USAF Blue Devil Sensor Fusion Program


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Apr 21, 2009
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From Insidedefense Newsstand;

USAF Winds Down Blue Devil Program While Preparing Response To Hill

Posted: Jan. 22, 2014

The Air Force's recent experiment in intelligence sensor fusion known as the Blue Devil program is in the process of winding down -- but congressional interest in the effort remains high, with recently approved legislation on Capitol Hill urging the Air Force to develop a plan for a replacement system within months.

Widely known as a failed attempt to utilize airships to perform persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Blue Devil is more accurately described as a fused sensor package mounted on a variety of platforms that is able share wide-area motion imagery, signals intelligence and other kinds of data with tactical units in close to real time. Blue Devil has been classified as an "operational demonstration," not a program of record, and is broken into two separate efforts: Blue Devil I successfully operated those sensors on a group of aging fixed-wing aircraft in Afghanistan, while Blue Devil II tried to adapt that technology package onto an airship, with poor results.

According to a trio of Air Force officials, who spoke with Inside the Air Force on background, Blue Devil I was fielded quickly in 2010 in response to a request from U.S. Central Command to support troops on the ground trying to counter improvised explosive devices. The group of four King Air A90 aircraft, which date back to the 1970s, operated almost continuously from the fall of 2010 until the end of 2013, when CENTCOM deemed the Blue Devil I mission no longer necessary as part of the Pentagon's broader drawdown from Afghanistan.

"The actual demonstration has concluded as of 31 December . . . and the airplanes are on their way home," one of the officials said. The Air Force is just beginning the process of assessing the program and its lessons learned, as well as determining a new application for the collection of sensors that made Blue Devil effective in theater within the Air Force Research Lab or other organizations, another said. That sensor package is government property.

The aircraft, however, are not. Five King Air aircraft -- four deployed and one used as a spare or for testing in the United States -- were originally leased by the Air Force from contractor SAIC in 2006 as part of a program known as Angel Fire that deployed to Iraq. The service considered multiple acquisition strategies for those platforms pending the need to continue the Blue Devil I mission. But with the operational demonstration over, the Air Force decided neither to purchase them nor to extend their lease, which congressional limitations on the length of a lease may have prevented regardless. The aircraft are being returned to Leidos, a company that spun off from SAIC since the lease was initiated and now owns the airplanes, early this year.

"The program was put together for, 'What can we do quickly at modest cost for an urgent capability?'" one of the officials said. "It was not, 'What makes sense in the long term and what is the most sustainable, cost-effective approach?' When the urgent need is gone, you have to step back and say, 'Now what makes sense for me and for the future?' And keeping these old A90s is probably not the right answer."

Congress watching

Despite CENTCOM's directive to wrap up Blue Devil activities in theater, Congress has clearly expressed its desire that the Air Force maintain the ability to perform wide-area, multi-sensor ISR missions, be it with Blue Devil I aircraft or other platforms. The fiscal year 2014 Defense Authorization Act and the omnibus appropriations legislation passed by the House and Senate last week both include language to that affect.

According to the authorizing legislation, signed by President Obama in December, the secretary of the Air Force must "develop a plan to sustain the operational capabilities of the Blue Devil I ISR Systems, including precision signal geolocation, by procuring the existing Blue Devil I aircraft, developing a new system, or adapting and integrating capabilities from existing and development programs." That gives the Air Force some flexibility in that it has not been ordered to purchase the exact aircraft used for Blue Devil I. Still, the legislative provision mandates that the service keep up the capability in some form -- an obligation that may coincide with service goals to expand ISR capabilities and retain multi-role aircraft fleets.

The recently passed omnibus appropriations bill backs up that authorizing provision with money. According to the bill, the Air Force requested $37.8 million for research and development into "airborne reconnaissance systems" and was given that amount plus an extra $10 million to look into a Blue Devil replacement with wide-area motion imagery and near-vertical, direction-finding signals intelligence capabilities. President Obama signed the appropriations bill into law on Jan. 17.

