The contribution of ISTAR to operations - Defence Committee Contents


Conclusions and recommendations



1.  This Report can provide only a useful snapshot of the principal issues relating to the current contribution of ISTAR to operations and set down a few markers for the future. We have not had the chance to examine all the issues we hoped to address in this inquiry, but we hope that our successor Committee will continue to monitor this area. It is crucial not only to the success of the current ISAF mission but also to the future defence and security needs of the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 8)

2.  We are pleased to hear that the MoD is now giving priority to improving the dissemination of information collected by ISTAR assets in theatre. The Armed Forces' capacity to process and disseminate information they receive clearly falls behind their capacity to collect. We commend the MoD for acknowledging the problem. The MoD, in its response to this Report, must set out substantively the developments so far made, or planned with appropriate funding, which it believes will rectify this imbalance across the ISTAR chain. (Paragraph 14)

3.  The MoD and the Armed Forces must be congratulated for bringing ASTOR into service with due modifications, which is proving to be a valuable asset in the mission in Afghanistan. This capacity to bring into use equipment designed for another purpose in another theatre has been a hallmark of recent UK operations: while not ideal, it does show clearly the adaptability and flexibility of our Armed Forces, something which will always be needed no matter how tailor-made for a specific theatre equipment might be. (Paragraph 17)

4.  DABINETT is a vital programme for the future of UK ISTAR capability. It sits at the heart of the capacity of the Armed Forces effectively to use the information gleaned from their many platforms and sensors. It provides new capacity to process as well as to disseminate information and intelligence, without which the past and current funding of collection capability will at least in part have been wasted. The MoD must make as clear as possible in its response to this Report the importance it accords to the DABINETT programme as a tool to improve general UK military capability, and to assist with the mission in Afghanistan. We expect the Strategic Defence Review properly to acknowledge that DABINETT is central to winning the intelligence war over the enemy, and thus to our national security. (Paragraph 22)

5.  Bandwidth and frequency issues clearly remain. The MoD is very much aware of them, and understands that their prominence is possibly going to grow as ISTAR use and the practice of better and more widespread dissemination of data becomes the norm. We look to the MoD in its response to this Report to update us on its work to optimise the amount of bandwidth needed for efficient ISTAR use, and to secure the appropriate bandwidth. The MoD should also update us on current ISTAR frequency challenges. Success in asymmetrical conflict is massively reliant upon good intelligence—but intelligence needs to be shared quickly and efficiently to be effective. (Paragraph 28)

6.  We are impressed by the pragmatic approach taken by the UK's Armed Forces since their initial deployment in Afghanistan in adapting technologies to hand and adding to them through the UOR process, to make them as interoperable as possible with others held by UK Armed Forces and by coalition partners. (Paragraph 33)

7.  The ISTAR process needs to be as strong as possible across all three Services and extending over into coalition partners. We expect this to be understood not just within the MoD, but, in the interests of our more general national security, across the whole of Government. (Paragraph 33)

8.  ISTAR will remain a vital capability. It will be central to dominating the battlespace for the foreseeable future. The MoD must therefore look to reconfigure some of its trades to create more flexibility and greater opportunities for advancement for those with skills relating to ISTAR use. A supply of sufficient appropriately skilled people to undertake the demanding roles within ISTAR is vital. (Paragraph 39)

9.  We consider it vital that deploying units are exposed to training on theatre standard ISTAR equipment, where possible identical to that used in operations. This has not always been possible, especially where equipment was procured through the UOR process and the urgency of need required deployment directly to theatre. We are pleased that the MoD has put such important training in place. A working knowledge and hands-on experience of using ISTAR capability is vital to enhancing awareness and increasing efficient use of this capability, not just for specialists but for the Armed Forces more generally. (Paragraph 41)

10.  We have been very impressed by the commitment, not just within all parts of the MoD and the Armed Forces but also within industry working with the military, to improve detection of IEDs as a priority, and to work creatively and co-operatively to that end. The technologies and techniques refined during the current campaign in Afghanistan must be mainstreamed into future UK ISTAR capability. (Paragraph 44)

11.  The expectations of what ISTAR can contribute to minimising civilian and UK military casualties must be kept in proportion. Commentators and the public find it hard to understand why coalition forces equipped with superior technology cannot prevail more easily and counteract IEDs and insurgents. It is imperative that the MoD explain the contribution of ISTAR to these activities. Realism about the nature of asymmetric warfare is essential if we are to enable ISAF and other similar missions to succeed. (Paragraph 46)

12.  There is the possibility that plans for the development of ISTAR capability might be put to one side or slowed during the process of the Strategic Defence Review, not just on account of financial constraints but because of the cross-Service nature of the capability. This should not be allowed to happen. (Paragraph 48)

13.  We must emphasise that failure to proceed at least according to existing plans to improve ISTAR capability and to fund those improvements sufficiently that they accord with the existing timetable would be misguided. This would imperil the UK's ability to maintain the technological/intelligence edge over current and future adversaries. (Paragraph 49)

14.  ISTAR is at the heart of flexibility and effectiveness in operations, maximising efforts and concentrating the impact of other existing capabilities. This vision of the centrality of ISTAR to overall defence capability needs to be taken into the Strategic Defence Review. The control of this vital resource needs to be clarified to ensure proper coordination and development of ISTAR across the Services. We invite our successor Committee to consider monitoring the place of ISTAR in the Review and to ensure that it does not get overlooked on account of pre-occupation with tightening budgets, individual single Service procurement programmes or issues of the size and structure of the Armed Forces. (Paragraph 50)

Introduction

1. ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) is a vital joint enabling capability which aims to provide an operational commander with the situational awareness and understanding needed to make well-informed decisions on operations. It relies on combining the output of many sensors ranging from space-based surveillance to human observation. The use of a variety of ISTAR assets is central to current operations in Afghanistan not just within the UK's Armed Forces but across the coalition.

