ISR technology key to victory in Afghanistan, Cartwright says

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at the GEOINT 2010 Symposium called for broader and better fielding of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology in Afghanistan.

Nearly a decade of war is taking a major toll on the U.S. military and economy, and combined with complex technological needs, it’s proving to be a tough road for troops in the ongoing Southwest Asia conflict, according to one senior Defense Department official.

“The reality is we are in the ninth year of this war and that tends to be lost on many,” said Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We also, as a nation, are at really unprecedented levels of debt. Grand strategy is all about your ability to match resource to need. At some point, we’re dangerously close to not having the resource for the need.”

Part of the problem is the government’s approach to developing and acquiring technologies, according to Cartwright, who spoke Nov. 4 at the GEOINT 2010 Symposium in New Orleans.

“As a nation, we’re basically still in our incentive structures, our governance is locked in an industrial construct and yet we’re an IT world. We haven’t quite figured out how to square that,” he said. “Frankly, it’s easy to get a $50 billion grant for ships, airplanes or spacecraft; it’s impossible to get $1 billion for an IT system. And yet, that’s where our leverage is.”

The chasm between the two acquisition approaches is widened by military culture, he added.

Cartwright also took aim at the current state of key tools of modern warfare: Platforms, sensors and data. He said that better intelligence technology, such as full-motion video and wide-area surveillance, need to be more persistent and fielded more quickly.

“The utility of a still image is not useful on the battlefield,” he said. Instead, service members on the ground and analysts need to be able to understand the “pattern of life” provided by full-motion video.

He also stressed the importance of all data being online and accessible.

“Everything we’re doing today has got to move to digital so that we can store [data], manipulate it, move it to whoever needs it and do it in a timely fashion,” Cartwright said. He expressed frustration with proprietary data standards and formats that hinder information-sharing, which could prevent U.S. forces from keeping up with the enemy.

“This is real. This is not a game. This is important stuff, and making sure that the institution stays aligned and focused on what it is we need to win this fight – what it is we need to give to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines so that they walk home – is very near and dear to my heart,” Cartwright said. “This is a lot more than a business case.”