Commanders Feel Deficiency as Wars Hog Surveillance Platforms

By Dan Parsons
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven the efficacy of airborne surveillance as a military tool. The conflicts have also hogged almost all of the U.S. military’s manned and unmanned surveillance platforms, to the detriment of combatant commanders elsewhere.

Both the Obama administration’s strategic guidance and the heavily advertised shift in focus to the Pacific Ocean put a premium on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, also called ISR. While Navy and Air Force leaders contemplate how to monitor thousands of square miles of ocean in the future, other combatant commanders are waiting to get their hands on ISR platforms that have long been needed elsewhere.

Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, has felt the deficiency. He recently told Washington, D.C.- based defense reporters that access to surveillance equipment topped his wish list.

Though he has had intermittent access to Global Hawk drones, nearly all of the military’s airborne ISR capabilities are supporting the war effort in Afghanistan, Fraser said.

“I’m a combatant commander, I could always use some more ISR,” Fraser said. “What tops our integrated priorities list right now? ISR requirements.”

He may get his chance as systems, both manned and unmanned, are freed up from service in the Afghanistan.

When the Air Force’s fleet of C-12 reconnaissance planes is released from duty in Central Asia, he hopes to put them to work spotting drug runners in South and Central America. Partner nations and law enforcement agencies have confiscated similar aircraft from drug smugglers and converted them to surveillance platforms — presaging the C-12’s use in that theater, Fraser said.

Lockheed Martin has deployed such sensors — low-frequency radars that can peer through thick leaves — to South America for years, said Mark Grablin, director of airborne reconnaissance systems for the company.

It may ultimately be these sorts of manned surveillance aircraft that are best suited for service in and around Southern Command, said Fraser. Despite the buzz drones have received during the past decade, they are not silver bullets for aerial surveillance everywhere. If unmanned ISR systems suddenly became available, Fraser said he wouldn’t necessarily jump at the opportunity.

Instead, he plans on a “very non-traditional approach” to intelligence gathering and surveillance. The idea is perhaps unique to Southern Command because drug interdiction there is done primarily hand in hand with local law-enforcement agencies. In his case, maritime radar and good, old-fashioned word of mouth can be more effective than a highly sophisticated spy drone that can’t see through to the rain forest floor.  

“I’ve got to make sure, as we look at this overall problem, where [UAVs] fit within the problem set,” he said. “I’m not convinced that just because it’s a UAV, it will solve our problems.”

Other customers are undergoing the same analysis, deciding whether they can afford ISR, at what level and whether a manned aircraft or a UAV fits the bill.

Frontex, a European border-management agency, undertook that investigation last year, weighing both unmanned ISR platforms and Lockheed’s Dragon product line. Dragon is a series of ISR systems on a fee-for-service basis that the company tailors to the customer’s specific requirements.

Frontex decided integrating UAVs into its airborne surveillance fleet would be too expensive, said Charles Gulledge, director of airborne reconnaissance business development for Lockheed. UAVs cannot yet fly within European civil airspace. Lockheed is in negotiations to provide that agency with sensors mounted on a manned, corporate jet-type aircraft, he said.  

Topics: C4ISR, Cybersecurity, Intelligence, Sensors, Tactical Communications

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