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The Ultimate Sensor

Dec 2, 2017
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This item, from last Friday’s on-line edition of Air Force Times, certainly caught my attention, because it highlights one of the key issues facing our military. Six years into the Global War on Terror, should the Pentagon continue its emphasis on gold-plated weapons systems, or begin migrating toward tools that might be more useful in the fight, namely advanced sensors.

In a speech last week at Offut AFB in Omaha, Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula came down squarely in the sensors camped. Speaking to the annual ISR Symposium sponsored by Offut’s 55th Wing (which operates the Air Force RC-135 fleet), General Deptula described an evolving enemy, and the challenges associated with that threat:

“The enemy is evolving and adapting, and is highly malleable, like a liquid that gravitates toward our weakest points and defies our efforts to hold it in our grasp. Infesting urban areas and hiding among the civilian population, just finding the enemy has become our greatest challenge.”


Deptula said the Cold War left the U.S. with a “shooter-heavy footprint,” that is no longer applicable to today’s fight. What’s needed now, he said, is an investment that makes ISR platforms and programs the centerpiece of the “global war on terror.”

“Today’s enemy is not massing on the other side of the Fulda Gap,” he said. “One of their primary goals is to deny us a target and negate our firepower advantage, so ISR now makes up the majority of our current operations.”

General Deptula currently serves as the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), so he definitely has a dog in the fight. A massive investment in advanced sensors would clearly benefit the service’s ISR community, which is pressing–with the Air Force’s blessing–for control of all medium and high-altitude UAVs in the DoD arsenal. Since many of these sensors would be mounted on those same UAVs (or Air Force controlled satellites), the proposed “sensor revolution” would give the service a tremendous leg up in control of ISR systems–and the intelligence information they provide.

But Deptula’s remarks are also telling because the general is not a career intelligence officer. He spend most of his career flying F-15s and first gained fame as director of the “Black Hole” targeting cell in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. In that position, Deputla played a major role in developing the air campaign that routed Saddam Hussein’s forces. It was the ultimate application of shooter-heavy systems on the battlefield, an era that, according to General Deptula, has now passed.

However, it should come as no surprise that Lieutenant General Deptula does manage to find room for one advanced “shooter” his proposed quiver of sensors and ISR systems. He said the F-22 Raptor and other fifth-generation fighters “are still needed” because their capabilities run the gamut of Air Force ISR, precision strike and electronic warfare missions. He also suggested the need to discard the idea that such aircraft are merely air-to-air combat platforms (yes, those words came out of the mouth of an F-15 pilot). “It’s not just an F,” he said. “It’s also an F/A, an EA, an AC, RC and a G.”

General Deptula also said that the service needs to capitalize on the ISR investment that’s already been made. He noted that “non-traditional” ISR assets like targeting pods are not being sufficiently exploited, denying potential information to the warfighter. He added that the top priority should be to “eliminate” ISR as a low-density, high-demand asset, fielding adequate numbers of sensors, platforms, support systems and personnel to meet operational requirements.

As a former member of the Air Force ISR community, there’s a natural tendency to jump up and offer an “Amen” to those comments. If ISR is the centerpiece of modern warfighting, then we need to make the necessary investment to ensure the availability of those systems. Of course, fitting them into the acquisition budget (and after that, the POM) are a completely different matter. The Air Force has a lot of big-ticket items in the pipeline and while sensors aren’t as expensive as, say, a new manned bomber, they aren’t cheap, either. Factor in the additional budgetary pressures from the War on Terror, and the fiscal picture becomes even more bleak: those new sensors should be a priority, but there’s no guarantee that the Air Force will get everything it wants–or needs.

Additionally, the pursuit of new sensor systems should come with a caveat: improvements in airborne or overhead ISR should be matched with a corresponding investment in the most important sensor of all, that pair of human eyes connected to the Mark I brain. As we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s no substitute for timely, accurate human intelligence (HUMINT) in fighting an insurgency. Indeed, many of our recent successes against terrorists have been based on information provided by local residents, through networks established (and cultivated) by intel officers on the ground. As Ralph Peters noted a few months ago, there’s been something of a revolution in HUMINT in Iraq, and we need to institutionalize that success. Otherwise, the hard lessons gained in Fallujah, Al Anbar and Sadr City will be forgotten, and we’ll be forced to relearn them again, at a cost of more blood and treasure.

General Deptula is right: fighting wars in a post-modern world will require a focus on ISR and the sensors that support it. But as the Air Force (and the other services) plan for the “next” ISR revolution, they would be well advised to incorporate the ground-based “human” sensor into their strategy. Visiting an Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) Site, you’ll find links to various platforms and sensors, scanning the battlefield around the clock. In many respects, DCGS is the hub for the ISR-centric warfare described by Lieutenant General Deptula. But the mission crew at a DCGS site doesn’t include a HUMINT officer, with experience in theater, and access to the local networks that provide such vital information. The absence of that capability needs to be corrected in order for DCGS (and Deptula’s ISR vision) to reach their potential.

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