Military ‘Swimming In Sensors and Drowning in Data’

By Stew Magnuson
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When it comes to battlefield intelligence, it’s far better to have too much than too little.

“I cannot see a situation where someone is going to say, ‘Hey I can do with less of that,’” James R. Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said of the terabytes of data that comes off the military’s array of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets.

Unpiloted aircraft in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan collect full-motion video. Satellites — belonging to both the National Reconnaissance Office and commercial operators — take images from space. Signals intelligence experts eavesdrop on the chatter of insurgents who may be planning to bomb civilian targets.

Also in the mix is low-tech human intelligence — information gleaned by spies from informants or during interrogations.  

“It really is the coin of the realm,” Clapper said of the myriad kinds of intelligence available to battlefield commanders and now being pushed down to the lower ranks. “It drives operations.”
Synthesizing all these collection disciplines and disseminating them quickly is the challenge facing the military. If intelligence is the “coin of the realm,” as Clapper and other senior leaders said at the GEO-Int conference here, then the military may soon have more cash than it can spend.

“We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Today, there is one video feed for every unpiloted aircraft combat air patrol, also known as an “orbit.” An orbit is defined as one 24-hour continuous mission. Currently, the Air Force flies 39 orbits over Afghanistan and Iraq every day. The goal is to reach 50 orbits by 2011. Within a couple years, unpiloted MQ-9 Reapers carrying the new wide area airborne surveillance sensors will be able to track up to 12 different targets simultaneously, Deptula said. The iteration after that will jump to 30 and there are plans to eventually reach 65. That’s an increase from 39 possible video feeds to more than 3,000, given that the Air Force reaches its 50 orbit goal.

And Air Force unmanned aerial vehicles are just one part of the oncoming flood of data. The service flies manned ISR aircraft, and the Army has its own airborne collection platforms as well.

Moreover, those using the data don’t just want live, streaming video. They want the other intelligence disciplines, such as signals-intelligence, fused into the product.

“Making this automatic is an absolute must,” Deptula said.

In April 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates put together an ISR task force to address concerns that the military did not have the right numbers or kinds of sensors needed to fight modern day insurgencies. At the beginning of the decade, ISR capabilities were still geared toward Cold War scenarios.

Maj. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, commander of the Air Force ISR agency, said the tracking and killing of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 provides an example of how the paradigm changed. During the first Gulf War, it was relatively easy for the Air Force to find large Iraqi troop formations, Scud missiles and tanks. Targeting and delivering munitions took far more time.

By the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the sought-after targets were hiding among the civilian population. Predator unmanned aerial vehicles flew 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a total of 600 hours to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. Once that was done, it took only six minutes for two nearby F-16s to deliver the bombs that killed him.

 “It’s a huge effort to find where they are, and takes very little effort in the end to either kill or capture,” Heithold said.

The Air Force began a review of its surveillance needs last summer in the aftermath of the cancellation of a space-based radar and the E-10 multirole aircraft that was to provide additional radar capabilities. When electro-optical cameras have trouble seeing through fog, smog and dust, radar can track individuals in those adverse weather conditions.

Kevin Meiners, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for portfolio, programs and resources, called this a “strategic pause.”

At issue is what the ISR community calls GMTI — ground moving target indications. In the Cold War era, the acronym referred to such things as tanks and trucks. Today, sensors need to track individuals who may be hiding among an urban population. Cameras need to have high enough resolution to be able to identify dismounted individuals. The task force has been sending investigators into the field to ask users what they want. “They keep coming back and resonating with the same thing: We need to get better at identity resolution.”

Not only will the quantity of video feeds increase, but the quality will as well. But that may pose new problems.

Meiners said the Air Force’s new MC-12W Liberty manned aircraft, which are now being fielded in Iraq, will have the first high-definition, full motion video balls (See accompanying story). The aircraft, which was recommended by the ISR task force, was conceived and fielded in a relatively rapid 12-month period.

The high-def video may prove to be a game changer, but he suggested that the Air Force may not be prepared to process all this new information.

“People are going to have to start thinking about what we are going to do with all this high-def, and how we’re going to process it,” he said. High-def is a “bandwidth hog,” he added, so there may be issues with the communications architecture as well, he noted.

Industry has done an excellent job of providing cutting edge sensors, said Heithold.

“Okay, I have got 27 targets to look at now. Does that mean I have to put 27 guys … on the shift that day?”

Industry now has to come up with the smart technology, machine-to-machine interfaces, that can help sort through all the data. There are 332,000 airmen in the Air Force, Heithold said. And they’re “really busy.”

The military is increasing what it’s putting on the platforms, from full-motion-video to some “pretty significant capabilities,” which he would not specify.

He oversees six distributed common ground systems, nodes scattered throughout the world where airmen collect data 24/7 and push it out to the those fighting on the ground or in the air who need it.

These centers are at their capacity, he said. “I have to pull the reins back a little bit and say primarily what the customer wants, which is FMV, geo-location and” signals intelligence, he said.
“The appetite never seems to slow down.”

Whatever the solution is to sorting through all this data, it will not be more analysts.

“The answer isn’t throwing more manpower at it because in DoD, we don’t have it … It’s easier for me to get money than it is to get manpower,” he said. “We’re going to have to use technology, smart systems that cipher through the intelligence,” he added.

Said Deptula: “Developing the technology and tools to make this easier, faster and less manpower intensive is going to be vital as warfare in the information age matures.”

Storing and archiving all the full motion video is another quandary. Deciding what videos to keep and which to delete is already an issue. When all the new full motion video comes online, it will only exacerbate the problem, speakers said.

Navy Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said, “We are having to make significant policy decisions on data retention for FMV because of the size of the data sets, and I think that has implications for industry.”

Another long-standing issue is how to share intelligence with those who need it. Numerous rules and regulations determine who can see what. That goes for members of the U.S. government as well as allies.

“No matter what anybody says, it’s pathetic,” Maj. Gen. John M. Custer, commanding general of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the Army intelligence center, said of the information sharing environment.

“There’s no reason for an Italian, Dutch, United Arab Emirates or any other soldier to die because they don’t have the appropriate kinds of intelligence,” he said. “I really don’t have a clue as to why we don’t allow everyone on [SPRNET] in Afghanistan. If you are fighting a war with this nation, you should have access to it.”                           

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, Sensors

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