Today’s Fights Expose Technological Weak Spots

By Sandra I. Erwin and Stew Magnuson
The military calls them “disruptive challenges.” It’s Pentagon-speak for vulnerabilities that enemies have exploited to their advantage. Disruptive challenges — roadside bombs, combatants camouflaged as civilians, insurgent camps that are undetectable by electronic sensors — have forced U.S. military leaders to search for new tactics and technologies.

Long-held beliefs about what technological superiority really means have been thrown into question. Military officials have called on the defense industry to help come up with solutions, even though it’s become clear that, in the fight against insurgents or terrorists, technology alone is not enough.

“We’ve celebrated the notion that we can make war a pristine surgical operation,” says retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Wilkerson. But enemies have seen the capabilities of U.S. armed forces and have taken action to counter them. In the wars that the United States is fighting today — against the Taliban, al-Qaida and any number of shadowy terrorist networks — the technological weak spots have become evident. The world’s most scientifically advanced force still has trouble identifying the enemy combatant, both on the ground and at sea; providing troops with reliable communications devices; mining and sharing intelligence; and locating roadside bombs.

The military needs help bridging these “technology gaps.”

Finding the Enemy

The war in Afghanistan has exposed serious weaknesses in the Defense Department’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology.

ISR is an area where the Pentagon is used to having a major advantage over the enemy. But despite an abundance of overhead collectors of electronic intelligence — including both piloted and unmanned aircraft — the physical environment and the nature of the conflict make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify enemy combatants on the ground without human intelligence that is gathered via interpersonal contact, says Army Brig. Gen. H R McMaster, director of concept development and experimentation at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

“There’s been an assumption that technology can lift the fog of war,” he says in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “But situational understanding cannot be delivered on a computer screen. It’s something you have to fight hard to achieve.”

The challenge has been especially tough in Iraq and Afghanistan, says retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. James Gavrilis. “They don’t wear uniforms, they are not in formation, they look just like any civilian.”

In a counterinsurgency, the identity of the enemy often is known only to civilians in the area. Even simple visual cues don’t work, he says. “If you say that anyone who has a rifle is a combatant, you could end up hurting the guy who’s defending his block … You won’t be able to look at a crowd and pick out the bomb makers.”

Most U.S. aerial sensors and surveillance systems were developed for flat ground, he says. The mountainous terrain punctuated by deep valleys creates nightmare scenarios for sensors that have limited range.

Some of the most valuable electronic intelligence comes from eavesdropping, Gavrilis says, such as “bugging the campfire where insurgent planning is taking place.” As with visual ISR, eavesdropping systems are hampered by the terrain.

“We have to really start developing capabilities” in this area, he says. Promising technologies exist in the civilian IT and telecom industries. “We have to figure out how to use the technology that’s already there and figure out how to get intelligence.”

The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board advisory panel notes in a recent study that shortcomings in sensor technology have dogged the U.S. military for a long time. “Today’s stressing ISR missions are challenged by the hard sensor problems the Defense Department has faced for decades,” the study says. “They range from the detection, surveillance, tracking and identification of moving vehicles in various clutter environments to the surveillance of individuals moving in normal, everyday urban environments.”

Because of size, power and sensor phenomenology, most U.S. systems are inherently short range, which limits their use to choke points and fixed areas of interest, according to the DSB study. “As a result the number of units required can be large even to cover modest (few square kilometer) areas. Once deployed, little or no flexibility is available to correct pointing and deployment configuration problems.” The need for local infrastructure to support data processing complicates the logistics for employment of ISR systems, the DSB report notes. “And the low bandwidth output limits ability to integrate these sensors with other remote sensors.” Improved technology is needed to “extend duration and reduce the number of sensors required.”

Assessments such as the DSB report, however, ignore the fundamental reality of current wars, where the enemy has found ways to circumvent U.S. advanced systems. “There is no magic wand of technology that is going to make these things easier,” says retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Wilkerson, who is currently the chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute. “Technology is not the answer. People have to grit their teeth and accept it.”

The U.S. military has “remarkable capacity for tracking people,” says Wilkerson. But the same ISR problems now witnessed in Afghanistan were seen before, such as during the ill-fated 1993 mission in Somalia. “With all the technology we had, we never found the bad guy,” says Wilkerson. “Somalia had the same infrastructure limitations that Afghanistan has … You couldn’t find a worse place” to carry out electronic surveillance.

Communicating in the Battlefield
In today’s wars, soldiers down range are the primary source of intelligence, and that information has to be shared quickly and accurately. But the Army’s communications systems are not always up to the task. Troops in Afghanistan must overcome major obstacles in order to talk or exchange data while they’re out on combat missions.