2. At the beginning of 2008, mindful of the importance of ISTAR to the Armed Forces, we decided to begin a series of inquiries which would examine significant elements of ISTAR use. Our first Report in this series, The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR capability, was published on 5 August 2008.[1] The Government response to that Report was published on 5 November 2008, and later that month we signalled our intention to conduct our second inquiry into ISTAR during 2009. [2]

3. Our first inquiry, in addition to laying the groundwork for future ISTAR inquiries, concentrated on one of the principal means of collecting information, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). We signalled in the Report on UAVs the intention to examine later in this Parliament the MoD's progress in addressing the challenge of how better to process and disseminate the information collected. Given the importance of current UK operations in Afghanistan, we decided to use our second inquiry to probe the area of processing and dissemination within the context of the current and anticipated future operational use of ISTAR assets. The key questions on which we wished to focus were:

  • How are the various ISTAR capabilities being managed and coordinated: who has overall Command and Control in the UK and on operations?
  • What contribution have existing systems in Afghanistan made to ISTAR capability?
  • What difference has ISTAR made to the security of UK deployed troops, for example in reducing the number of IED casualties?
  • To what extent has ISTAR increased the accuracy of coalition targeting and reduced civilian casualties?
  • To what extent are the right personnel in place, and trained, to deliver ISTAR in operations?
  • Have the benefits of Network Enabled Capability been realised in permitting a greater variety of sensors and weapons to be available on demand to commanders and troops on the ground?
  • What are the gaps in current ISTAR capabilities?
  • What more needs to be done for the full benefits of ISTAR to be realised?
  • To what extent are existing ISTAR systems and capabilities interoperable with coalition forces?
  • What lessons can be drawn from current operations for developing future capabilities?

4. During the inquiry we had a preliminary private briefing from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and held two evidence sessions: on 14 July 2009 we heard from those within the Armed Forces responsible for ISTAR capability and assets—part of this session was held in private and the redacted transcript is appended to the Report.[3] On 20 October 2009 we heard from the defence industry and then from those who had recently been employing ISTAR assets and capabilities in operational theatre. During our visit to Washington DC in October 2009 we also had the opportunity for briefings on ISTAR at the Pentagon and from Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Before considering this Report we have also had the benefit of visiting UK Forces in Afghanistan where we received a number of briefings on ISTAR capability and use. We are grateful to all those who submitted written memoranda,[4] gave oral evidence or briefed us during the course of this inquiry.

Background: principal issues

5. The "ISTAR chain" is the term used to describe how ISTAR capability functions. ISTAR assets are directed to collect information which then is passed on to where it is processed—the information can then be processed into intelligence (useful and accurate elements of information) and disseminated to where it can be of most value. This chain is thus made up of the links Direct, Collect, Process and Disseminate: any weakness in one of these links weakens the chain as a whole. During our first ISTAR inquiry, we considered it important to examine whether the strength of this capability was balanced across all four areas.

6. Our 2008 Report focussed on the role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in collecting and passing on information, but also examined what then happens to that information. We noted that the MoD had concentrated its principal efforts on improving its collection assets. Yet significant improvements still needed to be made to processing and disseminating the information collected.[5] In evidence to us last year, Air Vice-Marshal Dixon, Capability Manager (Information Superiority), MoD, acknowledged that "in the past […] [the MoD has] […] focussed too much on platforms and platform numbers as opposed to distribution."[6]

7. Our 2008 Report highlighted, with regard to processing and disseminating ISTAR-collected information/intelligence, the slow progress in delivering full Network Enabled Capability (NEC). NEC simply means the efficient networking of all appropriate assets to enable speedy and effective use of the capabilities of which they are part. We noted in particular the importance to NEC of the Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) and DABINETT programmes.[7] We also raised bandwidth issues in disseminating information,[8] challenges in recruiting and training personnel not just to use ISTAR assets effectively but to process the information collected[9], and difficulties sharing processed information (intelligence) effectively not just within the UK's Armed Forces but amongst coalition partners in theatre.[10]

8. Seen through the prism of a highly asymmetrical conflict in which ISTAR capabilities are being employed more intensively than ever before, the importance of addressing all of the weaknesses and challenges set out in our 2008 Report is more critical than ever. Notwithstanding the progress and activity reported in the Government response to our Report, they clearly merited renewed and in some instances more detailed consideration. As is the case with most technologies, operational use assists and speeds up development and change. The Afghan theatre of operations is witness to considerable and rapid changes in how ISTAR assets are used and in the technology which underpins the UK's ISTAR capability. In that sense, this Report can provide only a useful snapshot of the principal issues relating to the current contribution of ISTAR to operations and set down a few markers for the future. We have not had the chance to examine all the issues we hoped to address in this inquiry, but we hope that our successor Committee will continue to monitor this area. It is crucial not only to the success of the current ISAF mission but also to the future defence and security needs of the United Kingdom.

