ISIS doesn’t have an Air Force, but the Syrian skies are nevertheless a rapidly evolving “laboratory” for air warfare, said U.S. military leaders, who described how the U.S. is fusing cyber attacks with real bombs and using open-source intelligence to find and strike targets.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who leads U.S. Air Forces Central Command, described a “dynamic targeting tool” that lets analysts and airmen at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar send the latest targeting information to airborne pilots and ground-based commanders alike. “The tool pulls together everything from the intelligence background to show me all the data on that target. Where did that target generate, how many times have we looked at it? And how do we communicate that, ultimately.”
As described, the targeting tool — now in its third iteration — sounds a bit like the original vision for the infamous Distributed Common Ground System, but without going billions over budget and without crapping out at the worst possible time.
“You’ve got to get [real time data for targeting] into a format so that the commander, or whoever is making the decision on that specific target, has all the data fused and is ready to make a decision. That is what this provides. If we are going to stay in front of the enemy these are the types of tools that will be very helpful…particularly in a very dynamic situation,” Harrigian said at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Maryland.
Developed with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the targeting tool replaces “a bunch of different applications,” from publicly available (but modified) apps like Google Earth to more exotic ones. Crucially, it runs on a single computer, replacing apps that ran on several physically separate PCs. Analysts and airmen “basically had to go air-gapping from one system to another. You can imagine the amount of risk we were buying with respect to coordinates being passed, elevations, that sort of thing, that are critical to executing the actual execution of a target” said Harrigian.
A much more agile data targeting system is essential as the Air Force incorporates a greater variety of data into targeting and mixes live fire with cyber operations. “One of the things we’ve talked about — we have to accept it’s out there now — is how do you use that publicly available information” for targeting and operations in real time, said Harrigian. “I can tell you inside the [combined air operations center,] we are being very aggressive about monitoring what’s happening in social media and then leveraging that from a reporting perspective or do some analysis about what’s going on with the enemy.”
What does that look like? The Air Force first began talking about their push to incorporate social media analysis into targeting in 2015 when Air Combat Command’s Gen. Hawk Carlisle described how analysts fighting ISIS were “combing through social media and they see some moron standing at this [ISIS weapons depot]… So they do some work — long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three JDAMs take that entire building out.”
Last week, Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, described what that looks like in 2017. Speaking at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in downtown Washington, D.C., Votel described a highly co-ordinated strike that involved several government agencies and international military partners, who shut down ISIS communications with a cyber offensive, then dropped real bombs to add, in military-speak, “lethal effects.”
“We had a recent success in coordinating the lethal effects of our special operations and air components with highly targeted and effective cyber operations,” Votel said. “This model for success is being replicated for planning in future operations and will be used to maintain pressure on these enemy networks, be they located in Iraq, or Syria, or on servers around the world. With time and effort, we hope to expand the duration of impacts on adversarial capabilities.”
The Phone Where the United States Calls the Russians
Technology aside, the air mission over Syria is also growing increasingly complicated as Russian and Syrian forces converge on ISIS’s remaining strongholds. Over the weekend, a Russian fighter targeted a group of Syrian Defense Forces working from the same base as U.S. advisors. The strike prompted an urgent phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In Syria itself, a single telephone — the “deconfliction line” — remains the main tool for averting catastrophic collisions with Russian forces On Monday, Harrigian gave a rare glimpse into life next to Putin’s army, which gets better or worse depending on whether the Russians are replacing seasoned troops with newbies.
“What I would tell you is as [the Russians] rotate in forces, there is typically a change in behavior. That’s something that we are keen to, now,” he said. “Oftentimes, when some of the inappropriate behavior occurs, we will get on the hotline immediately…Our airmen are the unsung heroes, interpreting and translating for us. They give us incredible context to what the Russians are trying to do. We get these young airmen, bring them in, they’ve never been in a [combat area] in their life, but they perform just superbly. They play a key role in making sure that we can manage what has often been a tenuous relationship with the Russians.”
It goes to show, all the technology in the world sometimes can’t substitute for a good phone call.