DOD puts ISR in the vanguard

Military accelerates host of programs in response to shifting priorities

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in April that he would use the fiscal 2010 Defense Department budget to reshape priorities, he cited the transformation of the country’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities as the most pressing wartime need.

Command-and-control priorities

A look at three of the top command and control priorities in the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force.


  • Maritime Domain Awareness: Tracks cargo and shipborne personnel and shares data with nontraditional coalition partners to combat piracy.
  • Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) program: $1.5 billion program to replace the Navy’s afloat network systems with a scalable, commercial C4I network. A request for proposals was issued in mid-April, with source selection expected by the end of the year and a downselect in mid-2011.
  • Combined satellite communications program: Develops a strategy to combine all the service’s satellite communications efforts, from the use of commercial satellites to Military Satellite Communications and the Navy Multiband Terminal program.


  • Rescue 21: Replaces the existing National Distress and Response System with modern VHF-FM antenna sites to increase the Coast Guard’s coverage of the waters around the United States. Presently in the deployment stage, it has been installed in about 20 of the Coast Guard’s 38 areas of responsibility, mainly on the East Coast.
  • Nationwide Automated Information System: Extends the Automated Information System (AIS), which uses the VHF radio network on ships to automatically broadcast a digital signal that contains position, course of speed, vessel identifier and information about the vessel’s voyage. It is presently in Increment 2, which builds on Rescue 21 to receive messages at shore-based stations from as far away as 50 nautical miles and send messages from shore-based stations to recipients as far away as 24 nautical miles along the entire U.S. coastline.
  • Interagency Operation Centers upgrades: Shifts command centers from a Coast Guard-centric operation to an interagency environment. The prototype joint-harbor operation is the Sea Hawk IOC in Charleston harbor, S.C., where the Coast Guard shares operations with the Justice and Homeland Security departments, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


  • Air Force Flight Plan: Advances an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance corporate governance process. In mid-April, the Air Force announced the development of its ISR Flight Plan.
  • Project Liberty: Designed to provide full-motion video and signals intelligence to ground forces. The first eight of a possible 37 C-12 (King Air) aircraft have been purchased and are undergoing modifications.
  • Cyber Command: Transitions to the renamed 24th Air Force, a new numbered force focused on cyber missions. The proposed bases for its headquarters are Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; Langley Air Force Base, Va.; Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.; Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.; and Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

“These recommendations are the product of a holistic assessment of capabilities, requirements, risks and needs for the purpose of shifting this department in a different strategic direction,” Gates said April 6 when announcing the key elements of the budget. “First, we will increase ISR support for the warfighter in the base budget by some $2 billion.”

A large but unspecified portion of that funding would go to field and sustain 50 Predator-class unmanned aerial vehicle orbits by fiscal 2011. An “orbit” is defined as everything necessary to keep a single UAV on patrol for 24 hours. The U.S. military currently has the capability for about two-dozen orbits over Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This capability, which has been in such high demand in both Iraq and Afghanistan, will now be permanently funded in the base budget,” Gates said in his budget briefing. “It will represent a 62 percent increase in capability over the current level and 127 percent from a year ago.”

Although recent ISR trends have favored unmanned platforms, Gates also plans to increase manned ISR capabilities, the value of which have recently been displayed by programs such as Task Force ODIN, which stands for Observe, Detect, Identify and Neutralize. It is a formerly secret Army program in which sensor-equipped Beech C-12R King Air aircraft and UAVs are used to spot insurgents planting improvised explosive devices in Iraq. An Apache or Kiowa attack helicopter is called in once identification is made.

Manned C-12 aircraft will also be used in a new Air Force program called Project Liberty, which is designed to provide full-motion video and signals intelligence to ground forces. The first eight of a possible 37 aircraft have already been bought and are undergoing modifications.

Even in areas where Gates plans to cut programs, such as the ground vehicle segment of the Army's Future Combat Systems, the ISR elements will continue to receive funding. These elements include spinouts such as Class I UAV (the micro-air vehicle) and the Class IV UAV (Fire Scout).

Gates said he would also “initiate research and development on a number of ISR enhancements and experimental platforms optimized for today’s battlefield.”

The fiscal 2010 budget is expected to increase the emphasis on command, control, communications and computers (C4). “To improve cyberspace capabilities, we will increase the number of cyber experts this department can train from 80 students per year to 250 per year” by fiscal 2011, Gates said.

More emphasis on ISR and C4 means that military planners at the various services will be able to move forward on some of their key projects.

Navy C4I priorities

The Navy’s near-term C4I priorities are maritime domain awareness (MDA), the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) program and satellite communications, said Christopher Miller, the Navy’s program executive officer for C4I.

In the area of MDA, the Navy used to care primarily about tracking ships and airplanes. Now it needs to track the cargo and passengers those ships are carrying.

