While context specific intelligence analysis is inseparable from its acquisition via surveillance and reconnaissance missions, it is separable for the purpose of this discussion about UAVs and how they are challenging traditional practices. UAVs can be both tactical and strategic assets – they are not only informing today’s missions, and they do not solely provide data that informs theater level decision making. These systems are achieving both tactical and strategic objectives, and they are sometimes doing so with the same machine in the same mission.
Surveillance and Reconnaissance
UAV usage in complex and combat environments is predominantly geared towards Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) work. ISR encompasses many activities pertaining to the planning and execution of operations, and in practice serves to link up several battlefield functions by supporting the collection and management of data gathered through various systems.
As long as there has been warfare, there has been reconnaissance, and since we figured out how to fly, we’ve been using aerial reconnaissance. Many who utilize UAV feeds on a regular basis and benefit from their intelligence outcomes see no difference in the use of UAV products now versus the products of human collectors from the Great Game and beyond centuries ago. The analysis of collected data has not changed monumentally, but the character and quantity of data gathered has.
While most intelligence in the past was gathered from interpersonal interactions (human intelligence, or HUMINT), now the biggest collection assets being exploited are collected by UAVs, or are produced using data collected by UAV missions. These disciplines are imagery intelligence (IMINT) or aerial photography, signals intelligence (SIGINT) or communication observation, measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT), which tracks emissive byproducts like chemical or spectral "trails", and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), which is the exploitation of imagery and information to depict physical features and geographic activities. SIGINT collection may even include the gathering of cell phone signals or hot spot data transmissions, which can allow for unparalleled situational awareness when that information is analyzed and distributed appropriately.
Similar to the benefits of using UAVs for protective information gathering and atmospheric analysis, surveillance from the air can offer advantageous capabilities when observing local conditions and planning operations. UAVs can offer a bird’s eye view of developments in high risk or urban environments where other surveillance for operations such as route reconnaissance might be impeded by high civilian population concentrations. The risks of traditional reconnaissance and force protection can be mitigated by the strategic adoption and integration of UAV capabilities into planning. “Ten years ago if an embassy was taking fire you'd lock the door, weld it shut, and toss the keys to the Swiss for ten years,” said a former Department of State Diplomatic Security Special Agent when discussing the oft-targeted Baghdad Green Zone, “Now we stay put so you must rely on new security technologies such as drone surveillance.”
Another use of unmanned systems that grabs fewer headlines but could prove to be a major game changer in the future is their recent implementation in support of remote life support. In late December of last year the first operational resupply flights were made in Afghanistan when Marine operators directed an unmanned helicopter between camps, ferrying 3,500 pounds of supplies to fellow Marines. Since that early success the system has flown hundreds of additional missions and hauled over 750,000 pounds of cargo with an average of six missions per day, mostly operated at night under the cover of darkness.
The ability to transport materiel to remote or high-risk locations without risking human lives to support base sustainment and mission execution has the potential to change the calculus behind decision making in conflict environments.
Chronological Reach Back
UAV systems also have the capacity to remotely observe events, or reference events from the past that have been recorded, that may otherwise prove to be inaccessible. As one IMINT analyst observed about overhead surveillance, “The only time you care about history is when something bad happens and you need to trace back what led up to that moment.” For example, improvised explosive device (IED) emplacements often occur at night and are difficult to track or uncover with the human eye, but it is far less difficult for recording devices aboard UAVs to discern abnormal behavior and track curiosities along routine routes, or even to follow individuals who have planted IEDs back to their homes or other gathering places.
The increased use of UAVs has been especially instrumental in supporting the warfighter from an infantryman’s point of view. Both the military and contractors are now able to hire former infantrymen with the understanding that they will not only be trained in the technical skills pertinent to UAV operation, but that they will also have the analytical and tactical understanding of what the important information is that can be derived from these sources. Because they have been in the position of the end users, these operators have a more applicable and refined understanding of what information individuals on the ground need. As one former Force Recon marine pointed out, “This is an infantry guy that understands what the choke points are and what the areas of danger are. He can provide his infantry buddies with eyes in the sky.”
Another Marine, a Senior Weapons and Tactics instructor who regularly resources UAV products, commented, “Drones present a greater tactical flexibility; they don’t fundamentally alter the theory of warfare or present some unforeseen or Pandorian technological breakthrough… they’re solid collection assets that offer loiter time and flexibility in theatre, and their response time allows us to provide timely, accurate, and relevant intel to the operators that need it.”
Furthermore, UAV observation and subsequent pattern of life reporting has the potential to get noncombatants out of danger by excluding their patterns from threat matrices. For example, if a community representative regularly attends meetings pertaining to local governance then that information can be recorded and monitored. If, or when, there is a report of insurgent activity traced back to that meeting then it is possible for analysts to determine if any irregular attendance may have encouraged or prompted a negative or irregular outcome.
They also offer the opportunity to protect civilian populations from combatants and mitigate armed confrontation against noncombatants. As one Army operator reflected, “A lot of times (as the operator) we didn’t know exactly what we were looking out for,” but by uncovering deviations from standard pattern of life movements the operator became able to communicate possible humanitarian interventions to troops on the ground.
One example of this saw camera feeds in Afghanistan observe a nomadic population that had not moved in a longer than standard period of time. The operators collecting and analysts interpreting the feed learned that this often meant someone in the tribe was in need of medical care or the group was facing a severe resource shortage. The UAV teams could then alert nearby ground troops who could then make contact with the identified population on the ground to offer assistance. “It wasn’t always super exciting, but it’s awesome to be able to help the Afghans,” said the pilot. Who would have thought that a machine flying in the sky could help win hearts and minds on the ground?
Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in intelligence sector reform and capacity building.