Defense Media Network

Empire Challenge

For the past six years, the Department of Defense has conducted a series of annual events, Empire Challenge, designed to test the collection, integration and distribution of U.S. military and coalition imagery assets into operational theater-level intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to meet both present and future operational needs of the joint force.

“We’re trying to get to the very edge of the tactical edge, focusing on the commander, down to the lowest level and up to the highest, satisfying each different command level without overwhelming any.”

Empire Challenge 2009, under the leadership of the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in California’s high desert in July, also involved participants from Australia, Canada, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom at China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center. In addition, German, French and Norwegian analysts linked directly to the field site from The Hague, the Joint Intelligence Lab in Suffolk, Va., ran modeling and a simulated Brigade Combat Team and a combined air operations center-experimental at Langley Air Force Base, Va., was tied into the exercise.

Empire Challenge 2009

A member of U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Joint Battlespace Awareness/ISR Integration Capability Team sets up operations on Naval Weapons Station China Lake’s Slate range during the Empire Challenge 2009 experiment. Conducted at sites around the world, the demonstration is designed to test emerging technologies in a real-world field environment before they are fielded to the troops in combat. DoD photo by Greg Turnbaugh

The military lead was Col. George J. Krakie, JFCOM director of Intelligence Operations.

“There is such an incredible amount of data out there now, you don’t want to dump every piece of information you have on the warfighters, who then have to dig through it all to find the actual intel they need,” he said. “In a net-enabled environment, they will be able to subscribe to the basic information – geographic location, geo location plus data types, etc. – so all the information on the network can be more precisely refined for the individual warfighter’s individual needs.

“We’re trying to get to the very edge of the tactical edge, focusing on the commander, down to the lowest level and up to the highest, satisfying each different command level without overwhelming any. Some of the different things we are looking at include wireless technologies, what is available in the commercial market that can be brought to bear in the warfighting environment. But we are less about the technology and more about the data itself at Empire Challenge.”

At the warfighter level, where the lowest level of connectivity resides, each individual can set filters based on specific need parameters.

“For example, getting the right data he wants in looking for a specific type of threat he knows or suspects is out there. He also can get his next level up in the chain of command to be aware of what is in his area that he may not receive directly – but they can – so they can feed that to him, even if it is just by means of a simple radio call,” Empire Challenge project manager John I. Kittle explained.

“There is no higher priority than having groups in contact and bringing the right information to bear based on filters they have set or a specific query, so those out on the whole net-enabled environment can pull the exact type of data they need based on their query parameters.”

Accomplishing that requires bringing together the best and most diverse sensors and communications capabilities, software capable not only of data fusion and archiving but also quick and precise retrieval and ensuring everyone has the right hardware and software to take advantage of all that, in real-time and under combat conditions involving not only multiple U.S. services, but also coalition partners.

“Our primary focus is on interoperability. We realize everyone works with different types of equipment and standards and if we don’t deal with those interoperability concerns in something like Empire Challenge, when we do find ourselves working together in some kind of crisis event, we may not have a way to share data. So our goal is to make sure data can flow seamlessly in this network-enabled environment to the warfighter at the tactical edge,” Krakie said.

“We are less concerned with sensor capabilities than whether the enterprise is capable of moving that data around. The backbone is the networks – seven across four security domains – with the ability for a high-speed, high security domain to pass along chats and such. It’s easy to get fixated on the technology – and some of it is very interesting – but the important part is the data coming off the UAVs, not the UAVs themselves, and how it is being exploited by someone in the U.K., working with forces in the field.

“We also are concerned with CONOPs (concepts of operations) and TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) and the joint management side of the house, effectively distributing the data and assigning different organizations to deal with it. Every day the folks at Suffolk will put together and distribute an exploitation plan across the entire globe, so French and German exploiters at The Hague will be involved, as will UK exploiters looking at Scan Eagle (UAV) data and chatting with folks out on the range at China Lake.”

Empire Challenge then combines new technologies, capabilities and ways of doing business within military TTPs and CONOPs to find and improve ISR solutions to needs raised by warfighters on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. To that end, four capability threads, representing a set of warfighter requirements, were identified for improvement:

  1. Joint ISR Management – primarily process- and procedure-focused to obtain the maximum utility of ground stations that receive massive amounts of collected data every day
  2. ISR Strike Integration – using new capabilities and technologies to provide better and faster delivery of information to the strike warfare requirement; i.e., how to get precision coordinates to weapons or battlefield coordinators faster and directly input into the weapon itself
  3. Multi-Domain Awareness – improving capabilities in the ground and maritime domains to provide persistent surveillance over both large and very targeted areas to track high value targets in difficult environments
  4. Joint capability Threats – problems related to counter-IED and similar efforts

“We cannot possibly exploit all the data now collected and that will get worse with new sensors, platforms and collection capabilities coming on line,” Kittle concluded. “So at Empire Challenge, we try to present scenarios that are as realistic as possible to what is being seen in-theater, stressing the capabilities we are demonstrating to move toward eventual transition and employment into theater.”


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-16">
    Adam Longaker

    Information is useless if it is not communicated, and able to be used. Empire Challenge will help information be received by the appropriate personnel, and help give our warfighter the tactical advantages that they need in order to survive and effectively carry out their mission.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-17">

    Adam, I agree. In combat, the warfighter should take advantage of all available assets to eliminate the threat and obtain mission success.