January 8, 2013
Throughout the history of armed conflict, nations at war have fought to secure advantages which they hoped to tip the scales in their favor. Knowledge of the environment and of the enemy has proven to be a timeless weapon wielded by the eyes of the battlefield.
Traditionally, the eyes of the battlefield were the scouts and sentries strategically placed on the map to offer the commander the best view and most complete picture of the war and the enemy's capabilities.
Today, the Soldiers of the 297th Military Intelligence Battalion, 513th MI Brigade, have added a field of vision to the U.S. Army and the nation which spans the globe. From their post at Fort Gordon, Ga., the team contributes to the fight in support of Operation Enduring Freedom by aiding the scouts and sentries as the eyes of the battlefield.
"The geospatial imagery mission for the 297th and the Theater Ground Intelligence Center provides intelligence support to tactical, operational and strategic levels not replicated anywhere else within U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command," said Capt. Tyler S. Paschal, commander, Company A, 297th MI Battalion.
To achieve this, the Soldiers of the 297th MI Battalion's imagery section capture images through various methods for the purpose of translating or "exploiting" the images for intelligence and data which commanders on the ground can use to their advantage.
"We exploit images here for use on the battlefield," said Robert Cornett, the division chief for the 513th MI Brigade's imagery section. "We look at an image and derive intelligence from it with diverse application."
"Diverse application" may be a conservative way to describe a capability as technologically intense as military imagery. The imagery mission is backed by an astounding arsenal of near-futuristic gadgets which allow commanders on the ground to see the full-range combat zone before their troops even step out from their post.
"Anything from vehicle placement, troop movements and disturbances in the environment tell us a story we deliver to the battlefield," Cornett said. "Images we provide to the unit are also used for convoy and route planning, helicopter landing zone placement, improvised explosive device-defeat strategy, training and more."
The 297th MI Battalion leaders and Soldiers take great pride in the 24/7 support for deployed U.S. military units in the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Army Forces Command area of responsibility with "eye in the sky" support from across the world.
"Our Soldiers support CENTCOM with panchromatic and infrared imagery," said Spc. Archie Edwards, an imagery specialist with more than five years of experience supporting troops from afar.
Panchromatic, or visible imagery, refers to what is best equated as a photographic reproduction of what can be seen by the naked eye. Infrared imagery captures heat signatures, usually at night, and replicates them into useable data, sometimes placed against daylight environmental images.
In other words, the imagery capability of units like the 297th MI Battalion is so refined they can give you the best view of the battlefield without you having to learn how to fly or see in the dark.
To do this, many technologies are used, ranging from traditional satellite imagery to cutting-edge technology such as the "unattended ground sensor."
"It is a camouflaged security sensor on the ground capable of taking hundreds of traditional or thermal photos a day," said Cornett. "Seismic and acoustic sensors transmit non-photographical data which can be used to gather data on environmental disturbances nearby such as explosions or fires."
With tools such as the unattended ground sensors taking up residence all across the battlefield, hidden in plain sight, while feeding data to imagery satellites and stations worldwide, the imagery mission can detect and report significant events within a matter of a few hours.
"We can collect the information immediately," said Cornett. "From that time we can exploit the data for use in a couple of hours."
For the Soldiers of the 297th MI Battalion, time is always a factor and great emphasis is placed on collecting and analyzing data from their images to meet mission requirements. For Edwards, no consideration is more important than getting the vital information in a timely manner because mission success and the lives of servicemembers may be on the line.
"Requests for information have an assigned priority with the highest priority being an image turnaround of a few hours," said Edwards, explaining the time-requirement priority level system of resolving imagery requests. "We try to get deployed units the information they need to get everybody back safely. There's always someone in the office here ready to help and we're on-call every day, if needed."
The support for deployed troops seems to be destined to evolve as exponentially as our technology. For someone like Cornett, who has seen the tools of the trade develop and advance by incredible levels in as little as five years, he believes the best picture of the battlefield is yet to come.
"We'll have a lot more than a flat picture to offer," said Cornett. "Think of a radio signal. You'd see a line and then a spike when an event or anomaly is detected. We'll be able to identify and analyze that spike through a library of known data and find out what that event was in an instant.
"Then that 'spike' data will be used to identify something like a generator in a 3D virtual model of a room," Cornett added. "By combining many different disciplines, from the composition of the walls, to chemical energy, to the energy spikes in the room, we can get a real good picture of what our Soldiers will encounter before they get there and allow them to prepare accordingly."
Whatever the future may hold for the U.S. troops who find themselves deployed in harm's way, their families can rest assured that, should dangers become present, units like the 297th MI Battalion, 513th MI Brigade, will take on the role of modern sentries with a field of vision limited only by the span of the globe and help bring them home safely.
"The Soldiers juggle mission requirements with training and unit requirements flawlessly and work tirelessly to ensure all intelligence is disseminated within 24 to 72 hours for priority one products," said Paschal. "The Soldiers in the shop love their job."