The Future was 20 Years Ago

Majors Beth Jones (left) and Kevin Parrish, pilots with the 7th Expeditionary Air Combat and Control Squadron Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) crew members, prepare to take-off on a mission over Iraq on Sept. 1. This flight marks the 116th Air Control Wing’s Joint STARS 40,000 combat hours supporting the Global War on Terror. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon II)

Dilbert author Scott Adams ponders how future iterations of unmanned aerial systems will make COIN warfare more dangerous for the insurgents.

I think the next big leap in drone technology will be artificial intelligence for locating targets. Humans would still have to make firing decisions, but I can imagine drones finding suspicious patterns of movement on their own and alerting humans. For example, any vehicle that stops at night on a road used by U.S. ground forces might be suspected of planting an IED. A human could decide if the suspect was up to no good.

There are probably a number of movement patterns followed by insurgents and terrorists. Maybe drones could learn to detect children in any outdoor group, based on their relative size, and assume such a group is not looking for a fight. Perhaps combatants follow routes less travelled by enemy ground forces, or travel only at night, or have more metal objects with them. The point is that drones will someday do a good job of identifying suspected bad guys automatically.

— Adams, Scott.  “Drone War.” / Scott Adams Blog, 17 December 2009.

It’s not uncommon for tech-loving geeks to get hung up on the hardware or software, assuming that is what will drive the innovation.  What Mr. Adams does not realise is that the technology he is describing exists today—and has existed for about twenty years—albeit not aboard an unmanned platform.

The capability was designed back in 1985, to track the movement of Warsaw Pact armour and troop formations in the event of an invasion.  It is known as Ground Target Motion Indicator (GTMI), and it flies aboard the E-8 Joint STARS.  A single E-8 can monitor up to 600 targets at ranges up to 250 kilometres; Predators and Reapers must be much, much closer than that, and can only track a fraction as many targets simultaneously.

Two prototype E-8s earned high marks from AFCENT during the 1991 Gulf War.  In that conflict they were used to detect and track Scud launchers, convoys, vehicle marshalling areas, routes of retreat and so on.  They also contributed in a similar capacity for NATO missions in the Balkans, including 1999’s Operation Allied Force.

In 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, the E-8s were initially typecast as an armoured unit tracker once again, but they have since developed new roles in our ongoing COIN conflicts.

Typical data includes distance and heading, plus a depiction of the size of a column. Analysts on the aircraft can also give a strong characterization of what they believe the vehicles may be. It’s not positive identification, but over time, analysts grow skilled in judging whether a trail of dots are people or different types of vehicles

…Buried in the billions of pixels of data are complete information sets on movement in the battlespace. With its unique wide area coverage, the Joint STARS radar archives weeks of enemy activity.

Jewels of data jump out from the wide area scans. Properly refined, the data creates a revealing picture of enemy movement around known locations and uncovers new sites through monitoring unexpected volume of traffic. Dots that pop up out of nowhere can tip off analysts to new insurgent routes, tactics, and hideouts. It is battlespace preparation—in reverse.

Pattern analysis was first used like crime-scene forensics. Analysts can call up old moving target indicator data and focus on the site of an improvised explosive device attack or the compound of a suspected terrorist. If analysts know where to look, Joint STARS can fill them in on the patterns of movement over the time preceding an attack. By comparing tracks day after day, enemy routines come into focus.

Joint STARS coverage is so wide that as long as the aircraft’s orbit was in the right country, the old logs would reveal practically all the movement to and from a site.

— Grant, Rebecca.  “JSTARS Wars.”  Air Force magazine, November 2009.

Two years ago, the Air Force started reviewing and analysing the JSTARS tapes nightly, to aid ground forces in planning their operations the following day.  That effort has paid dividends and continues today.

Next up are refinements to the radar and software which will—eventually—permit JSTARS sensors to reliably resolve individuals and waterborne targets.

Recent tests conducted on dismounted targets—people—suggest that Joint STARS moving target indicator may be reaching a new level of refinement. It may be possible in the future to characterize the moving target indicator “dots” as sheep, people, cars, trucks, or other types of targets. With upgrades, “I think they can get it down to actually being able to track a relatively heavily laden human,” said Grabowski.

— Grant, Rebecca.  “JSTARS Wars.”  Air Force magazine, November 2009.

1st Lt. Nathan Sukolsky, 7th Expeditionary Air Combat and Control Squadron Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) air weapons officer, tracks suspected movements on radar during a mission over Iraq on Sept. 1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon II)

UPDATE: This is one of the modern C4ISR systems that are indispensable to modern warfighters, but tend not to be reflected in Hollywood’s depictions of contemporary or future warfare.  I am betting that no wide area GMTI makes an appearance in Avatar, for example.

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