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 today at the C4ISR Conference in Crystal City, Va., that 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."
"We bring everybody together for Red Flag, so we thought we should do the same for ISR," O'Brien said.
The agency had the 526th Intelligence Squadron to 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 air frames including the MC-12 Liberty, RQ-4 Global Hawk and footage from U-2 spy planes. 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 non-(counter 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 example 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.
The first test was just a way for ISR to get their "foot in the door" into the exercise, and they worked around the original flying missions that are the focus of current Red Flag exercises. But going forward, the agency wants to test its assets and abilities in contested environments and ensure that their 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.