Discussions at the Recent Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group Event Show a New Approach to ISR Needed

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Late last month, I had the opportunity to join my associates and teammates from Collins Aerospace at our most recent Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event. This event is something that Collins Aerospace used to hold every other year but had to put on hold because of the COVID pandemic and its associated travel restrictions. However, we were able to bring the event back for 2022 with an incredible group of participants that represented 15 different sovereign nations and their militaries.

This event has always been an exciting one for the Collins Aerospace team, since it brings us together with the end users of our technologies and solutions, gives us a forum to talk about the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements that they have, and discuss how the realities that they’re facing in theater is shaping and evolving their ISR requirements.

In this organic, far-ranging discussion between the Collins team and our military end users, we discuss every part of the ISR mission – including mission planning, the tactics used whilst flying the mission, and the exploitation and dissemination of the intelligence that’s gathered. And the feedback and intelligence that we receive can then be used to inform the new ISR technologies and solutions that we develop for their missions.

Today, ISR missions need to be conducted via fast-moving aircraft that not only can protect themselves when attacked but can also rapidly gather intelligence and get out quickly if engaged by the enemy.

This event has always been an excellent opportunity to hear about how modern adversaries and their capabilities are putting new pressure on, and creating new requirements for, military ISR missions. And this year was no exception. With 15 different nations represented, we learned a lot about what’s actually happening on today’s battlefields, and how we can evolve existing solutions to enable mission success in this new reality.

Considering that many of the 15 nations in attendance face threats from the same, or similar adversaries, and that they often collaborate and work together, it’s not surprising that many of the new requirements that we heard from attendees were shared across the group. One of the things that we heard from practically every one of our attendees this year was an increased need for all-weather, multi-spectral, wide-area surveillance technologies, and the ability to generate intelligence from fast-moving planes.

More advanced adversaries mean more speed is needed
For the better part of the past two decades, the U.S. and its allies were fighting a war against adversaries that were not as technologically advanced or well-armed. When fighting against insurgents and terrorist cells in places like the Middle East, the air domain is relatively benign and ISR missions can be conducted without attack or interruption.

During these operations, airborne ISR could be conducted by simply parking a UAV over the battlefield, which would have the time and freedom to record ISR data with its camera. With little or no threat from the adversary, that drone could acquire a sizable amount of intelligence with even a narrow-angle turret camera.

The recent Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event brought together an incredible group of participants that represented 15 different sovereign nations and their militaries.

However, the conversations that we’ve had at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), Farnborough International Air Show, and the recent Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event all paint a different picture.

Today’s adversaries are more advanced and capable than the ones these nations were facing previously. Large, near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China have the capabilities and weapons to make every domain a warfighting domain. This means that the air domain of today and tomorrow isn’t benign – it’s an austere warfighting domain where ISR missions will be contested.

In this new reality, parking a UAV over the battlefield or the enemy position would be impossible. Today, ISR missions need to be conducted via fast-moving aircraft that not only can protect themselves when attacked but can also rapidly gather intelligence and get out quickly if engaged by the enemy. To accomplish that, aircraft need to be outfitted with ISR solutions that can capture data with incredible clarity and quality, at high altitudes. They also need solutions that can capture wide-area images without the need to linger over the battlefield.

In a very detailed user presentation, an attendee and presenter from an Eastern European NATO nation highlighted this wide-area requirement when he alluded to the ability of his air force fast jet reconnaissance to cover in an hour the same area that a turreted UAV System would require the better part of an 8-hour shift to capture. This is a capability that more advanced adversaries are making essential in theater today.

Previous demand signals for this advanced imaging technology led to Collins developing the MS-110 Multispectral Airborne Reconnaissance system. This multi-spectrum camera was designed to deploy on high-speed aircraft and can generate high-quality intelligence images for a wide area. The system recently completed its first flight test onboard an F-16 to demonstrate its readiness for aircraft integration, flight worthiness, and full-system performance.

Things can happen very quickly on the battlefield, and what was the reality an hour ago may not be the reality anymore. If ISR data is going to be relevant and useful for military decision-makers, it needs to be timely and up-to-date.

