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New system pushes intel to cockpits

Mar. 21, 2013 - 08:50AM   |  
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U.S. spy satellites circle the globe constantly, pinpointing tanks, radar stations and troops on the move. But the most recent images don’t reach the people who need it urgently: U.S. pilots flying in combat zones.

The Air Force is trying to change that with the Joint Integration of Nationally Derived Information. JINDI shows pilots the location of surface-to-air missile sites and other nearby targets or hazards by sending easy-to-read graphics to the computer screens in their cockpits. The goal is to “push information out as quickly as possible,” said Brian Zurovetz, deputy chief for capability modernization at the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency.

JINDI is not a new idea. Military commanders started the program in 2007 to test ways to connect the U.S. government centers, where intelligence analysts decipher spy satellite images, with front-line troops. Tests in the Pacific region in late 2007 and early 2008 showed analysts could send information to pilots within minutes. The program stalled, however, because of a lack of funding and high-level support.

Five years later, JINDI is finally up and running. Maj. Gen. Robert Otto, commander of the Air Force ISR Agency, approved plans in November to enable the first U.S. intelligence site to support JINDI. Air Force officials declined to give the name or location of that site but said it’s in the continental United States. More U.S. intelligence centers are expected to support JINDI this year.

JINDI sends information on threats and possible targets through Link 16, a high-speed data network U.S. and NATO forces rely on for text, voice and images. Before JINDI transmits information on a newly identified radar station, for example, analysts confirm the location with images drawn from aircraft or other satellites. Analysts also try to make sure pilots receive essential information but aren’t bombarded with confusing graphics, said Zurovetz, a former Air Force pilot who flew reconnaissance missions in RC-135s.

Since the 1980s, military leaders have said combat troops need speedy access to information that intelligence agencies collect. Usually, data drawn from National Reconnaissance Agency satellites get passed from organizations such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to commanders before they reach pilots. JINDI makes a direct connection.

While the initial program has been focused on helping Air Force pilots in Afghanistan, “this can be a joint capability,” Zurovetz said.

Air Force leaders are talking to the Army, Navy and Marines about linking ships, tanks and Patriot missile batteries to JINDI.

“The JINDI program could add significant operational capability to Air Force, Navy and Marine aviation,” Otto said by email. “Its contribution and value increases in contested and highly contested environments.”

To expand JINDI, Air Force officials will need funding for equipment, staff and training at each intelligence center.

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