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Non-traditional Airborne ISR Makes the Leap from Unconventional to Conventional Warfare

Contributor:  Robert Densmore
Posted:  06/02/2011  12:00:00 AM EDT  | 
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Rate this Article: (4.0 Stars | 3 Votes)
Douglas Barrie serves as the senior fellow for military aerospace at IISS, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In this interview, he describes full spectrum NTISR, or Non Traditional Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, as deployed as an extension of air power worldwide. In a period of retracting economies and declining defence spending, we examine the real benefits of these technologies – from counter-IED operations to disaster response - while dispelling some of the myths about their limitations.
 
Q: It seems that, when we start talking about the technology, itself, we start to lose track of why it is we conduct ISR type missions. I mean, it’s about information, is it not? Whether it’s airborne strike platforms doing the job or unmanned systems – the real gold is found in fresh intelligence and how commanders apply it to operations real-time. And I’m guessing that there’s a bit of analysis that needs to take place. There’s a bit of maybe taking a step backwards and making sure that we know what we’re doing with the information to begin with. Would that be correct?
 
Analysis as the cornerstone 
 
A: I think analysis is a fundamental element of all of this. It’s... given the current operational environment, there’s an awful lot of ‘ad hoc-ery’ going on in terms of people learning as they go and using systems perhaps in ways that they hadn’t traditionally envisaged. I think two examples perhaps... and you already mentioned the Royal Air Force, the Tornado, and the Harrier when it was still in service, both used laser designation and targeting pods in a way which, kind of, fits into the Non Traditional ISR name, which was, you know, pods originally designed, as it says on the tin for, you know... laser designation and targeting, were being used to gather reconnaissance data. You know, they were being used to look at buildings, vehicles of interest, to build up, kind of, ‘patterns of life’ pictures. The Raptor pod, again, used on the Tornado - same kind of thing. Extremely useful, providing a huge amount of electro-optical information, which could be either downloaded or transmitted over a data link in real-time, or brought back and imagery analysis carried out on the ground over a slightly longer period, depending on what the immediacy of the requirement was.
 
Q: And people do often refer to this as a force multiplier, and I think that... I want to get below the surface a little bit. You mentioned some of the analysis that needs to take place. We have the information and the information comes from these pretty high-tech pieces of gear. What needs to happen on the ground or even real-time, how does that transfer need to happen in order to make it useful?
 
A: Well, I think one of the great successes of technology in recent years has been the Rover terminal, which has, effectively, allowed imagery captured by a combat platform in the air, fixed or rotary wing, in some cases... for that imagery then to be downloaded to personnel on the ground, whose situational awareness, to use a, kind of, ‘jargony’ term, is greatly improved by being given a, kind of, God’s eye view of the environment they’re in - in pretty much real-time. And for them to then send imagery back to the cockpit, perhaps annotated with an area marked or... you know, so that can then be examined further. The ability to improve targeting, the ability to improve an awareness of your environment in terms of classifications and contacts, for instance, I think is pretty obvious.
 
Q: We’re looking at a time and a particular bit of history currently where there are significant cut backs to forces globally, really. And the increased use of NTISR really begs the question, are traditional assets insufficient or perhaps too expensive, really, to carry on the kinds of intelligence gathering that we need to feed, you know, the search for information that drives our forces?
 
Budget cuts and the bottom line
 
A: I think there’s two forces in play here, if you like. One is the general downward pressure in defence expenditure, coupled with a general downward trend in the number of platforms that nations actually are able to afford to procure and field. This is just a continuation of the shift... oversimplified, perhaps, but to move from a single role type of aircraft - so you’d have an air defence fighter or a strike fighter, to move to a multi-role platform because you can only have so many of these things and you have to drive as much benefit and value out of them as you can. So NTISR just simply reflects that: I have a platform which gives me considerable military utility; I therefore have to get as much value out of it as I can, and if that can be provided by using laser designated pods in a slightly different way, then I’m going to do that. Also, I think it does reflect... the cost of ISR surveillance platforms traditionally have been high, you know, forces haven’t been able to buy a great number of them.
 
Q: And UAVs? How attractive an investment are they at the moment?
 
