LOS ANGELES — A summer-long review of U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities is pointing to a growing need for systems able to operate in contested airspace, greater integration with space-based and cyber-assets, and more collaboration with other services and intelligence components.
For more than a decade the Air Force’s ISR efforts have been focused on counterterrorism operations in airspace in which aircraft and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have been allowed to operate essentially unchallenged. “But tomorrow’s environment will be potentially different,” says Air Force ISR Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Larry James. Describing the future challenge as a “spectrum of conflict,” James adds, “We have to prepare for that environment, and we need a balanced force that will allow us to operate in a nonpermissive/denied environment.”
Speaking at the Air Force Association’s recent Global Warfare Symposium in Los Angeles, James says the results of the ISR review were “briefed to the secretary of the Air Force a couple of weeks ago.” The results “form the FY13 [fiscal 2013] budget position for the Air Force, and will inform FY14. The secretary of defense has signed off on a couple of clear points for that.”
Key points emerging from the review include greater integration of ISR across air, space and cyber-domains, better technology to handle the growing quantities of data and improved methods to fuse the information from various electro-optic, infrared, signals intelligence and light detection and ranging systems now in use.
“How do you fuse it? How do you integrate it?” James asks. “If you go to a distributed common ground system site today you’ll see a noncommissioned officer staring at a screen for four hours trying to identify patterns as they stare at a compound in Afghanistan. There are opportunities for machines to be used to interpret patterns.”
The review also examined closer ties with coalition partners and sustaining adequate bandwidth capacity for ISR requirements. “How do we ensure we have the pipes to ship that around the world, and make sure it is assured?” James says.
Although he believes the ISR enterprise will “do relatively well compared to other areas” in the face of dramatic budget cuts, James says the review revealed disquieting news in the research and development (R&D) and science and technology (S&T) areas. “As we try to peel back the onion, frankly we didn’t find a robust and disciplined process,” he says. Many areas were found to be “stovepiped” and “didn’t have hands around managing the R&D and S&T budgets.” Describing this money as “seed-corn dollars,” James adds, “We absolutely have to do that and get it right in terms of prioritizing those R&D and S&T budgets.”
The Air Force is meanwhile on track to deliver the capability to provide 65 combat air patrols (CAP) in theater with thePredator/ and force by the end of fiscal 2013. All 268 MQ-1s have been delivered and the Air Force is close to acquiring the first 100 of up to 400 MQ-9s, as the transition continues to an all-Reaper fleet by fiscal 2016. Some 60 CAPS are supporting ground operations today in Iraq and Afghanistan and together are producing 1,200 hr./week of full-motion video. ISR analysts are handling up to 11,000 still pictures a month taken by the Global Hawk fleet, James adds.
The Gorgon Stare, a wide-area surveillance system carried by the Reaper, generates two frames per second of motion imagery. “It gives us 4 x 4-kilometer continuous coverage, and has been a tremendous success since it was introduced last spring,” James says. Together with Blue Devil 2, a surveillance airship due to be deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, the two systems will be able to generate 53 terabytes of data per day, or roughly the equivalent of 54,000 full-length movies per day, he adds. Another successful ISR system, themounted, multi-spectral Shadow Harvest, has just been “brought back out of theater three weeks ago,” James says.
The MC-12W, a modified King Air 350, is also proving a valuable asset and recently notched its 12,000th combat hour since flying its first sortie over Iraq in June 2009. Thirty MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft are deployed, with seven stationed at Beale AFB, Calif., for training and maintenance.