Balance across the ISTAR chain

9. The continuing development of new and improved UAVs and sensors remains important to augmenting current capability. However, as we noted above, the areas most in need of attention are not collection, but dissemination and processing. In our 2008 Report we noted that:

    The MoD faces a major challenge to ensure that the systems which process and disseminate the ISTAR information collected keep pace with the systems which collect it.[11]

10. In its response to our Report, the Government acknowledged "the need to balance the emergent capabilities delivered by its new generation of capable collectors […] with appropriate processing and dissemination capabilities." The Government then listed a number of the challenges it was addressing in this area: providing adequate numbers of trained analysts, better exploitation of NEC, improved storage for intelligence and better user access to intelligence stored.[12] During the inquiry that led to this Report we were keen to assess what progress the MoD had made in these areas.

11. In our first evidence session, Air Vice-Marshal Dixon stated that the top priority was "distributing our ISTAR product efficiently". He acknowledged that the MoD had "in the past […] probably focused too much on platforms and platform numbers as opposed to distribution". He added that the Armed Forces were "getting into balance better now" but that distribution was "the biggest challenge technically".[13] The defence industry, which had been critical of imbalance in the ISTAR chain during our 2008 inquiry,[14] acknowledged during this inquiry that the MoD had taken a number of important steps to redress this imbalance. Joel Grundy, giving evidence to us on behalf of Intellect at our second public session, said that "the MoD has very much recognised and put in place a number of things in the forward programme specifically to boost capability in the DPD [directing, processing, disseminating] environment."[15]

12. Joel Grundy was however keen to add that the defence industry would maintain a degree of "scepticism" about progress until the MoD actually delivered on "those things in the forward programme".[16] This scepticism is not based on a perception that the MoD fails to understand the urgent need better to process and disseminate the information its assets collect. It is founded on an acknowledgement of likely financial and budgetary constraint, which was a theme throughout our session with industry. The written memorandum from Intellect was rather more robust in its views than Intellect's Head of Defence and Security had been when giving evidence:

    Funding constraints for DPD have been a significant factor and […] UK Defence as a whole must rid itself of the dangerous misconception that purchasing a collection asset is the same as acquiring a new ISTAR capability. What resource is available must be balanced across all stages of the intelligence cycle to ensure maximum benefit, rather than concentrated on buying the maximum number of platform assets.[17]

13. There is of course logic behind the MoD's initial focus and priority being on ISTAR collection assets—both sensors and platforms—rather than on distribution and processing. Information has to be collected before anything can be done with it. However, the mission in Afghanistan with its peculiar and rapidly changing asymmetric challenges has intensified this focus on collection. As Mr Victor Chavez, Deputy Chief Executive of Thales UK, explained to us:

    the shift to asymmetric warfare has created a huge increase in the burden, the requirement and the challenge of ISTAR; because you have moved from an environment where in conventional warfare you are talking about identifying an enemy tank, or identifying an enemy platoon of soldiers; the ISTAR challenge of Afghanistan […] is about identifying the terrorist, the terrorist in the crowd at the market, the terrorist with an AK47.[18]

14. We are pleased to hear that the MoD is now giving priority to improving the dissemination of information collected by ISTAR assets in theatre. The Armed Forces' capacity to process and disseminate information they receive clearly falls behind their capacity to collect. We commend the MoD for acknowledging the problem. The MoD, in its response to this Report, must set out substantively the developments so far made, or planned with appropriate funding, which it believes will rectify this imbalance across the ISTAR chain.

ASTOR and ISTAR

15. Efforts to augment collection capability, or to improve sensors and collection assets in theatre, should not halt on account of any current imbalance in the ISTAR chain. Recently, ASTOR (Airborne Stand-off Radar) was deployed for use in Afghanistan, ahead of its initial operational capability date, and trialled for use with the Royal Marine Commandos with great success. ASTOR is a ground surveillance system designed to provide a long-range, battlefield intelligence, target imaging and tracking radar applications in peacetime, wartime and in crisis operations. It provides 24 hour, all-weather, battlefield surveillance capability—it is capable of detecting and recognising moving, static and fixed targets at stand-off range. The ASTOR system comprises five Sentinel R 1 aircraft and eight ground stations. The Sentinel is crewed jointly by the British Army and Royal Air Force. As Vice Air-Marshal Dixon explained to us:

    […] the sensors that it has on board […] are SAR (synthetic aperture radar) and a ground-moving   target indication radar working together with the range and capability of the aircraft […] prove to be hugely useful in the operational context of the deployment.

ASTOR gives to the coalition and to UK forces a wide-area surveillance capability, which provides much greater flexibility of movement to commanders on the ground.[19] It has particular ability to detect moving targets and is very useful for cross-cueing[20] purposes. It is similar in type to the US JSTAR capability: it makes use of ground stations to which it sends information which can there be analysed and matched against other information outputs.

