WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is undergoing a “paradigm shift” in the way it approaches intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the future of new unmanned platforms perform those needs, according to the service‘s acting associate deputy chief of staff for ISR.

“I need to design outward from the data now. I need to stop deigning to make the best aircraft for the best sensor,” Kenneth Bray said at the Defense News Conference in Pentagon City, Virginia, on Wednesday.

For the Air Force, and the military writ large, data is key. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of defense intelligence (war fighter support), said in March: “We are now at the point for the first time I can remember where [processing, exploitation and dissemination] PED is the shortfall more so than the platforms themselves.”

Experts tackle unmanned autonomous systems, drone export laws

Experts discuss changes to drone export law and the need for greater autonomy in future unmanned systems during the Defense News Conference on Sept. 6.

The Air Force, Bray said, has traditionally tried to focus on building the highest-flying, fastest and overall best platforms and sensors. With the advent of the digital age, he said, the force must be focused on answering the right questions as fast as they can for commanders at air operations centers.

“Stop trying to make the next best thing to be the best on the planet because it’s not helping. I need to fundamentally change so we provide the best answers on the planet because when we face an adversary of like capabilities and we may not have as much capability as them in weapons, we need to have the answer before they have the answer so that we can shape how the outcome occurs,” he explained.

Military leaders have warned Congress that the U.S. is losing its technological edge to competitors. Prior to his retirement, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work spearheaded the third offset strategy aimed at curbing the command, control, computers, communications and intelligence grids being developed by adversaries.

Bray noted that the service has undergone several experiments and demonstrations to get at this problem and are cooperating with the undersecretary of defense for intelligence on Project Maven, also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, or AWCFT. This effort was also stood up by Work to accelerate the Defense Department’s integration of big data and machine learning initially focused on the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Col. Drew Cukor, director of ISR PED at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, who is helping lead Project Maven, said that the services are “all integrated” within the AWCFT effort.

“They’re all part of the governance structure and they all know it’s coming,” he said, adding that the first sprints are going after tactical unmanned aerial systems because that’s where the fewest analysts focus. After that, they‘ll move to medium-altitude systems.

According to Bray, the Air Force realized that while it very well may have the largest image repository in the world, that repository is not searchable. Now the service is working to leverage big-data analytics and algorithms to help unburden analysts so they can make sense of the plethora of data coming in while still doing what they do best: exploit and analyze.

It’s the “e” in “exploitation” — it’s the time it takes for an analyst to look at a video for 12 hours a day to see if the white pickup truck left or entered the compound — with which the department needs help, Shanahan has previously noted.

Bray, seconding what others such as Cukor have said, noted that he expect by this time next year to see operational algorithms that automate what manually intensive processes — what some might call imagery exploitation.