Sunday, December 05, 2004

 

A Compromise On The Intel Reform Bill?

That's what Michelle Malkin's reporting here.

For a useful piece on the perspective of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, the primary foe of the Intel Reform bill, visit this link to CNN.

I've discussed the intel bill before on Garfield Ridge. I wholeheartedly share the concerns of Chairman Hunter and Rep. Sensenbrenner.

In my previous post, I promised to elaborate on why I think the bill is a bad idea, or at least some parts of it dealing with military intelligence.

To continue what I said before, the bill-- in it's proposal to unify control of intelligence assets in the hands of a National Director of Intelligence-- harms Pentagon efforts to deliver more responsive intelligence to the warfighter.

To describe how the reform bill represents an old, bureaucratic way of thinking in neglect of emerging military realities, I'll use the example of an intelligence program currently on the drawing boards: the Space Based Radar program, or SBR.

SBR is primarily an Air Force program, but it shares many management elements with the National Reconnaissance Office (the organization that manages space-based intelligence assets), and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, also known as the NGA. NGA, formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, is the agency entrusted with analyzing imagery.

The SBR program is an effort to deliver a series of intelligence capabilities to warfighters in the field. These capabilities include:

-- Moving target indication, or MTI. This is the tracking of moving targets on the ground, such as tank columns or SCUD transporters. If anyone out there is familiar with the JSTARS aircraft, that aircraft currently performs the MTI mission. SBR would move MTI to space, gaining a wider field of view than JSTARS (i.e., see behind mountains), along with the ability to see into denied areas that JSTARS can't fly into.

-- Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR. This obtains a radar picture of an object. Unlike photoreconnaissance, SAR has the benefit of being a day-or-night, all-weather imaging capability.

-- Digital Terrain & Elevation Data. The radar can also create highly-accurate terrain maps. When correlated with GPS data, DTED data permits extremely accurate targeting of precision weaponry.

While this is an Air Force program, the national intelligence agencies are obviously also interested. The physical limitations of satellite orbits mean that an SBR satellite can't focus on one spot (such as Iraq) all the time. When the satellite is flying over other parts of the globe, the intelligence it gathers will be of vital importance to national agencies.

Now, how does this fit into the discussion of the intelligence reform bill?

There are two important questions to consider here: tasking of the SBR satellite, and the exploitation of SBR data. Both questions pose their own bureaucratic and technological hurdles, challenges that require a solution prior to the fielding of the SBR system (the Air Force says they can do it in the next decade, *if* the budget survives congressional scrutiny)

Tasking. Who controls the satellite? In the old days of the now-declassified CORONA imagery system, those satellites were truly national assets, involving senior-level tasking decisions. In comparison, the technical capabilities of the planned SBR satellite provide many orders of magnitude more data than under the CORONA paradigm. It's still not enough to render the tasking question moot, but it means that both national intelligence and military commander needs for intelligence could be satisfied by a unified, unclassified system.

What happens when, say, the new National Director of Intelligence wants SAR imagery to look long and hard at Pakistani nuclear sites, but the Commander of CENTCOM wants MTI data to support operations in next-door Afghanistan? Who makes the decision of which is more important? Remember, the military wants this system-- and is funding it to the tune of billions of dollars-- to meet its warfighting needs first and foremost. But the national intelligence needs may be more important in the long run.

Exploitation. There are two considerations in the exploitation of the data from an SBR constellation.

The first consideration involves processing the data. If you recall from my previous posting, there is a tremendous problem inherent in modern intelligence-gathering technologies: they're often too good at what they do. A notional SBR constellation could end up collecting massive amounts of data, data that needs to be processed and analyzed if it's to be of any use to anyone.

Obviously, SBR can't swamp the operators with too much data; there will need to be some form of automated processing to enable the delivery of a useful product. But under what parameters that data gets processed is of fundamental importance.

To grossly oversimplify an example, let's say that SBR collects two streams of data, ones and zeros.

However, the communications bandwidth to the ground is only great enough to send one stream of data to the ground. It can send ones, or zeros, or combinations of the two.

Now, the NDI may be interested in the ones. CENTCOM may only care about the zeros.

Or, conversely, a decision may be made that ones are interesting and zeros are boring, so the satellite should only send back ones. However, the what may actually *be* interesting might be something different entirely, and ignored by the "operating system" controlling the satellite. You may be looking in the right place, but asking the wrong questions. The truth you're looking for could be hidden in those discarded zeros.

This is a common historical problem in intelligence gathering: collecting what's interesting, or what's easiest to collect, is often different than collecting what's useful.

The second consideration in the exploitation of the data is determining who the user of this data is. Is it a soldier in a Fallujah foxhole? A submarine commander in the Arabian Sea? An analyst at Langley?

Most likely, it's all three. But that means you have to analyze the data in a manner that renders it useful to all three, and you have to get the data to them on the schedule that meets their needs.

The soldier in the foxhole probably needs a little data, i.e., what's over the hill, but he needs it RIGHTNOW. The submarine commander may need a bit more data-- where are the enemy ships?-- but at 25 knots he can afford to wait a few hours. The analyst at Langley may not need the data for a week, but she may need lots of it in order to determine patterns and establish trends.

Or, worse, all three could need all the data, at the same exact time.

This is where we get back to that single central point of failure I mentioned in my previous posting. You can't let intelligence of this kind get subordinated to a single analytical point. If anything, you need to get it out to everyone at the same time, and empower each individual with the ability to analyze the data themselves. If SBR data has to go through a single point, it can be corrupted, and rendered useless-- or worse, misleading.

Now, to return to the Intel Reform Bill, and the Pentagon's objections to it.

SBR is an example system, but it's not the only one. Current systems like Global Hawk and Predator pose similar challenges. Who "owns" the collection platforms? Who controls the tasking? Who analyzes the data? Who ensures that data gets to the people who need it in a timely manner? Who controls the budget that decides how these platforms are built? Who determines which requirements-- military, or national-- get met?

These are all questions that worry the Pentagon-- and HASC Chairman Hunter. And by itself, the creation of a National Director of Intelligence "super-bureaucracy" atop the current Intelligence Community structure does little to answer these questions.

So, I hope that Ms. Malkin's update is correct, and a compromise of sorts has been reached. It's more important that these problems get solved than it is to quickly pass a reform bill that harms more than it helps.

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