During Operation Iraqi Freedom more than fifteen years ago, former Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Myers described integrated, multi-platform attack as a kind of “fusion,” describing how at the time prototype Global Hawk drones were used to gather real-time intelligence data and network video-feed sensor data to other airborne platforms through ground-based command and control.
A Global Hawk, Myers explained, could obtain crucial, time-sensitive war data and network the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data to several assets such as an Air Force Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) surveillance plane.
While a mere prototype at the time, the Global Hawk drone functioned in combat as a warzone sensor node able to find and transmit high-value targeting data, a development which provided a foundation of sorts for the years that followed. This use of the term “fusion,” could be described as foreshadowing what was to unfold in following years. Myers’ description, therefore, might correctly be described as ahead of its time, given the Air Force’s current push toward greater ISR multi-node, cross-platform and cross-domain sensor data networking.
Sensor fusion, a term often used to describe the computer-enabled data organization and analysis enabled by the F-35 fighter jet, can be viewed in terms of a multi-year progression wherein new data-sharing and securing ISR technologies have successively been improved and sent to war. The advent of AI-empowered computer algorithms, breakthrough levels of autonomy and secure, yet decentralized applications of command and control have greatly transformed the realm of the possible regarding the wartime use of ISR.
All of the years of drone flights refined, cultivated and built Myer’s description of fusion, a technical maturation now reaching a culmination through the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management Systems program.
For example, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman are pioneering upgraded ground-based command and control systems for the Air Force’s Global Hawk drone designed to expedite man-machine interface, enable multi-platform interoperability, reduce latency and provide the technical foundation for continued software upgrades to improve sensing range, image resolution and data management.
The new Global Hawk Ground Station Modernization Program took its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in December 2020. The system, built by Northrop Grumman, is said by developers to transform the “underlying software, paving the way for interoperability with other Air Force systems, enhanced responsiveness to ad hoc tasking and lower impact update in the future.”
Increasing or accelerating what the Northrop statement called “ad hoc” tasking seems quite significant as it leverages new levels of emerging autonomy and on-the-spot mission adjustments made possible by advanced computer algorithms. Global Hawk autonomy, according to Northrop developers, begins with the click of a mouse which directs the aircraft to start its engine, take off and conduct its reconnaissance missions.
The new drone control system also incorporates new cockpit displays and emerging cyber-hardening technologies.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.