It is interesting how six months and a hearty roles and missions debate can get the military talking. In October, U.S. Army officials declined to discuss the secretive "Task Force ODIN." They confirmed it existed, but wouldn't say what it was. We reported in Aviation Week & Space Technology Oct. 30, 2006 that the specialized task force of sensors and airborne assets was being formed to tackle the problematic issue of detecting improvised explosive devices from the air.
It seems the Army is ready to tout the task force's early successes. And it is no coincidence that Army is being loose-lipped now. The service is, after all, in an all-out defensive posture against USAF Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley's not-so-subtle attempt to take over procurement of and operational management of all UAV's flying over 3,500 ft.
So, the pressure is on and Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody is taking to the air waves – at least with a group of tecchie trade reporters that assembled for his press briefing during last week's annual Army Aviation Assn. of America conference in Atlanta.
Cody unveiled a video tape – declassified for the press briefing -- of what he says is an example of responsive reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) processes in Iraq resulting from the knitting together of the elusive Task Force ODIN recce assets and the tried and true Apache attack helicopter. (We asked for the video, but the Army's not releasing it yet, fearing it could fall into the wrong hands, it seems).
Though he declined to identify all asset parts of ODIN, he confirmed our earlier report of modified C-12s, fixed-wing UAVs and other sensors.
The video opens with a group of individuals – deemed insurgents - displayed in the Apache's forward-looking infrared sensor. They are grouped along a known Army convoy route in Iraq, the general says. The insurgents are within audible range of the helicopter and take shelter under nearby palm trees, though they are clearly visible in the infrared. The Apache, having been spotted, returns to base to refuel.
The targets, however, are handed off to an Army Shadow and Block 0 Warrior – a much less capable variant of the soon-to-be produced ERMP Predator variant. At this point, officials in the Tactical Operations Center witness the individuals planting suspected IEDs. Upon target confirmation, an Apache is dispatched to the location with precision coordinates and engages the individuals with its Hellfire missiles.
The explosion on the infrared is large, the result of a direct hit by the Hellfire to the IED, Cody says. The individuals disperse, and Cody switched the video off before the Apache attacks them directly with gunfire. The net result of the engagement: an Army convoy was rerouted to avoid the hostile activity as the Apache engaged.
The key, Cody says, is the direct video feed from the Warrior that relays the entire engagement to the TOC and provides instant battle damage assessment. The kinetic portion of the engagement lasted less than 5 mins, he adds, including damage assessment.
And it is this tactical responsiveness the Army is fighting tooth and nail to preserve under their own command, by keeping their own UAV assets under control of ground commanders. It is unclear how this brand of sensor-to-shooter targeting and engagement is different than the Air Force's – which often employs the dispatch of precision-guided munitions with similar effect. Ultimately, Army leaders worry that having to coordinate these types of engagements through the Air Force-led combined forces air component commander – which oversees air operations across the entire U.S. Central Command theater – would water down their response time. And, that is what Moseley is proposing as he continues to push for CFACC management of all airborne recce and UAV assets over 3,500 ft. in theater.
Preaching a responsibility for "jointness" and "interdependence," Cody draws the line at altering his concepts of operation, including those shown in the video. The Army, it seems, wants to share what its UAVs are seeing with its sister services via datalink and at the ops center, but it doesn't want white scarf blue-suiters running its recce ops and tasking its sensors.
Thus, the new found transparency about ODIN. "We are moving faster than folks think," he says, clearly making an argument that it isn't time to fix what he thinks is already working. Army acquisition secretary Claude Bolton agrees. A former white-scarf blue suiter, Bolton has seemingly gone green. He says the Air Force's UAV executive agency proposal would be better addressed after the Iraq war is over. This strategy would, obviously, buy the Army some time given experts predict at least a decade more of U.S. presence there. During an impromptu q-and-a with reporters at the show, Bolton says that the existing UAV management structures – through the UAV joint center of excellence –- are effective. "If they are good enough for combat, they should be good enough for everyone else," he says.
What's changed since last year, prompting him to declassify ODIN's existence? Apparently, ODIN has begun to arrive in theater and is operating. Cody says 50% of the fixed wing assets and 100% of the early-model Warrior UAVs are there as well as revised battle control elements and concepts of operation. Cody says the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade is spearheading the effort in Iraq. And, he says, full operational capability will be achieved in June.
And, of course, there is that UASF breathing down the Army's neck about UAV management.