ISR Task Force's Murky Future Gets Clearer


As the war winds down in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is looking to preserve a host of rapid-development programs and war zone-specific procurement practices put in place during the past decade of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials said.

A handful of organizations were rapidly established and stood up in recent years as a way to better meet urgent wartime demands and deliver equipment and technology. Now, the Pentagon is exploring plans to transition some of these organizations to other parts of DoD, officials explained. Organizations affected include the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, the Afghanistan Resources Oversight Council, and the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force. A September memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter titled "Organizing the Department of Defense to Provide Quick Reaction Capabilities," specifies how the Pentagon is working to transition these organizations in order to build upon and preserve the functions they provide. The Pentagon's ISR Task Force, established in 2008 by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to expedite the development and delivery of ISR technologies to Iraq and Afghanistan, is a key part of this equation. The task force has spent approximately $12 billion since its inception, Pentagon officials said. While the organization was set up and sustained as a part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Carter memo said the Pentagon is evaluating plans to transition the organization to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.  If the task force becomes a permanent entity within USD(I), then "the transitioned organization will be staffed appropriately to enable rapid fielding of new ISR capabilities," according to the memo.   While the ISR task force remains much focused on ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the organization is also thinking about pivoting to a more global posture wherein ISR capabilities are also increasingly in demand. "The ISR task force is focused on Afghanistan and will continue to have that as our priority through next year. It is anticipated that the DoD's ability to address urgent requirements with Quick Reaction Capabilities will be more globally focused in the post-Afghanistan future," Eric Lanman deputy director for the ISR Task Force said in an interview with The apparatus and infrastructure of the ISR task force often resulted in efforts to synchronize acquisition practices or conduct various development activities concurrently in order to operate in a more compressed time-line and address urgent warzone demands, Lanman said. "We've developed a capability to do things more agilely and rapidly in response to the warfighter. We don't want to lose that capability as we draw down in Afghanistan because there are always going to be contingencies whether it is something large like Iraq and Afghanistan or something small. We want to be able to move quickly," Lanman explained. Working closely with combatant commanders, weapons developers and ISR experts such and analysts and signals-intelligence professionals, the task force has overseen the delivery of a handful of technologies. Some of these include the MC-12 Liberty surveillance aircraft; a large tethered aerostat surveillance balloon called the Persistent Threat Detection System, or PTDS; and a helicopter-like vertical take-off-and-landing surveillance drone called the Fire Scout UAS and others, defense officials explained.   "We started looking at all these things to give the battlefield commander the kind of big picture that he needs to make decisions for force protection and operations," a defense official said. Along with aircraft, sensors and platforms, the ISR task force has worked on building communications infrastructure. In some cases, this translated into working with satellite technology and fiber optics to find ways to increase bandwidth for line of sight and non-line-of-sight connections. "We have a greater capability to move information around the battlefield and back to the United States," the official said. The ISR task force worked closely with the Air Force to acquire 42 MC-12W surveillance aircraft, Pentagon officials said.  Based on a Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350, the MC-12W ISR aircraft is equipped with cameras, sensors surveillance gear and communications equipment. "Liberty has been one of the most valued ISR assets by theater commanders because it gives them that ability both with FMV and SIGINT (signals intelligence) to get a good picture of the battle space," a defense official said. The ISR task force also worked intimately on the development of sensor systems and SIGINT capabilities such as LIDAR, a radar technology able to provide a mapping-like capability with wide-area elevation, terrain and buildings, officials explained. Also, the ISR task force was heavily involved in the fielding of the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance Surveillance System, or MARSS, a 15,000-pound max-weight take-off King Air 300 fixed-wing aircraft able to fly up to 35,000 feet at speeds up to 270 knots. The aircraft is configured with hi-resolution digital cameras, forward-looking infrared sensors, data downlinks and other communications technology. The MARSS aircraft was part of a counter-IED unit called Task Force ODIN – a series of UAS, fixed-wing aircraft and Apache attack helicopters which found and destroyed thousands of IEDs and IED factories using surveillance technology and airborne firepower. The unit was tailored for mountainous terrain in Afghanistan after successfully identifying and attacking more than 3,000 insurgents in Iraq who were trying to embed IEDs along known U.S. convoy routes.
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