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Empire Challenge

Forging joint and allied ISR interoperability

One of the challenges with the ongoing proliferation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities across joint service and coalition military forces involves the integration and compatibility of that data to support operations in a complex environment.

The foundation for a formalized program to address those myriad challenges began to be built in the late 1990s, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) began working with the Common Imagery Ground/Surface System (CIGSS), Distributed Common Ground/Surface System (DCGS), Joint Interoperability Test Command (JITC), and United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) in an effort to provide core imagery exploitation processing, storage, exploitation components, and functions for integration within the CIGSS and DCGS elements.

In 2004, those activities were expanded into “Empire Challenge.” The multi-year effort, led by NGA in coordination with coalition partner representatives, had the initial aim of improving coalition interoperability within the imagery intelligence architecture. Those first events were held at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif.

Empire Challenge 2010 (EC10) marked the seventh iteration of the annual series. With demonstration lead having shifted to USJFCOM, the 2010 event shifted venues to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where the focus was expanded to address near-term capabilities that meet warfighter challenges – as identified by combatant commanders, national agencies, and coalition partners – that could be rapidly delivered to warfighters in Afghanistan.

A USJFCOM contractor uses the Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance System – Combined (BETSS-C) to look for suspicious activity on the range during Empire Challenge 10. USJFCOM photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine

“Empire Challenge is an ISR interoperability demonstration that is sponsored by – which means funded in part by – the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence,” explained USAF Col. George “Skip” Krakie, who directed EC10. “It’s also funded by Joint Forces Command and all of our participants. Joint Forces Command executes the event on their behalf, so they tell us what their objectives are and then they leave it to us to put those objectives together into a coherent event that we then execute.

“I want to explain what we mean by ‘ISR interoperability demonstration,’” he continued. “We are not an exercise. We are not an experiment. We are not a training event. We take relatively mature ISR capabilities – sensors, software, exploitation tools, all those things that take intelligence collection – and get it to the warfighters that are either in the war now in Afghanistan or Iraq, or on their way.”

Noting the presence of different service systems operating either on site or connected remotely, he said, “We make sure that what they are doing with their systems means that they can still ‘talk’ to the other service systems, and then beyond that they can talk to our multinational partners.”

In addition to direct visits and/or participation by the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Krakie highlighted the presence of “about 12 other nations back at our headquarters at Joint Forces Command participating as well. So it is a multinational event. It is also a live event, where we do bring some simulations in, but we bring the live assets in as well.

“There are about 2,000 participants worldwide, operating from about 20 distributed locations around the world,” he said. “Those include North America, Europe – in The Hague and in the U.K. – and down in Australia as well.”

Examples of live assets participating in this year’s event included aerostats; E-3 NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS); Beechcraft A90 (surrogate ISR platform); Cessna 208 (surrogate ISR platform); DHC-6 Twin Otter (surrogate ISR platform); E-8 Joint Surveilance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS); EH-130C Compass Call; F-16C+ and F-16CM; P-3C; RC-135 Rivet Joint; RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial system (UAS); ScanEagle UAS; TAOS wide area persistent surveillance program (mounted on the Twin Otter); U-2 Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS) 2A; U-2 Optical Bar Camera; U-2 Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS) 2A; Valiant Angel (integration of collection sources and architecture to improve full-motion video); and unattended ground sensors (UGS) from the U.S. Army Research Lab “Family of UGS” initiative.

“We have about every ISR sensor that you could possibly imagine here in the field, working with us,” Krakie observed. “Again, we’re not ‘testing’ the sensors. In some cases we are looking at some of the newer sensors but, for the most part, we are making sure that the sensor data can come into the architecture and be passed seamlessly to whoever needs it.”

Canadian army signals operators report suspicious vehicle locations at Canadian Forward Operating Base Ypres at Empire Challenge 10 (EC10). USJFCOM photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine

Elaborating on the theme, he said, “We do assessments. In other words, it’s not a ‘science fair.’ It’s not a ‘trade show.’ They are here. They are getting assessed. And we are giving them feedback on how well they are doing in terms of warfighter utility; and how well they are doing as far as interoperability.

“The bottom line on all of that is that if it’s not something that is going to solve a problem that has been identified by the warfighter, we are not doing it in Empire Challenge,” he added. “Everything that we are doing touches on something that a warfighter – either in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even out in the Pacific because they have issues out there that they need to solve – has told us that they needed to work on.”

