Complications Overhead

April 1, 1998

When the Cold War ended, the US slashed its forces accordingly. Then, it cut even more. The latter action stemmed in part from the expectation of dramatic advances in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The assumption was that, with improved ISR, Washington could meet all of its post–Cold War obligations with a relatively small force.

The idea was that the US, by knowing what was going on, could precisely employ military force in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, with little wasted motion.

The gains in ISR are materializing as expected. However, the end of the Cold War and the global upheaval that ensued have created a new set of dangers. Regional aggressors, no longer restrained by superpower patrons, now are freer to act on their ambitions. Terror groups are acquiring the means to inflict great damage but often without having a fixed array of facilities to be watched and analyzed.

Moreover, these foes have proved to be more mobile, less predictable, and highly sophisticated in deception, jamming, and encryption. As some see it, they confront the Air Force’s ISR community with the greatest challenge it has ever faced.

The new breed of threats constitutes “an entirely different problem” than that seen in the Cold War, according to Maj. Gen. John P. Casciano, director of ISR, Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations.

New Targets

Back then, the paramount concerns were strategic; the critical need was to keep tabs on advances in Soviet weapons and order of battle and to watch for warning signs of World War III. Today, the ISR establishment is preoccupied with finding weapons of mass destruction, watching for the eruptions of large regional conflicts, and monitoring the secretive activities of organized terrorist groups.

For the ISR community today, the main focus is to “take intelligence, turn it into useful information, and use it for planning and execution,” Casciano said. Simplified, the goal is “real-time targeting support to the cockpit, to the Air Operations Center, [and] to the decision maker.”

The most intense concentration of effort under way in the ISR field, the general said, is in creating an “all-encompassing architecture that takes advantage of … the network of sensors, command-and-control nodes, and shooters.”

Virtually all of the platforms employed today by the American military—from large surveillance aircraft down to main battle tanks equipped with thermal sights—generate imagery or data that can supply the intelligence network with an updated, real-time database depicting the battlespace in great detail.

Collecting this information, turning it into a product a field commander or pilot can use, and then piping it to that person is the herculean task facing the ISR community. Making it easy for Americans to gain access to that information without also leaving it vulnerable to the enemy is almost as formidable an undertaking.

A classified Air Force study called “Airborne Recce 2010” will bring together these requirements and serve as a road map for achieving the sensor fusion and data distribution believed possible within the next decade.

When he was USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman frequently predicted with high confidence that the United States would be able to “find, fix, track, target, and engage anything of military significance” on the surface of the Earth. Actually, he said, US systems could do it already but not in near-real time, which was the goal.

According to Casciano, Fogleman outlined “a tremendous vision for our Air Force and our military.” Fulfilling the vision will require a careful balance between maintaining and adapting the Cold War or “legacy” data collection systems and investing in the new platforms and systems needed to take on the new threats, he explained.

Into the foreseeable future, Casciano maintained, “We’re going to have a mix of manned and unmanned platforms, and I think [manned] platforms … are going to be around [for a long time] because they have proven technologies, and they have no ready replacement at this point in history.”

Several key platforms—the Air Force’s “eyes and ears” that form the nucleus of today’s ISR capability—are engaged in a slow transition. Airborne systems such as the U-2 spy plane, RC-135 Rivet Joint, EC-135, and E-3 AWACS aircraft will be in service indefinitely. All of them have recently received improvements or upgrades and all have thousands of hours of service life left in them. And all are heavily tasked.

Heavy Demand

For example, the RC-135 electronic intelligence aircraft is in such high demand around the world that the Air Force purchased two additional aircraft for the fleet, bringing the total to 16 by the end of next year. These extra aircraft are needed to help reduce the crushing operating tempo its crews have been maintaining throughout the 1990s.

On another front, the Air Force nearly has completed the re-engining of the U-2 spy plane, boosting the reliability and flexibility of the system. The U-2 also has undergone upgrades to its electronic and signals intelligence capabilities. In an effort to meet another technological priority—putting more so-called Moving Target Indicators into action—the Air Force in the U-2 upgrade outfitted the high-flying aircraft with an MTI.

