Operation Reachback

April 1, 2004

On March 4, 2002, while fighting raged in eastern Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda, USAF intelligence analysts watched a battle unfold by means of imagery from an orbiting Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The airmen had critical intelligence on the locations of dug-in al Qaeda and Taliban forces but no way to relay it directly to the troops on the ground.

Seven US troops were killed in the battle of Roberts Ridge, as it is known. The inability to provide real-time intelligence provided new impetus to a developing capability called “reachback.”

Reachback refers to the ability of combat forces to receive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data directly from databases and experts located in the US. It has been developing steadily for a decade. By the time Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003, a series of technological improvements had given ISR analysts the ability to communicate with forces in the field through secure online “chat rooms.”

Deployed forces now carry laptop computers with which they can receive intelligence that Stateside analysts upload via satellite, according to Col. Larry K. Grundhauser, commander of the 480th Intelligence Wing, headquartered at Langley AFB, Va.

During OIF, intelligence units in the US sent more than 30,000 intelligence reports forward to the theater and provided data that identified more than 1,000 targets.

Brig. Gen. Kelvin R. Coppock, Air Combat Command’s intelligence director, said the reachback operations were continuous during the peak hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, no missions were lost due to ISR communications failures.

Intelligence teams in the 480th IW’s pair of distributed ground systems—DGS-1 at Langley and DGS-2 at Beale AFB, Calif.—performed the analyses. The airmen process and analyze data from Predator and Global Hawk UAVs, high-flying U-2 reconnaissance airplanes, and other ISR assets.

Until late last year, both DGS units functioned relatively independently of each other. Langley’s DGS-1 is operated by the 497th Intelligence Group; Beale’s DGS-2 is run by the 548th Intelligence Group. On Dec. 1, 2003, the Air Force officially activated the 480th Intelligence Wing, placing both the 497th IG and 548th IG and several other intelligence functions under the new wing. Additionally, the 497th and 548th intel groups each have one Air National Guard squadron: at Wichita, Kan., and Reno, Nev., respectively.

Reducing the Footprint

The wing’s DGS units were designed to be deployed into a theater of operations. Indeed, Langley’s DGS-1 was in Saudi Arabia in 1996 at the time of the Khobar Towers bombing. By 1999, however, advances in communications technology meant the Air Force could conduct these DGS operations from within the United States—minimizing the service’s forward deployed footprint.

In fact, Coppock said, the Air Force can better perform its intelligence missions by not deploying. For one reason, new technology has made the operations seamless, and, for another, the service can save money.

Air Force officials estimated USAF would have spent $6 million to $15 million to deploy the two ground stations to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and OIF in Iraq. This included force protection, supply, and transportation needs. It would take, they said, 17 C-5 airlifters to transport one station.

Today, USAF has no need to deploy most of the wing’s personnel into a theater of operations. Many airmen can remain in the US and go home at night.

Actually, officials said, going home has been one of the more difficult adjustments for the wing’s airmen. They said it can be difficult for the analysts to switch from watching a war unfold—sometimes seeing coalition forces engaged in bloody combat—to going about their domestic routine at home at the end of a shift.

Out of some 2,000 assigned airmen, only about 90 are deployed to support operations in Southwest Asia. Many of the deployed airmen are needed to staff the U-2’s line-of-sight (LOS) ground relay station, known as “Mobile Stretch.” All but three of the Air Force’s U-2 aircraft require an LOS ground station to relay electro-optical and infrared data.

The other three U-2s have been upgraded with the capability to make a direct satellite link—a capability known as the “extended tether” program (ETP). Grundhauser said the extended tether satellite link, which was recently developed as an advanced concept technology demonstration program, shows promise. It will be especially useful, he said, in areas such as the Pacific or sub-Saharan Africa regions, where ground stations are not practical.

ETP is a modular communications package mounted on top of the U-2 fuselage. It was first used in Afghanistan. Ultimately, USAF wants to upgrade all its U-2s with ETP.

Key to the Kill Chain

Such advances in ISR reachback capability enable the Air Force not only to reduce its forward deployed footprint but also to reduce the time it takes to find and destroy a target. That amounts to a compression of the “kill chain,” the series of steps taken to attack a target.

The attack timeline is shrinking, said Coppock. From the war in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq, there has been marked progress, he said, adding that compression of the kill chain revolves around ISR capability.

Two April 9, 2003, air strikes in Iraq highlight this reality.

In the first, the destruction of an enemy surface-to-air missile site began with the transmission of a Global Hawk image. Two minutes after receiving it, a US-based imagery analyst spotted the SAM. Ten minutes after that, the image was forwarded to the combined air operations center (CAOC) for targeting. Only 57 minutes after the picture was taken, B-2 stealth bombers hit the SAM site.

In the second, airpower needed even less time to destroy a pair of Iraqi tanks. A Predator searching for missile transporters instead found two tanks in a tree line. A DGS passed positive identification of the tanks to the CAOC, which, a minute later, gave the target data to aircraft already orbiting over the area. Within 17 minutes of discovery, the tanks were destroyed.

The 480th provided target information for 153 B-52 cruise missile strikes and supported numerous F-117 strikes. The time needed to get ISR data to commanders was reduced to single-digit minutes, said Grundhauser. That “doesn’t mean we dropped the bombs that fast,” he noted in an Air Force news release. “We just gave the commanders the ability to decide earlier.”

Four weeks before the start of the war, the wing’s airmen went to “combat surge” mode so they could begin target preparation missions. Among other actions, they prepared a targeting “folder” to aid the March 20 F-117 strike on a Baghdad site where Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding.

In preparation for combat operations, DGS crew members receive a mission briefing that provides the objectives and establishes a chain of command. From that point, said one official, the DGS members become a part of the CAOC. A crew will spend six to 12 hours monitoring UAV live feeds or data from other ISR sources. Members review the imagery, find their targets, and report on the targets to the CAOC.

For OIF, the unit also organized an “Iraqi Airfield Group” at Langley. Its members kept watch over seven enemy air bases, ready to alert coalition fighters to any activity spotted there.

Round-the-clock monitoring of those bases allowed the airfield group to track activity levels, including personnel movements, facility improvements, and repairs, said Col. Don Hudson, ACC’s deputy chief of intelligence. The group provided the information to CAOC planners, who then knew which airfields were operational. Those planners could allocate strike sorties accordingly.

Officials deemed the airfield group so successful that they gradually expanded its monitoring mandate to more than 25 airfields, including helicopter bases.

Although the Iraqi Air Force never took to the sky to challenge the coalition, planners initially were nervous that one airplane could have gotten up, Hudson said.

The 480th intel specialists continue to provide nonstop support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to MSgt. Mike Welch, 480th IW’s chief of imagery operations, the work is “not so fast and furious” any longer. However, he said, it is now more difficult to determine what targets are of interest. Force protection is the primary mission today.

“The difference is going from known [targets] to unknown,” said TSgt. Terrence Warner, an imagery mission supervisor. Analysts have been told to simply watch an area and look for anything suspicious. Their efforts have led to identification and interception of insurgents approaching coalition forces.

Coppock fully expects ISR capability to continue to grow as technology advances.

For instance, Global Hawk is currently only being used at about one-third its capacity, because processing the intelligence is so time- consuming and labor-intensive. Coppock said the Air Force is working on automatic target recognition systems that should greatly reduce that processing time.