Reflective of the Afghan operational influence was an EC10 demonstration scenario focused on regional command levels and below. Within that framework were five Joint Capability Threads that helped to refine the demonstration objectives: DCGS [Distributed Common Ground System] Enterprise Interoperability (DCGS is the United States’ ISR architecture for exploiting intelligence collection, with each service having a DCGS element and the “enterprise” allowing the service capabilities to operate together); command and control (C2) and ISR integration to support operations in a complex environment; C2 and ISR management to achieve persistent surveillance over key terrain; ISR support to Joint Close Air Support (JCAS)/Strike to achieve combat effectiveness and minimize civilian casualties and fratricide; and information sharing to support multinational/whole-of-government interoperability.

In the case of the last capability thread, Krakie cited the example he was given where a senior commander in Afghanistan was watching video imagery coming from an AC-130 gunship.

“They were shooting at insurgents on the ground,” he explained. “And they were chasing this one insurgent into a village. And so it gets to the point where you could continue to try to get that insurgent on the ground, but risk destroying the village, or you could decide to bring in a set of persistent surveillance and just watch that area until he comes out, and then go in and get him. That falls into that area of civilian casualty avoidance and how you can use your ISR assets so that you don’t have to destroy a village to get to the guy you want to get. You can wait until he comes out. And if you can do it persistently you know he is not going to sneak out.”

Cautioning against the risks of “technology overload,” Krakie suggested that visitors focus on a few key themes evident throughout the event.

Marines from the 2nd Intelligence Battalion, Camp LeJeune, N.C., set up a routine checkpoint and use cell phone technologies to track suspicious people and vehicles at Green Devil, an area of emphasis during Empire Challenge 10 (EC10). Scientists are able to use the information to track facial, acoustic, and gait recognition to identify potential insurgent activity. The demonstration ran from July 26 to Aug. 13, 2010, with approximately 2,000 participants from the joint staff, combat support agencies, services, multinational partners, academia, and industry. Afghanistan was the focus for EC10, with Fort Huachuca, Ariz., selected as the main site because it replicates a similar environment and operating climate. USJFCOM photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine

“The first is multinational interoperability, that we can share data between our multinational partners,” he said. “And you will see that we focused on the ISR assets that provide support to forward operating bases in Afghanistan or Iraq – sensors and aerostats and unattended sensors – and how those ‘talk’ to each other.

“The other thing that we work very hard on with Empire Challenge is pushing as much ISR data as we can to the warfighter at what we call ‘the tactical edge,’” he added. “That’s the guy who is walking around with a rucksack or driving around in a Humvee who may only have a radio or some sort of hand-held device – if he’s lucky he has a laptop computer. How do we get data to him to help him carry out his mission?

“So as you look at all of the technology that we have out here, keep thinking in the background: That’s great, but what we are really doing is making sure that everyone can share that data and then making sure that it is getting to the guy who needs it the most,” he said.

He continued, “In addition, the guy who is out at that tactical edge also is also collecting a lot of really interesting and important data. And we are working on pushing that back up the chain of command so that the brigade commander has better intelligence about what is going on. He is not just getting information from an unmanned airborne sensor like ScanEagle, but he is also getting information from a warfighter on the ground who may be talking to someone or taking a picture with his hand-held. All of that comes together and is fused to give a better picture of the environment.”

Several excellent examples of achieving the demonstration goals were evident at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ypres, which had been established by Canadian Forces on Fort Huachuca’s east range. Highlighting a sensor integration capability named LONGHOUSE, FOB Ypres fielded a Persistent Surveillance Suite (PSS), including an aerostat with EO/IR cameras and a tower with EO/IR camera and Man-portable Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar (MSTAR); an Acoustic Weapons Locating System; a Coyote reconnaissance vehicle sensor suite; and a self-healing network of unattended ground sensors and electronic warfare sensors.

Canadian Cpl. Paul Keller scans routes to clear them of all suscpicious activity for an incoming convoy at Canadian Forward Operating Base Ypres at Empire Challenge 10. USJFCOM photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine

“We have the same problems as many nations,” observed Canadian Maj. George Johnston, commander of FOB Ypres during Empire Challenge. “We have a lot of ISR capabilities but they weren’t all tied together. So what we did in Canada was join an organization called MAJIIC [Multisensor Aerospace-Ground Joint Interoperability ISR Coalition]. The United States is a member as well. And what MAJIIC does is set standards for filming video, doing still imagery, using radars, and storing that information. It’s a very good system. We’ve been a member of it for 10 years, just as long as the U.S. has, and out here we’ve been sharing a lot of information that way.”

