Moving at the 'speed of war' is Air Force ISR unit's goal
A new software build is expected to improve the ability of the Air Force's ISR Agency to fuse intelligence sources
Maj. Gen. Bradley Heithold is commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He also is Air Force geospatial intelligence element commander and commander of the Service Cryptologic Component. He spoke with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about the challenges of ISR processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED), in addition to coordinating between the ISR Agency and Air Force Cyber Command and discerning the lessons of the recent Sentinel Focus '10 exercise.
DS: You’ve mentioned that your No. 1 priority is to surge your ISR PED capabilities in Afghanistan. What specifically are you doing?
Heithold: You’re familiar with the MC-12 Project Liberty program, which uses newly configured C-12 Huron turboprop planes, known as MC-12W, as ISR platforms. Those platforms don’t do us any good unless someone is exploiting what comes off of them. Our job — general order No. 1 around this headquarters — is to ensure that the ISR exploitation cells (ISRECs) in both Afghanistan and Iraq are manned and ready...to exploit the information that comes off the first MC-12s that landed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We beat [our target dates] by 30 days in Iraq and half a month in Afghanistan.
DS: How are the ISRECs configured?
Heithold: The ISRECs are not significant in size but hold 20 to 30 operators at any given time. The feeds from the airplane are picked up when it is within line of sight, [and] the data is exploited in near real time and turned into actionable intelligence for the joint forces on the ground.
DS: What other elements are involved in establishing the PED process, other than completing it as quickly as possible?
Heithold: You put PED in place because, frankly, if someone is not looking at every frame of the signal that comes off the airplane, you might actually miss something. So it's our job to take the information and fuse it into all-source intelligence.
Primarily, you’ve got [full-motion video] and/or [signals intelligence] coming off the platform. Somebody has to have the full-time job of watching that FMV frame by frame, identifying threats, building patterns of life and fusing that with other sources of intelligence, such as imagery and signals intelligence from U-2s and Predators so that it is actionable by our ground forces with a high degree of confidence. A secure, integrated communications architecture is also a key element to moving and processing all that data into usable intelligence that can be disseminated to the joint forces.
Eventually, we will get the deployed ISRECs latched into the primary [Distributed Common Ground System], weapon system or Sentinel, which is capable of fusing intelligence from multiple sources, collected from various ISR platforms. Today, as it sits, the ISREC primarily uses only the intelligence coming off the MC-12 and fuses it together. We’re going to try and grow that into more capability, but the focus today is to exploit the FMV and sigint that is gathered and hand that in a useful way to somebody who can [use] it.
DS: How are you expanding DCGS to support the increase in the number of combat air patrols?
Heithold: We’re going from 40 that we have today to 50 by the end of [fiscal 2011] to 65 by the end of fiscal 2013. With that comes an exploitation capacity that must be added. We’ve done a very good job increasing our capabilities within the DCGS, not only technically with improvements we’re making within the weapons systems itself but also with the manning of the weapons systems. We’re doing a good job of using our total force initiatives to include the Guard and Reserve components. Today, the Guard actually is processing and exploiting 11 of those FMV combat air patrols that we have out there. This is in addition to the requirements that remain on the DCGS to [process, exploit, disseminate] and analyze intelligence from the various platforms that fly missions daily in the Central Command area of responsibility.
DS: How is the Air Force ISR Agency supporting the 24th Air Force, which is the new Cyber Command?
Heithold: A big part of the job of 24th Air Force entails computer network exploitation. Wrapped up in the mission set of 24th Air Force is the E (exploitation), the A (attack) and the D (defense), and we at the Air Force ISR Agency are key to the exploitation piece of that.
Within a few weeks of 24th Air Force standing up, we stood up an ISR group in direct support of 24th Air Force that includes about 400 people. In June, it will be called the 659th ISR group, at Fort Meade. Today it is called the 770th Provisional ISR Group because I wanted to stand it up quickly and didn’t want to wait for the naming convention to be approved.
A big part of my job in the ISR Agency is to ensure that we provide the exploitation piece for them. Computer network exploitation is a part of signals intelligence. And given that our airmen conduct that mission already, the 24th Air Force can leverage what already exists in the Air Force ISR Agency to get the big E part of their mission done, because when I look at computer network operations, you can’t do that attack and defense if you don’t know what is going on out there.
DS: Last year, the Air Force ISR Agency stood up a new organization, the 361st ISR Group, to work specifically with Special Operations forces. How will the two organizations coordinate?
Heithold: Much like we did with the 659th in direct support of 24th Air Force, we’ve stood up an ISR group in direct support of 23rd Air Force, which is the Special Operations numbered Air Force, and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in general.
