Increasing competition and threats in the Western Hemisphere are driving demand for more situational awareness and for faster analysis of available information to counter, disrupt, deter and if necessary, defeat these threats, the top U.S. military commanders for the Americas told Congress last week.
The top three budget priorities for U.S. Northern Command begin with domain awareness, which includes over-the-horizon radar that can see further out than legacy systems, undersea surveillance to have better situational awareness of the undersea approaches, and finally, the ability to fuse and analyze data sets from various sensors, including satellites and open sources, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to get “further left” of an event and give decision-makers more “options before endgame kinetic defeat and give us options to create deterrence during competition,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of USNORTHCOM, told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on April 14.
VanHerck praised the Pathfinder effort that his command leverages to bring machine learning data analytics to various sensor inputs to more quickly provide situational awareness. For example, he highlighted the 2015 gyrocopter flight by a man from Pennsylvania and landed near the U.S. Capitol that went undetected because the various sensors around the National Capital Region were essentially stovepiped.
Later, when the same sensor data was fused and run through Pathfinder, VanHerck said “we could see” the flight. Before Pathfinder, the “data was left on the cutting room floor and not analyzed,” he said. “Now it’s analyzed.”
Pathfinder reduces the time to provide situational awareness from minutes, if not longer, to seconds and provides a broader picture than before “to help our air defense sectors accomplish our mission of defending our homeland.”
VanHerck was asked by two HASC members about potential threats from hypersonic weapons coming over the northern approaches to the U.S. He replied that the Russians already have these capabilities.
The over-the-horizon radar, making better use of geospatial and signals intelligence, open sources, and domain awareness in general are critical here for deterrence, and for threat warning and assessment that also provides “weapons quality information” to defeat an inbound hypersonic vehicle, he said.
VanHerck was joined at the witness table by Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, who also told the committee that the U.S. needs to leverage “big data” with artificial intelligence and machine learning to strengthen domain awareness to improve decision-making “based on what the threat is doing, not what the threat did years and years ago.”
The following day, Faller testified alone to the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and said that “intelligence drives everything, and the more we know and understand what the threats are up to, the better we can participate in a whole-of-government and a whole-of-nation response.”
In addition to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, Faller said security cooperation with countries in Central and South America is key to productive, long lasting partnerships, partner capacity and interoperability, he said. Security cooperation is at the top of Faller’s unfunded priorities list for further investment, he told the appropriators.
SOUTHCOM accounts for about 1 percent of all Defense Department ISR assets, Faller said.
In his written statement for both panels, Faller said his command is “pushing the envelope with innovative techniques, focusing on a 21st Century, non-traditional approach to intelligence that integrates publicly available information, advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and open collaboration with allies and partners to disrupt threats. These emerging tools offer persistent, AOR-wide coverage without risk to personnel at a relatively low cost and puts us in a position to better compete against adversaries.”
Faller proved two examples of SOUTHCOM’s low-cost tools. One is the Technical Network Analysis Cell (TNAC) and the other the Asymmetric Target Acquisition Center (ATAC). The TNAC cost $1.2 million to create and “denied” Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) $817.1 million through “cooperation with our law enforcement partners, that is shared with the partner nations and interagency partners leading to numerous disruptions,” he said.
The ATAC supports law enforcement in countering the TCOs.
“USSOUTHCOM ISR activities are optimized for return on investment with a mix of traditional platforms, purpose-built sensors, and increasingly non-traditional collection methods,” Faller said.