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NEWS | Nov. 25, 2013

JBLE 24/7: Intel Airmen decide on, direct ISR operations across the globe

By Senior Airman Jason J. Brown 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to the sensitivity of the Air Force ISR mission, the last names of personnel have been removed in this article.

The bustling rush-hour traffic across Langley Air Force Base has quieted to a slow crawl of occasional headlights; the once-packed parking lots now nearly vacant, awash in the amber warmth of street lamps to buffer the darkness of the impending night.

Most of Langley's 18,000 Airmen and civilian personnel have left for the day; their tasks completed. However, the U.S. Air Force's mission never stops, as witnessed by the dedicated personnel, who work late into the night to accomplish their objectives.

Airmen working in the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing Operations Center are among these night-shift warriors, working diligently to provide support to the Air Force's ISR mission.

The WOC serves as the hub for all ISR taskings for the Air Force's network of distributed ground stations and exploitation sites around the globe. The Airmen working in the WOC facilitate the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) mission, fielding support requirements from the various combatant commands and allocating those requirements to the proper sites based upon joint-forces guidance.

The sites provide ISR support for a multitude of global missions, in which analysts analyze and report pertinent information to the supported units and COCOMs, providing warfighters "eyes in the sky" information to help them safely accomplish their mission objectives.

During the daytime shift, the 480th ISR Wing command staff works in-house, providing vital directives to the Airmen working throughout the wing in one of the many 24/7 mission sets. As the base empties in the evening, most of the wing staff retires for the day, while the WOC continues to provide around-the-clock ISR exploitation management.

A corps of approximately 20 ISR professionals occupies the WOC during the nighttime hours to manage -- with razor-sharp accuracy -- what is arguably among the Air Force's most critical missions.

"You have one team of 10 to 12 [enlisted] Airmen, a few civilians and one officer, [allocating] exploitation for all the [ISR] sites in the entire world," said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Wes, WOC night shift crew commander. "To us, it's just what we do; but, it's truly amazing the scope of operations our Airmen have [to] control."

The Air Force operates thousands of ISR assets, including a fleet of remotely piloted aircraft -- commonly referred to as drones -- traditional surveillance aircraft, and other equipment to capture information practically anywhere in the world.

Wes said that information needs to be analyzed and explained, as it is not initially captured in an easy-to-understand and usable format. Airmen tailor information and products for supported units on the battlefield.

"[Warfighters] can't sift through those thousands of hours of feed -- they simply don't have the time," he explained. "They need somebody who has the right training to look through that raw information in a calm, cool and collected environment, and give them the information they're looking for. We make that happen."

According to Wes, the advent of drone technology approximately 15 years ago saw ISR missions as somewhat of a luxury to commanders, even an afterthought at times. Now ISR products are critical, and decision makers around the world in practically every major operation require reliable intelligence processed by way of the Air Force's ISR sites -- thus placing the burden of responsibility on the Airmen of the WOC to continue their attention to detail, vigilance and diligence in arranging the ISR exploitation support puzzle.

"We have assets around the globe, so there's a lot of logistics and a lot could happen," Wes said. "We're making sure our plan is as good as possible, and dynamic -- it is a war, and we need to be able to respond to requirements as they come up so [combatant commanders] can make the decisions in time."

Wes likened arranging the complexities of taking exploitation requests, finding the right site to execute it, and providing quality control to the puzzle game Tetris -- taking the requests in and "making it all fit together."

"The Airmen are brilliant at fitting these [requirements] in the schedule, making it all work and ensuring we maximize the efficiency of our sites," he said.

Senior Airman Kristina, 27th Intelligence Squadron PED Command and Control controller, spends her 12-hour-shifts tucked away in the WOC, aligning exploitation for Air Operation Centers' approved scheduled missions for Air Force ISR assets on the other side of the globe. The sterile environment, boasting banks of computers, a wall of large monitors and banks of secret data, can be disorienting at times, she said. However, understanding the gravity of her contributions to the expanding mission downrange keeps her focused.

"We don't see the cause and effect here because we're physically detached... but I've reached out to our sites and had them explain exactly how we're impacting their duties," she said. "I've been here nearly four years, and have seen [our mission] grow from small to now huge schedules."

Senior Airman Thomas, 27th IS Maintenance Control Center controller, monitors and tracks outages and scheduled maintenance requests that affect the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System's communications network and various assets. His efforts ensure uninterrupted exploitation support to missions and give wing leadership the ability to foresee what the weapon system is capable of at any given time.

Thomas echoed Kristina's sentiment, emphasizing how fluid the Air Force's ISR mission is and how that dynamic environment keeps him zeroed in.

"Intelligence is constantly changing. The workload has increased, and from week to week you can be doing something completely different than the week before," Thomas said. "Positive feedback from our sites really makes an impact on us, because that's what affirms why we're doing what we're doing. I look at the feeds from our missions, and it helps me stay vigilant."

Due to the sensitivity of their missions, WOC Airmen are very limited as to what they can talk about publicly with respect to their jobs. As the amount of ISR missions has increased, so has the misperception of what Air Force ISR professionals actually do - something the Airmen called "frustrating."

"Our main point is not to drop bombs...we'd rather get a hold of the bad guy and figure out more information and avoid collateral damage where we can," Wes said. "You turn on the news and hear about drone strikes and how we indiscriminately use these assets to attack people, and that's simply not the case."

Kristina said the frustration stems not only from those outside the military, but even among fellow Airmen who aren't privileged to the details of her sensitive mission, nor the massive impact of what she does.

"People ask what I do, and all I can really say is 'I make schedules,' and they'll look at me kind of blankly," Kristina said. "Even our partners at the [ISR] sites don't always understand the scope of what we're doing. They may have 10 aircraft to deal with. We are scheduling easily [exploitation to] more than a hundred flights around the world at any given time. That puts things into perspective, knowing what I'm doing is impacting such a massive scale of operations across the world. It's really amazing."

"With that in mind, the seriousness of our mission never changes from day shift to night shift, and wing leadership expects there will be no loss in terms of proficiency," Wes continued. "The world has changed; the war has changed, and now ISR is absolutely instrumental in any operation that goes down anywhere in the world."