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The Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency’s entry into the service’s top combat exercise was just a first step in the integration, with future exercises expected to test how the service can collect information in a contested environment.
Col. Mary O’Brien, commander of the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Fort Meade, Md., said the service fully integrated ISR assets into the most recent Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., as a way to provide “more realistic training for ISR analysts, more training like we fight.”
It was the first time analysts were embedded with strike teams on mission briefings. It was an effort to train analysts and pilots in modern ISR tools and techniques.
“We bring everybody together for Red Flag, so we thought we should do the same for ISR,” O’Brien said April 25 at the C4ISR Journal Conference just outside Washington, D.C.
The ISR agency had the 526th Intelligence Squadron take part in the exercise, with off-site support from the 566th Intelligence Squadron and the 70th and 480th ISR wings. The group set up the first “ISR package commander” to plan and oversee the missions, which featured airframes including the MC-12 Liberty, RQ-4 Global Hawk and footage from U-2 spy planes.
“What that does is it allows these airman to sit in the same room as the pilots who are going to go on the air-to-air sortie or the bomb-dropping sortie,” said Col. Michael L. Downs, commander of the 70the ISR Wing’s 707th ISR Group, based at Fort Meade. “And our airmen, the ISR airmen, get to see what those pilots need. You know, if they are getting ready to drop a bomb, when do they need the information about the target, and in what form?”
For three weeks, ISR analysts tested their capabilities in core Air Force missions, including close-air support, global strike and air interdiction. The exercise ran from Feb. 25 to March 15.
“We really want to get a handle on that [noncounter insurgency] training,” O’Brien said. “A lot of our ISR agents have only worked in a permissive environment, so we need to train for contested and integrated operations. It’s the only way to guarantee that those wartime capabilities will be there when you need them.”
One mission focused on providing close air support in an area with a credible anti-air threat. ISR agents worked with an MC-12 Liberty crew to provide information to joint terminal attack controllers on the ground for close air support from friendly aircraft.
“That’s one of the things that we need to figure out, how much risk would we have to take to fly airborne ISR assets,” O’Brien said.
Red Flag was just a way for ISR airmen to get a “foot in the door” of the exercise, and they worked around the original flying missions that are the focus of Red Flag exercises. But going forward, the agency wants to test its assets and abilities in contested environments and ensure that analysts can work with their equipment in missions other than the ones they currently face.
“I really want my analysts to know how to use the ISR capabilities we have already fielded and use them in a new environment,” O’Brien said. “This was really focused on ‘Are we using this to the best of our abilities?’ ”
The agency is looking at including ISR in future Red Flags and other exercises across the Air Force, O’Brien said. These exercises face an uncertain future, however, with sequestration canceling the next Red Flag-Alaska and other exercises such as the Air Mobility Rodeo.■
C4ISR Journal Editor Aram Roston contributed to this report.