Aerial ISR Provides Mission Overwatch for Border Mission
Technology originally created for use in tracking improvised explosive devices (IEDs) networks in Afghanistan and Iraq is finding new purpose in supporting U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) by providing mission overwatch during border patrol missions.
The Product Manager for Observe, Detect and Identify (PdM ODI) assisted Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) with an operation called "Big Miguel" by providing payloads and operators similar to those utilized by Task Force ODIN during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND) in Iraq. The sensor payload offers Electro/Optical and laser illumination, which greatly increased situational awareness for border patrol ground agents. Additionally, the product manager arranged the contracts that secured a Caravan aircraft as well as the pilots, operators and mechanics.
JTF-N, an element of U.S. Northern Command, is a joint service command comprised of active duty and reserve component Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, Department of Defense civilian employees and contracted support personnel. The organization is tasked with supporting federal law enforcement agencies in the identification and interdiction of suspected transnational threats within and along the approaches to the continental U.S.
In less than a year of support, Big Miguel assisted the U.S. Border Patrol with more than 200 missions resulting in the detection of more than 5,500 suspects and 63,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $50,500,000. Detection missions involving the Big Miguel platform also assisted law enforcement in seizing multiple weapons, vehicles and equipment utilized by criminal smugglers along the Southwest border.
In defining what has made Big Miguel a success, the product manager responsible for the program found that the personnel involved in the missions have been just as important as the quality of the sensor payload. "I attribute a great deal of Big Miguel's success to the back end operator," said Lt. Col. Moises Gutierrez, PdM ODI. "The mission commander/operator serves as the strength of this program. Flying in the air, talking on the radio while maneuvering that (EO/IR) ball at the same time is a tremendous skill set which is not easily found and requires years of experience."
There are some major differences between the missions that PdM ODI supports in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to Big Miguel. While flying missions in OEF, OIF and OND, the aerial Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets for which Gutierrez is responsible, must push down raw full motion video, signal intelligence and communication intelligence that require more command and control and a full set of ground stations to process and disseminate this data. Border Patrol mission requirements are not the same as those of ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; however they do have a requirement for an overwatch mission in order to most effectively manage risks associated with transnational criminal organizations.
"The payloads and the back-end operating system is the same," said Gutierrez. "The CONOP (Concept of Operation) and TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) are very similar; their relationship with the ground coordination is similar to an analysis system operator in the back of a C-12 talking to the Soldier, just as we have personnel on the Caravan talking to a Border Patrol agent."
A major benefit to the JTF-N mission came from utilizing operators on Big Miguel aircraft who were veterans of Task Force (TF) ODIN which allowed them to leverage their experiences from operating the same payloads in Afghanistan and Iraq while flying border missions.
"Lessons learned from OEF/OIF and TF ODIN contributed tremendously to the success of Big Miguel. We applied critical TTPs to each mission as taught and utilized in OEF/OIF and TF ODIN," said Jim Ledet, who served as ISR mission commander to JTF-N Big Miguel FY11. "Air to ground talk-on tactics, ("Sensor to Shooter") radio communications, and target identification played a significant role in the success of Big Miguel."
Ledet explained that the basic way missions ran was through taskings that are received prior to each mission from the supported U.S. Border Patrol Sector headquarters as provided by associated sector intelligence. Known areas of interest are provided to the mission commander before mission launch and also passed to the mission commander during the operation via secure radio communications.
"Once the target has been located and identified, the mission commander provides talk-on assist to ground agents, monitors for potential threats and situational awareness to ensure ground agents do not walk into ambush scenarios. The mission commander also provides laser pointer to positively identify the location of targeted area" said Ledet. "If helicopters are available and in the target area, the mission commander will provide command and control of target airspace, and will coordinate close air support with CBP's Office of Air and Marine helicopters, talking them in on the target area to assist with apprehensions."
Due to the success of Big Miguel, the PdM ODI office has been asked to continue support of the border mission with additional capabilities to those that were used during the initial mission. New to the mission will be the ability to conduct intelligence processing exploitation and dissemination (PED) to gain additional value from the information captured by the Caravans sensors. PED will allow for forensic backtracking and increase JTF-N's ability to disseminate collected information throughout the various organizations involved in the border protection mission.
Continuing to soak up lessons learned from each new situation, Gutierrez has found that as aircraft return from Iraq, and in a few years from Afghanistan, supporting missions similar to Big Miguel may become the future of some of the current TF ODIN aircraft.
Article by Brandon Pollachek, PEO IEW&S PAO