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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Air Force Intelligence Chief Seeks Tech Industry Help
Air Force Intelligence Chief Seeks Tech Industry Help
By Sandra I. Erwin



The intelligence arm of the U.S. Air Force is drafting an ambitious plan to modernize information systems for future wars. Although the project is still sketchy, officials are reaching out to the private sector for ideas on how the Air Force might cope with increasingly complex and unwieldy data.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh has said he wants information-based warfare to become a high priority for the Air Force as it prepares for its post-Afghanistan future.

The Defense Department’s pivot-to-Asia strategy will put pressure on all military services to modernize their intelligence operations, said Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers. “Our national security strategy in Asia will require significantly different investments over the next 15 years in order to obtain the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities most appropriate to the unique challenges of ensuring access in the Pacific,” he told the House Armed Services Committee’s intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee.

Air Force officials worry that a decade of counterinsurgency wars has left the service ill-equipped to fight in more demanding environments where they might not be able to deploy surveillance drones at will. Since 2004, the service has deployed hundreds of remotely piloted spy planes that have flown over war zones around the clock. In a future conflict against a more technologically advanced enemy, however, current drones would be vulnerable targets.

In addition to new data collectors, novel approaches for managing information will be needed, officials said. The Air Force is working on a “global ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] system that goes after harder problems … such as contested environments,” said Lt. Gen. Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR.

The plan faces steep technological and bureaucratic hurdles. It involves integrating currently incompatible networks and will demand closer coordination among siloed organizations. It also will require the Air Force to shift resources from remotely piloted aircraft to space-based sensors that are less exposed to enemy weapons, James said during a conference hosted by Aviation Week and Space Technology.

James’ office will be completing a “roadmap” over the next five to six months, he said. He is looking for private-sector ideas for how to go about creating a worldwide information network, how to process and distribute data faster, and how to automate intelligence analysis.

The Air Force is only interested in software that is “sensor and platform agnostic,” said James. For the past 18 months, intelligence officials have debated how best to design a network architecture that would have the capacity and security features to support every commander around the world, he said. It could take two to three more years to secure approval and funding, he added. “We are working to lay that out in 2015 and 2016.”

The centerpiece of current intelligence analysis is the distributed common ground system, or DCGS. The system started out in the late 1990s as a data-processing station for imagery captured by U-2 surveillance aircraft, and over time was expanded to support remotely piloted Predators, Reapers, and manned aircraft that collect signals intelligence. “But there was no architectural plan to allow us to build that properly,” James said. The first step toward a global ISR system will be to standardize DGCS so it can be upgraded with new software.  

To collect intelligence in unfriendly territory, the Air Force will need to rely on satellites equipped with advanced sensors such as the Space Based Infrared, or SBIRS. To find “difficult targets,” said James, the Air Force can’t be wedded to the airborne layer of intelligence. The future will be like going back to the Cold War, when satellite imagery was the primary means of keeping track of the Soviet enemy, he said.

The Air Force also wants to better exploit open-source intelligence. “Everybody takes pictures and wants to post them on the Internet,” he said. “We find that can be a tremendous source of intelligence.” Stanford University is developing algorithms for making predictions based on Twitter feeds, he noted. “How do I use that from an intelligence perspective?”

As more sources of information are tapped, however, the Air Force must cope with the problem that all branches of the U.S. military face: A data overload. The amount of data — including full-motion video and imagery — has become unmanageable, said James. “It is difficult to store, move around and process,” he said. The Air Force believes that tech giants such as Facebook and Google have software that can help mine data without human assistance.

James cited a Rand Corp. study that predicted that, unless the Air Force collects less data or finds automated tools, by 2015 it would need 100,000 analysts to keep up with the load. By comparison, there are about 6,000 DGCS analysts in the Air Force today.

“Obviously we are not going to hire 100,000 people,” James said. “We need analysis by machine.”

James said he hopes companies will come forward with ideas on how to tackle these issues. At the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Wright Patterson air Force Base in Ohio, there is a DCGS simulator where contractors can test software, he said. “A lot of these problems are not unique to the Air Force,” he said. “We think there is commercial industry that can help.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

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