While the “civilian surge” of governmentand humanitarian workers promised for the fight in Afghanistan has been slow to materialize, the Dept. of Defense is working on a more tech-oriented surge that should start to pay dividends some time next year.
As it stands now, the U.S. Army is fielding about 1,400 RQ-11 Raven UAVs in the field, using the small, four pound platform to conduct surveillance at the tactical level. As of right now, the Raven uses an analog link to communicate back to the ground, but come December, the Army plans to start fielding Ravens that have digital data link capabilities. This means that up to sixteen Ravens will be able to share a single frequency, as opposed to only four, as is currently the case with analog. The Army Times reports that by the end of this year, “the first of more than 780 Ravens will be put to use, likely benefiting the current push in Afghanistan. In addition, the existing 1,400 in the field will be retrofitted with the digital benefit. Retrofitting could be complete as early as 2012, and all new Ravens should be fielded by 2015.”
At the same time, the much larger and more sophisticated MQ-9 Predator UAV is about to receive an upgrade to its surveillance capabilities, being outfitted with a new, more powerful sensor called the “Gorgon Stare,” previously known as “Wide-Area Airborne Surveillance,” which will be capable of filming an area up to a 1.5 mile radius during both day and night operations from twelve different angles. In 2011, that area is slated to increase to three miles, and the number of angles visible will jump to sixty-five.
These new and improved capabilities are not only going to have an effect on the battlefield, but they’re directly influencing the political battles back in Washington over how the war in Afghanistan should be conducted. The Los Angeles Times’ Julian Barnes quotes an anonymous defense official who is drawing some hasty and not clearly defined lessons from the use of airborne ISR assets, claiming that “The technology allows us to project power without vulnerability…You don't have to deploy as many people. And in the modern age you want as little stuff forward as long as you can achieve the effects as if you had lots of people forward.”
This is actually some pretty shocking stuff. The strategy of the Obama administration (as much as we know what that is), and of ISAF chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal (who has made his views very clear) is to wage a population-centric counterinsurgency mission to achieve a counterterrorism goal. And you can’t accomplish that mission by pulling troops out of Afghanistan while thinking you can replace them with more ISR assets in the air. Doing that changes the game to a straight counterterrorism mission aimed at whacking as many Taliban and al Qaeda leaders as your sensors can track.
There are obviously some serious disagreements in Washington over how to go about fighting the war in Afghanistan—sending in more troops to train the Afghan security forces and perform “clear, hold and build” operations, or pulling them out and launching Special Forces and air strikes against targets—but when discussing these options, let’s not start thinking that technology can do more than its current abilities and numbers allow. Eyes in the sky don’t replace boots on the ground. They augment the capabilities and the situational awareness of the ground pounder, but they don’t replace him—especially if you’re involved in a counterinsurgency fight.