The Pentagon created a team one month ago and sent it to Iraq and Afghanistan to figure out how to achieve the Holy Grail of intelligence sharing, one network architecture that shares intelligence from every satellite, UAV and plane and gets it to everyone on the ground and in the air who needs it.
The Integrated Product Team was created by the ISR Task Force at the direction of Jim Clapper, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, in response to urgent requests from commanders, according to Robert Arbetter, director of collection concepts and strategies for Clapper. Arbetter was speaking in San Antonio as part of a panel on persistent surveillance at Geoint, the annual intelligence conference.
The immediate target for the IPT is the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater, but the lessons learned could be applied to any theater and could significantly bolster America's ability to share intelligence with allies in any conflict.
The IPT is led by Neill Tipton and has 90 days to come up with a solution, Arbetter said.
The networks would carry data from national technical means, the standard euphemism for spy satellites, a Defense Department official confirmed. Sharing data from national technical means with allies at any time raises enormous cultural and security obstacles, so this would mark a significant step forward for coalition operations such as the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
The technical, cultural and security issues seem daunting, Arbetter said he thought the IPT could make a significant dent in these. "Can we do it? No one knows. Should we try? Absolutely," he said after the panel ended. The USDI official was optimistic that significant improvements in data sharing would result from the IPT: "I'd say the odds are 100 percent that we will improve the situation out there."
The effort will face considerable obstacles, according to a congressional aide and two intelligence community professionals.
"It is a big deal with many complications," said the congressional aide.
"It can only be done if people are willing to accept security in a network that would have to be very good but might not be fully compliant or, more likely, not fully tested to NSA or other standards," said a former intelligence official.
A consultant who deals with technology issues said "the technology and security levels are difficult on this one." Instead of focusing on distribution of data USDI "should be focusing on analytics and then query what type of information is wanted," the consultant said.
The IPT hasn't made its recommendations yet but Arbetter said one way to achieve the data sharing would involve taking an existing network and modifying it instead of creating something out of whole cloth.
The intelligence consultant said that "ground stations are huge in this equation." They may need to be the focus of how this information is shared and distributed and pointed to Pete Rustan, who was head of ground stations and now leads mission support at the National Reconnaissance Office, as a key person in getting this to happen. The NRO builds and operates the nation's spy satellites,
The NRO began developing a single network to share all information from national technical means several years ago and Arbetter said USDI "has learned a lot of lessons from NRO" as it develops the new network for Af-Pak.
Two senior intelligence community officials said they thought this is the Holy Grail of intelligence sharing and could lead to revolutions in how military forces plan and execute their operations. How much of the goal can be achieved remains to be seen, they said, but they thought it would lead to major improvements regardless of the obstacles.
[Full disclosure: USGIF, who put on the Geoint conference, paid DoD Buzz airfare and hotel bills so we could cover this event.]