“Maritime domain awareness is a critical operation for us,” Miller said. “It’s about getting arms around the full extent of the maritime domain and in thinking about the entirety of the problem in a much broader context than we had in the past. Most of our traffic and shipping is done across the ocean, so we have to have an awareness of what’s happening and respond accordingly in that environment.”

The Navy is tapping multiple security enclaves and databases — from traditional unclassified systems to classified sources — to gather data on ships’ cargo and personnel. The complementary challenge to gathering that information is interpreting it.

“The other piece of MDA is the tools that enable the data fusion and the anomaly detection because the biggest issue is that you can become quickly overwhelmed when you look at the entirety of the maritime domain,” Miller said. “So we have to be able to figure out how to find the needle in the haystack, which is important because we’re talking about homeland security.”

The increasing incidence of piracy in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia and around the Horn of Africa underscores the need for MDA. In mid-April, the Navy killed three pirates who had kidnapped the captain of an American-flagged vessel off Somalia.

From an operational standpoint, the Navy is rethinking its priorities, Miller said. “The biggest thing is the counter-piracy missions going on off the Horn of Africa and the need for nontraditional data sharing. Six months or a year ago, I would not have told you that we’d be sharing data with countries like Russia and China, which have a stake and equity in the safe passage of ships in that region.”

“In the past, we had coalition networks, but now we’re talking about data sharing with partners who weren’t part of those networks,” he added. “We’re having to move things to the unclassified enclave of our maritime domain awareness initiative. Our maritime strategy talks about a range of warfare, so we’re trying to make sure that our C4I supports across that range of warfare.”

The Navy’s second C4I priority is continued progress on the $1.5 billion CANES program. Under that program, the Navy will eliminate all the disparate network systems on its roughly 300 ships and shore sites and replace them with a scalable, commercial C4I network.

The CANES request for proposals was issued in mid-April, with the source selection of competing contractors expected by the end of 2009 and the down-select scheduled for mid-2011. Companies such as BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman have signaled their intention to bid on the program.

“I think as an organization, we’re at a real fork in the road right now,” Miller said. “We either are going to have to start cutting programs, or we’re going to have to invest for long-term sustainability. CANES is all about long-term sustainability. From a C4I perspective, CANES will position the entirety of what we do across intell, C2 and the networking piece so that we’re sustainable and open to the future.”

The third element of the Navy’s C4I plan is effectively combining all the service’s satcom efforts, from the use of commercial and military satellites to the Navy Multiband Terminal program, under which the Navy is replacing all its shipboard and shore-based satcom systems with newer technology.

“We are finding that being on a network is not optional any more, and we have to have all our platforms up and operating at a very high data rate,” Miller said. “Today’s generation of sailors and Marines aren’t used to coming on board and giving up their connectivity. So we’ve got to figure out a strategy to make sure that they want to stick around and also to make sure that they’re able to actually collaborate, be a part of the decision-making process and to add value to the equation. We’ve got a problem if we can’t figure out a way for them to do that.”

Coast Guard C4 upgrades

The Coast Guard has a number of major C4 information technology programs on deck. They include the Rescue 21 program, the Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS) and the development of interagency operations centers.

Rescue 21 is a replacement for the Coast Guard’s National Distress and Response System, which is a series of VHF/FM antenna sites that are interconnected and controlled from command centers. The existing sites are antiquated, and gaps in coverage are commonplace. Rescue 21 would replace the older systems with modern VHF/FM antenna sites and greatly increase the Coast Guard’s coverage of the waters around the United States. Rescue 21 is in the deployment stage and has been installed at about 20 of the Coast Guard’s 38 area-of-responsibility sectors, mainly on the East Coast.

“These are land-based systems with an interconnected IP network, and our command centers can reach out and control them all,” said Capt. Marshall Lytle, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for C4 and IT and chief information officer. “They have better range and greater coverage than our previous system and also incorporate some command and control for the Coast Guard. With a better range and coverage, we can use them to communicate not only with the public but also with our own units.”

One of the key components of Rescue 21 is a direction-finding capability that lets the Coast Guard pinpoint exactly where distress calls are coming from.

“When we hear a call from a boater in distress who doesn’t have an [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon] on board, we can get an accurate line of bearing to where they are, which takes the ‘search’ out of the search and rescue,” Lytle said. “We’re able to go right down the line rather than have to search up to 100 square miles of area.”

“It also allows us to save resources and taxpayer dollars by not launching and sending somebody out when our direction-finding beacon is saying it’s coming from inland and the line of bearing goes right across a housing development so we can determine it’s a hoax,” he added.

Lytle said the Coast Guard gets thousands of false distress calls each year. Some come from kids fooling around in their dad’s boat in the backyard, but others could be drug smugglers or terrorists trying to divert the Coast Guard from a certain area.

NAIS, another C4 program, builds on the Coast Guard’s Automated Information System (AIS), which uses the VHF radio network on ships to automatically broadcast a digital signal that contains information on their position, course, speed and vessel identifier. Anyone in the vicinity can receive the data via a land-based or satellite antenna.

