The United States opened its fourth front against the Islamic State group on Aug. 1. Operation Odyssey Lightning, as the campaign is known, is focused on Libya, specifically the coastal city of Sirte, thought to be of immense importance to the group. At the time of this writing, there have been 368 U.S. strikes in Libya as reported by U.S. Africa Command in support of the Government of National Accord — one of two national governments in Libya but the only one internationally recognized.

U.S. special operators have been on the ground in Libya for more than a year setting the stage for the air campaign against ISIS' Libyan area of control. Currently there are a mix of U.S. forces providing assistance to GNA-linked fighters in the way of targeting data, as well as U.S. aircraft providing ISR and strike. The Libyan front has been overlooked in light of other global counterterrorism operations, notably the counter-ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria — the group's central area of command, or "parent tumor," according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter — as well as the continuing fight against the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS militants in Afghanistan.

To this end, what is the intelligence apparatus the U.S. is relying on to develop targets and support its operations in Libya against ISIS in support of the GNA? On a broad level, a spokeswoman from AFRICOM told C4ISRNET that the U.S. is "providing support to GNA-aligned forces, to include key information about the fight in Sirte, and manned and unmanned airstrikes against ISIL-Libya targets inside Sirte. We have a range of capabilities at various locations in the region that will allow us to carry out these airstrikes, and are done so with proper notification and coordination of our partner nations." ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

The spokeswoman also noted that a small number of U.S. forces have gone in and out of Libya for the purpose of exchanging information with local forces in established joint operations centers and joint operations rooms established by the Libyan government away from the forward line so as to facilitate coordination among counter-ISIS forces.

AFRICOM did confirm whether forces entering Libya to coordinate with local forces in joint operations rooms use a variety of satellite communications terminals to tie into commercial and Department of Defense satellite architectures. The Defense Information Systems Agency is currently supporting local U.S. forces through its Unified Video Dissemination System program, which provides full-motion video to the war fighter. Within the program runs a commercial software program by TeraLogics, a subsidiary of Cubic, called Unified Video, a secure, cloud-based video management platform.

"Defense and Intelligence Communities rely on the Defense Information System Agency’s (DISA) SIPR cloud application, Unified Video Dissemination System (UVDS), to access and view large amounts of AISR video intelligence from anywhere in the world, requiring only a web browser," according to a DISA brochure. "UVDS is a user-friendly video management tool for enterprise and tactical users that simplifies analyst workflow, enables collaboration and creates mission opportunity by pairing real-time video with geospatial and viewer-added context."

Moreover, a DISA spokesperson told C4SIRNET that UVDS "i

s both a portal and a network service which aggregates and disseminates high-bandwidth live full motion video (FMV) feeds from manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, whether by land, air, or sea vessels. The data is relayed on DOD desktops, laptops, and mobility devices. UVDS service provides the capability to include metadata, map overlays, and chat sessions."

This portal and network service is provided by DISA to aggregate and disseminate the data in the video feeds supplied by mission partners, they said.

Ryan Wallace, UVDS project manager at TeraLogics, told C4ISRNET in an interview that UVDS consists of two key parts: the routing backbone that disseminates all airborne ISR video; and the application stack, or TeraLogic’s Unified Video. Wallace said this backbone fuses sources and consumers into a single hub. Where as video dissemination was once stovepiped with customers having to individually connect into each ISR source, UVDS involves just one connection to which all sources and all customers connect.

"We developed the application, and now anyone who doesn’t have the ability to establish a network connection, they can just choose their common SIPRNet terminal, for example, and log into this web interface to stream live through their web browser," he said of Unified Video.

Analysts can customize their browser page to view any number of ISR feeds for a particular region and send this information down to war fighters at the tactical edge to be viewed on mobile devices. War fighters at the tactical edge can also send video they collect back up to the analysts through this platform. Wallace said his program recently received approval through DISA’s mobility security program, DoD Mobility Classified Capability, to allow mobile devices to access the UVDS portal and thus the Unified Video software anywhere.

"Anyone who has a mobile device through this program and is allowed into the classified networks can actually view the video on their mobile device," he said.

AFRICOM confirmed that troops are able to leverage several additional technologies such as the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which provides full-motion video and precise position location. According to a more in-depth description of ATAK from the GEOINT App Store — which "provides online on-demand access to GEOINT content and services through mobile apps, web apps, web services, and provides a conduit for submitting general app ideas" — it is a mapping application developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory to enable users to navigate with GPS coordinates and map data from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, ATAK allows users to share target situational awareness information, text chat, broadcast notifications, conduct route planning, conduct white-boarding, conduct real-time unit topology on a moving map, and share photos and video.

Joint terminal attack controllers can also leverage this technology to call in airstrikes. The GEOINT App Store describes "Targeting/Fires" as one of the app’s capabilities, elaborating parenthetically that this is "pretty much everything a JTAC would deal with."

A spokeswoman from Special Operations Command told C4ISRNET via email that while they could not provide specifics regarding locations, platforms or types of units using ATAK, they could confirm it is used by Android end-user devices operated by special operations forces across the globe.

U.S. personnel additionally "have a variety of ground mobility platforms to set up mobile command and control nodes in addition to quick reaction packages to provide command and control services for 1 to 1,000 users," according to AFRICOM, which would not provide further details.

AFRICOM does not provide information regarding aerial platforms used to carry out strikes against enemy fighting positions, command and control facilities, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and weapons caches, among others, in daily news releases related to Operation Odyssey Lightning. While daily releases from Central Command detail airstrikes as part of Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, the global anti-ISIS coalition fighting the group in Iraq and Syria provide the types of participating aerial platforms in general terms. AFRICOM said that with a different area of responsibility comes different operational security concerns. As referenced earlier, however, the AFRICOM representative did offer that the U.S. carries out manned and unmanned airstrikes.

The Washington Post reportedlate last month that the DoD has expanded its global network of UAS bases to the North African country of Tunisia to support operations in Libya. As the report notes, officials have referred to Libya as an intelligence blind spot for Western intelligence services, hastening the need for more ISR sorties to keep tabs on ISIS’ operations there. In the past, the U.S. has had to leverage its UAS bases from Niger and Djibouti to fly MQ-9 Reaper ISR sorties, which was problematic in that these aircraft had to travel greater distances, limiting their time on target — referred to as loiter time in military parlance. As leaked documents published by the Intercept indicate, UASs, despite their extended endurance compared to manned platforms, distance to and from a target creates problems, which officials referred to as the " tyranny of distance."

Reapers flown out of Tunisia are conducting unarmed ISR missions while the armed Reaper missions are conducted from Naval Air Station Sigonella, on Sicily, the Post reported, adding that while Sigonella is relatively close to Sirte, cloud cover over the Mediterranean and other weather issues have frequently led to canceled missions.

While the extent of reliance on UAS in Libya for strike or ISR is unclear — as is the role of manned surveillance platforms — it appears as though manned platforms are conducting the majority of strike missions.

"From August to mid-October, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Wasp (LHD-1) launched AV-8B Harriers to conduct the strikes," Katherine Wolff, program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative, told C4ISRNET in an email. "In mid-October, the smaller USS San Antonio (LPD-17) replaced the USS Wasp in the Mediterranean. The USS San Antonio has conducted precision air strikes with AH-1W Super Cobras, as reported on October 31. The USS San Antonio’s UH-1Y Venom helicopters are also providing air support, although the AH-1W Super Cobras are the primary source of air strikes now."

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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