16. ASTOR is now being successfully deployed in Afghanistan. Yet, as Mr Eberle, the UK Business Development Director of Mission and Security Systems for General Dynamics, explained to us, it had been designed for a different theatre and a different use:

    [ASTOR] was a system that was originally designed, of course, quite some considerable time ago for conducting operations against the mass armour of the Warsaw Pact […] [I]t is showing today that it is very, very relevant for today's operations […] Its ability to detect moving targets through its radar system, which is its main sensor, is absolutely vital because operations are taking place now in very extended areas.[21]

17. The MoD and the Armed Forces must be congratulated for bringing ASTOR into service with due modifications, which is proving to be a valuable asset in the mission in Afghanistan. This capacity to bring into use equipment designed for another purpose in another theatre has been a hallmark of recent UK operations: while not ideal, it does show clearly the adaptability and flexibility of our Armed Forces, something which will always be needed no matter how tailor-made for a specific theatre equipment might be.

DABINETT

18. DABINETT is an incremental programme that will improve the coherence and networking of ISTAR across defence. It is expected to include a combination of existing and future platforms and sensors, support centres and links to intelligence systems.[22] Our 2008 Report identified that the DABINETT programme was central to improving significant areas of ISTAR capability. In that Report we asked the MoD to update us on progress with DABINETT, and the Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) programme of which it is a significant part.[23] The Government in its response acknowledged that "DABINETT is the principal Defence funded programme with the primary focus of incrementally improving DPD capability", which "aims to provide new tools and procedures for ISTAR management and processing and to break down legacy intelligence stovepipes by, for example, improving awareness of existing intelligence and access to collected information."[24]

19. The MoD was however able to offer very little in terms of clarity about timelines for when DABINETT, and DII as a whole, would improve the UK's ISTAR capability. The same order of priority that had affected ISTAR assets as a whole for the past seven or eight years has also dogged this programme. The DABINETT programme contains two principal elements: the element connected to the procurement of a number of "deep and persistent collection assets" has already received funding agreement from the Treasury,[25] although a decision had yet to be made on its final form.[26] However, perhaps the more urgent element of the programme, relating to the direction of ISTAR assets and the processing and dissemination of information received, was still "very much in the concept phase and should be moving to an initial operating capability in 2012".[27] Once again, priority seems to have been given to collection when principal challenges still lie with processing information into intelligence and getting it quickly to where it is most needed.

20. Defence industry witnesses confirmed the importance of DABINETT to the ISTAR chain. Victor Chavez of Thales UK told us that "the centrality of DABINETT to actually making the most of all the information that has been gathered cannot be understated."[28] He went on to explain:

    DABINETT is effectively the creation of the software application that will allow intelligence that has been gathered from a whole range of different sources to be viewed, integrated and shared as a single whole. You will be able to look at imagery that has come off a Hermes 450 or a WATCHKEEPER, imagery off an ASTOR, human intelligence that has been put into the system and various other things so that you can actually start to look at the same problem from lots of different perspectives.[29]

21. Defence industry witnesses held back from saying that DABINETT would directly be affected by possible budget cuts within the MoD. However, doubts about the capacity of the MoD fully to implement its plans clearly made these witnesses hesitant about predicting when DABINETT would be available to improve UK ISTAR capability. The MoD memorandum to us said very little about its progress and prospects. MoD witnesses were more open with us when they gave oral evidence. Air Vice-Marshal Dixon reported "that there is sufficient money in the DABINETT programme to do what we want", although he admitted that the outcome of the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review might have implications for the programme (a matter we will deal with later in this Report).[30] We were pleased to note very recently in a Written Ministerial Statement that the next phase of DII is going ahead as planned, as suggested to us at earlier evidence sessions.[31]

22. DABINETT is a vital programme for the future of UK ISTAR capability. It sits at the heart of the capacity of the Armed Forces effectively to use the information gleaned from their many platforms and sensors. It provides new capacity to process as well as to disseminate information and intelligence, without which the past and current funding of collection capability will at least in part have been wasted. The MoD must make as clear as possible in its response to this Report the importance it accords to the DABINETT programme as a tool to improve general UK military capability, and to assist with the mission in Afghanistan. We expect the Strategic Defence Review properly to acknowledge that DABINETT is central to winning the intelligence war over the enemy, and thus to our national security.

Bandwidth and frequencies

23. A number of issues combine to create challenges for the processing and dissemination of ISTAR information. Historically, ISTAR collection assets have developed within each of the three Services and have not been intended to speak to each other: this 'stove-piped' inheritance focused on vertical transmission—from the sensors to those immediately in the chain below—and neglected horizontal transmission, either between platforms or between those directly connected to different platforms.

24. A problem facing effective horizontal distribution is bandwidth size and frequency availability. We raised this with the MoD in our 2008 Report, principally with regard to 'UAV to ground' transmissions, when we noted:

    UAVs are collecting increasing amounts of ISTAR information, in a range of different formats, which is then disseminated to users. This is putting increasing pressure on the available bandwidth. The MoD is alert to this issue and is "bandwidth conscious".[32]

We asked the MoD to respond to our concerns in its response, which it did, stating that its approach to this issue was two-fold: to seek to minimise the bandwidth requirement for UAVs, through compression and other techniques, and "to seek to secure though the appropriate spectrum management organisations continued access to the minimum bandwidth required for operation of UAVs in national and international air space."[33]

25. Our 2008 comments and the UK Government response focused on bandwidth and frequency issues affecting UAV use. However, as we have noted above, while the challenges facing the vertical distribution from sensor to the ground-based collection point are important, disseminating the information thereafter, and the intelligence once processed, is more challenging still. Horizontal dissemination is more than just a matter of passing information from one sensor or platform on to another unit or user so that the information becomes available to them. It sits at the heart of cross-cueing, of placing together all the appropriate information relayed from different platforms and/or sensors covering the same or similar areas or phenomena, sometimes over a short period of time, in order to increase the resolution of the information and therefore to improve the quality of the intelligence available. This process of cross-cueing, enabled by the layering of ISTAR assets by those in charge of directing their use, is key to maximising the efficiency of military capability and reducing coalition and civilian casualties.