According to one Air Force official, “It’s flying in Korea right now.” Field commanders there are impressed by the “high-altitude, deep look” the MTI–equipped U-2 gives them.

The Air Force is moving rapidly to field its fleet of E-8 Joint STARS airplanes, which can monitor the movements of large numbers of surface vehicles, provide real-time targeting, and offer the means to orchestrate battle operations. The E-3 AWACS, which provides the same kind of information pertaining to the air battle, has undergone major improvements in recent years.

The operating tempo of these “high-demand” systems is so great that many have questioned whether USAF may be pushing its system operators out of the service.

One who thinks not, however, is Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Israel, director of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office. “Is going TDY 200 days a year too much?” Israel asked rhetorically. “Well, another generation of our leaders did it. And I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but they did it, and they got us through the Cold War. When you’re a world power, you have to do what’s required.”

He added that the high optempo rate is “not something we’re proud of. … We’re trying to change it, because quality of life is important.”

The Push for UAVs

Part of the answer, according to Israel, lies in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The emergence of the UAV as a data collection platform has substantially relieved the burden on the legacy systems, he said, and new UAV platforms will reduce it further still. It would have taken

a huge number of missions with manned platforms to generate the 3,600 hours of video obtained by the Predator UAV in Bosnia, he observed.

“That saved a lot of optempo,” said Israel.

The technological initiatives of DARO and the rest of the ISR community are “addressing” the optempo issue, and by sharing more responsibilities with Allies and being more choosy about “what kinds of commitments we’re getting into … we are attacking the problem,” he said. Moreover, “we’re trying to make sure that all of our platforms are ‘multi–Int,’ ” or capable of collecting data in a variety of intelligence spectra, “so that we can collect more information on every mission.”

Israel said that USAF and other services have to be “careful … about the proverbial ‘one more straw,’ ” but he believes the troops are up to the challenge.

UAVs are in the spotlight, to be sure; they are expected to offer greater mission duration, lower operating cost, greater ability to broadcast data to those who need it, and more flexible sensor payloads. The new systems include the high-altitude, stealthy DarkStar; its longer-duration, less-stealthy stablemate Global Hawk; the medium-altitude Predator; and the tactical Outrider. [See “The Robotic Air Force,” September 1997, p. 70.]

Casciano pointed out, however, that the UAVs have had a somewhat checkered history in recent years. He said the Air Force is constantly reviewing the ISR mission to determine how much of it should be performed by airborne manned and unmanned systems and which of those surveillance missions should be allowed to “migrate” into space.

According to Casciano, USAF is looking at “the requirement the nation is going to have” and wants to figure out the “kind of mix we need to maintain today and what kind of mix we need to build toward for the future.” An all-unmanned airborne recce mission is not yet in the cards, he declared.

“The UAV technology is still maturing,” he said. “I think we’re learning a lot about UAVs from our experience with Predator and we’ll learn even more when we fly Global Hawk and DarkStar, but we’re really talking about technologies that haven’t fully matured, yet.”

There are many “cost trade-offs” as well as operational considerations in that analysis, he said. If it wanted UAVs to provide everything that today’s manned recce systems do, said Casciano, the Air Force would have to develop sensor packages that are “much smaller” than the ones currently in hand.

Among the Air Force’s top technological priorities, said Israel, is the development of synthetic aperture radars of extremely light weight, in the range of 50 pounds. At that weight, such radars could be mounted on the small Outrider and give the US a quantum jump toward meeting its main objective: “day/night, all-weather capability.”

Israel also pointed to the strong need for a lightweight, onboard processing and broadcast system for UAVs, one that would make it possible to pipe information to the shooters. Eliminating the intel “middleman” will be key to “staying inside the enemy’s decision loop,” said Israel.

Other technologies being explored include:

Moving target exploitation, which allows semiautomatic target recognition from video.

Better “geolocation sensors” to improve weapons accuracy.