The MS-110 was well-received at the Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event because of its ability to see through obscurities, provide full-color imagery, and take a detailed image of a wide area. It was also praised for its ability to provide intelligence without entering adversary air space, reducing the risk to the aircraft and pilot.

This capability was touted by Collins Aerospace Reconnaissance Product Line Director, Lora Magliocco, during her opening remarks when she noted that her customers are, “flying long-range stand-off missions daily against highly capable actual or potential adversaries – and getting the critical information their decision makers require.”

In addition, operators need to collect data in all weather conditions, which is where the TacSAR system comes in. In bad weather, Collins supplements the MS-110 multispectral sensor with a long-range high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Flying both the MS-110 and TacSAR means enemies can no longer use bad weather to hide their movements.

But there is more to ISR than simply generating data. That data needs to be rapidly analyzed for actionable intelligence if it’s going to be useful for the military, which was another area of the ISR mission that was a topic of discussion at the Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event.

Real-time intelligence is the more useful intelligence
Things can happen very quickly on the battlefield, and what was the reality an hour ago may not be the reality anymore. If ISR data is going to be relevant and useful for military decision-makers, it needs to be timely and up-to-date. Considering how quickly things can change, that means that it really needs to be aggregated and analyzed in real-time.

Today, high-quality, multi-spectral imagery needs to be generated and delivered while the mission is still ongoing. That data then needs to be analyzed and actionable insights need to be harvested as quickly as possible.

As retired RAF AVM, Gary Waterfall, noted in his Key Note address when recounting his own experiences commanding ISR forces during the Libya operation, “…[there is a] need for rapid data fusion to make a decisive difference on the battlefield and prevent the loss of life. The information flow across the ISR enterprise and the relative impotence of [our] systems could not keep up with the pace required.”

Traditional ISR systems involved black-and-white images being captured on film which would then be developed and analyzed when the mission was complete, and the aircraft returned to base. That is clearly unacceptable today considering the shift in military requirements.

Today, high-quality, multi-spectral imagery needs to be generated and delivered while the mission is still ongoing. That data then needs to be analyzed and actionable insights need to be harvested as quickly as possible. Those insights then need to be shared with those that need them immediately so that action can be taken as quickly as possible.

For this to be possible, ISR systems need to be in place that can generate intelligence imagery in all weather and even when the target is obscured. Those sensors then need a high-bandwidth data link that can transmit high-quality imagery back to the ground where it can be aggregated, analyzed, shared, and dissected for actionable insights. But even this can be a slower process than necessary when lives are on the line.

A hot topic at the Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event was leveraging advances in the automation of the PED Cycle and advanced analytics systems to further expedite the process. Systems, such as the SCi-Toolset from Collins Aerospace, can accomplish just that.

Leveraging ATC, the system can immediately identify if the intelligence gathered accomplishes the established mission. If not, the system determines if it is possible to leverage other sensors or aircraft in the vicinity to generate the needed intelligence imagery. That imagery can then be transmitted back to the ground where ATC analyzes it for red flags and alerts the individuals that need to know about them.

For example, if an ISR mission generated imagery of a potential missile launch, the ATC could identify it and alert multi-domain anti-missile weapons systems to negate the threat.

For the better part of the past two decades, the U.S. and its allies were fighting a war against adversaries that were not as technologically advanced…During these operations, airborne ISR could be conducted by simply parking a UAV over the battlefield, which would have the time and freedom to record ISR data with its camera.

Addressing this particular need for automation of analysis, Lora Magliocco noted that a recurring theme she is seeing across the ISR community is that there is often too much data – from a variety of sensors – and information overload can only be addressed via an ATC set of analysis tools.

The modern, advanced adversary facing the U.S. military and its coalition allies requires a shift in how the military approaches ISR. The ongoing war in Ukraine has proven how essential and important timely and accurate intelligence is for a successful military operation, but generating that intelligence imagery effectively necessitates new technologies.

The Collins team designed and developed tools such as the MS-110 Multispectral Airborne Reconnaissance system, along with TacSAR and the SCi-Toolset with this new reality in mind. And our experience and conversations at the Airborne Reconnaissance Operators’ Group event validated the need for these new technologies around the globe.