26. As Air Vice-Marshal Dixon told us in evidence:

    Cross-cueing […] is about bringing different ISTAR platforms and performance capabilities together in a particular task and then taking the full value of the total product.[34]

Clearly, the direction of assets is important in order to ensure, as Brigadier Abraham told us, that they are "at the right readiness at the right place and the right time"[35] However, given the historical legacy of stove-piped assets, the ISTAR chain has also to be joined together effectively to bring all of this information to where it is most needed. Air Vice-Marshal Dixon noted that the MoD had

    made a very significant investment, currently under urgent operational requirement in theatre, to connect the whole network of ISTAR assets at the operator level, so where these platforms come down through technical stovepipes because of the legacy equipment the folks on the ground who are looking at all these individual products hitherto could not speak and collaborate with each other very readily […] [the] […] investment in theatre […] has hugely improved that interconnectivity.[36]

27. However, bandwidth and frequency issues remain. As Air Vice-Marshal Dixon said, "bandwidth is a real issue and we constantly worry about bandwidth." He added that sufficient bandwidth was available for current operations but said that in the context of an understanding that bandwidth need would rise very significantly in the future, as indeed it has already done.[37] As Mr Chavez of Thales UK pointed out:

    There is always an issue around bandwidth, but having ISTAR is highly addictive: the more you have the more you want […] and there will always be challenges in that. Industry is doing a lot to make sure very smart algorithms are used to compress data, […] but bandwidth is limited by the laws of physics.[38]

Brigadier Messenger noted that the challenge lay in "ensuring that the information that is gathered by […] [a] […] sensor is not only available to me, it is available to subordinate units, it is available to flanking formations, it is available to anyone that needs it. That is quite a […] dissemination challenge and bandwidth is one of the constraints associated with it."[39]

28. Bandwidth and frequency issues clearly remain. The MoD is very much aware of them, and understands that their prominence is possibly going to grow as ISTAR use and the practice of better and more widespread dissemination of data becomes the norm. We look to the MoD in its response to this Report to update us on its work to optimise the amount of bandwidth needed for efficient ISTAR use, and to secure the appropriate bandwidth. The MoD should also update us on current ISTAR frequency challenges. Success in asymmetrical conflict is massively reliant upon good intelligence—but intelligence needs to be shared quickly and efficiently to be effective.

Data standardisation and inter-operability

29. It is of course one thing for data to be distributed efficiently around a network, between platforms or users, and another for it to be 'readable'. Moreover, the historic development of separate interfaces and software, not just amongst countries within the same coalition but across the three Services of one country's military, means that regardless of bandwidth availability ISTAR assets cannot always speak to one another. We raised this issue in our 2008 Report and stressed that it was vital that "the MoD ensures that interoperability is a key requirement when acquiring future UAV systems".[40] In the MoD response, the issue of standardisation of frequency and downlinks was highlighted, noting that "interoperability is currently achieved on […] relatively low technology, analogue downlink" and that "the need for more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum has already mandated the move to digital downlinks for future capabilities." However "with no internationally agreed single standard there remain challenges to overcome to ensure that the user has access to all the information collected by coalition ISTAR platforms."[41]

30. We put the question of interoperability directly to Air Vice-Marshal Dixon in open session. He stated that the current picture was "mixed" and saw interoperability in three layers:

    There is absolute interoperability where it is absolutely seamless, interoperability between platforms, there is operability that can be generated by a cut-out but nonetheless which is working, and then, frankly, there is stuff that is totally not interoperable but that we try to de-conflict one way or the other.[42]

He added that interoperability was a key UK as well as coalition priority and was "the connecting theme between very many of the UOR investments made […] over the last few years in both theatres."[43] He was also content that downlink issues were not significant at present. Air Commodore Gordon added that while the UK nor the coalition was at the stage where "integrated systems […] merge seamlessly" they were at the position where "a large number of comparable systems […] interact."[44] He stressed the importance of NATO's standardisation agreements to the coalition's ISTAR capability[45] (particularly with regard to the centrality of Link 16, used across theatre as a common data link).