A: Yes, UAVs in the ISR realm are obviously of extraordinary utility. They give you the persistence that a fast jet can’t always give you, in that it can... a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance UAV could stay in an operational area, you know, 14, 15, 16, 18 hours. The downside is that the current generation of platforms aren’t particularly quick, so if you suddenly need coverage in an area which is, say, 150 or 200 kilometres away, you really ought to have some more air vehicles because you’re not going to get to transit that distance necessarily at the speed you would want. Whereas obviously with a fast jet you could do.
 
 
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will host an integrated ISR suite, including sensors
 
 
The other element of the UAV side in the ISR arena is that people look at a UAV and think, unmanned, surely it won’t cost as much. The UAV actually just shifts to some extent, where the cost comes, in terms of the number of support people, pilots required actually to fly the air vehicle from a ground station, and then the imagery exploitation and analysis teams who run to serious numbers of personnel, obviously deriving great value, in military terms, from these things. But the, kind of, initial notion that these things were going to be cheap doesn’t actually turn out to be necessarily correct.
 
Q: And we expect some tremendous capability to come out of some of these platforms too. I think that UAV technology certainly has gone up... gone forward in leaps and bounds in recent years, but part of that I think is the expectation that we expect them to do so many different kinds of roles and to loiter for so much longer. I want to shift back a little bit to discussing the inventory. Maybe give us a picture of what is in the NTISR inventory that we may not have heard of?
 
Integrated ISR and Litening III
 
A: Well, the development of... well, the current generation of targeting pods have been upgraded and continue to be upgraded to improve capabilities. I mean, the Israeli Litening [pod] has been a pretty successful product, and they’re now on the Litening III. That will continue, I would imagine, to be developed. The Europeans are looking at some new capabilities, the US is obviously looking at some new capabilities, and alongside the podded approach, obviously on something like the F-35 the ISR element of the F-35 is internalised, if you like. It’s actually been... it’s in the platform from the outset as an integral part of the requirement, [which] was to use the F-35 as an ISR as well as a “conventional” combat aircraft.
 
Q: Ostensibly it will probably help with sales, I would imagine?
 
A: Well, also to actually exploit what the technology can now give you. If you have a platform which is transiting through airspace, it would seem to me to make sense to, kind of ‘hoover up’ as many noughts and ones from the atmosphere you’re in as possible - and then use that and distribute it in a way which the digital world lets you do.
 
Q: Let’s... and you touched on this before and I want to revisit this. We got a glimpse of this. How advanced is some of the data, the intel, that can be passed by some of these platforms?
 
A: What’s been interesting to watch, obviously, as an observer, is how some of these technologies have been used to try and help with countering improvised explosive devices. So it’s a counter-IED role where you would have a UAV which would route-fly over a road that you knew you were going to take a convoy down in a week’s time, and you would build up a picture of the route. And as part of that you would have, what they call, ‘change-detection’ software, which will allow you to see if something had turned up on the side of the... a vehicle had turned up that hadn’t been there previously. What is of interest? Had there been any sign of digging? Was some earth turned over? Again, you know, did that look suspicious? Was there any activity on the road in the days before the convoy was to move down it? And done in such a way that you build up a picture of the environment you’re operating in and the software will automatically flag up areas of interest.
 
Q: And this is something that could be done, I assume, outside of a threat range? Can this be done at stand-off at high altitude?
 
 
 
 USAF B-52 demonstrating Litening pod integration with visual feed
 
 
A: You can do it, depending... I mean, you can do it at any altitude where you can get the kind of granularity from the sensor that you need. Obviously with a UAV - comparatively small air vehicle, comparatively low noise footprint, it’s reasonably unobtrusive - so you can get it possibly lower than a fast jet, obviously. So you can build up a picture of... sometimes it’s called patterns of life, which is one of the other areas where ISR is being used in this way now, which is to continually revisit areas of interest - maybe buildings, individuals, vehicles - and to watch how the vehicles move. Do these... do certain vehicles move to houses of interest? If they do, which other vehicles are involved? Which people are in which vehicles? So you can begin to build up a picture of possible insurgents’ involvement. Who’s visiting whom? Is it a vehicle of interest that suddenly turned up in an area you hadn’t seen it in before? It gives you a sense of what the opposition may be up to and who the opposition actually are.
 
