Air Force ISR works to stay on top of evolving technologies

Lt. Gen. Larry James on the Air Force ISR's ever-evolving mission, the roles played by old and new technologies and the challenges AF ISR faces as it serves users on a rapidly changing global stage.

Lt. Gen. Larry James is the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). As the Air Force's senior intelligence officer, James is directly responsible to the director of national intelligence and the under secretary of defense for intelligence. He leads more than 20,000 ISR officers, enlisted personnel and civilians across the Air Force ISR Enterprise, including the Air Force Intelligence Analysis Agency. The Air Force ISR Agency, which includes the 480th ISR Wing, 70th ISR Wing, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, and the Air Force Technical Applications Center, also falls under James' purview.

James entered the Air Force as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1978. He earned his master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. James' career has spanned a wide variety of operations, intelligence and acquisition assignments, including space shuttle payload specialist, air staff program element monitor, chief of operations for the 14th Air Force, and director of signals intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office.

James recently discussed with Defense Systems' Contributing Editor John Edwards the Air Force ISR's ever-evolving mission, the roles played by old and new technologies, and the challenges AF ISR faces as it serves users on a rapidly changing global stage.

DS: What is Air Force ISR's core mission?

James: It's certainly a broad mission. It's really to provide ISR capabilities to support our combat and command requirements, to support Air Force requirements and to support national requirements. It really cuts across the spectrum, from the tactical to the operational to the strategic.

DS: How does the Air Force provide ISR to combatant commands?

James: There are a multitude of ways. One is our global Distributed Common Ground System, which is our system that actually takes intelligence data, whether that's from Predator or Reaper videos, or signals intelligence—whatever the particular data may be. It takes all of that in and allows the analysts to utilize that data in order to answer a question or resolve the problems that they've been given by a combatant commander.

On the air side within the Air Operations Center we have the ISR division, which works hand-in-glove with the air component to ensure that they have the data, the intelligence that they need to conduct their combat operations to support the combatant commander.

DS: How does Air Force ISR determine if there's a new technology that's worth adopting? New systems break into the market constantly. How do you analyze them?

James: There are a couple methodologies. For sensors and platforms ... a lot of that is the Air Force Research Lab, because they have a sensors directorate and they understand what the "art of impossible" is—what is out there from a technological development capability that we should be looking at and investing in. They also support us on the processing exploitation and dissemination side, where we're want to utilize commercial industry capabilities to develop tools to process video, do metadata tagging of the data, those sorts of things.

Then we've set up an S&T (science and technology) organization within Air Force A2 that also tries to be cognizant of all the S&T, R&D-related ISR development going on across the community, whether that's the intelligence community, the service labs or commercial [organizations].

DS: Which new ISR technologies are showing the most promise?

James: Well, certainly, we've put a lot of effort into sensor capabilities over the last five years. As you look at things like continuing to expand our ability to look at wide areas persistently, we continue to build on those core tier technologies. The combatant commanders want to have persistent, wide-area intelligence, so that is certainly one area that we think will continue to bear fruit.

Another area that's very powerful is the ability to fuse different sources of data. For example, we have a program called Blue Devil 1, which fuses onboard the aircraft, electro-optical, infrared intelligence and wide-area motion imagery. Commanders get a great capability when we can put all that together in near-real time. So that fusing of data is very important.

DS: Are there any older technologies being phased out or being considered for elimination?

James: For most of the things that we have, we continue to upgrade capability. For example, our RC-135 Rivet Joints signals intelligence aircraft. We're going through a major upgrade right now, we're adding wide area global SATCOM capabilities to that platform so that we can off board more data and do more data processing off of the aircraft.

We upgrade, versus just retiring. We just continue to modernize and upgrade these systems as the requirements dictate.

DS: How is Air Force ISR different today than, say, five years ago?

James: Air Force A2, which is the organization that we're in, really has fundamentally changed in that, five years ago, it was focused primarily on the intelligence piece of the organization.

Organizationally, this is now a complete package: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. You really don't want to separate all of that out. It's the platforms that produce the data, it's the data itself, it's the processing, exploitation and dissemination capabilities—all of those things have to play together. A few years ago, we really did bring all of that together under the Air Force A2, because we saw the power of bringing the platforms, the sensors, the data and the processing together under one organization.

We continue to refine that. We're now moving to a structure where we have stood up an organization that's focusing on the network and the capabilities of the network and how to network all of these things together. So we're standing up an organization that's looking at the power of the network and making sure we are focused on bringing this network of information together and all the communication pathways that we have to have for that.

We've also stood up an S&T organization that will really allow us to get our arms around all the development on S&T work that's going on and make sure that we can help sector that properly across the community.

So those are the things that ... we've done recently, but the broader moves to an integrated ISR organization has really been the major change.

DS: What is the biggest challenge currently facing Air Force ISR?

James: Well, I would really talk about three areas. One is sorting out how you move from a permissive environment of operations like Afghanistan and Iraq—from an airborne platform perspective—to a non-permissive environment, what we call an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) environment. Developing the systems, tactics, techniques and procedures, all of those things that we need to do in order to operate in that A2AD environment, that's certainly something that we're looking at and developing capabilities for.

The second area relates to that network piece, where we want to make sure we have a holistic architecture that's put together to very capably support this ISR enterprise.

And lastly is developing those processing, exploitation and dissemination tools that allow the analysts to handle all of this data. The data just continues to grow, but the number of people we have ... does not. We really have to rely on the tools and technology to manage the data, to process the data, to fuse the data, and to present the analyst with information that he can then operate on to develop his analysis and his conclusions without spending all his time just trying to manage data.

Those are the three areas that we see as key challenges as we move into the future.