Most military radios operate only in the line of sight of another radio, and in the Afghan terrain of steep mountains and deep valleys, they often don’t work. Another problem is that troops deploy in small units and are separated from higher echelons by long distances. Most military communications systems were not designed for that arrangement.

In a conventional war such as Desert Storm, the Army had “perfect communications” because units stayed in large formations, relatively close to their headquarters, says retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. James Gavrilis. In Iraq, there is enough infrastructure that everyone, at least in Baghdad, can use cell phones even to coordinate battlefield operations, he says. That is far from the case in Afghanistan, where the Army wants connectivity for squads and platoons that fight down range, hundreds of miles away from the higher echelons. These units may find themselves fighting in mountain crevices or deep valleys. The terrain dictates the use of long-range communications, such as satellite radios, which are expensive and not available to every infantry squad or platoon in the Army, says Gavrilis. Special operations forces, which fight in 12-man teams behind enemy lines, have had that capability for a long time, but not the regular Army.

The technological answer to these problems was supposed to come with the Joint Tactical Radio System — a flexible, software-defined radio that would finally connect every soldier “down to the last tactical mile,” program documents say. But the project has been plagued by delays and budget cuts, and it is not yet clear if and when troops will see JTRS radios on the battlefield.

“Theater commanders have strongly expressed the need for increased communications capacity,” the Defense Science Board notes in a recent study. These requests have resulted from the need for smaller units to have access to information previously available only at higher echelons, the report noted. “Mobile land forces and ships at sea are seriously communications capacity-deprived … A clear need exists for more assured communications capacity as well as networking capability for units at the tactical edge, with focus on satellite communications and network-capable software-defined radios.”

The Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are working on a project called “wireless network after next,” which could deliver a $500 radio for dismounted soldiers. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said the program holds promise for a reliable communications device that is low cost and serves soldiers’ needs.

In Afghanistan, the Air Force is beginning to deploy airborne communications nodes aboard drones that turn aircraft into mini-satellites that can redirect signals. This is a good way to overcome the limitations of the terrain, says Gavrilis.

The Air Force’s 653rd Electronic Systems Group recently awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to install communications nodes on two Bombardier BD-700 Global Express aircraft and two Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. The system extends communications ranges, bridges between radio frequencies and “translates” among incompatible communications systems.

Turning Data Into Intelligence
With thousands of airborne and ground-based sensors keeping watch over battlefields, Pentagon and intelligence officials say they are facing a difficult challenge in storing, analyzing and fusing all of this information.

It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of the sensor data being collected today is “falling on the floor” and not being processed properly, if at all, in part due to technology deficiencies and in part because of a shortage of analysts.

According to the Defense Science Board, the number of “images and intercepts collected exceeds the capacity of the existing analyst community.” This creates a backlog for translators and image interpreters and results in “massive amounts of collected data that are never reviewed,” says a DSB study.

“We cannot possibly exploit all of the data that is being collected,” says John Kittle, project manager for Empire Challenge, an annual intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance interoperability event that is organized by U.S. Joint Forces Command. “That problem is just going to increase in the future as new and more able collectors come online,” he says.

The Air Force’s high altitude Global Hawk unmanned aircraft alone can produce tens to hundreds of terabytes of data during a several-hour-long flight. A terabyte is equivalent to 1,000 gigabytes. One gigabyte of memory is equivalent to 500,000 typewritten pages.

“They’re producing tremendous amounts of data even now, and it’s not all being utilized because, for one, you can’t just sit and watch UAV video all day,” says David Barton, president of EchoStorm Worldwide LLC, a video and data management technology provider that is based in Suffolk, Va.

At the pace at which unmanned aircraft and other technologies are being deployed, some sources are projecting that the total volume of data gathered could increase to the level of yottabytes (one septillion bytes) by 2015 — a volume that the Defense Department’s global information grid simply cannot store.

The Jasons, a secretive defense advisory group composed of civilian scientists who are sponsored by the not-for-profit MITRE Corp., released a report this year that found that the data requirements “are certainly significant, but not unmanageable given the capabilities of current and projected storage technology.” The key challenge, the report says, “will be to adequately empower the analyst by matching analysis needs to data delivery modalities.”

At the heart of the issue is not a lack of hardware, but rather an absence of software to process all the data. There is a need for more automated processing techniques and for more of it to take place close to, or even onboard, the actual sensor, the report suggests. It adds that work being pursued in high-energy physics and synoptic astronomy may provide some inspiration for how to process enormous amounts of data.

The Jasons’ report also proposes several “grand challenges” that a research group, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could take on to inspire further development in this field.

The group recommends these challenges tackle imagery processing problems. If a drone flies over an area that previously was mapped by another sensor, then analysts would like the ability to detect changes in that environment by comparing the new streaming video to the old footage. Automating this process would speed up the analysis.

Another problem is identifying imagery that lacks a location’s “metadata” — coordinates, elevations, angles, times — that would help target that area more precisely.

