Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled sweeping plans to re-orient the military towards dull, dirty, low-tech wars. The revamp means big bucks for intelligence, including airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance in the form of manned and unmanned airplanes. “We will increase Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance support for the warfighter in the base  budget by some $2 billion,” Gates said. “This will include … increasing manned ISR capabilities such as the turbo-prop aircraft deployed so successfully as part of ‘Task Force Odin’ in Iraq.”
You might recall that the three-year-old TF Odin, run by the Army using only Army equipment, combines armed helicopters and drones, manned planes and ground terminals to “lash up” folks on the ground, and systems in the air, in a tight network that can spot and kill insurgents — especially those planting IEDs — in just minutes. It was a huge step for counter-insurgency air power in Iraq, so huge that the Pentagon is setting up a similar task force in Afghanistan to protect the vital “ring road” circling the country.
So how is the Air Force applying lessons learned from Odin, especially in light of Gates’ enthusiastic endorsement?
It’s not, said Colonel Eric Holdaway, ISR boss for Central Command. He called Odin a “good model … for a specific mission.” That mission being counter-IED. Otherwise, he said, the Air Force already knows how to provide quick intel to ground troops and hit pop-up targets identified by overhead surveillance. Besides, he added, “Air Force obligations tend to be broader” and more strategic than Odin’s strictly tactical mission.
Problem is, in a counter-insurgency, tactical is strategic. Providing better surveillance to the Army and Marine brigades on the ground will have a cumulative effect on the whole war. As for Holdaway’s point that the Air Force already knows how to lash up ISR and ground forces … if that were truly the case, why did the Army even need TF Odin?
Update: Holdaway generously writes in with this addendum:
I fear I didn’t do a very good job answering your question about TF Odin yesterday, and now I’ve had some time to think about it I think I can provide a more thoughtful answer. We are working together with TF Odin in Iraq, and I anticipate we’ll be doing more in Afghanistan than we were able to do in Iraq.
In Iraq, as we deploy the MC-12W aircraft we will be sharing dissemination communications networks with TF Odin. They have offered to let us use some of their existing networks, and in turn we are expanding same to add capacity. Cooperation is mostly virtual, with their flyers and [Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination] at Camp Speicher and ours mostly in the Air Force [Distributed Common Ground Systems]. That said, some of our Airmen deployed to Camp Speicher in the early days of TF Odin to provide PED, and they doubtless brought some of that experience back to their home units in the Air Force DCGS. Operationally we are linked to them through the Collection Management and Dissemination offices at MNF-I and MNC-I, with whom we work very closely on a daily (often hourly) basis.
I was at TF Odin Afghanistan two weeks ago, and they seem very eager to welcome our Airmen. I think we’re going to take this cooperation much further in Afghanistan than we have been able to do in Iraq. TF Odin Afghanistan has offered to host the MC-12W PED airmen in their facilities there, and we’ve gratefully accepted. My planners have been working with them, and they are very happy with the welcome they’ve gotten. Since both organizations will be building up almost at the same time, I believe they will grow and learn together. I intend to give them plenty of latitude to figure out how they want to work, and certainly the airmen and the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan will come up with much better ideas than this old colonel could.
(Photo: via Flickr)