Colonel David Torres-Laboy: Filling the ISR gaps

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  01/16/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   airborne isr

Colonel David Torres-Laboy, head of project integration for the United States Air Combat Command (ACC), talks candidly about ISR capability gaps, struggling with law makers and limitations to sharing intelligence with allies…

At present, the United States Air Combat Command (ACC) has two immediate priorities when it comes to fleshing out a capability and meeting the needs of the modern battlefield. The first is air mobility, or more specifically, rotary wing air mobility. Alongside that is the rapid need to develop and manage airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. How do we know? We spoke to Colonel David ‘Toro’ Torres-Laboy, the head of project integration at the ACC, following his address at a recent conference on air power in irregular warfare. Of the two, he was keen to highlight the latter.

Back in April 2008, the Secretary of Defense established a DOD-wide ISR Task Force to identify and recommend solutions for increased ISR in the US Central Command area of responsibility. Three months later, there began acquisition of 37 ‘C-12’ class aircraft – designated ‘MC12W’ in recognition of its multirole approach – to augment the role being undertaken by unmanned systems. This new medium- to low-altitude, twin-engine turboprop is intended to provide stronger ISR to ground forces, anywhere in the world, using a modified aircraft with sensors, a ground exploitation cell, line-of-sight and satellite communications datalinks, along with a robust voice communications suite. In all, it took less than eight months from funding approval to actual delivery to the theatre.

‘What we’re doing right now is institutionalising a lot of the things that we’ve established,’ said Torres-Laboy.

‘We’re trying to make the MC-12 a Programme of Record (PoR) by establishing a basing for it, which we’ve done already, and keeping that programme active to provide that tactical ISR we need down to those smaller units levels.’

However, as Defence IQ noted previously in our article on full motion video (FMV), transferring ISR in a way that is secure and still fresh is not an easy challenge. The explosion of demand for FMV and the multi INTs that they provide requires a fast response. More importantly, it requires those dealing with the issue to look further ahead so that the progress of technology does not overtake the ability to get the most out of that emergent technology. In other words, programme managers have to be active and not reactive when it comes to tomorrow’s requirements.

‘Along with that is the investment of the PED (Processing, Exploitation, Dissemination), what you actually do with all that intel that you receive, and there’s a lot that goes behind that which is very expensive and very manpower-intensive. It’s a big lesson learned from irregular warfare, where we’ve found that the infusion of intelligence – that they’ve been doing forever – has got to a point now with technology that we can expand upon what we’ve already done.’

Mind the gap

Be that the case, we asked if there are areas he could underscore that could really use a near-term turnaround.

‘We’re getting terabytes of information an hour with video from multiple sources and then you add on top of that everything else from the human to the signals intelligence, and then trying to wade through all that… we’re looking at technology to solve some of it, maybe get some kind of software that will analyse a lot of the video, but a lot of it is individuals looking at a screen 24/7 – it’s very difficult, intensive work. Of course, to create the products from all this information that will actually be useful intelligence to use at the tactical level, that’s key. I think we’re a lot better at it now than we were before and I think we’re getting even better as the technology continues developing.

‘We have a lot of requirements as far as capacity because it seems to be that whenever we up the number of orbits that we have, the CAPs (Common Air Patrols), it never seems to be enough. So the gap that’s probably the hardest part is determining what the actual requirement is. Then structuring our forces – organising, training and equipping them – to match that capability gap is very difficult because it’s such a moving target depending on where you are in the whole conflict.

‘We’re dealing with large-volume analysis and so we still have a gap when it comes to bandwidth, coming up with better compression and algorithms. Then there’s secure comm, making sure that, for example, when the Marine Corps is talking to ships from 30 miles in – well, we’re talking to our command and control and people that are 1000 miles away, with secure comm, over-the-horizon, and so on.

‘Nowadays, it’s not only about comm. Probably another major technological gap is the robust data link because that is the future and that’s going to give a lot more than just information. It’s going to give situational awareness and I think it’s going to be a force multiplier. Now the key is getting a colour platform data link that we can use not only intra-service but with coalition partners, that is scalable so that at different levels of accessibility or classification, you can still use the same backbone, the same network, but at different classification levels depending on if you’re a partner or if you’re an ally; there’s a big difference between the two of them.’

Although such a platform would be a great enhancement, Defence IQ’s numerous discussions with military programme managers has made us more than familiar with the traditional disgruntlement of drawn out acquisition timelines, where quality assurance and bureaucracy engages in an eternal mêlée with those on the ground in need of the equipment there and then. Aside to rare situations, such as acquisitions made through urgent operational requirements, once the ball gets rolling on a new technology, US forces tend to have about a 6-8 year gap before that solution gets to theatre.

‘At least,’ agrees Torres-Laboy. ‘You know, a lot of the acquisition problems that we have is not a function of our organisation or a function of a capability in fielding anything. A lot of it is to do with the way the laws are structured for acquisition. They [the US lawmakers] stop manufacturers, like the people who make small UAVs, from being an overall Programme of Record. The law says you can’t do that. That’s why you have to have several PoRs for each platform. Now we’re trying to get away from that, trying to convince Congress, especially the House Armed Services Committee. However, because there’s so much money and so many different contractors involved, lobbying against that is almost impossible and probably not going to happen. They talk about acquisition reform but there’s only so much you can do given the current statutes.