31. When we spoke to industry witnesses about data standardisation, crucial to ensuring that information distributed across networks is 'readable' and usable, the importance of NATO standards was again highlighted: "it is NATO standards that build the bedrock on which everybody will interact […]"[46] and later in the same session: "NATO […] provides the most cohesion in standardisation activity on a multinational basis […]"[47] Clearly, the current coalition in the Afghan theatre does not comprise NATO countries alone, and there are commercial and political pressures to develop other standards, one for EU countries for example. However, industry witnesses were clear that NATO standards, regardless of their current exclusivity, were the ones on which to build. Mr Peter Eberle told us: "As far as European interoperability is concerned, I do not think the MoD's view on this has changed; because they would wish to use NATO standards wherever possible, rather than introduce some new European standard."[48]

32. Making ISTAR capability uniform across the UK Armed Forces, in terms of software, interfaces and general technological content, is inevitably a distant dream given the legacy of assets, often procured on a Single-Service basis, with which they are faced. Across the coalition this phenomenon is of course multiplied numerous times. There are, however, a number of things to be learned from this:

a)  that, regrettably, neither the MoD and UK Armed Forces or NATO were sufficiently far-sighted or determined to outline and resolve difficulties of interoperability before they became practically evident;

b)  that, nonetheless, both in terms of UK assets (procured as UORs) and otherwise, both the problems faced within the UK Forces deployed in theatre and those across the coalition have been addressed pragmatically and in good part resolved to a level of enhanced efficiency in terms of ISTAR capability; and

c)  that current procurement needs to be adapted and future procurement designed to create as open a technological/interface architecture as possible not just to permit internal technological development but to permit interoperability, both across the Services in the UK Armed Forces, and across coalitions in international missions.

33. We are impressed by the pragmatic approach taken by the UK's Armed Forces since their initial deployment in Afghanistan in adapting technologies to hand and adding to them through the UOR process, to make them as interoperable as possible with others held by UK Armed Forces and by coalition partners. The urgency of the demands from the Afghan mission required such an approach, but this should not reduce the importance of arguing that all current and future procurements in this area are capable of receiving and using as varied an array of communication and data links as possible. The ISTAR process needs to be as strong as possible across all three Services and extending over into coalition partners. We expect this to be understood not just within the MoD, but, in the interests of our more general national security, across the whole of Government.

People: skills, training and awareness

34. The ISTAR chain does not consist only of technologies: its assets properly include people, and the complicated interface between personnel and ISTAR is integral to the success of the capability. In our previous, 2008, Report on ISTAR we focused on those personnel trained to operate UAVs and on image analysts, one element of those employed to help process collected information. We were "concerned to learn that there […] [were] […] substantial deficits in the number of UAV operators in the Army", a circumstance that was expected only to worsen. We also noted what at the time was an 18% deficit in image analysts in the RAF, and that other manning pinch-points had the capacity to impact upon the effectiveness of UK ISTAR capability.[49]

35. In its response, the Government noted some particular personnel shortages. It stressed that they would have no impact on current operations, and that measures were in place to deal with possible challenges that might occur over the next few years. The response clearly showed that current operations were only being sustained in ISTAR personnel terms with some difficulty, and in a manner which was not sustainable over the medium term.[50]

36. We probed this area of skills and personnel in oral evidence. At the outset of our first session, Air Vice-Marshal Dixon noted "the perennial difficulty in acquiring and retaining the detailed technical trades, that underpin […] [ISTAR] […] capability".[51] These difficulties in making "meaningful career structures", for image analysts, for example, meant that in some areas both recruitment and retention were difficult.[52] There was a degree of "small trade-itis" in some key ISTAR personnel areas that needed to be addressed.[53] Brigadier Abraham noted that there were ways "to mitigate part of the problem" of personnel or skills shortages " by deploying and using your smaller force more often than is desirable".[54] However, this had obvious implications for harmony guidelines, and therefore could impact upon retention and, potentially, recruitment. Mr Chavez of Thales UK stressed the importance of trained personnel to ISTAR:

    "The challenges of delivering these capabilities on a day-to-day basis are absolutely as much about having the skills and the humans trained to do the job as they are about the technology dimension."[55]

He noted that the MoD recognised that there was a "skills gap today and an anticipated skills gap in the future" and considered that such a recognition lay "at the heart of making good progress."[56]

37. We asked whether work relating to some of these key skills, currently in short supply, could be provided by industry on sub-contracts. The MoD acknowledged that it was looking into this, in particular with regard to linguistic skills, but that it would only ever be a "stop-gap, a mitigating measure, rather than this is our preferred way".[57] As the recent Green Paper has pointed out, improved collaboration with allies and with industry will be an important element of the future.[58] The MoD should look at maximising the usefulness of industry inputs into or support for its ISTAR capability, even if that is not the MoD's "preferred way", because it may in some areas be the only way of maintaining effective ISTAR capability in the short to medium-term.

38. In its memorandum to us, the MoD highlighted continuing shortages of linguists, image analysts, human intelligence operators/interrogators and Royal Engineers (Geographic). Manning shortfalls in these areas range from 10% up to around 40%. Steps are underway to address these particular shortages. In other areas the level of shortfall also causes concern and is being addressed: the Royal Navy acknowledges that the demands of maritime ISTAR may require changes in its requirement for Royal Navy Intelligence Specialists. Systematic initiatives in place across the three Services to address current and future ISTAR capability personnel requirements include: revised career structures, improved training and financial incentives for specialists; updated recruitment strategies and increased internal transfers from other trade areas; and the reorganisation and redistribution of existing personnel.[59]

39. ISTAR will remain a vital capability. It will be central to dominating the battlespace for the foreseeable future. The MoD must therefore look to reconfigure some of its trades to create more flexibility and greater opportunities for advancement for those with skills relating to ISTAR use. A supply of sufficient appropriately skilled people to undertake the demanding roles within ISTAR is vital.