Q: And I think it begs the question: this kind of airborne capability, is it something that could be used to perhaps go into the field in natural disaster situations that we’ve seen recently? It seems to be all over the news with events in Japan, New Zealand and the US.
 
Looking further afield 
 
A: I think some of the sensors obviously lend themselves to that kind of use if you want to, again, have a look at what’s actually happened on the ground, particularly if your ground infrastructure has been very seriously damaged. Then there is absolutely no reason why... particularly unmanned systems . . . couldn’t be used... although, again, if you didn’t have an unmanned system available then a military aircraft with these kinds of sensors on board is a perfectly applicable tool to use in that kind of environment.
 
Q: Well, let’s shift gears and look a little bit closer to home at current UK defence cuts. Now, we’ve seen just in the past several weeks how critical the National Audit Office has been of MoD spending. Of course, that was more land vehicles, but the implications are of broader inefficiencies in defence spending. With cuts that are likely to continue for some time, is this going to affect the use of these platforms, either cutting them or increasing them? Will there be some cross over there?
 
A: I think the strategic defence and security view, some of the decisions taken will leave the UK with capability gaps that it would rather not have had. But the decisions were made obviously not lightly; they were made because there was a horrible budgetary reality that we face, which was there just wasn’t enough money in the pot to get us over the next few years. Obviously, in general, the hope is that by the next defence review in 2015, the economic outlook will have improved somewhat and more money can start to come back into the defence coffer, if you like. I mean, the most obvious decisions in this area, which seemed to lack coherence, were the decision to withdraw the ASTOR, Airborne Stand-Off Radar platform, the Sentinel R1, at the end of the Afghanistan operation, probably in 2014, 2015, you would imagine; and also the decision to not to take the Nimrod MRA4 into service. The decision to withdraw the Nimrod R1, the SIGINT platform, the COMINT platform had actually been taken slightly earlier, if I remember rightly, 2008 - 2009.
 
All of these aircraft are pretty valuable ISR assets. The Sentinel has been used in both Afghanistan and Libya. It’s providing extremely valuable information, as indeed is the R1 -  reflected in the decision to try and extend its life somewhat. How long that will actually continue for, I think is an interesting point of speculation. And eventually that will be replaced by the Rivet Joint aircraft which the UK will receive from the US.
 
In terms of Sentinel, the intent seems to be to try and migrate some of its capability into a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance UAV, whatever emerges out of the UK requirement in that area. But that wouldn’t be available probably until about 2018 - 2020. So that, again, would leave a capability gap for around five years. You just wonder whether perhaps some of these decisions may be revisited slightly, in the light of the current operational experience.
 
Q: And it leads me to ask, looking at the spectrum of operations now, present day, so in Libya for example, can we expect to presume that some of these platforms are in use in some of those theatres?
 
A: Oh absolutely. I don’t think that there’s any question that they... I mean, the Sentinel R1 has been used, the Nimrod R1 has been used, and indeed had the Nimrod MRA4 been in service, it would also have been used because it would have provided a valuable long-range capability that is unfortunately not in the UK inventory at present.
 
Q: And that certainly is the white elephant in the room, especially in regards to this topic, and I have to say it’s come up in discussions and interviews on several occasions. But we can look forward to, from what you’re saying, a pretty healthy continuation of capability in maybe some other assets that NTISR has incorporated ?
 
A: Yes, well, I think that... I wonder if the phrase ‘Non Traditional ISR’ will actually just eventually disappear in the sense that it’s almost a transitory phase. You know, what Traditional ISR was something that was perhaps... you might think about a Cold War environment where you had dedicated ISR assets. Obviously, as the digital world allows you to make packages smaller, you can... what would previously have required quite a large platform to carry, you can get either on a pod or on a smaller platform, either manned or unmanned. And these, kind of, the Non Traditional element, I think will just disappear. The rubric will just return to Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance and it will be part of every platform you acquire – to have an ISR role to play, either as a dedicated ISR platform or as just another part of what it does, depending on the mission.
 
Q: Fully integrated.
 
A: Yes, absolutely, it will be embedded in the platform.
 
Q: Well, Mr Barrie, we haven’t exhausted the subject but we’ve definitely made inroads. Thanks for speaking with me today.
 
A: Not at all, Rob. A pleasure.
 


Robert Densmore Contributor:   Robert Densmore


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