Special Ops leads the charge for specialized data delivery

A new generation of technology is putting more agile and capable ISR systems in the hands of special operators and those who support them in the field. That holds promise for empowering regular forces as the technology is perfected and costs come down.

Special operations, by their nature, rely heavily on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They are high risk and potentially deliver high payoffs, and they depend on well-prepared, well-informed operators who can find targets without getting entangled with larger forces, obstacles or civilian bystanders.

That mission profile puts a high demand on ISR systems. However, a new generation of technology is putting more agile and capable ISR systems into the hands of special operators and those who support them in the field. And many of those technologies will also help regular forces as they are perfected and costs diminish.

But the particular demands of special operations routinely require specialized equipment.

“Special operations are centered on high-risk and high-payoff missions that require audacity, boldness and swiftness of action,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Brian Keller, former director of intelligence for the Multinational Force Iraq and now senior ISR strategist at Science Applications International Corp. They require people who are experienced, well trained and exceedingly well prepared, he said, adding that such operations are "the surgeon's scalpel, not the chainsaw.”

Special operations also typically deploy far from an operating base, so special forces on the ground usually must carry all their equipment. The weight and size of the systems they use can directly affect their mobility. Despite those considerations, they need highly secure and covert communications and real-time situational awareness about their surroundings and their targets.

Because special operations must be fully planned before committing forces to an operation, they require highly detailed intelligence from all available channels in the mission planning phase. Once in the field, special operations teams need pervasive surveillance to alert them to changes in the situation. And they need sensors and systems that perform reconnaissance ahead of them to help point them to their targets.

That information flow is essential to the U.S. special operations' doctrine of F3EAD — find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze and disseminate. “The [ISR] problem is usually finding and fixing the enemy,” Keller said. The challenges to special operations ISR center on “getting timely, relevant and actionable information to the person at the pointy end of the spear. ISR data is only relevant if someone can use it," he said.

Keller identified four specific components of the special operations ISR challenge. To effectively find and fix targets, special operators need:

  • Access to multisource intelligence — information from all relevant sources, including agencies outside the Defense Department.
  • Information delivered in a form that allows the right leader at the right time to analyze and exploit it, while also avoiding information overload.
  • Storage and indexing of data so someone else can easily discover it when needed.
  • Communications that overcome bandwidth challenges to disseminate data.

According to DOD's Doctrine for Special Operations, a less obvious but equally important need is fused intelligence that is often more detailed than information required for conventional operations. Intelligence for special operations is often used to avoid adversary forces rather than engage them.

Dedicated ISR

Detailed intelligence is essential for thorough special operations mission planning. But continuous intelligence is required once a special operations team is in the field to help guide it to a target and evade enemy forces and other potential entanglements. “There's a need for access to signals intelligence, human intelligence, open source, imagery,” Keller said. "Taken together, they help discern patterns of life of high-value targets and their networks. Special operators require intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities that are modular and scalable — they need to know not just signals intelligence, but be able to zoom in on certain signals signatures. When you have a signature, you can track it.”

A critical part of solving the multi-intelligence problem is figuring out how to fuse data into a form that can be delivered to special operators before and during a mission. Keller said an important factor is having “technology and systems across air, land, sea and space systems. We can integrate them, and can prepare reconnaissance payloads to optimize them for [special operations] missions. But just as important are the ground control and operations centers, and their exploitation systems and tools. All those things together make a single entity that is larger than the sum of its parts.”

One way to give special operators better multisensor intelligence is to give them ISR systems that can carry multiple payloads and help fuse data from different sources. An example of such a system now entering the Special Operations Command's (SOCOM) inventory is L-3 Unmanned Systems' Viking 400, an unmanned aerial system acquired through SOCOM's Expeditionary Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) program.

“It's actually a great fit for what SOCOM tries to do,” said Todd Gautier, president of L-3's Precision Engagement Group. “It's a capability class above the [AAI Corp RQ-7] Shadow and the [General Atomics MQ-1] Predator, and it was designed to work in an austere environment.”

The Viking 400 is designed for close-in ISR support because it has a range of 75 nautical miles and needs to be in line of sight of a vehicle-based ground control station. It has a 100-pound payload capacity and can carry multiple payloads — meaning more sensors in the air to deliver intelligence — for eight to 12 hours at a time. “It can carry more stuff for a longer period of time,” Gautier said.

The Viking can carry electro-optical/infrared sensors, light detection and ranging (lidar), signals intelligence, electronics intelligence, and chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear sensors in various combinations, providing a multi-intelligence capability directly to special operators in the field. “We're not limited to the smaller [sensor] turrets,” Gautier said. “We can carry larger payload systems which are going to give you greater standoff range.”

Another feature of the Viking 400's Expeditionary UAS configuration is its support for L-3's Video Scout. The laptop-sized system allows units in the field to pull in video live from the Viking's sensors. “The imagery can be brought down from UAS and other capture devices,” Gautier said.

Enabling Information

Keller said the next challenge “is how do you make intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data relevant. You have to get it to the right leaders at the right time. You have to be able to exploit and analyze it.”