40. We accept Brigadier Messenger's point that now ISTAR is "everyone's business": specialists only form a small part of those for whom ISTAR capability is a key part of their work—"it is part of the bloodstream now when perhaps ten years ago it was not."[60] This of course presents challenges of its own: the human-technology interface is more complicated than before and there is a greater need for the Armed Forces more generally to have a good understanding of what ISTAR can and cannot do. This perhaps applies particularly to those with responsibility for accessing or directing ISTAR assets. We were pleased to hear from Air Vice-Marshal Dixon that the MoD has been aware of this more general issue for some time and has made available out of the equipment programme a facility at Shrivenham where pre-deployment battle procedure work-up training for deploying brigades takes place on the same equipment as is used in theatre. This capacity for pre-training on theatre equipment will only increase as DII is rolled out.[61]

41. We consider it vital that deploying units are exposed to training on theatre standard ISTAR equipment, where possible identical to that used in operations. This has not always been possible, especially where equipment was procured through the UOR process and the urgency of need required deployment directly to theatre. We are pleased that the MoD has put such important training in place. A working knowledge and hands-on experience of using ISTAR capability is vital to enhancing awareness and increasing efficient use of this capability, not just for specialists but for the Armed Forces more generally.

ISTAR and Improvised Explosive Devices

42. One vital use of ISTAR assets in the current campaign in Afghanistan is the detection of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These devices, often placed at or near the roadside, have been responsible for the majority of UK deaths in Afghanistan and continue to pose a significant threat to UK military and civilian personnel, and to Afghan civilians; and those who deploy them continually change and improve their techniques and the indetectability of the devices used. The fight to neutralise the IED threat takes many shapes, from increased force protection (vehicles with better armour, for example) to changes in tactical procedure and practice. One key element of this fight is improved ISTAR use to detect the possible presence of IEDs so that they may be neutralised.

43. This area is obviously one of great sensitivity and was not touched upon in oral evidence. However, several of the memoranda make reference in passing to the utility of ISTAR assets in IED detection.[62] The Prime Minister on 14 December 2009 made clear that the counter-IED strategy was central to the UK thinking in Afghanistan.[63] ISTAR more generally, outwith its specific use against IEDs, has a role in limiting both UK/coalition military and Afghan casualties; counter-IED activity has added focus in the public's eyes to this more general role. As the MoD says in its memorandum:

    "Coalition ISTAR assets are […] used to assist with the Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) campaign, to detect possible enemy force IED teams and provide a route clearing capability that can highlight areas of risk. There are a number of examples where friendly ground forces have been forewarned by ISTAR assets of areas which might contain IEDs and this helps to minimise the risk of sustaining casualties and on a number of occasions has prevented potential casualties."[64]

44. ISTAR is only one part of the counter-IED campaign, but it is an important one. Other theatres of war in the future will undoubtedly feature similar threats, even if not on the level apparent in Afghanistan. We have been very impressed by the commitment, not just within all parts of the MoD and the Armed Forces but also within industry working with the military, to improve detection of IEDs as a priority, and to work creatively and co-operatively to that end. The technologies and techniques refined during the current campaign in Afghanistan must be mainstreamed into future UK ISTAR capability.

45. There is however an anxiety that increasingly potent ISTAR capabilities might create a culture of dependency. There could be over-reliance on the technological advantage that ISTAR brings, stepping way from the kinetic edge that will still often be required and that can sometimes alone prove decisive. The notional or theoretical capability of any one part of the ISTAR chain will always be reduced in practice by friction with other parts of that chain and by the general background noise and uncertainty of operations.

46. The expectations of what ISTAR can contribute to minimising civilian and UK military casualties must be kept in proportion. Commentators and the public find it hard to understand why coalition forces equipped with superior technology cannot prevail more easily and counteract IEDs and insurgents. It is imperative that the MoD explain the contribution of ISTAR to these activities. Realism about the nature of asymmetric warfare is essential if we are to enable ISAF and other similar missions to succeed.

ISTAR and the Strategic Defence Review

47. Our first evidence session on the contribution of ISTAR to current operations took place on 14 July 2009, the day that the Secretary of State announced the preparation of a Green Paper to lay the groundwork for the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) that it is anticipated will follow the General Election. Air Vice-Marshal Dixon made it clear that the SDR would be crucial for the future of the UK's ISTAR capability. The outcome of the Review could determine the scale and configuration of future:

    [The SDR] […] is as much an opportunity for ISTAR […] as […] a threat, and I think a lot of the platform folks are probably looking at their fingernails a bit nervously about the Defence Review, but actually several people in the community that I work with, in the C4ISTAR world, think this is a big opportunity because all the lessons learned point to the need to get this absolutely gripped.[65]

Earlier in the same session, the Air Vice-Marshal expressed the hope that the "whole endeavour of C4ISTAR in the round gets a good belt of wind in a defence review": he said this in the context of anticipated sufficient funding for DABINETT.[66] He also expressed optimism about the SDR concluding that personnel numbers for ISTAR would have to be increased over time.[67] Furthermore, he noted that the decision about whether or not to take on REAPER as a permanent asset, or to develop instead the requirement for a new unmanned deep and persistent collect capability as part of the DABINETT programme (and perhaps in collaboration with allies), was one that will probably "be tackled in our future Defence Review."[68]

