Speaking to a Washington, D.C. audience last month, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus described a 2008 battle in Baghdad where U.S. troops decimated Shiite militia fighters, highlighting it as exemplary of a “new” way to fight irregular foes. One of the keys to that “new” approach? A vast network of electronic eyes on aerial drones and manned aircraft that scan the battlefield and then feed intelligence directly to small units operating against an elusive and distributed enemy. Petraeus said the U.S. was trying to replicate that same approach in Afghanistan.
Out in the high, hot, dusty Mojave deserts at China Lake, Ca, Joint Forces Command is trying to replicate Afghanistan, and use that test laboratory to help build the persistent surveillance and intelligence gathering architecture Petraeus wants to speed to his troops engaged in a bloody fight against an adaptive Taliban insurgency.
In a series of exercises and simulations, JFCom is trying to figure out how to coordinate the vast amounts of data collected by satellites, drones and manned aircraft and package it in such a way that it’s actually useful to troops on the ground. Much of the effort is on the “exploitation” side, filtering out useful information from the clutter so as to provide small unit commanders “actionable” intelligence.
“Right now we’re faced with the problem that we cannot possibly exploit all of the data that’s being collected,” said John Kittle, project manager for "Empire Challenge 2009," the name given to the exercises involving some 1,000 military and civilian personnel in the U.S. and Europe. “That problem is only going to get worse as new platforms come on station.”
Role players out in the China Lake deserts are setting ambushes, sniper attacks, emplacing IEDs, car bombs and shoot-and-scoot mortar attacks, all in an effort to provide the same “signature” of the real attacks that take place against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Drones such as the Air Force’s Scan Eagle, others from the U.K. and Australia, and larger aircraft like the RC-135, circle overhead and track the moves of simulated insurgents, then transmit those images to analysts sat in Suffolk, Va., and German and French analysts in Europe. Via live chat, analysts try and sift out the useful intelligence and in turn send that “mission critical ISR data” to commanders on the ground, Kittle said, speaking to reporters last week via phone from China Lake.
“What we’re really trying to focus on is getting that ISR out to the tactical edge,” Kittle said, “trying to improve on what the dismounted units are getting.” He said the ultimate goal is to provide a small patrol with as much imagery and actionable intelligence as a fully wired brigade command post.
While much of the JFCom exercise aims to resolve the information overload challenge, some new technologies are being tested out at China Lake. Kittle said a new high definition video sensor ball, intended for the Predator but currently mounted on a King Air, is being tested with the hopes of providing vastly improved video quality, and an encryptable data stream.