There are some who hyperventilate whenever the employment of UAVs is mentioned, imagining them to be nothing more than platforms for the trigger-happy to launch missiles at Afghan wedding parties. Thus when unmanned aerial systems come to our shores or get sent to an area where kinetics do not seem to be required, the hand-waving ratchets up. This, however, is the kind of capability they can bring to humanitarian efforts: Examining the urban infrastructure and identifying passable and unpassable roads—somewhat necessary if you hope to use those roads to reach the injured and needy.
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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.” Dilbert.com / 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.
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.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that our medieval enemies in Southwest Asia are able to grab live video feeds from unmanned aerial systems operating over Southwest Asia, using a cheap and readily available software package.
“Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations.
Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.
…Last December, U.S. military personnel in Iraq discovered copies of Predator drone feeds on a laptop belonging to a Shiite militant, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter. “There was evidence this was not a one-time deal,” this person said. The U.S. accuses Iran of providing weapons, money and training to Shiite fighters in Iraq, a charge that Tehran has long denied.
…The difficulty, officials said, is that adding encryption to a network that is more than a decade old involves more than placing a new piece of equipment on individual drones. Instead, many components of the network linking the drones to their operators in the U.S., Afghanistan or Pakistan have to be upgraded to handle the changes.
— Gorman, Siobhan, Yochi J. Dreazen and August Cole. “Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones.” Wall Street Journal, 18 December 2009.
If you are wondering how in the world this is possible, it is because the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers use unencrypted civil, not military, SATCOM links. Earlier this year, when SecDef Gates and his acquisition czar John Young were busy putting the boots to the AF for failing to have 31 UAS CAPs over Iraq and Afghanistan, they were also busy killing funding for next-generation SATCOM upgrades, such as the Transformational Satellite (TSAT).
You see, USAF does not have the SATCOM bandwidth to host the UAS data feeds in-house, and it won’t until it has a full WGS (Wideband Global SATCOM) constellation on orbit.
The Predator and Reaper rely on commercial, unencrypted links, which could potentially be intercepted by someone. Much of the UAS control is also done on Ku frequency bands, a frequency intended for satellite control, not air-to-ground communications. As a result, UAS control is a low priority—and the Air Force risks not having assured access.
To overcome these problems, the Air Force recognizes that the future Wideband Global SATCOM satellite or similar technologies can provide the secure communication links. In addition, the service is looking at potential surrogate satellite networks using high-altitude aircraft, such as lighter-than-air vehicles, to provide a data link network node.
— Isherwood, Michael W. “Roadmap for Robotics.” Air Force magazine, December 2009, p. 34.
The question I asked (back in April 2009) was “will it still make sense to flood the sky with an ever-increasing number of UCAVs if your ability to see their output is constrained by your network?” Well, we now know that DoD’s solution to the constrained milcom network was to use civil assets instead. And as we are finding out now, there is a cost to that.
(Hat tip to Neptunus Lex for spotting the story.)
The 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, has been rotating its men, women and aircraft through the Persian Gulf since August 9th, 1990. The wing has had people and assets deployed for a staggering seven thousand consecutive days.
“No other (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform can make that claim,” said Capt. Dennis Knight, the 55th Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge deployed here from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. The 55th AMU Airmen are responsible for servicing the aircraft while deployed.
“We specifically are listening to what is happening in the battlefield environment,” said Lt. Col. Richard Linehan, the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander who is responsible for the oversight of RC-135 operations. The information gathered by the RC-135 is combined with the visual intelligence collected by other platforms to provide the full spectrum of the situation on the ground.
RC-135s were first deployed Aug. 9, 1990, to take part in Operation Desert Storm and have since played a role in every CENTCOM operation. Colonel Linehan has worked with RC-135s his entire 18-year career and first deployed with them in 1994. He’s no stranger to milestones. In 1995, as a young co-pilot, he participated in the 1,000th RC-135 sortie in the AOR.
…Colonel Linehan noted some changes of his own, mainly in the length of deployments. He said that in the past personnel would deploy here for 60 or 90 days. The group of Airmen here now is the first to be deployed for 120 days. He added that he is just the second 763rd ERS commander to be deployed for a full year.
