Lt. Gen. Larry James oversees the U.S. Air Force's intelligence apparatus, which includes a variety of aircraft, ground-based processing nodes and a corps of 20,000 officers, enlisted personnel and civilians.
As the service's senior intelligence officer, James reports to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and to Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers, who has aggressively applied the service's unmanned planes to track and kill Taliban leaders and members of al Qaida and its splinter groups.
As successful as the military and CIA drone strikes have been, the future of the service's Predator and Reaper fleets is a subject of debate among Pentagon acquisition officials. They must figure out how to reduce expenditures without leaving the country vulnerable years from now. If James has one message to deliver, it is one of balance: The service's intelligence apparatus consists of more than remotely piloted aircraft.
James spoke in his Pentagon office with C4ISR Journal editor Ben Iannotta.
Predators are owned by Air Combat Command, and your office is separate from that. How is that structure working?
We are the air staff voice for ISR. Air Combat Command is the major command that operates a lot of those resources. The [Air Force] chief and the [Air Force] secretary have said we want the major commands to own those core functions and then integrate those requirement sets, those program developments, across the Air Force. So ACC is the CFLI [pronounced SIF-lee] — the Core Function Lead Integrator for Global Integrated ISR. They develop a core function master plan, which lays out kind of where we want to head, but we are in lock step with them every step of the way to make sure we're all on the same page.
Is there any discussion about changing that relationship?
Not in the near future. It's fairly new. So I think the Air Force wants to allow the structure to move forward, and we'll see how it works. We always assess over time. We can adjust.
What trade-offs might you make given the budget situation? Are you talking about retiring entire airframes?
There is a continuing demand signal for ISR up through OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense]. So that's good in the sense that there is a demand for the systems and the capabilities. The demand signal for remotely piloted aircraft is going to continue at some level as you look to the future, even beyond Afghanistan. You can play with the rates of buy as you look at future Reaper production and those sorts of things to adjust your budget lines. We have programs of record that we already have out there: The MC-12 Libertys, we expect those to stay in the Air Force portfolio. There's various analysis of alternatives going on, for example, for JSTARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System]. So that'll be a part of the equation. But big muscle movements, in terms of totally eliminating a capability? In general, I don't see that as a player. The other part, too, is we have to look beyond the permissive environment also to the contested, anti-access, area of denial. How do you perhaps rebalance between permissive versus contested or nonpermissive ISR capabilities?
Meaning for permissive, you have Predators, Reapers —
The Air Force has acknowledged the RQ-170. Would that be for the contested airspace?
I won't comment. I'll leave it at that.
Will figuring out where you think the threats will be tell you how many Predators and Reapers you might buy, relative to some aircraft that can survive in a contested environment?
Well, for the contested environment, I think you have to think across all domains in terms of meeting your ISR requirements— air, space, cyber. In terms of the Predator and Reaper sizing function, the secretary of defense has said, "Hey, I want you to build 65 CAPs" [combat air patrols] and we're on the path to do that. As we look to the future requirements, that'll be a discussion we have with OSD in terms of requirements, cost.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as he was leaving, reportedly said, "My advice is be prepared to go beyond 65 CAPs." How likely is that?
Well, again, I think that's a discussion for the budget discussions this fall because there's a cost for doing that, there's a demand signal. All those things, I believe, will be assessed and traded among the services. Remember the Air Force isn't the only service that has RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] capability. The Army has RPA capability. The Navy will be bringing on RPA capability. So, I think we have to look at that balance. It doesn't necessarily have to be all Air Force to meet that CAP requirement. I think it's a dialogue to have during the fall.
When I tell people what I do, the first thing the say is, "Oh, the drone war, the Predators." How do you define ISR?
ISR, ultimately, is about getting the right information to the right person at the right time to make the right decision. The airborne layer is one layer. It encompasses many things besides unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft. You've got the space layer that provides intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance, some of that Air Force, much of that not Air Force. You can provide intelligence from the cyber domain. That's one of our points for the future: You have to think holistically about the ISR enterprise, and ultimately how people create information for decision-makers.
Congress is very good about thinking about airframes because there is such a visible manufacturing element. Is there a risk that PED — processing, dissemination and exploration — could get left behind?
I think people ... who understand ISR on Capitol Hill, in OSD, understand that the PED component is absolutely essential. I would offer that the Air Force has a very good PED capability within the Distributed Common Ground System [DCGS] nodes, but there's a lot we need to do with that system. If you look at the rate of data growth, people talk about drowning in data — well there's some truth to that. If you go to a PED site today, you'll see someone looking at full-motion video 24 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. That's not the right model. We need to have the tools and capabilities to manage that data better, whether it's full-motion video, whether it's signals intelligence.
There's a lot of discussion in the media about the long-term vision for the use of drones. Obviously they're being used in Afghanistan. What about their broader use? Is there an ethical issue or a strategy issue?
