The Birth of the Problem-Centric Sensor-Agnostic Methodology

Estimated Read Time: 8 Minutes
By Charles Crouse

Now a commonplace, ongoing, and growing feature amongst the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) community (especially within the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) infrastructure and in select airborne intelligence units), problem-centric, sensor-agnostic (PCSA) had humble origins at the 3rd Intelligence Squadron (IS) at Fort Gordon, Georgia in mid to late 2015. 

Prior to PCSA being established, intelligence analysis was still extremely stove-piped, despite improvements in information sharing since the attacks on 9/11. Traditionally, at the analyst level, intelligence collected by a unit was processed, exploited, and disseminated (PED) by that unit without additional information to provide greater context. This “you PED what you collect” manifested itself in various forms. For an airborne intelligence squadron, such as the 97th Intelligence Squadron (IS) at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, this meant the mission would proceed and language analysts would only analyze their own platform’s collect to produce intelligence for the customer. For a ground squadron, like the 3rd IS, the analysts would support missions at odd hours and only collect and process intelligence if the mission happened. If the mission did not go and/or once the mission was complete, the analyst’s job was considered complete, usually ending further analysis. This prevented a deeper understanding of the problem set at hand and did not unleash the true talent of the analysts. In both cases, the customer was left with inadequate intelligence that did not answer key questions. 

Figure 1. 3rd Intelligence Squadron Patch

To remedy this problem of inadequate analysis and the resulting finished intelligence, leadership at the 3rd IS changed the existing model and shifted analysts towards problem sets rather than attaching them rigidly to support the aircraft, and the subsequent intelligence collected, only when they flew. Airmen were free to analyze holistically once they were able to focus on problem sets rather than specific missions.  The new methodology provided various resources at their disposal versus whatever collections they could garner from jets on any particular mission. Shifting from the old way accelerated discussions between leaders within the 3rd IS and the Target Offices of Primary Interest (TOPIs), which are the National Security Agency (NSA) leads for respective regions. These discussions eventually evolved into Airmen talking directly to the TOPIs, along with other key offices down in Georgia, to ensure the more efficient use of resources in responding to customer needs.

This model was a huge success, leading to vastly increased reporting and a more engaged relationship with key partners on site in Georgia and abroad, all of which led to a more satisfied customer. As a secondary effect, the retention rates skyrocketed with Airmen on more predictable schedules and no longer tied to missions at odd hours. This retention helped to preserve the most precious resource of the military; the people. With the Airmen in good spirits, the mission was able to go on at full speed and helped to pave a new way for Air Force intelligence. The new model would only grow and develop as the leadership of the 3rd IS took their talents to Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska.

Figure 2. 97th Intelligence Squadron Patch
(The Shadows)

In mid-2017, the 97th Intelligence Squadron and its incredibly talented pool of linguists and signals analysts with worldwide reach received new leadership with a brand new vision. Using the lessons learned at the 3rd IS and applying them to a far more diverse array of mission sets with various stakeholders, analysts caught on quickly and scored major analytic and reporting victories. The initial efforts were difficult, as a few linguists, a couple of officers, and one key civilian hire attempted to transform a community that had been stuck in its’ Rivet Joint (RJ) centric ways for decades. Resistance was present early on, and never truly went away inside or outside the 97th IS.  However, it greatly diminished as the grassroots efforts by a few language analysts turned into important analytic “wins” and key products to the customer.

The first big “wins” for the PCSA methodology in the 97th IS came from an unlikely source with many analysts and not enough mission. Due to manning cuts in certain languages and shifting national priorities, the Pashto/Dari regional language flight within the 97th IS was unique in being overmanned and “under-missioned.” With very few deployments abroad to hone the skills of the linguists and constantly sifting through the “backlog,” the Airmen were new to the PCSA methodology and motivated to inflict radical change. 

The first analytic “wins” occurred when several linguists became familiar with the NSA corporate analytic tools and coordinated with the TOPI for authorization to analyze and produce reports under TOPI purview. In other words, the TOPI would give authorization to analyze and report on focus items and/or targets they did not have the bandwidth for, often giving wide latitude for quality control and independent analysis.

