By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 9, 2010 - A demonstration project under way at 20 sites in the United States and overseas is helping to break down technological barriers to promote more interoperability and better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data sharing among coalition partners in Afghanistan.
U.S. Joint Forces Command's Empire Challenge 2010 kicked off two weeks ago and continues through Aug. 13, bringing together about 2,000 participants worldwide in a live, joint and coalition ISR interoperability demonstration, Air Force Col. George J. "Skip" Krakie told reporters today.
The annual exercise showcases emerging technologies and provides lessons learned to improve intelligence collection and analysis and test better ways to get it out to warfighters who need it.
This year's demonstration, based on shortfalls identified by warfighters themselves, is focused on improving multinational interoperability and data sharing, explained Krakie, chief of Joint Forces Command's ISR integration division.
"How do we move data from a U.S.-only network to a multinational network that includes 43 nations participating in [the International Security Assistance Force]?" he said. "That was the problem that we were given."
A second challenge was to come up with better ways to get ISR to "the tactical edge," the warfighter who may have little more than a radio or laptop to receive it. "How do we get that ISR data he needs to execute his mission down to him in the field?" Krakie said.
Participants from the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and NATO, as well as observers from New Zealand and Denmark, are working together on those challenges during Empire Challenge.
About 900 of them are on the ground at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., operating among mountains, canyons and vegetation that closely resemble conditions in Afghanistan. As they conduct scenarios based on case studies directly out of Afghanistan, they're supported by a broad range of ground and airborne intelligence-gathering platforms.
Some already are in use in Afghanistan, and some are about to be fielded. Among them are U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, Scan Eagle unmanned aircraft systems, RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, Constant Hawk wide-area persistent surveillance system aircraft; EC-130H Compass Call airborne tactical weapon systems, E8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems and a NATO Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.
In addition, the Canadian and British participants are contributing some of their own ground and airborne platforms to the demonstration.
But Fort Huachuca is just the live operations part of Empire Challenge.
Computer modeling and simulation and analysis is under way at Joint Forces Command's Joint Intelligence Lab in Suffolk, Va.; the Combined Air Operations Center-Experimental at Langley Air Force Base, Va.; each service's distributed common ground or surface system laboratories; coalition sites in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom; and the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency in The Hague, Netherlands.
Intelligence collected at Fort Huachuca or generated through computer modeling and simulation is fed to analysts at participating sites, who turn it around as quickly as possible.
"We have worked hard to replicate the environment and the network and command-and-control architecture of Afghanistan," Krakie said, with most of the demonstration focused on ISR challenges at the regional command level and below.
"We make sure that the capability that belongs to the Marine Corps can talk to the Army systems, and that the Army system can talk to the UK system, and that the UK system can talk to the Canadian system," Krakie said. "We work those interoperability issues."
The goal, he said, is to work through problems with data-sharing "here in Arizona rather than trying to solve it in Kandahar," Afghanistan.
With several days until the demonstration's completion, Krakie reported several promising developments.
A NATO AWACS aircraft successfully took control of the unmanned Scan Eagle, flying and eceiving data from it during the demonstration. Krakie also reported strides in pushing out data gathered by wide-area surveillance sensors such as the Constant Hawk and in passing U.S.-generated video to Canadian and British participants.
In addition, the demonstration helped to resolve challenges in integrating data collected from an aerostat into the United Kingdom's new suite of sensors and command-and-control capabilities, the Cortez, he said. And in an effort aimed at reducing fratricide, Canadian ground forces improved their ability to pass their exact positions to pilots called in to provide close-air support.
While reporting good progress in improving interoperability, Krakie said challenges continue. "There is still work to be done, and every new sensor that comes down the line needs to be checked for interoperability," he said.
He said Empire Challenge provides an opportunity to identify and fix any interoperability issues before warfighters have to. "Those are the kinds of things you want to do in Arizona, and not in Afghanistan," he said.