The past ten years have seen an explosion in aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support of military operations. The skies over Iraq and Afghanistan became crowded with both manned and unmanned platforms providing overwatch for maneuvering ground units, surveying lines of communications for indications that IEDs had been deployed, protecting bases from attack and collecting signals intelligence to support operations against insurgent units and bases. While most of this new ISR capability has been focused on supporting land forces, the U.S. Navy also is developing its own fleet of advanced ISR systems, several of which, such as the Integrator and Fire Scout, will operate from ships.
This proliferation in ISR platforms has been matched or even exceeded by radical advances in sensor technologies. The best known of these are high-resolution electro-optical cameras that provide real-time, full motion video. But other payloads include infra-red sensors and even miniature radar. These systems can be deployed on even the smallest unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Larger platforms are now carrying wide area airborne surveillance sensors such as the Gorgon Stare system which can track a large number of individual targets simultaneously.
This revolution in airborne ISR is coming to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates the largest non-military fleet of airborne ISR platforms in the world. The U.S. Coast Guard operates a fleet of C-130H/J long-range surveillance aircraft and is in the process of acquiring new HC-144A maritime patrol aircraft. The Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a branch of DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol, has some 290 aircraft and helicopters including refurbished P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft and new King Air 350s with sophisticated ISR suites. OAM currently operates six Predator Bs. One of these has been converted into a maritime surveillance platform in a joint effort with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard plans to acquire a number of vertical take-off UASs for use on its new National Security Cutter. It is currently experimenting with both the Scan Eagle and Fire Scout UASs.
It should come as no surprise that state and local law enforcement have an enormous appetite for airborne ISR, although rarely do they possess the budgets to support acquisition of their own capabilities. To help fill the need, OAM created the “Big Pipe” program to provide real-time video and sensor data from OAM assets to federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement and public safety agencies.
The future for airborne ISR in support of DHS and law enforcement organizations appears bright. Continuing investment in this area by the Department of Defense should provide new capabilities that can be spun off to meet domestic security requirements.