The authorization bill also requests that the Air Force describe the cost of procuring and operating a Blue Devil-like system and a listing of similar programs already in the works by the Air Force or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Mary Danner-Jones said in a Jan. 17 email that the service was given 90 days after the enactment of the authorization bill to prepare that response to Congress, giving it until around March 26 to finalize the plan.

Neither bill makes any mention of the airship concept that was represented in Blue Devil II, instead focusing on the "precision signal geolocation" capability that Blue Devil I demonstrated, albeit in a permissive airborne environment with unique weather and other characteristics. One of the officials noted that the system was optimized for Afghanistan's "urban desert" environment, and that it may not work as well in other climates or terrains.

The Air Force refused to comment on its plans for adapting Blue Devil-style sensors for future use until it submits a formal response to members of Congress. The service does own other relatively small, fixed-wing manned aircraft, plus a growing fleet of unmanned planes, that could potentially take on this technology, and the officials mentioned the MC-12 Liberty and MQ-9 Reaper as possible hosts for the sensor package.

Operational and policy challenges

The officials acknowledged a handful of challenges in fielding and operating the Blue Devil fleet in Afghanistan, primary among them the process of getting clearance to share data at various classification levels with members of a multinational military coalition.

First off, the sensors on board the aircraft were collecting some data, such as signals intelligence information, that is more sensitive than others, like imagery of largely uninhabited terrain. That meant the data fused together by the Blue Devil package had multiple "data guards" and levels of security.

The second and perhaps more critical issue was ensuring that data was classified and distributed appropriately to troops in battle. One of the officials acknowledged that there is a tendency to overclassify intelligence information; in this case, though, classifying too many data packages as "top secret" would have prevented soldiers on the ground from accessing them, so there was an effort made to properly define information as top secret, secret or at other levels.

"You've got to be able to push product out at the appropriate classification, so you can't just classify everything at the highest level and just leave it there, because then people who do need it -- typically the gunfighters walking around the cities are not [top secret] cleared," he said. "A lot of them are barely secret and that's all they need, so they wouldn't get the data. So you have to be able to package the data appropriately for the level of classification the customer needs."

Adding yet more complexity to the situation, ISR collected by Blue Devil I aircraft needed to be distributed not only to Americans but to partner nation troops participating in the war in Afghanistan and to Afghans themselves. That demanded a further level of security and scrutiny.

Aside from data security, the officials described writing the software that enabled Blue Devil's sensor fusion capabilities as a technical challenge. However, because the program was an operational demonstration, there was some latitude in being able to constantly refresh or improve the software in the field over time.

Last, the officials described the King Air A90's leasing situation as somewhat problematic because by statute, aircraft can only be leased for up to five years. In the past, Congress had granted the Blue Devil program a six-month extension to continue its lease with Leidos, but a continuing lease arrangement would have required special permission from Congress.

All told, the officials viewed the operational demonstration as a success both as an examination of airborne sensor fusion technologies, and as an effective counter-IED platform.

"[Blue Devil] was very useful to the warfighter, and in a sense, it was the first integrated multi-INT platform that we had fielded over there," one of the officials said. "There's many multi-sensor platforms, but they're not necessarily integrated. This was the first attempt to fuse and integrate on board the platform." -- Gabe Starosta

sublight is back

ACCESS: Top Secret
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Aug 25, 2012
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The USAF has a black world near space LTA platform, but for institutional reasons is resisting getting a white world version.


ACCESS: Confidential
May 28, 2007
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I'm wondering why they would classify some of the data packages at "top secret level" when secret or confidential seems all that's needed on a tactical asset like these ISR platforms. Frankly if its used in the tactical sense or is not a national asset like NRO or CIA sats then it should be available to all commanders and troops who require it be they American or foreign.

I'm sure we have LOTS of "black" hardware out there in use but if its only available for a limited amount of people and organizations, what's the point. Not providing info or intelligence to the troops or commanders on the ground because they're not cleared on something could risk their lives and when there's better options out there...why not use it and provide it.

Frankly, if the Russians and Chinese and NATO know about certain hardware that troops or commanders don't, and could be used....that's pretty stupid.

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