Col. Michael L. Downs is the commander of the Air Force’s 707th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, based at Fort Meade, Md. The group recently participated in the Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., for the first time embedding analysts with strike teams on mission briefings. It’s an effort to train both the analysts and the pilots in modern ISR tools and techniques. C4ISR Journal editor Aram Roston interviews Downs about Red Flag and about the efforts to bring National Security Agency intel into the Air Force mix.
Q. Why are you at Fort Meade? Is it because you work with NSA or Cyber Command or some other reason?
A. We are absolutely a partner and integrated into NSA, so the vast majority of my airmen work in NSA spaces. That’s why I’m located there, and I’ve got elements there.
Q. Again, at NSA, I’m sure a lot of it is classified, but to the degree that it is not classified, what do your airmen do there? ISR? Cyber?
A. I can give you some generalities in a sense. One, I have a large group of airmen that work and are integrated in NSA work centers and they perform NSA functions. And then I have a large group of airmen who work with Air Force platforms under the control the Air Force ISR agency.
Then I have a team of airmen called National Tactical Integration, and their job is basically to embed with NSA. And when we have air component needs in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world, we integrate with NSA and we work with them to get intelligence in support of those operations. So we kind of have a specialized cell there, where we partner with NSA there.
And that’s critical. If you look to the future, we’ve largely been operating in an uncontested environment in the [Central Command area of operation]. We know, because of our national security strategy, we know we have to be prepared for the contested operation.
And so that to me is a combination of using our airborne assets and gleaning intelligence off them, but we also have to be integrated and partnered with the national agencies and utilizing information from sensors we don’t even own but we have access to.
The partnership is absolutely vital. They can look over the horizon, if you will, with capabilities that an airborne platform might be limited in.
You’re going to have a mix between airborne and national capabilities. So what our NTI, our National Tactical Integration airmen, do is they make sure they get complementary intelligence for what we’re collecting from our airborne platforms.
Then I have a squadron that every day, 24/7, is connected to ISR platforms operating over a wide range of countries, primarily in the Middle East. So, we have the [Signals Intelligence] piece. If you could envision a U-2 or a Global Hawk, that intelligence is beamed back to our unit that happens to be sitting on the NSA floor in NSA spaces. And they’re accessing that information there. That is called CROFA, or the Consolidated Remote Operations Facility-Airborne, which is at Fort Meade.
Q. Why do you call it Consolidated Remote Operations?
A. You know, that is a legacy name. We are connected to the larger DCGS architecture — the Distributed Common Ground System. And then, say, at Beale [Air Force Base, Calif.] or Langley [Air Force Base, Va.] or core sites, we pass that information to them and they combine it with the imagery piece and make sure we are doing MULTI-INT fusion and make sure we combine SIGINT with [Imagery Intelligence], to have high fidelity on what our adversaries are up to. We do the SIGINT portion of that. There are other squadrons as well, but we are one of the primary squadrons.
We analyze that and pass it on, typically to the 480th Imagery Group. They take that SIGINT, combine it with the IMINT to analyze our adversary.
Q. So what is distinctive about the 707th?
A. It’s the largest ISR group in the Air Force. We have roughly 1,850 incredible airmen across eight squadrons. Most of them are at Fort Meade, although we do have this squadron out [at Nellis], the 526th Intelligence Squadron. We stood it up a little over a year ago.
Q. What are you doing at Red Flag? This is the first time you are actually providing intel to the combatants in the exercise, right?
A. OK, so this is a great story. So we are supporting an exercise called Red Flag. And if you go back to the Vietnam War, the big takeaway: Our kill ratio was not what we wanted it to be, relative to the Korean War or before. So we realized we have to do realistic training.
We have to go after high-caliber threats, both air and ground missiles, simulated. As well as aggressor air forces that simulate what an enemy air force would function like.
Q. So what are you actually doing at Red Flag?
A. What our airman are actually doing is, as a large strike package pushes into the training range, there are ISR platforms, a Global Hawk, a U-2, an MC-12, and they are downlinking intelligence to our airmen, sitting here at Nellis, who are then looking at that information, finding targets, finding threats and then making sure they get them right to the cockpit.
What that does is it allows these airman to sit it in the same room as the pilots who are going to go on the air-to-air sortie or the bomb-dropping sortie. And our airmen, the ISR airmen, get to see what those pilots need. You know, if they are getting ready to drop a bomb, when do they need the information about the target, and in what form?
Q. So what is new about the way they are involved?
A. What is new is to have the airmen on the ground receiving that information. We’ve brought those airmen here to Nellis, so they are learning what the capabilities are of all the other airpower platforms that are here, the bomb-dropping aircraft and air superiority aircraft.
Q. You are basically integrating the analysts with the command, in a way?
A. That’s exactly what we are doing. There are two benefits: Our airmen get to see what a pilot is going to do and get inside his mind; he knows at what points he wants to drop a bomb and when he needs to find a target.
The flip side of that is that these young pilots get to see how our airmen get to handle all that intelligence. They get to see how we handle our business.
If you think about it, for the past 10 years we’ve been in a counterterrorism fight, and so now we have to prepare for that denied environment — what we refer to as the A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] environment.
And Red Flag is preparing us so we can do both the COIN and the counterterrorism, but our airmen also know how to plan for and integrate into a future contested scenario.