“What we’re doing is putting in a nationwide AIS whose primary mission would be for maritime domain awareness so that the country as a whole has information on where as many vessels are as possible,” Lytle said. “This comes into play in the bigger maritime domain awareness strategy in that we’re trying to define what is a threat to the country for homeland security and what’s not.”

“If you know what’s out there, you can better decide what’s real and what’s not,” he added. “So if all the vessels are broadcasting this, and you have a way to gather all that information and put that into a system that can then sort and say, ‘OK, we’ve got a threat vector coming in from some direction in the Atlantic, and we know we may have intell on something that’s coming in. Let’s check all of our sources for what we know about what ships are out in that particular part of the Atlantic.’ AIS could provide a level of information about the ships out there, other sensors can provide another level, and you can overlay them and start making decisions about what is the good guy and what is the bad guy.”

Increment 1 of the program was completed in September 2008. It included shore-based capability to receive AIS messages at the country’s 58 major ports and 16 most critical coastal areas by using existing government infrastructure. NAIS is now in Increment 2, which builds on Rescue 21 to provide shore-based receiving coverage out to 50 nautical miles and transmission capability out to 24 nautical miles along the entire U.S. coastline, around U.S. territories and along designated inland waterways. Increment 2 will begin with transmitting and receiving capabilities for three Coast Guard Sectors: the Delaware Bay in Philadelphia; Hampton Roads, Va.; and Mobile, Ala. The Coast Guard has selected Northrop Grumman to perform the work.

A third C4 priority is establishment of interagency operations centers (IOCs) for major harbors. The Coast Guard has a command center for operations in every major port in the country. For example, the one in Miami controls all activities for the southeastern Florida coast from Fort Myers halfway into the Keys. With the growing focus on interoperability among state, local and federal agencies, the service is upgrading those command centers from a Coast Guard-centric operation to an interagency environment.

The prototype is the SeaHawk IOC in Charleston Harbor, S.C., where the Coast Guard shares operations with DHS, the Justice Department, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When a container ship arrives, for example, all those agencies play a coordinated role in escorting the ship into the harbor, examining the containers and moving them along to the rail system.

“Getting people in the same room is one level, but where C4 IT comes into play is getting them to share their sensor and information data,” Lytle said. “We’re using it as our way to get our Watchkeeper command and control software going. It’s a C2 software for port awareness, and it reaches back to what I think is one of the key technologies that is going to enable information sharing: the enterprise service bus.”

“Putting a number of data sources on the same bus that a command center can subscribe to brings them right to the center’s front end, as opposed to the front end having to know about all the data centers,” he added. “NAIS is the first data source that will be on this enterprise service bus.”

Air Force ISR plans

With arguably more ISR assets than any of the other military services, the Air Force has been challenged by the lack of a corporate governance process for ISR. That changed in mid-April when the Air Force announced the development of its ISR Flight Plan.

“Instead of being platform-centric, we want to be capability-based,” said Col. Tim Skinner, chief of the Air Force’s ISR Plans and Integration Division. “I know that capability-based planning has been around for quite some time, but I don’t think people have mentally made the leap to actually thinking about a capability.”

“I care less about the platforms than I do the sensors,” he added. “You have to start with what information you want and how quickly you want it. The targets we’re interested in emit signatures, so we have to figure out what sensors we have to detect those signatures and where we need to place those sensors in order to get the best collections. Is space a good location? What about cyberspace? What about right next to it on the ground? And then what environment is it operating in? Is it denied, contested or permissive? That will tell you whether you need capabilities such as stealth or some other type of penetrating or covert capabilities.”

Only after those questions have been resolved should the discussion turn to the platform that will carry the sensor.

The key tool the Air Force is developing to help it make those decisions is an interactive database called the ISR Capabilities and Requirements Tool, which is designed to contain all known strategies, tasks, shortfalls and solutions.

“The database is essentially a data repository that exists” on the Secret IP Router Network, Skinner said. “We’re looking to migrate it up to higher classification levels because some of the shortfalls, gaps and solutions will likely require more security.”

The database will enable all the major commands to access source documents, such as the Air Force’s strategic plan, the national defense strategy and the ISR strategy released by Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for ISR.

“The database is in its first cut right now,” Skinner said. “It’s got some old data, especially in the solutions piece. And while it’s plentiful, it needs to be scrubbed and gone through. You can’t take it and translate it into actual requirements. It needs more detail.”

He estimates that it will be a year and a half before all the shortfalls, gaps and solutions are identified or resolved. At that point, the ISR Flight Plan should be able to start producing products, such as full-motion videos, that will eventually find their way into the fiscal 2014 DOD budget.

“Associated with more full-motion video would be the [processing, exploitation and dissemination system] that goes with it,” Skinner said. “Or it could be something as simple as, ‘We need more targeters to support the influx of precision-guided weapons coming online.’”

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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