In addition to feeding data collected and products produced at FOB Ypres into a coalition-shared database, other significant accomplishments of Canadian participation in Empire Challenge 2010 included the successful integration to project Canadian “blue force” friendly icons onto cockpit screens in F-16s flying close support missions, a critical capability to minimize future fratricide risks.

Noting that the U.K. FOB had left Empire Challenge early on a direct flight to Afghanistan, Krakie said, “They delayed sending that equipment to Afghanistan to come to Empire Challenge. But as soon as they met their objectives we had to let them go.”

The critical U.K. objectives reportedly included the integration of ISR data from the U.S. aerostat-based Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS) with the U.K. CORTEZ ISR system.

“My counterpart [from the U.K.] who was here, every night was on the phone to Afghanistan, explaining to them what they were doing here. And they were fixing things in real time in Afghanistan. So they got the technical piece fixed. They wrote the tactics and Conops [concept of operations] on how to use it and they also built some other things. In one case they had their command center at one location and the PGSS command center at another location. When they started at the beginning of the week they were having to run back and forth to tell the operator how to move the sensor. But by the end of the week they had ‘chat’ connectivity to him. Now I know that sounds like a minor thing if they were just a couple of feet apart, but when they are across a FOB you really need to have that electronic capability to chat and pass information,” he said.

Krakie added that the NATO AWACS participation in Empire Challenge included a desire to control the ScanEagle UAS.

“They came in and we were able to do that,” he said. “We passed control of a ScanEagle to an operator who was on the NATO AWACS. They ‘saw’ the feeds coming off of the ScanEagle on the AWACS. So we completed their objective as well.”

Reflective of ScanEagle’s growing fielding on U.S. Navy shipping, subsequent discussions with NATO AWACS representatives indicated that achieving the objective could have great applicability in future antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

Canadian army personnel launch their aerostat at Canadian Forward Operating Base Ypres at EC10. USJFCOM photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Vanessa Valentine

Krakie continued, “The big thing for the Australians was to be able to push data so that they could ‘federate’ and do exploitation for us in Australia. That worked very well, even though our ‘comm pipes’ were ‘challenging.’ There was only so much bandwidth but we worked through it. And that’s the real world too.”

Another area of expansion from Empire Challenge 2009 – the last demonstration held at China Lake – was to increase the information on the common operational picture available to Marines and soldiers operating on and near the tactical edge.

“So when they are looking at a Rover and watching video from a Predator [UAS] or a ScanEagle [UAS], they can also look at their common operational picture and see where that UAS is looking on the ground,” Krakie said. “They can’t do that now. But we showed them how they could do it with something called FBCB2 [Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below], which is their common operational picture program of record.”

The new UAS “directional view” capability reportedly involves tweaking a “minefield location” capability that already exists within the system.

Additional Empire Challenge 2010 activities were encompassed within “Green Devil II,” a collaborative effort between Marine Corps System Command and the Office of Naval Research to illustrate the ability to collect, fuse, transport, analyze, deliver, expose, and act upon persistent and non-persistent multi-INT sensor data. The initiative comprises all elements and processes needed to get the data from the sensor to the shooter.

Deliverables from EC10 include an assessment report submitted on Oct. 1, 2010, that will help to accelerate the planning processes for Empire Challenge 2011.

Looking toward next year’s event, Krakie acknowledged some overlap with the 2010 goals.

“We get very wrapped up in military-to-military and making sure that our services are talking and that we are talking to the U.K., but we also have a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to what’s going on in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have USAID out there. We have the Treasury Department. We have the State Department. So how do we share intelligence with them so they can do their jobs and benefit from the information we have?”

He continued, “I will be honest with you. The whole of government was a ‘stretch goal’ for us. We did not do enough on that this year. So that will be a major push next year, in EC11, to work whole of government. And also, going beyond the government side, how do you share with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]? If you have information that they need so that they can go into an area and safely work to carry out their missions, how do you do that? So we will be working that next year.

“Next year we are also going to stay focused on Afghanistan,” he concluded. “We are going to focus on that whole of government and NGO piece. We are going to continue to ‘operationalize’ wide area sensors so that we can get that to the warfighter. We want more space to play with. And we are also going to work on countering unmanned platforms as well. Right now we are mostly working on our unmanned platforms, but how do we counter ‘the bad guys’ when they use unmanned platforms?”

This article was first published in The Year in Defense, Winter 2011 Edition.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...