“That is a big change in terms of the continuity that we can provide to the squadron,” he said.
— Dobrydney, David (A1C, USAF). “Unit surpasses consecutive 7,000 days with forces in Southwest Asia.” 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs, 8 October 2009.
The RC-135s being employed achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in January of 1964; the youngest of the aircraft was built in 1964, the oldest in 1962. The United States Air Force has seventeen of the V/W models in its active inventory. They have a crew of four (or five for longer missions), and carry fourteen intelligence operators and four maintenance personnel. They have received a series of upgrades over their lifetime, keeping their avionics and comm gear up-to-date, and the fleet has also recently been re-engined with newer General Electric CFM-56 high-bypass turbofans. The Rivet Joint aircraft are among the most critical of low-density, high-demand ISR aircraft.
Canadian readers are invited to contemplate the state of our nineteen ancient CC-130Es (built in 1967-8), which comprise two-thirds of our CC-130 tactical airlift fleet, and many of which operate under mission-crippling flight restrictions due to airframe fatigue. Also worth remembering is the CF’s requirement for yet another operational pause in 2011, having burned itself out six years after the last one. For Canada, half a decade deployed strains the hell out of our resources and personnel; for the United States, two decades deployed is another day at the office.
The Iron Pumpkin is the title of an 8mm home movie produced, directed and edited by Capt. Robert L. “Viper” Brown of Team-2, Rivet Ball. The Rivet Brass, Rivet Amber (“Lisa Ann”) and Rivet Ball (“Wanda Belle”) RC-135 aircraft were some of the forerunners of today’s RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft. Capt. Brown’s wife, Cathy, gave him a Minolta K-11, Super-8mm camera for Christmas in 1968. He spent the next year filming remote Shemya AFB, his fellow crewmembers, and the Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber aircraft. Part 1 depicts Rivet Ball departing Shemya with Team-2 aboard; Part 2 shows the remains of Rivet ball after its ill-fated landing on 13 January 1969, when she hydroplaned off the end of Rwy 28 at Shemya (with no loss of life, fortunately).
The confirmation came Friday from Michael Kostelnik, the assistant commissioner of the Office of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine, during the dedication of a new customs air and marine base at Selfridge Air National Guard base north of Detroit.
“Will they be here at some point? I certainly hope so but it won’t be today, it won’t be this year,” said Kostelnik at the ceremony attended by about 200 dignitaries from various branches of the American military and political spheres and some Canadian representatives.
“It will be after we prove that we can operate safely in areas on the northern tier.”
Kostelnik said that within weeks drones, known as the MQ-9 Predator B, will begin flights out of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine base in Grand Forks, N.D.
Kostelnik said the first drones will be flying in the sparsely populated region on the western border before it is introduced in more built-up areas.
“We have a lot of air lanes, we have a lot of traffic, we have a lot more people in the Metro-Great Lakes area than there would be out west, so it’s prudent to take a measured approach to this but at the end of the day, flying late at night, over the Great Lakes, a system like this would be of tremendous benefit working with small boat traffic, augmenting the U.S. Coast Guard,” said Kostelnik.
“It helps to add security, it adds tremendous humanitarian support, they can do a lot of things that the manned things just cannot do.”
— Chris Thompson, “Drone airplanes might patrol Detroit River“. Windsor Star, August 8th, 2008.
The reaction from Canadian commenters to the article is typically myopic and ignorant; as if a UAV has no other purpose in life than to drop laser-guided bombs on Taliban caves.
Let’s not think about the lives that may be saved because a UAV can be on SAR patrol 24 hours a day, looking for errant boaters and pilots. Let’s further not think about the law enforcement benefits that might accrue from being able to spot say, all manner of illicit cross-border activity. Let us further ignore the fact that countries such as Australia and India have seen fit to deploy UAVs in a border surveillance role, and that Canada has considered using them for coastal and arctic patrol as well.
No, clearly this is all wrong-headed and stupid, and we should all laugh at America because UAVs have only one mission (that’s bomb-dropping) and there’s nobody to bomb in North America. Ha ha ha!