It all started with a small tip of intelligence.
A U.S. airman in Virginia spotted a piece of intel thousands of miles away. Ten days later, warplanes bombed 11 sites in the Middle East where American military officials say Islamic State militants manufactured deadly drones.
The operation -- detailed for the first time by Air Force officials to Military.com -- underscores a growing trend in modern warfare in which troops at their home bases are intimately involved in wars half a world away. It also highlights a new way of analyzing intelligence to find, track and kill enemies and their weapons, they say.
"Analysis is the foundation that's going to drive everything," Air Force Lt. Gen. VeraLinn "Dash" Jamieson, the service's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said in an interview at the Pentagon on Thursday. "This [way of] thinking is not just top-down driven. It's going to be enabled bottom up."
Jamieson noted the airman -- identified only as Senior Airman Jean, assigned to Distributed Ground System-1 at Langley Air Force Base -- was able to maneuver her way through the data in large part because of her training in critical analysis and observation.
Jamieson, who assumed her post in November, said the intel career field and the service as a whole are shifting toward an analysis-based infrastructure that will enhance multiple missions across the force.
In this case, the airman's instincts kicked in while working the Distributed Common Ground System, a globally networked system that can process intelligence from MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, and U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes, among other aircraft, to visualize strikes and dissect the aftermath. The system also lets users monitor chats between pilots in any theater across the globe.
On any given day, the DGS teams observe more than 50 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties and 1,200-plus hours of motion imagery; produce about 3,000 signals intelligence, or SIGINT, reports; exploit 1,250 still images; and manage 20 terabytes of data, according to a 2015 Air Force description of the system.
Jean -- who was mission qualified trained, known as MQT in the intel community -- had been certified in immediate data collection and involved in the planning team that reviews information over time to establish a pattern of life, Jamieson said. She found herself on a team that was overlooking a MQ-1 Predator mission and, by observing the intelligence, was tipped off to the "needle in the haystack" hit, Jamieson said.
Jamieson didn't specify what the tip was but hinted it wasn't a visual cue.
"It was a signal -- not seeing," she said. "So that's why she was able to talk to the crew and her team and say, 'Let's put some eyes on this, so we can see what's going on.' "
Jamieson added, "We noticed it was not a signal we had identified often [before]."
Officials later disclosed to Military.com the intelligence was received on a mission observing ISIS militants during the offensives in both Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. Non-visual signals may include, as examples, an audio signature, water signature or chemical signature.
"We worked with the [intelligence community] in the course of an hour or two, refined that down to a couple block locations inside an urban area. We were then able to talk to the Pred[ator] team, and said, 'Hey, we think we have an anomaly, what do you think?' They agreed," Jamieson said.
She said they then looked for a visual cue.
"We put a Predator overtop and we used the [full-motion video] to see if there was any kind of pattern of life that we noticed. They did notice something: They noticed a vehicle, an individual get out of the vehicle … and took something, and put it in the back of the vehicle."
Upon review, the teams perceived it to be a small drone.
There have been multiple examples of ISIS rigging small, off-the shelf drones and model airplanes as time bombs in both Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks, their tactics have escalated in areas such as western Mosul, where Iraqi forces have launched the latest offensive to diminish the ISIS stronghold.
ISIS began using small drones in 2014 to counter forces by gathering intel, as well as documenting suicide bombings to post on its radical websites to boost morale, according to The Washington Post. In October, a U.S. official confirmed another drone incident, but with deadly consequences -- two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were killed while trying to dismantle a model airplane that was shot down in northern Iraq, according to The New York Times.
"A top priority for me at the moment is this emerging danger that we're seeing in the Middle East in respect to unmanned aerial systems -- these cheap, buy-them-over-the-internet, small drones. And if explosives are placed on them, as we've seen a handful of times now in Syria and Iraq, they can do damage," then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said after the October attack.
While the U.S. has deployed new technology to disable ISIS drones, including the DroneDefender, an assault rifle-style product that features a directed energy frequency jammer, Iraqi security forces have yet to get their hands on the weaponry.
The pilot and the sensor operator stayed on the vehicle where the drone was spotted, and began mapping its routine, Jamieson said.
The goal was to determine "is there a network going on?" Jamieson said. The next crew rotations for both the Predator and analysis teams were given permission to stay on the vehicle, as was the next day's crew.
"They were able to stay on the target," she said, "and they were working with the 363rd [ISR] Wing … an integrated DGS and targeting cell."
The unit is the Air Force's only wing focused on "content-dominant multi-intelligence analysis and targeting for five distinct mission sets: air defenses, counter-space, counter-ISR, theater ballistic missile and cruise missile threat, and air threat," according to the service.
The target and analysis cell portion re-examined the data to develop the target in coordination with teams already on hand tracking and disseminating details on the ISIS network.
It had been just 10 days from Jean's find to strike approval coordinated through the Joint Task Force, Jamieson said.
"On the 11th day, they went in on the strike," she said, and Langley stayed on the mission for processing, exploitation and dissemination, as well as battle damage assessment of the operation.
"They had the pattern of life knowledge," she said.
As a result, more than 10 facilities with pieces or parts of small drones controlled by ISIS were destroyed because "of one senior airman identifying a signal, and taking it through fruition because she said, 'The analysis I knew would prove out,' " Jamieson said of the conversation she had with the airman.
The service has since identified new tactics, techniques and procedures to improve analysis at the beginning of an intel mission. Officials didn't say if they have taken out similar targets given Jean's find, but are hopeful airmen will echo her aptitude.
Airmen know analysis, "they always have," Jamieson said. "But now they know that is a priority from the top and [we] are encouraging more to do that.
"We need to have sound analysis to actually go through our mission because it's all about the airman. Yes, the platforms enable a lot of things, but it's, 'How are the airmen going to be able to critically think and employ tactics as they use these platforms?' " Jamieson said.