Larger, more detailed databases which preserve information collected in an area “just in case we have to go back” for another contingency.

New “multispectral and hyperspectral” imagery which will allow extraction of more data from “before and after” images. “If you see algae growing around a vehicle, you know it hasn’t moved recently,” Israel explained. Such fine-grain sensing, with an array of new filters and techniques will be possible from a variety of platforms.

The Right Decision

The whole subject of UAVs has been controversial within the Air Force. Casciano believes USAF was right to “bet” on UAVs, despite the steep learning curve and the inevitable Congressional criticism that attended the highly visible false starts and accidents attending the UAV program.

“I think the decision to jump-start our transition into unmanned vehicles was the right one,” he asserted.

The UAVs were brought toward operational use under a fast-track effort to field promising experimental technology as quickly as possible. The approach highlighted some of the problems inherent in trying to transition from an experimental test bed to a production vehicle, Casciano acknowledged, but he added that the problems are now understood and can be overcome.

“We’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We’re just going to get better at the transitions.”

Though most seem reasonably pleased with the outcome, funding of the quick introduction of the UAVs for reconnaissance came at a price. In order to finance the new systems, the Air Force “deferred” some critical upgrades to the manned fleet—for example, re-engining the RC-135 Rivet Joint and upgrading the antiquated cockpit of the U-2.

“I don’t think it’s impaired our mission performance to any great degree,” Casciano said, “but it’s deferred some necessary modernization.”

The Pentagon made some choices that have proved highly unpopular with Congress and the National Defense Panel, a group of outside civilian analysts and retired flag officers charged by Congress with assessing US military forces and policies and then recommending changes. The NDP issued its final report in December.

The prime example of displeasure focused on DoD’s controversial decision to cut back the Air Force’s planned fleet of Joint STARS aircraft.

Just a few years ago, then–Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch said that the E-8 would make the US so dominant on the battlefield that he could not anticipate a time “when we will not be building Joint STARS.”

However, in last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD cut the program, reducing the number of planned operational airframes from 19 to only 13. (Another test aircraft would have brought the total planned fleet to 20.) In making that decision, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen had expected that NATO would buy some number of Joint STARS as an Alliance asset for its air-to-ground surveillance system—just as it had purchased AWACS years before—and he counted on having these aircraft to supplement the US fleet in places such as Bosnia, where NATO is having great success using Joint STARS data. NATO has declined to pursue Joint STARS, however.

Cohen now “is committed to revisiting [the issue of] the number of Joint STARS,” Casciano said, adding that the review of the decision is expected to be made during the spring and summer, with a conclusion ready in time for “building the next [DoD] budget,” which will be unveiled in early 1999.

The NDP opined that large, expensive platforms like Joint STARS are vulnerable to attack or mishap. It further hinted that there are now in existence other technologies that could supply the same capability at lower cost and with less risk.

Casciano acknowledged that such new technologies will have to be considered in the course of the Joint STARS fleet size review, but he seemed skeptical of their utility. For example, he noted, UAVs have been mentioned in the context of the Joint STARS mission, but a UAV “won’t give you the full range of capabilities we have in Joint STARS now,” especially the large battle-management element, said Casciano.

The review will look at current and prospective airborne technologies, as well as the possibility of a space-based Joint STARS, both of which might not exactly substitute for Joint STARS but which could “figure into an architecture for battlefield surveillance and real-time strike,” Casciano said.

The Joint STARS issue underscores the reasoning behind establishing DARO three years ago, he added. “The idea of setting up [DARO] … was to put the majority of theater … recce assets into [it], creating a funding pool, and then make the trade-offs within that. … And that is essentially what has been done,” Casciano explained.

The View From Space

Like the rest of the force, the ISR community is turning to commercial sources for satellites to take up some of the burden of global surveillance.

“A few years ago, we made a national decision to allow industry to put up remote sensing capabilities in space [with] one-meter resolution or higher, and some of those are going to be usable for mapping, for wide-area surveillance, for mission planning,” and other purposes, Casciano noted.