A handful of companies are attempting to address the automation problem with technology solutions. Modus Operandi has created a framework that plugs into existing applications to allow users to filter and fuse data from a number of different sources, ranging from full motion video to police reports. Traditionally, an analyst would have to pore over the data and reports to separate false positives from true leads. The company has automated that process. “We can filter them out so that the analyst doesn’t see all of these red herrings,” says George Eanes, vice president for business development.

Garnering the military’s attention for this data processing problem is not the easiest thing, says EchoStorm’s Barton. It remains focused on satisfying the combatant commanders’ call for more eyes on the ground. A case in point: The Air Force recently published its unmanned aircraft systems flight plan — its long-term vision for investing in new platforms and sensors with better quality data and higher resolution imagery. “But the thing they don’t talk about in any real detail is the processing, the dissemination and the analysis of this data,” says Barton.

That omission speaks volumes. The Defense Department clearly is buying more sensors and platforms, but it is not investing in the processing and dissemination end as heavily, industry experts say.  “Helping the end users make sense of all this video is really, really important,” says Barton. “Very few people involved with ISR truly understand that today.” Companies that specialize in data processing tools are usually an after-thought, he says. It’s only after the users realize that they are collecting tons of information but cannot sift through it to find pertinent data that they turn to contractors.

Disseminating information

The insatiable demand by battlefield commanders for “eyes in the sky” has yielded scores of unmanned aircraft keeping watch over insurgent activity. But for troops on the move, tapping into the full motion video remains a challenge.

“It does no good if all this intelligence is moving around the intel world but doesn’t get to the war fighter at the tactical edge,” says Air Force Col. George Krakie, director for intelligence operations at U.S. Joint Forces Command.

Part of the problem is a shortage of hardware, experts note. The Pentagon can’t seem to deploy enough laptops or handheld video receivers.

There are more sensor systems deployed than dissemination capabilities, says David Barton, president of EchoStorm Worldwide LLC, a technology contractor based in Suffolk, Va. “The dissemination side will be playing catch up for a while,” he says.

For every sensor on the market, a proprietary technology has been developed to control and receive its data. These systems rarely communicate with other sensors, so the military has sought to solve this “stove piping” by developing ground control stations and computers that are capable of transmitting or receiving multiple signals.

But that’s only the beginning. Those signals encounter still more layers as they seek to cross into each of the services’ intelligence-analysis networks. In coalitions, the dissemination problem compounds.

Experts fear that the situation will only grow worse as sensor technologies advance into the realm of digital high definition. The military wants to increase its wide area persistent surveillance capabilities, and much of this will come in the form of camera arrays deployed on unmanned aircraft. These sensors can capture ultra-high resolution photos of entire cities every minute. “While the resolution of the imagery is really, really amazing, the utility of it can be argued,” says Barton. “It’s really good for tracing down IED factories and things like that. But being able to disseminate that over computer networks right now is not easy” because of limited bandwidth.  

High resolution is not always necessary and there are methods to disseminate imagery over low-data rate connections, he points out.  

At a recent exercise run by Joint Forces Command, soldiers riding in humvee convoys were given video receivers to view drone footage. Sometimes they were given laptops with IP-based satellite communications connectivity to receive chat and other data from the tactical operations center.

“The real magic occurs when you step back and get out of the way,” says Navy Cmdr. Dave Crissman, one of the event participants. He played the role of an Army brigade commander whose focus was to support troops with the ISR collected by multiple sensors.

“The emphasis is to synthesize as much of the information that is available and where appropriate, step back and try to connect that particular ISR sensor straight to war fighters. That frees up the intelligence people themselves to focus on the intelligence puzzle that’s not self-evident,” he says.
One of the challenges is to protect data from intruders. The data links between UAVs and ground terminals are now being encrypted.

Detecting Hidden Explosives
For decades, the U.S. military invested little on the research and development of counter-mine technology.

Explosive ordnance disposal personnel were expected to sweep a field with a handheld metal detector. A “beep” meant there was a mine buried underground — presumably just a foot or two from where the technician was standing.

And then came the Iraq invasion in 2003. By then, the anti-personnel mine had evolved into the roadside bomb. The number of casualties resulting from the insurgent’s weapon of choice climbed on a daily basis.

The military did not have any technologies in place that could tell soldiers and marines that explosives lay just ahead of their paths. And six years later, they still don’t. Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue to suffer from roadside bombs, and the deaths and injuries are mounting.

And the old-fashioned mine is back, but with a deadly twist. Today, it’s being called a “pressure plate” improvised explosive device. The new versions are nearly devoid of metal, which makes the detection of the explosives from standoff distances more important than ever.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been efforts.