While the 97th IS analysts (Shadows) focused on an area or set of areas/targets, the TOPIs focused on their top priorities and finished intelligence would be distributed to the wider International Community (IC) in a more efficient, federated manner. This led to a more manageable workload for the TOPI, value-added work for the Shadows, and additional context for analyzing and understanding intelligence problem sets, regardless of RC-135 mission allocations. When the Airmen did eventually deploy, they were more prepared than ever before, with a constant stream of useful analysis and target language skills to develop as intelligence professionals. With these early “wins,” the foundation for skilled analysis and higher morale was set; other sections would quickly follow suit.

The next “wins” occurred in the Arabic regional language flight within the 97th IS, with a trove of analytic rockstars that had roots in PCSA-type skills built in the years prior to PCSA, this became a solid vision. Arabic analysts were critical in the fight to remove ISIS from Iraq and Syria.  Using wider IC tools from the NSA and coordinating with TOPI and in-house SMEs, they became experts on the Syrian regime. The overall battlefield came to a head in April 2018, when the White House struck multiple chemical weapons facilities in Syria. The analysts supported the strikes with near-instantaneous intelligence, delivering post-strike indications in a matter of minutes. This intelligence was delivered to key customers at home and abroad and became a huge turning point for the normalization of the PCSA methodology.

In the months following the successes outlined above, other flights followed suit with enthusiasm. The Russian linguists began to achieve major analytic “wins,” informing EUCOM and NORTHCOM customers with key intelligence. Some of this intelligence was created with insight and graphic products from the Signals Analysis flight within the 97th IS, a non-language entity that focused on the signal search and development of new adversary communications. 

The graphical products were a huge hit with the customer, as were the products disseminated to NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM customers by the Spanish regional language flight in response to various crises in theater. Many of these products were developed with the help of publicly available information (PAI), and the analysts became adept at searching and integrating an enormous amount of information from well outside their traditional stove-piped mentalities, often seen in platform-centric intelligence units. 

The analytic fire had been lit, and valuable intelligence was delivered by every regional flight to a variety of customers, and the 97th IS became known as a one-stop shop for in-demand finished intelligence for the wider IC. 

Figure 3. Image of 97th Intelligence Squadron building post-flood, March 2019

As the analysis wins continued to mount, the 97th IS and the rest of Offutt AFB were dealt a terrible hand with the flood of March 2019. The rising onslaught of water wiped out one-third of Offutt, including the building specifically built for the 97th IS.  Consequently, the Shadows had to migrate to a small Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) underneath the WWII-era Martin Bomber building. Morale was crushed and computer space was limited to roughly 25 work stations for approximately 500-600 analysts.  

Despite the rough hand dealt, the Shadows still thrived in a variety of ways after the flood. The analysis continued even with diminished capabilities, and the reports from 2018 to 2019 rose (652 vs. 729) while the squadron still met the various requirements levied upon them. 

While analytic efforts struggle due to inadequate facility connectivity, great analysts have moved on to even better careers, the battles were won and PCSA has progressed to mainstream, becoming a new model employed by DCGS and various other intelligence units around the Air Force. 

This spread to the mainstream has been driven by innovation, giving the analysts autonomy, mastery, and purpose, while moving towards faster data access and solving specific problems that should have been commonplace for decades. Instead, deploying Airman to problem sets was a new phenomenon met with hesitation by many. 

With the success of PCSA and the proliferation of it across the IC, this bold vision has tested the way the Air Force and others do business. With the innovative mindset truly taking hold, even at a cost to the old systems, the IC and the products are better off, all while improving the lives and retention of the most valuable resource in the military; the young analysts that made PCSA a success.  

Charles Crouse is a former U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer with experience in VIP airlift, tanker ops, and SIGINT analysis and reporting.  Charles is currently working at Lockheed Martin Space Special Programs in Denver.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Photo by TSgt Ryan Wycoff

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