‘The other thing that we have a big problem with – speaking of politicians – are the authorities that they provide us. We’re very limited on funding with what we can use while we’re doing certain engagement activities, whether it’s FID (foreign internal defence), SFA (security force assistance), security cooperation or whatever, a lot of the times you’re limited legally to what you can bring to that partner or to that ally. That needs to be updated as well because it’s a very antiquated system and is not as responsive as it should be for the future and the security capability requirements that we foresee.’

Sunny side up?

This is a clearly frustrating scenario, but it is important to not allow the drawbacks of the process to cast too heavy a shadow over the whole affair, particularly as so much good has come from those working to meet the demands – politicians included – and the fact that US air superiority is no secret.

‘Well, the good news is that we have an air force that is extremely combat proven and very savvy. They have a lot of young officers and enlisted who have some great ideas and who have really taken to heart some of the lessons that we’ve learned. In order to get promoted nowadays to General Officer (GO), you have to have deployed in theatre – going off to being two- and three- and four-star generals… in order to make higher rank, you’re going to have to do a year in country, be it, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. So USAF is rewarding those that are doing the regular warfare piece.

‘Now that has a good and bad side. It’s good in that it has a leadership that has operational experience. The problem is that Afghanistan in 2010 is different to Afghanistan 2011 is different to Afghanistan 2012. So, the three-star who was there in 2009 may look at it and say “Oh, these Afghans will never make peace, so let’s cut this programme” while the one-star who just got back in 2012 will say “That’s not the Afghanistan I saw.” It’s the same with guys coming out of Iraq trying to make decisions on Afghanistan – it might as well be a different planet. Same with irregular warfare. Similar to counterinsurgency but a completely different atmosphere to IW, a completely different environment, different threats, different enemies, different sanctuaries, different TTPs, and they’re trying to fit that square peg of Iraq into that round hole of Afghanistan.

‘So getting a lot of experience is sometimes not a good thing. But what is good is that we will hopefully institutionalise those lessons because we have so many of our young officers and enlisted people with that common experience and we can build on that. So I don’t think we’re going to be losing that IW knowledge we’ve gained because I see a lot of sharp younger majors and lieutenant colonels coming up the ranks that can hopefully carry the torch after I retire.

‘I’m very confident about that and I’m very happy that some of the programmes that I’ve worked hard on are thriving. The whole Air/Ground integration that we have now is very good – hopefully, we can get that to the Navy as well for Air/Sea battle. And having an Air Advisory Academy is big. That’s a key piece of IW, that building partnership capacity, that probably won’t give dividends now but in 10, 15, 20 years you’ll see those results.

‘There’s this misnomer that all military forces are going to be gone from Afghanistan in 2014. That’s not quite the case because we still have Afghan programmes that don’t even start until 2014. Like the Light Air Support programme. They’re not even getting that until early-mid 2014 calendar year. We’re probably going to be involved with the Afghan Air Force for probably the next generation – at least. We may not have combat forces there anymore but there’s still going to be active air force participation in that region.’

Partnering with young guns

Understanding what the Afghan Air Force needs to ensure the country takes accountability of its own future is a case of determining what can be provided within budget and what will actually make a positive difference to usability and effectiveness.

‘It’s got to be right for them. Having a laser JDAM would be great for us but they’re probably going to be dropping 250lb dumb bombs. Could they use extra accuracy? Probably. But it’s pretty accurate with a dumb bomb off a light attack plane. You know, if they can get within 10 metres, they can probably get the weapons to where they’re looking for. It will save a ton of money, maintenance and logistical support. That’s what we have to look at – what’s best for our partner nation.’

Col. Torres-Laboy believes that his own participation in conferences is vital to his work when it comes to establishing and strengthening his network with those partner nations and others who may be able to help him get the right equipment to where it needs to be.

‘Meeting with industry is always good because we always try to communicate our requirements with them as best we can outside of the formal requirements process. A lot of that is getting them some of the stuff that’s not written down on paper that they can be proactive on. It’s also great seeing our allies and coalition partners.’

Here, he provided a first-hand case study of how this had proven to be useful that very day. Three weeks prior, Torres-Laboy had been out in Iraq, taking a look at the work and structure of a foreign coalition force. Following that trip, he met with the force commander at the event and discussed some issues of the pre-deployment training that he had concerns about, which had to do with a lack of forward preparation and far too much “learning while operating”.

‘We want to operate in coalitions. You never want to go into situations yourself – you do if you have to but you never want to go into a situation planning on that. In order to make that happen, you have to invest in the exercises and training beforehand. It doesn’t start in the month or two months before showing up in [Afghanistan], it starts with an annual coalition training event that you did four or five years ago that now you can build upon every year. That’s how it starts and we’re seeing that now with the US shift towards Asia, we’re doing the partner nation exercises. It would be far better if we have any issues there that those countries in the region are invested in their own security so that we can aid them, not be there to be their entire hope. So that’s where I see some of the benefit here to establish these kinds of relationship.

‘Also, with academia here…well, it’s always good to get a history lesson! A lot of that academia and those military schools, there’s a lot of great writing out there that sometimes I have access to, sometimes I don’t, and names and faces change sometimes, so it’s always good to re-establish those networks and see what new ideas are coming out. There really are some great papers being written that you can build upon and action. Also, you find that Major who’s got a great idea, who is well written and well spoken and can present in a [clear] manner, that’s the guy you want to identify and maybe bring on to the staff and say to: “Okay, you wrote about it, you’re on fire about it, now let’s do the hard work to make it happen. Use that academic background to actually get into staff work, where the rubber hits the road, and try to defend [that viewpoint]” because that’s where it gets hard.’

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva


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