The past ten years of war have seen a wide array of advances in critical military capabilities. Supported by a robust R&D establishment and a very capable industrial base, the U.S. military has deployed leap-ahead capabilities in such diverse areas as cold weather clothing, night vision equipment, robots and unmanned aerial systems, biometrics, protected ground vehicles, electronic warfare, individual weapons and precision guided munitions.
One of the areas that saw the greatest growth and innovation was intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). From a Cold War capability based primarily on large platforms and oriented primarily towards supporting large combined arms engagements on the German plains, the military’s ISR portfolio has blossomed into a wide array of platforms, sensors, networks, applications, data processing centers and analytic tools able to do all of that but also capable of detecting the emplacement of IEDs, tracking individual insurgents, locating snipers and even following the trail of money provided by terrorist financiers. Today’s ISR machine produces 1.3 petabytes of information a month (that is the number 13 with 14 zeros behind it).
The ISR revolution of the past decade has done much to transform the way the military conducts operations. In order to fight the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, an ISR architecture was created that encompassed space-based sensors, a myriad of manned and unmanned air and ground-based platforms, tethered and fixed intelligence collectors, individual soldiers and Marines and even sociologists and anthropologists at universities in the United States. The Air Force is on track to acquire enough Predator/Reaper and Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems (UASs) to populate 65 continuous orbits. Equipped with systems such as Gorgon Stare and soon Argus, these UASs will be able to provide wide area ISR as well as continuous tracking of multiple targets. Success in future wars will be determined not by who fires the first salvo or which side has the most soldiers but instead by a military’s ability to win the fight for information.
In view of the acknowledged importance of ISR in our current conflicts and its anticipated central role in future military operations, it is puzzling that a number of advanced and even possibly revolutionary ISR capabilities are going begging for attention. For example, the Army spent lots of money developing the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) — a fancy name for a system consisting of two tethered blimps with advanced radars capable of detecting and tracking aircraft, low-flying cruise missiles, vessels on the water and even land vehicles at ranges up to 550 kilometers. Just last week, the Army and Navy conducted a joint exercise in which JLENS targeting information was passed to a ground station simulating the Aegis Combat System which used the data to successfully launch a Standard Missile 6 against a simulated anti-ship cruise missile. The Navy desperately wants this system deployed. However the Army has refused to support its sister service. In fact, despite a Congressional appropriation for an in theater JLENS demonstration, the Army has been sitting on its hands.
Another example of great ISR capabilities going to waste is the DB-110 optical sensor system. A derivative of an even larger and more sophisticated camera that flies on the U-2, the DB-110 is probably the world’s most advanced electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) system. It provides extreme high resolution imagery at very long ranges allowing the user to distinguish between a taxi cab and a combat vehicle, a fishing trawler and a suicide speed boat and a stroller with a parasol or an insurgent with a shoulder-fired missile. Where the rules of engagement require visual confirmation of a target’s identity prior to engagement, the DB-110 allows a pilot or UAS operator to make a positive identification from a safe standoff distance. The DB-110 currently flies with a number of foreign air fleets including Egyptian, Polish, Greek and Moroccan F-16s, Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3 Orions. The Royal Air Force conducted a successful test of the DB-110 aboard one of its Predator UASs. But who isn’t using the system? The U.S. Air Force. In fact, the Air Force hasn’t even been willing to conduct a field test of the DB-110 aboard a Reaper UAS.
These are but two examples of extremely powerful ISR systems that could extend further the current U.S. advantage in exploitation of the information domain. The ability of both the JLENS and DB-110 to provide extremely long range, very accurate, real time ISR and targeting information provides an immediate counter to emerging anti-access and area denial threats. Without question, the Pentagon needs to continue to invest in systems such as Gorgon Stare and Argus. At a minimum, the Army and Air Force should be strongly encouraged to take JLENS and the DB-110 into theater for real-world testing.
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