The UK Royal Air Force is transforming its vision of network warfare into reality by creating the Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing

Royal Air Force Wg Cdr Steve Thornber, who leads the 150-strong Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW) at RAF Marham, sums up his service's efforts to move into the age of network warfare like this: "It is not about cutting-edge technology. It's about changing cutting-edge processes." Recent combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has led the RAF to accelerate its network warfare work after the UK government placed it at the centre of its future defence strategy. The need to ensure continued interoperability with the highly digitised US forces remains at the heart of these efforts.

Intelligence-gathering problems during the 1999 Kosovo campaign were the catalyst for a major revamp of how the RAF processes and exploits the imagery collected by its photographic reconnaissance aircraft. The service had begun during the 1990s to move from wet film to digital sensors. This dramatically increased the ease and speed at which imagery intelligence data could be downloaded from aircraft. The RAF also purchased its first high-capacity datalinks for BAC Canberra PR9s and Panavia Tornado GR4s to allow the real-time downloading of imagery from aircraft in flight over hostile territory.

It was recognised that attention needed to be put into moving imagery quickly from the aircraft to key decision-makers. In the lexicon of network-centric or network-enabled warfare, the buzzwords are closing the "sensor-to-shooter" loop or improving the "kill chain", to allow the rapid use of data from sensors to allow precision-guided weapons to be used against key targets.

To get a grip of this problem, in early 2002 the RAF began forming the TIW at RAF Marham to take control of one element of its network warfare effort. The service recognised that it needed specialised personnel and equipment were needed to guide and oversee the establishment of computer networks to enhance the kill chain, as well as to make these networks serve other intelligence objectives.

Reconnaissance in Iraq

The war that deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in March and April saw the RAF deploy 90% of the newly formed TIW and a large slice of the service's photographic reconnaissance aircraft, which collected more than 11,000 images of Iraqi targets during 274 sorties. This represented a fifth of the RAF's total sorties during the war. Tornado GR4s used the Goodrich Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado (RAPTOR), British Aerospace Harrier GR7s flew with the Joint Reconnaissance Pod (JRP) and Tornado GR4As went on Scud hunting missions with their onboard Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System sensors.

None of these aircraft were equipped with datalinks to download images in flight, but 39 (1 PRU) Squadron's Canberras made the RAF's combat debut of real-time downloading of imagery from their Rapidly Deployable Electro-Optical Sensor (RADEOS) long-range oblique camera, as part of the US-led time-sensitive targeting effort.

According to Wg Cdr Ken Smith, 39 Sqn's commander, networking of the imagery on the ground was not possible because the UK's communication system did not allow for real-time transmission due to security blocks called air gaps. These are designed to protect the integrity of computer networks.

"Our initial tasking was hunting for Iraqi Scud missiles in the western desert," says Smith. "We datalinked most of our imagery. We flew three 3h missions a day, looking at 17 areas of interest. The photo interpreters assessed the images and then they burned the images on to a CD. They were then taken by bike the 200m [660ft] to the transmission point. We also had a phone to the combined air operations centre if we found anything. The network isn't there yet," he adds.

Network bottleneck

According to Thornber, a major bottleneck in the network is caused by four legacy imagery processing and exploitation systems, which are used by analysts to turn around imagery after it is downloaded from aircraft. These can currently only deal with imagery from a single type of sensor, creating in effect four separate processing chains or distinct "stovepipes" for imagery. They are also mounted in heavy, metal cabins. Even though these cabinsprovide air conditioning in extreme climates, they are bulky, unwieldy, and difficult and expensive to move by air, leading to accusations that they result in the RAF exporting air.

The creation of the TIW represents the first steps to linking the RAF's powerful new sensors into the future intelligence networks, says Thornber. "It is a manifestation of a move away from stovepiped collection, exploitation and dissemination," he says.

As well as setting in train a series of hardware improvements to create a true network for rapidly moving imagery and intelligence, the TIW is also generating the impetus to rethink a number of doctrinal and ethical norms of how the RAF uses intelligence. The creation of the TIW was achieved by moving control of imagery analysts away from individual RAF reconnaissance squadrons and into a new centralised organisation.

The RAF is also set for more widespread installation of datalinks on its reconnaissance fleet. Trials were due to startlast month to allow the RAPTOR pod's datalink to achieve full operating capability. Each of 39 Sqn's five Canberras can already datalink their RADEOS imagery to ground stations.

This year a progressive upgrade of the RAPTOR system's datalink ground station will allow it to receive imagery from RADEOS and JRP tapes from aircraft after they land. Thornber says this will be a first for the RAF and it will allow the introduction of common software tools for use by imagery analysts, considerably increasing their flexibility.

The Iraq war gave the TIW the chance to deploy for the first time a dismountable ground station, based on commercial off-the-shelf computer hardware. The Exploitation Multi-input/output Modular Architecture can be set up anywhere with a reliable power supply and is not tied to a large cabin.

Thornber says it is the plan to eventually have an exploitation capability in a laptop computer for early entry to crisis zones. This year the TIW is also installing elements of the JRP exploitation system in Royal Navy aircraft carriers to give Joint Force Harrier squadrons a reconnaissance capability while embarked at sea.

Collective capabilities

The ultimate ambition is for collective capabilities that will allow the imagery analysts to draw on information from other sensors, such as signals intelligence, moving video and area surveillance systems. This will, for example, use software that projects the locations of hostile radar transmitters detected by signals intelligence on to the same screen as photographic imagery.

Ultimately, imagery could be re-transmitted to attack aircraft after it has been analysed on the ground. Thornber says this is a long-term project and that in the short term the RAF will have to make do with co-locating different intelligence experts to allow them to talk among themselves to maximise their individual expertise.

Virtual technology, such as internet chatrooms, may also offer collective co-operation. Air gaps and other barriers to the passage of information are also being addressed. An important part of this effort will be the use of software packages, such as the US-made Raindrop, to generate from two-dimensional imagery the geo-spatial co-ordinates needed to target the GPS-guided weapons that are increasingly becoming the smart bombs of choice.

The key to this vision is the UK's Defence Information Infrastructure, due to be fully available by 2008. To be supplied by the Atlas, Lockheed Martin or Radii consortia, this will allow the high-capacity data transfer needed for network warfare. "The tricky bit in this is the comms," says Thornber.

People power

At the heart of the TIW is a core staff of 50 analysts, mostly young corporals and sergeants, who are the wing's frontline imagery experts. The rest of the wing's personnel are logistics and planning staff.

Thornber and his team are addressing how to give imagery analysts a greater role in the kill chain. "We need to define their combat readiness and perhaps give them similar skills to forward air controllers," he says. "There are legitimacy and legality issues involved in real-time targeting."

While the hardware, software and personnel issues needed to make network warfare work are attracting a lot of attention, Thornber says it also needs senior commanders to rethink how they execute military operations.

"As war is fundamentally a human activity, gaining knowledge superiority in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] is most definitely a cerebral competition," he says. "Because ISR resolves around exchanging cognisance, any barriers cause disruption."

The TIW's evolution is proving to be incremental rather than revolutionary, largely because of the huge costs involved in fielding the supporting communication systems. Its experiences will strongly influence how the RAF integrates the area intelligence gathered by the UK's Raytheon Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar system from next year and the moving video intelligence eventually to be provided by its Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicles.

Source: Flight International