Asia and redistributes its force structure. The ability to leverage the ISR data that allies collect and share will prove valuable.

“Effective alliances and partnerships are a force multiplier in a region as vast as the Asia-Pacific region,” Donley said, noting cooperation activities with Australia and Japan are vital to maintaining USAF global vigilance.

Australia, in addition to contributing pilots to fly MC-12 missions in Afghanistan, has examined setting up a DCGS node and expanding space capability. This will pay great dividends as the US seeks new venues of cooperation with its treaty ally.

“We are never going to fight alone; we are always going to fight in a coalition,” James said, mentioning that the British have bought RC-135 airframes from the US to add to their ISR capabilities.

Stacie L. Pettyjohn, a RAND political scientist who works with the Air Staff on several global posture studies, described global USAF presence as largely stable in regions where key interests and allies are located. However, as the Pentagon considers difficult force shaping propositions, she said it’s worth noting that large Cold War-style garrisons overseas—such as those in Germany and Japan—are “anathema” to many new and prospective partners who often want a lighter, more rotational presence.

“The US should expect expanded demand for rotational access, … but the character and scope will change in the future,” she told symposium attendees.

The global satellite communications network over the Asia-Pacific region will grow in importance, James noted, as the distances involved will compound the role of timely, accurate ISR.

“We rely on this network to move our information around,” he said, but it has grown up largely ad hoc, as over time, U-2s plugged into it, then Predators and Reapers, and other assets.

“There was never a holistic architecture put in place to manage this global ISR enterprise. … What does that network look like in the future?” James asked.

An MQ-1 Predator flies over Creech AFB, Nev. Airborne ISR platforms, such as the Predator, have exemplified the intelligence mission—but that may be changing. (USAF photo)

Over the summer, the Air Staff’s ISR directorate gave an update to Donley’s office on its progress in answering the question, but will brief the Secretary again this month on satellite communications architecture plans.

The discussion touches on all parts of the Air Force’s ISR plan—from Predator down links to Space Based Infrared System data and video feeds from theater commanders to the mainland US, James said. Where ISR is created, where it is stored, how to decide what to move, and when and where to put easy-access information (using metadata tagging) are critical questions and have implications for investment decisions.

The stress on the network stems from a basic truth about America’s ISR apparatus: Connectivity lies at the core of USAF’s global ISR superiority. While other nations reveal every day that they too are building and expanding their own RPA technology, James said it is important to remember fielding an asset is far different than networking one—and this capability sets USAF apart from the rest of the world.

Created Expectations

Another country “can put something in the air and put … a camera on it,” he said. “But when you talk about command and control that effectively brings that information together, I would offer that nobody does that better than the US and the US Air Force.”

When asked about the danger of putting too much stock in the success of the Air Force’s ability to move and manipulate information in recent conflicts, James said he thinks all services and Pentagon officials largely understand what’s possible and not possible without secured air and space superiority.

TSgt. Lissette Malek inspects the rotodome on an E-3 AWACS. Networking data, such as the E-3’s command and control information, is the emerging ISR challenge for the Air Force. (USAF photo by Margo Wright)

The shifting strategic needs of the force are already manifesting themselves in force structure deliberations and potential cutbacks in some areas. The Air Force may take a serious look at the buildup to 65 ISR CAPs, for example. USAF’s guidance is to reach 65 by May 2014.

But as USAF walks through budget deliberations and gets a “better understanding of what the world looks like” after 2014 and into 2015, “I think that [number] is a valid question,” James said. Reapers can be modified with new sensors and capabilities, and greater range (which would aid ISR work in the Asia-Pacific region greatly) but fundamentally, they remain assets that function far better in uncontested environments, he said.

The Air Force’s successful ISR effort over Iraq and Afghanistan shouldn’t be taken lightly by planners.

“We have created expectations that ISR will be able to tell what is going on over the hill or on the battlefield,” James said. In any environment where control of the air, space, and cyberspace is contested, that proposition becomes far more complex.

“In a contested environment, that will be tough,” James said.