He added, “We’re just now in the process of working with [National Imagery and Mapping Agency] to get access to some samples” of the imagery that can be provided “to see how we can integrate them into our planning and operations.”

NIMA has the lead—and the funding—for acquiring commercial imagery and making it available to regional commanders in chief.

One thorny issue confronting decision makers concerns the extent to which—even whether—the United States should be able to deny an adversary the “take” from commercial satellite sensors in a crisis. Casciano observed, “It’s something we’re going to have to confront.” That’s because, “while we can leverage what’s available [commercially], so can anyone else who has the money and the will and the contractual vehicle to get it.”

He added that the issue may force a review of the commercial imagery policy over time to see if it is, on the whole, a benefit or a danger. In any event, “the ability of a potential adversary to sense what we’re doing will be greater than it has been in the past,” he said.

Casciano went on to say that the ISR community is facing a major debate on whether to pursue smaller, more numerous US recce satellites or stick with “big battleship” types, the latter including the Keyhole and Lacrosse systems.

Casciano said Keith R. Hall, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office and assistant secretary of the Air Force (Space), and Gen. Howell M. Estes III, commander in chief of US Space Command, “have worked all this smartly in terms of bringing black-world and white-world space into some kind of convergence.”

“That has really been a breath of fresh air,” Casciano noted, adding that it will allow the Air Force to address larger issues of large-and-few vs. small-and-many.

In some cases, “the spaceborne solution may be cheaper. In other cases, what you may want to do is use space-based assets for that kind of global awareness, with some ability to focus from space, but then supplement that with airborne [assets], both manned and unmanned,” Casciano said.

Tomorrow’s Priorities

Asked to describe ISR priorities, Casciano put the Space-Based Infrared System at the top of the list.

He said that the Defense Support Program, a series of satellites that watch for plumes of ballistic missile launches, “has served us well over the years, but the environment has changed and we need a much finer-grain capability to work the missile problem, whether it be the strategic missile or, especially, the theater missile.”

The Air Force will loft 24 low-Earth-orbit SBIRS satellites, two in high Earth orbit and four in geosynchronous orbit, for a total constellation of 30 spacecraft, starting in 2004.

The second highest priority Casciano put as the Information Superiority/Air Expeditionary Force.

The IS/AEF is a short-notice deployment of Joint STARS, Rivet Joint, and AWACS airplanes to a contingency in order to start “building up situational awareness, doing intelligence preparation of the battlespace, and supporting whatever mission is required,” Casciano said. [See “The Electronic Triad,” January, p. 54.] The next crisis faced by the US military “will probably be one we haven’t thought about, and we need to be able to get in there quickly and provide the National Command Authority with the information they need to make decisions.”

The third highest priority in ISR Casciano would put on “communications throughput capacity.” The force is so information-dependent, and the flow of information is getting so heavy, that “we need more bandwidth,” Casciano said.

“We need to take advantage of data compression capabilities … upgrades to [Defense Satellite Communications System] and Milstar and commercial communications capabilities,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to move large amounts of imagery … threat pictures.”

Israel agreed that increased bandwidth is a top concern because commercial interests are already starting to lay claim to frequencies not used by the civil sector in the past; before they are auctioned off, the military need for them should be determined. “Our spectrum is getting smaller and smaller because other people want to get access to it,” he said.

Casciano, looking into the future, maintains without hesitation that the toughest ISR task will be keeping track of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

“Some technologies are available, or will be available, to help us,” said Casciano, when it comes to tracking down chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons. There are technological “opportunities … in measurement and signatures intelligence”—sensors that could “detect precursor materials” for WMDs—[that may make it possible] “to do this throughout the entire life cycle of production and deployment.”

Such technologies are “pretty sensitive and highly classified,” Casciano said. For that reason, he could not discuss them openly, but he allowed that the research involves “digging things out of the physical environment that maybe we haven’t picked out before [and] going after some of these esoteric phenomenologies.”