By 1st Lt. Andrew B Layton, 110th Attack WingJune 14, 2018
RIGA, Latvia -- For the first two weeks of June 2018, Intelligence analysts from the 217th Air Operations Group, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., teamed with Latvian counterparts to test a newly developed component of the European Partner Integration Enterprise (EPIE) that allows for the execution of coalition Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations in a deployed environment. The capability, established to support NATO's UNIFIED VISION 2018 ISR trial from a secure site in Latvia's capital city, sounds as cutting-edge as it is complex: even a brief conversation with team members unleashes a flurry of acronyms, policy, and references to procedures designed to provide decision-makers with timely and accurate information demanded in the execution of theater-level strategy objectives.
It's important work, to say the least.
What makes this engagement unique is that it field-tests all aspects of deploying an EPIE ISR "extension kit" -- essentially a portable suite of Intelligence systems -- for the first time. Where historically a NATO partner-nation's ability to share ISR data was limited to the sharing of ISR products developed by individual nations, U.S. and coalition partner intelligence specialists are now able to engage the full spectrum of ISR operations in a truly integrated, collaborative environment from anywhere in the world.
According to the U.S. Air Forces, Europe (USAFE) Coalition ISR Integration Branch Chief, this achievement represents a synergy between two long-established programs: EPIE and the U.S. National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program (SPP).
"EPIE is an environment that promotes multi-national processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of geospatial-intelligence data," said the USAFE branch chief. "When we have coalition partners working side-by-side, they become familiar with our imagery and intelligence exploitation capabilities. That's important because while we are also developing new methods for processing information, all parties involved are learning how to integrate when we work as a coalition or with NATO, making it much more effective."
Currently, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the U.S. are the primary developers of collaborative ISR capabilities at EPIE. More recently, Canada and Spain have begun expanding their roles; additionally Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Croatia, and the U.K. have supported EPIE activities in some capacity.
According to the USAFE branch chief, there's true serendipity in the teaming of Latvian Intel analysts with counterparts from the Michigan Air National Guard. This year, Michigan and Latvia are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of their collaboration under the SPP, established in 1993 with cooperation from the U.S. State Department after the Cold War. The Michigan-Latvia link has matured into one of the longest-standing and most fruitful relationships in the SPP now recognized as a highly successful global security cooperation with 74 unique relationships between partner nations and the National Guard organizations of various U.S. states.
"To do something like this, we needed to rely on the guard or reserves; USAFE had funding for man-days, we just had to find the personnel to activate," said the USAFE branch chief. "With Michigan, there was a pre-existing foundation of trust that we saw the opportunity to capitalize on."
More than three years into their own ISR program, Latvia brings analysts that are familiar with the strategic challenges faced in the Baltic region.
"We learn different ways of doing Intelligence analysis from the Latvians," said the USAFE branch chief. "They add their unique experience to the program and the mutual benefits from that are enormous -- they're another key NATO partner to help inform the coalition ISR tactics, techniques, and procedures that we're developing."
Ultimately, a total of nine personnel -- six from Michigan and three from Latvia -- were chosen to participate in the Riga field test. Among them were two communications specialists, also from Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., to provide information technology support during the EPIE kit's set-up.
Filling the role of senior EPIE coalition ISR subject-matter expert was a Master Sgt. from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, whose experience proved critical, as the issues of compatibility and interoperability were first being addressed among the team. The lessons learned will help serve team cohesion for future EPIE initiatives.
"We had less than ten days in Germany to prepare before deploying with the extension kit to Latvia," said the Royal Dutch Air Force Master Sgt. "It helped that our analysts were all really experienced -- they knew exactly what they were talking about when we started -- we just had to tailor a few things to fit the EPIE model."
Once in-place at their site in Riga, the team began working together to exploit real-world intelligence. Officials believe this achievement will be remembered as a paradigm shift in how the success of future coalition ISR operations is defined.
"Interoperability is just the sharing of data -- what we're doing is more integration, or actually participating in the processes together," said the USAFE branch chief. "A Latvian, an Estonian, or a Brit can do the same process with the same systems that we use, so instead of 'Hey, Latvia, I can see the data that you're collecting,' it's now, 'I can build the product for you that you're expecting, because I understand the workflow and the procedures.'"
Great as the strategic implications of this capability may be, the most tangible results may still be at the basic, human level.
"The extension kit working for the first time gives us a very good direction for future operations," said one of the team's Latvian analysts. "But for me, it has meant more exposure to the cycle of knowledge as it applies to our combined operations -- that, and the fact that I've really enjoyed working with my colleagues from Michigan."
The team's ranking member from Michigan, an intelligence officer with the 217th Air Operations Group, agrees wholeheartedly.
"I can't praise the Latvian National Armed Forces enough for their hospitality and cooperation, which is what allowed us to field-test this capability in a very unique setting," he said. "This really helps to strengthen the partnership with our Latvian counterparts while working to further USAFE and U.S. European Command (EUCOM) goals."