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization has tackled the problem from many angles. One of its strategies is to “defeat the device.”
As one official said not long after the organization was created, “The low hanging fruit has been picked.” Jamming the radio signals that are used to detonate roadside bombs was an early success. But there are dozens of ways to detonate IEDs.

Ground penetrating radar is one technology that holds promise. First proposed as a counter-mine technology in the 1990s, it focuses on returning signals that show the shapes of objects underground.

A ground penetrating radar system detection kit for Husky mine-sweeping vehicles was tested in late 2008 in Afghanistan. The JIEDDO program says it can detect metallic and non-metallic objects, and initial results were promising.

“This system successfully identified pressure-plate IEDS before they detonated,” says JIEDDO in a statement. Whether the vehicles are doing this at stand-off distances is another question.

The problem is that dismounted troops do not have the advantage of traveling in heavily armored route clearance vehicles.

The Afghan fight requires more foot patrols. Mines, detonated remotely or through the pressure of a footstep, are plentiful in a nation that was littered with them long before 9/11 first brought the United States and its allies into the region.

Ideally, a platoon should be able to know that a minefield lies ahead before it finds itself standing in the middle of it.

One possible solution that has emerged is hyperspectral sensors, which have been under development for more than a decade. They can discern subtle changes that are imperceptible to the human eye in order to detect anomalies in the terrain.

The Aurora Generation IV hyperspectral sensor, manufactured by BAE Systems, has been placed on Shadow UAVs. The sensor searches for disturbed earth, changes in vegetation or potholes, where bombs have been hidden. However, to find these anomalies, the UAV must fly over an area more than once to make comparisons — presumably before an enemy arrives to bury an explosive device. Then the UAV must return to note the changes.

That may work better in route clearance scenarios where trucks or other vehicles must routinely pass. But when war fighters are entering an unknown area, picking up signs of disturbed soil in advance may not be practical.

Hyperspectral imagery and ground penetrating radar depend on finding the signs that indicate the presence of explosives. Detecting the explosives themselves is another matter. Both the military and the Department of Homeland Security have expressed a need for better bomb detection.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee and the Technical University of Denmark are building a prototype device that detects the vapors emitted by chemicals that are used to make bombs, the Review of Scientific Instruments reports.

The key will be making this technology work at distances greater than the typical blast zone.

Mechanically sniffing out bombs without false readings is impressive, but it’s like the bumper sticker printed in small letters and stuck on the back of a car that says, “If you can read this, you’re too close.”

Locating Enemies FAR Out at Sea
The assault on Mumbai, India, last December, showed that the idea of using the ocean as a launching pad for terrorist attacks was no longer conjecture.

The ability to identify potential enemies at sea requires what the military calls “maritime awareness.” It is defined by the U.S. Navy as “anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of the United States.”

The goal is to identify threats “as early and distant from our shores as possible.”

The players include the Defense Department, the Navy, the Department of Homeland Security and several of its agencies, including the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.

These agencies have endeavored to share information and fuse data during the last few years to gain a better picture of what is out on the 139 million square miles of ocean waters.

The automatic identification system, a beacon that transmits identity and bearing data, is required for ships weighing more than 40 tons, but only when they are within 50 nautical miles from shore. The Coast Guard’s stated goal is to track vessels at distances of 2,000 miles. And that’s a big gap.  

Confirming the identity of a ship hundreds or thousands of miles from shore and beyond the curvature of the Earth is the challenge.
Surveillance aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles can be employed, but they are of limited range and are prone to the “soda straw effect”  — which means they can only see narrow areas.

Finding nefarious targets such as semi-submersible smuggling vehicles that Colombian drug cartels build in remote jungles then launch toward the United States has also proven difficult. While these have not operated in the deep parts of the ocean, a semi-submersible could surreptitiously be towed behind a larger ocean-going vessel. If it can carry a ton of cocaine, it can carry a weapon of mass destruction, experts warn.  

If they’re made of fiberglass, radar has a difficult time picking them up. A Customs and Border Protection P-3 Orion spotted one in January, but operating piloted aircraft is costly and relies on them being in the right place at the right time. The Coast Guard has also employed underwater listening devices to ferret out semi-submersibles.

If sensors do locate a ship that is failing to send out an AIS signal, an aircraft can be sent out to investigate.

Unpiloted aircraft can fly longer and therefore cover larger swaths of the ocean, but there are few currently in place. The Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter, which operates in deep waters, was supposed to deploy with a vertical-lift UAV that could fly off the deck and cover up to 56,000 nautical square miles. But that program has suffered cost overruns and delays, and the first of this new class of ships will only be able to fly about 9,000 nautical square miles with piloted helicopters.

Earlier this year, U.S. Strategic Command dispatched 50-year-old B-52H Stratofortresses that are equipped with modern sensing pods to take high-resolution images of suspicious ships in order to confirm their identity.                                                                  

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, Science and Engineering Technology

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