I don't know that I'll get into the ethics questions — not exactly my lane to comment on that. Remotely piloted aircraft are here to stay. They will become more advanced. They will become more autonomous. That's just the nature of technology. So, we just have to continue to work that into our concepts of operations from a military perspective, and I would let the ethical issues play out in a different forum.
What about the kind of concept of routine flights in troubled spots? Is that something you think is here to stay: Always having these things in the air?
There will be discussion about what that future world looks like: How much will be required as you kind of step down from Afghanistan, you step down from Iraq? How much will be required to execute other operations around the globe? They're good for doing certain things in terms of surveillance, but again, narrow field of view on many of these platforms. I believe the rate potentially will be less, but there's also potentially unfulfilled demand out there today from the other combatant commanders because the majority, if not virtually all of our capability, certainly on the Predators and Reapers, goes to CENTCOM, as it should. The flip side of that is we're flying in a permissive environment. We're flying in an environment where there's not necessarily civil aircraft flying around. So, if you go to another location, even if it's permissive, you've got civil aircraft you've got deal with. All that has to play out in terms of what is that future demand signal?
Are people putting too much faith in RPAs?
I think there's an acknowledgement that the roles potentially will be different as we move out of Afghanistan. Again, the operational tempo in Afghanistan is high, and so as we come out of Afghanistan, that operational tempo will change and the locations will change. We just don't know how.
You mentioned cyber. What does your staff do in cyber and what does the 24th Air Force do?
We support the 24th in their intelligence requirements for cyber, so we've been looking at: What does it mean to say ISR for cyber and ISR from cyber? Because that's one of the three domains we operate in: air, space and cyber. You know, we have a pretty good idea of what ISR for and from air means. We are probably pretty good at understanding ISR for and from space, although there's probably work we need to do there. What does ISR for and from cyber mean? There's traditional intelligence things you do, intelligence preparation of the environment, for example. What does that mean in a cyber domain? We're just starting to think through some of those things from an Air Force perspective.
Is part of the Air Force role to produce intelligence about possible cyber attacks on the civilian infrastructure?
There's other people that worry about the homeland, DHS [Department of Homeland Security], et cetera. U.S. Cyber Command works closely with those organizations. So our focus is reasonably narrow from an ISR and cyber perspective, because that's our lane.
Is the Air Force wedded to that end-of-fiscal-2015 date for retiring the U-2, or is that at play in the budget discussions?
The date is what it is, right now, and the budget discussions will be the budget discussions.
Northrop Grumman says the country could save money if it accelerated the U-2 retirement and shifted to the Global Hawk. Is that a question that people in the Air Force are looking at?
Again, we're in the middle of the budget process. All that is pre-decisional. As you know, there will be many issue papers that float around on many different topics that we discuss with OSD, and all that has to play out over the next couple months. And I don't really know what all the issue papers are yet coming out of OSD. They haven't really released those yet.
How are the sensors on Global Hawk performing compared to the U-2s? Are you pleased with the sensor performance?
In general, yes, it's doing well. I know there have been some software issues, in terms of when you take an image, and then it flows through the software into DCGS, in terms of stitching and image quality. That wasn't necessarily a sensor problem but a software problem, in terms of how you process the data. So we're working through all of that. But in general, it's been pretty good, and I think folks have been happy with it.
The one thing the Global Hawk doesn't have is the Optical —
Bar Camera, that's correct.
What are you looking at doing to solve that problem? If it's a problem.
We're not looking at putting an Optical Bar Camera on Global Hawk. I can say that. So, if that is still a requirement, that will have to be sorted out.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said Army video has to be available to everybody, the same way as Air Force video.
That's the vision, that anything that is collecting ultimately you want to have available to the intel enterprise. And how you get at that, in terms of the comm links and those sorts of things, there are things that have to be worked out, because we're not able to do all that today. There's things we have in theater, like HSI [hyperspectral imagery], that we don't necessarily pump back to DCGS. So as we think about the future of DCGS: What do we need to bring into DCGS from all these various platforms and sensors? [That's] something that we just have to work.
There's been a push to get more hyperspectral imagery. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I mean, we've had kind of experimental capability in theater. It's been effective, and we'll continue to push additional capability out there.
Is that experimental capability airborne or are you referring to Artemis?
Primarily airborne. Artemis can be a player but as you know, orbitology says that you don't get a lot of shots at a particular location at a given time, so primarily airborne for theater operations.
In February 2010 in Uruzgan province, a Kiowa crew fired weapons based in part on what an Air Force Predator crew was seeing. Do the Army and Air Force have any kind of initiative to improve their coordination in situations like that?
I won't speak specifically to that. I have not seen the report, frankly. I knew of the event. But certainly the Army and Air Force are engaged in dialogue. We have the Army-Air Force war-fighter talks. We have the next session coming up. I would say certainly we're paying attention to all that. And we're assessing: How do we work together? Are there areas we work together in PED? Are there other areas we work together in RPAs? We're absolutely engaged with the Army to make sure we're continuing to work together as best as we can. å