In the age of network-centric warfare, almost no one fully understands new military technologies. “Network-centric” is the term academics use to describe the integration of diverse military forces in a resilient web of wireless links. It’s sort of like the Internet on steroids, with everything from timely intelligence to logistics updates continuously available to any user with the right password and hardware, regardless of where they are in the world.
Network-centrism is the most important change in military technology and culture since the nuclear revolution of the mid-20th Century, but to say it’s arcane is an understatement. Even senior policymakers don’t entirely grasp its implications. And outsiders — like legislators and journalists — often find it impenetrably complex. As a result, some of the most important breakthroughs don’t get noticed by anyone other than specialists. Here are two that occurred last year in the intelligence community. Neither has been publicly reported.
On December 15, the ground element for the Future Imagery Architecture began operations. Most people have never heard of the Future Imagery Architecture, and even among experts it is often thought of as a troubled program to produce next-generation photo-reconnaissance satellites. But that’s just part of the program. The larger effort integrates diverse imagery-collection assets (Onyx satellites, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles, etc.) in a network that quickly processes, combines and distributes imagery to users in the field.
The secret ground element is called the Mission Integration and Development program, or MIND. It uses internet-style protocols and off-the-shelf commercial hardware to create a very user-friendly intelligence system. Tactical forces can access and manipulate information as needed, and the imagery can be quickly fused with other types of intelligence to create a composite picture of the battlespace. And here’s the best part: it’s on time and on budget.
The Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is another satellite reconnaissance constellation widely perceived to be behind schedule. SBIRS will replace aging early-warning satellites with a family of six orbital sensors — four on satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two on secret eavesdropping (“sigint”) satellites that fly elliptical orbits over the poles. What few outsiders realize is that the SBIRS ground segment is already operational and providing big gains in infrared intelligence.
The ground segment fuses data from existing early-warning satellites and airborne sensors to generate a composite picture of infrared events — not just strategic missile launches, but tactical missiles, explosions and other major heat sources. Not only can a single event now be viewed from multiple perspectives, but the infrared data can be combined with other types of intelligence using secure chat links (another Internet spinoff) to generate quick, detailed characterization of the battlespace. The system proved very useful in Operation Iraqi Freedom, demonstrating that the age of network-centric warfare has already arrived.
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