Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Surveying the Storm

The Air Force is (rightfully) bragging about the contributions of its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets in disaster relief and recovery operations in the Gulf South.

According to this press release, the 480th Intelligence Wing, located at Langley AFB, Virginia, has played a critical role in building collection plans for surveying affected areas, and exploiting imagery collected by various ISR systems. Thanks to the work of the 480th--and other military intelligence organizations--disaster managers have better idea of where the damage occurred, allowing them to route rescue and relief assets more effectively.

With its coastal location, Langley might seem a less-than-ideal location for an ISR hub supporting hurricane recovery operations. During Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the base was badly flooded, resulting in more than $200 million in damage.

The 480th Wing and its subordinate organization, the 497th intelligence group, sit only a few feet above sea level, less than two miles from the Chesapeake Bay. A storm following a similar path --say, Hanna--could jeopardize vital intelligence systems and force their operators to higher ground. Would that compromise ISR support for disaster relief?

Hardly. If Langley were threatened, one of the 480th's other groups, based at Beale AFB, California, would pick up the mission, thanks to the extensive communications and intelligence infrastructure that has been established in recent years.

"The flexibility of the architecture, and the way we are able to shift missions within the 480th Wing is almost like a national treasure," said Col. Dan Johnson, 497th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group commander. "Where we can shift live combat missions from Beale Air Force Base to here at Langley so they can pick up this operation out at Beale Air Force Base is just a testament to great communications pipes and the ability to move missions."

But it wasn't always this way. While much of the current system existed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were procedural and bureaucratic roadblocks that prevented intel data from reaching disaster managers. One Air Force official remembers calling FEMA Headquarters in the hours after the storm, to see if the agency was receiving high-resolution imagery from U-2 and OC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.

The harried FEMA staffer on the other end curtly told his USAF counterpart that the information had never arrived and, more importantly, he had no idea as to which DoD agencies and assets were supporting relief efforts.

That revelation prompted a series of meetings and conferences that lasted well over a year, resulting in mechanisms that guarantee the flow of ISR data to federal, state and local officials during major disasters. We haven't received any feedback on the Gustav effort (so far), but it's a safe bet that rescue and relief coordinators aren't operating in the dark, as they did after Katrina.

Does the availability of ISR information really make a difference? Well, consider this: a single nighttime MASINT (measure and signatures intelligence) image of the Gulf Coast can hasten the restoration of electrical power, by giving utility companies a "big picture" view of where power is on, and where it isn't.

Getting timely ISR data to the right people, in a timely manner, is one of the great lessons learned from Katrina. We owe a debt of thanks to the specialists from the 480th Intel Wing, but we owe a similar debt to their predecessors, who knocked down the organizational stovepipes and firewalls in the aftermath of Katrina.

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