We collectively put all the special operations forces (SOF) squadrons in one group. The reason we did that is most of those missions in special operations are high risk and high payoff missions. They require professionalized folks who speak the language of the other special operations components: Army Special Operations Command, Navy SATWARCOM, [Joint SOC] and AFSOC. They have to speak the language. There has to be habitual relationships between those guys and the 361st ISR group and those that they are supporting. There can’t be a new person every day that might be a tactical operator on an airplane. They know and trust that there is a habitual training relationship so that it is not clumsy, so that it is professional — because when we conduct those raids and those missions, we have to go to the right place at the right time and ensure that the kill/capture of the right person is done. In other words, [we need to make sure] there is limited civilian casualties.
All those things involved in a special operations are done when you have trained professionals that have habitual training relationships with the people they work with. And it’s a trust thing. Those door knockers — they’re going to…trust that when we tell them to go to this door at this time, when they knock that door down, they’ve got the right place.
That is why we put it all into a single ISR group. We’re increasing the manning of that ISR group. It's small; it is precise. But in that business, humans are more important than hardware, so we ensure that we screen the folks going into that business and that they are our best.
DS: You just recently completed the Sentinel Focus '10 exercise. What can you tell us about the results?
Heithold: The Sentinel Focus was a great, great success. The 480th ISR Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Va., our lead wing for DCGS operations, runs this concentrated [examination of] our warfighting processes in DCGS a couple of times a year. These deep reviews ensure those combat Numbered Air Forces that Sentinel supports are getting exactly the ISR they need to conduct operations. We had great participation from our partners in the intelligence community, primarily the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That was the main objective of this particular Sentinel Focus, to ensure that we had good collaboration and that those other nodes out there, if you will, had access to the DCGS weapons systems…that we were fusing the capabilities from all those federated partners out there. We learned a lot from that.
One of the key driving points behind Sentinel Focus was to ensure that we exercised what we called mission type orders, or commander’s intent. If a particular distributed ground station node understands commander’s intent in the form of MTOs, it provides a lot of flexibility for the crew at that DGS site to use the full capacity of the particular combat air patrol or multiple CAPs that are up. In other words, we are not going to nail an airplane to a specific target if we understand that the MTO is to look for movement of enemy forces from this one point to this other point.
If we get clear mission type orders, we can call out ad hoc target sets to a U2 that might be in an orbit or adjust its orbit slightly so that it picks up pictures that the commander has said are important. We can react more quickly if we’re given the freedom of motion via MTOs rather than trying to retask a sensor or ask permission for every deviation from the planned target deck, as long as that planned deck is not affected.
The situation awareness that our DCGS operators has uniquely postures them to execute in that manner.
So we practiced that in the last Sentinel Focus '10 with basic MTOs through the DCGS weapons systems and via the ISR tasking process at the Air Operations Center. We said, "Here is the commander’s intent. Here are the CAPs that are up, and here are the assets that are supporting that. You have the flexibility to get the most out of those CAPs in order to support those mission orders." To meet the supported commander’s intent, a mission planner at the DGS is able to influence the real-time collection plan based on what they are seeing and on the established patterns of life from the foundational intelligence they’ve already exploited and analyzed. They’re not specifically tied to a point on the ground or to a specific sensor or platform. Rather it is tied to commander’s intent.
We exercised that fully during Sentinel Focus. I like to refer to it as auftragstaktik, which is a German term that means mission tactics. In World War II, Germany military forces were very successful in mission type orders and commander’s intent. If commander’s intent is clear, then people are empowered to execute commander’s intent. So we are exercising that more and more in the DCGS weapons system. And we have found it to be successful in Sentinel Focus ’10.
DS: What’s on your plate for the next six to 12 months?
Heithold: The DCGS weapons system has a new software build, which is going to improve our capabilities and put a common architecture out there. I’ve got to get that through the test cycles because I don’t want to put it out there when it is not ready. It doesn’t have to be the perfect solution or get in the way of success, but I need to make sure that if we’ve got significant shortfalls in it that the test community identifies those, we fix those, and get those fielded this year.
Also, the thing I’ve got to get done this year is to get the right capabilities into the 659th ISR Group that I’m putting in direct support of 24th Air Force and get them wired tight with [the cyber command].
Probably the last thing is to continue to put the right kind of people into our DCGS weapons system as we grow it. We’ve been authorized to grow it by a couple of thousand folks to meet the increased number of combat air patrols out there. Again, it doesn’t do any good to put the combat air patrol out there if you are not going to exploit it. My job is to make ensure that I put the right people at the right nodes of the distributed system that encompasses, frankly, the world. So I’ve got to put the right people in the right nodes so we can support that increased growth in combat air patrols.
Finally, I’ve told my folks that we have to move at the speed of war. This became even more apparent to me when I was over in Afghanistan and Iraq recently. On the war front, every day, every encounter matters. There’s not an infinite amount of time to have victory, and so in everything we do, including these acquisition programs, we must move at the speed of war — and I know everyone in the agency gets that message.