48. Industry witnesses confirmed the importance of the forthcoming Review for the future of UK ISTAR capability, although their language was framed in the context of the possibility of cuts to ISTAR programmes:

    Under the environment of a future strategic defence review there is no obvious champion for C4ISTAR[69] and yet we believe it is absolutely critical to getting the most out of your Armed Forces in the round […][70]

There is some reason for thinking that those capabilities considered vital for success in the Afghan mission might be ring-fenced during the Review. In his statement to the House when the Green Paper was published, the Secretary of State, after declaring that operations in Afghanistan would remain the Department's "Main Effort", said that "[w]here choices have to be made, Afghanistan will continue to be given priority."[71] Brigadier Messenger told us in evidence: "I do not think we can walk backwards on the level of information and intelligence that we are currently giving our commanders".[72] There is the possibility that plans for the development of ISTAR capability might be put to one side or slowed during the process of the Strategic Defence Review, not just on account of financial constraints but because of the cross-Service nature of the capability. This should not be allowed to happen.

49. We note that significant elements of the Green Paper deal with ISTAR-related issues, in terms of technology and co-operation with industry, training and skills for MoD and Armed Forces personnel, and communications and intelligence capabilities.[73] Nonetheless, we must emphasise that, while cuts to the current capability might be unlikely, failure to proceed at least according to existing plans to improve ISTAR capability and to fund those improvements sufficiently that they accord with the existing timetable would be misguided. This would imperil the UK's ability to maintain the technological/intelligence edge over current and future adversaries.

50. ISTAR is at the heart of flexibility and effectiveness in operations, maximising efforts and concentrating the impact of other existing capabilities. This vision of the centrality of ISTAR to overall defence capability needs to be taken into the Strategic Defence Review. The control of this vital resource needs to be clarified to ensure proper coordination and development of ISTAR across the Services. We invite our successor Committee to consider monitoring the place of ISTAR in the Review and to ensure that it does not get overlooked on account of pre-occupation with tightening budgets, individual single Service procurement programmes or issues of the size and structure of the Armed Forces.


1   Defence Committee, The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR, Thirteenth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 535 Back

2   Defence Committee, The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR: Government response to the Committee's Thirteenth Report of Session 2007-08, Twelfth Special Report of Session 2007-08, HC 1087 Back

3   Qq 67-80 Back

4   Ev 34-61 Back

5   HC (2007-08) 535, paras 45 and 47 Back

6   Q 4 Back

7   HC (2007-08) 535, paras 6-11. DABINETT is an incremental programme that will improve the coherence and networking of ISTAR across defence. It is expected to include a combination of existing and future platforms and sensors, support centres and links to intelligence systems. Back

8   ibid., paras 69-73 Back

9   ibid., paras 87-94 Back

10   ibid., paras 99-104 Back

11   HC (2007-08) 535, para 22 Back

12   HC (2007-08) 1087, response to recommendation 22 Back

13   Qq 3-4 Back

14   HC (2007-08) 535, Ev 63, for example Back

15   Q 83 Back

16   ibid. Back

17   Ev 39 para 10 Back

18   Q 86 Back

19   Q 11 Back

20   Cross-cueing is the process whereby information of different types (video footage, infra-red, communications) is directed and configured to be relayed from a number of different sensors and platforms and assembled to corroborate and confirm a fuller and more detailed intelligence picture of the object/s or area in question. Back

21   Q 94 Back

22   HC (2007-08) 535, Ev 51  Back

23   ibid., para 47 Back

24   HC (2007-08) 1087, response to recommendation 8 Back

25   Q 13 Back

26   Q 39 Back

27   Q 13 Back

28   Q 88 Back

29   Q 100 Back

30   Q 15 Back

31   HC Deb, 19 January 2010, col 7WS Back

32   HC (20007-08) 535, para 73 Back

33   HC (2007-08) 1087, response to recommendation 15 Back

34   Q 7 Back

35   Q 8 Back

36   Q 23 Back

37   Q 42 Back

38   Q 98 Back

39   Q 119 Back

40   HC (2007-08) 535, para 104 Back

41   HC (2007-08) 1087, response to recommendation 21 Back

42   Q 24 Back

43   ibid. Back

44   Q 25 Back

45   ibid. Back

46   Q 89 Back

47   Q 96  Back

48   ibid. Back

49   HC (2007-08) 535, paras 92-94 Back

50   HC (2007-08) 1087, responses to recommendations 17, 18 and 19 Back

51   Q 3 Back

52   Q 18 Back

53   Q 22 Back

54   Q 20 Back

55   Q 92 Back

56   Q 93 Back

57   Qq 50-51 Back

58   Ministry of Defence, Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, Cm 7794, February 2010, p 39 Back

59   Ev 33-34 Back

60   Q 146 Back

61   Q 62 Back

62   See, for example, Ev 35-6 and Ev 45 Back

63   HC Deb 14 December 2009, cols 641-2 Back

64   Ev 55, para 4 Back

65   Q 75 Back

66   Q 15 Back

67   Q 74 Back

68   Q 45 Back

69   Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance Back

70   Q 112 Back

71   HC Deb, 3 February 2010, col 303 Back

72   Q 133 Back

73   Ministry of Defence, Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, Cm 7794, February 2010 Back


 
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