One example is using ISR data to enhance a special operator's situational awareness, Keller said. “How do you, say, deliver full-motion video to a special operator who's about to search a building? He needs to know what the people in the building are doing right now and where there are obstacles. The special operator also wants to know if there are any noncombatants in the area, improvised explosive devices in the area. And before all this, he's probably had a lot of information given to him about local tribal leaders.”

Some of that information arrives in real time, and some might sit on other systems. For example, provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan might collect some local information and submit it to the Army's Human Terrain System. That type of relevant information needs to be available to special operators, in addition to the real-time flow of data.

For that to happen, the information must contain proper metadata to show up in searches that special operators perform using ISR tools in the field, such as the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). “That special operations A-Team leader or intelligence sergeant only knows about that data if it's been tagged,” Keller said. “An ISR sensor that can't provide tagging is useless to sources on the ground. You need metadata tagging and discovery services.”

That relates to another challenge that Keller mentioned: properly storing and indexing ISR data. “There's a lot of stuff right now that falls on the cutting room floor because it's not tagged or stored properly,” he said. “That data is a gold mine" for intelligence analysts and special operators.

Meanwhile, the volume of that data creates challenges for storage systems. “Storage is becoming so complex that today we need to start considering things not in terms of gigabytes or terabytes but in yottabytes,” Keller said. A yottabyte is one quadrillion gigabytes of data. “That's the kind of information that we're going to need to be able to store in the next few years.”

Keller said SAIC has developed technology that “reduces latencies from collection to reporting.” It assists in the processing of sensor data, including full-motion video and lidar, and it preserves the data's temporal context, which is the information about when and where something happened.

SAIC uses what it calls Advanced Intelligence Multimedia Exploitation Suite. The suite of desktop analysis tools can help analysts at an operations center process and tag video, lidar and other wide-area persistent surveillance data. AIMES can track changes in data and generate alerts based on those changes, Keller said. The information, including streaming full-motion video, can then be pushed out through a DCGS Integration Backbone (DIB).

Data Disconnects

But although the system can provide special operators with a stream of relevant information based on geographic searches and other queries, there's one final problem to overcome: disseminating that data to them while they're operating far from a base and without connectivity.

Keller said places such as Afghanistan are a “bandwidth-challenged environment. There's the challenge of getting data the last tactical mile. You need to maximize the amount of data you can push across without losing fidelity.”

Raytheon Tactical Intelligence Systems has created software that helps bridge that last mile. Named the Tactical Handoff Using Nearest DCGS Resource (THUNDR), the software allows troops in the field to connect back to a DIB using any available bandwidth, from a backpack satellite communications terminal to an AN/PRC-117 radio, the official manpack radio of the Special Operations Command.

“We started the project three years ago just in anticipation of what special operations [units] need,” said John Bendyk, director of Raytheon's Tactical Intelligence Systems business development. “Getting [ISR] information down to them and giving them the ability to visualize that information in near-real time is a real capability gap that they had.”

THUNDR is a two-part system. On the back end, a server connects to a DIB. “Whether it's at a forward operating base or someplace else, it really doesn't matter where the DIB is,” Bendyk said. “We've given [the server] the capability to have 20 clients connecting into that DIB.”

The software client can run on a laptop or a micro PC, such as the Sony Vaio PDA. It synchronizes with the server, allowing the operator to create queries against ISR data on a DCGS. When the user disconnects from the enterprise network and deploys, the server continues to collect data based on the query.

“As long as you have connectivity,” Bendyk said, “you can get on that laptop and work it just like you can work the multifunction workstations within DCGS. You can do all your searches, all your queries, and you get your metadata back. When you disconnect and you get connectivity again…you do a batch exchange of data. All the new data that met your search criteria that was gathered is now downloaded to you, and any tactical reports you made and registered on your Vaio, your laptop, whatever you're using, gets uploaded back to the DIB so everyone has visibility of that.” New data that matches existing queries generates an alert, so the special operator knows there's new significant information.

That goes both ways. The software also sends tactical reports to the DIB. And rather than just sending metadata, as most DIB-based systems do, it sends the full report to the server to cache it so that any queries by others against the DIB can be fulfilled.

Bendyk said THUNDR can also optimize image files for existing bandwidth. “It can dummy down the file sizes of imagery so you can get it over the net quickly,” he said. “And if you want a better resolution, you can send back a request for it.”

THUNDR hasn't been fielded by DOD. Raytheon has developed the system as a software product, available through the General Services Administration. “We're working with the Army and with SOCOM, trying to get them to field it,” Bendyk said.

Raytheon has also integrated THUNDR with the Raytheon Android Tactical System, a mobile device based on the Google Android operating system that can transmit ISR data to individual warfighters via a third-generation network. “Now you give your guys handheld Androids,” Bendyk said, “and those Androids can report back,” populating information into THUNDR and a DCGS.

Those and other technology innovations continue to extend the ISR reach and capabilities of special operations forces. A number of companies, including SAIC, Keller said, are working on ways to overcome the challenge of limited bandwidth availability. One of the approaches, he said, is to use “layered sensor information — not sending all the static terrain information but just the changes. There's a lot of technology today that does great change detection.”