Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pentagon mounts 2.2 billion dollar push for war zone surveillance

The Pentagon is mounting a 2.2 billion dollar effort to dramatically expand surveillance of Iraq and Afghanistan by manned and unmanned spy planes, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Congress has approved the reprogramming of 1.2 billion dollars in defense funds to rapidly enhance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection in the war zones, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

"This funding is required and been requested to increase and enhance the ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities in Centcom," he said referring to the US Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has signed off on a follow-on package worth another billion dollars that will add analysts and infrastructure to sustain the expansion, as well as additional ISR assets, Whitman and other officials said.

Gates created a special task force in April to come up with ways to meet an exploding demand from commanders for drones and aircraft capable of providing real time, full motion video coverage of the battlefield.

He complained at the time that he had been wrestling for months to get more assets to the theater, but "because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth."

The aim is reported to be to increase the number of 24-hour-a-day surveillance patrols from about a dozen a day a year ago to 44.

A Pentagon official said combat air patrols by MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft currently number 27 a day, and the goal is to have 33 a day by the end of the year.

But it turns out that the quickest way to increase coverage has been to outfit manned C-12 aircraft, a twin engine turbo prop built by Beechcraft, with advanced surveillance sensors that provide full motion video.

The Pentagon will field 21 of the aircraft in fiscal 2008, and plans to acquire 30 more in 2009, Pentagon officials said.

The reprogrammed monies also "will assist our efforts to grow the UAV capability in such platforms as Shadow, Predator, Reaper, Raven and Hunter," Whitman said, referring to drones operated by the army, air force and marines.

"It will allow us to buy additional ScanEagle detachments, funding contractors to be able to have additional orbits of various platforms, infrastructure improvements to be able to operate some of these things," he said.

A Pentagon official said ScanEagle, a small surveillance drone operated by the marines, will be the only new unmanned aircraft bought with the reprogrammed money.

But manning is being increased to maximize the use of drones like Predator and Reaper, and contractors are being hired to operate more Shadows, a low flying unmanned aircraft used by the army, he said.

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