Aerial ISR Provides Mission Overwatch for Border Mission

By Brandon Pollachek

Operation Big Miguel, a Caravan aircraft with an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance payload helped detect more than 5,500 suspects and 63,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $50.5 million. (U.S. Army photo.)

Technology originally created to track improvised explosive device (IED) networks in Afghanistan and Iraq is finding new purpose in supporting U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with mission overwatch during border patrol missions.

The Product Manager Observe, Detect, and Identify (PdM ODI) assisted Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) with an operation called Big Miguel by providing payloads and operators similar to those used by Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, and Neutralize) during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND) in Iraq. The sensor payload offers electro-optical and laser illumination, which greatly increased situational awareness for U.S. Border Patrol ground agents. Additionally, PdM ODI arranged the contracts that secured a Caravan aircraft as well as the pilots, operators, and mechanics.

In less than a year of support, Big Miguel helped the Border Patrol with more than 200 missions, resulting in the detection of more than 5,500 suspects and 63,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $50.5 million. Detection missions involving the Big Miguel platform also helped law enforcement seize multiple weapons, vehicles, and equipment used by criminal smugglers along the Southwest border.

In defining what has made Big Miguel a success, the product manager responsible for the program found that the personnel involved in the missions have been just as important as the quality of the sensor payload. “I attribute a great deal of Big Miguel’s success to the back-end operator,” said LTC(P) Moises M. Gutierrez, PdM ODI. “The mission commander/operator serves as the strength of this program. Flying in the air, talking on the radio while maneuvering that [electro-optical/infrared] ball at the same time is a tremendous skill set, which is not easily found and requires years of experience.”

There are some major differences between the missions that PdM ODI supports in Afghanistan and Iraq and those in Big Miguel. While flying missions in OEF, OIF, and OND, the aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets for which Gutierrez is responsible must push down raw full-motion video, signal intelligence, and communication intelligence that require more command and control and a full set of ground stations to process and disseminate. Border Patrol mission requirements are not the same as those of ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; however, they do have a requirement for an overwatch mission  to most effectively manage risks associated with transnational criminal organizations.

“The payloads and the back-end operating system are the same,” said Gutierrez. “The CONOP [concept of operations] and TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] are very similar; their relationship with the ground coordination is similar to an analysis system operator in the back of a C-12 talking to the Soldier, just as we have personnel on the Caravan talking to a Border Patrol agent.”

“Lessons learned from OEF/OIF and TF ODIN contributed tremendously to the success of Big Miguel. We applied critical TTPs to each mission as taught and utilized in OEF/OIF and TF ODIN,” said Jim Ledet, who served as ISR Mission Commander for JTF-N Big Miguel FY11. “Air-to-ground talk-on tactics, [“sensor to shooter”] radio communications, and target identification played a significant role in the success of Big Miguel.”

Ledet explained that the basic way missions ran was through taskings received before each mission from the supported Border Patrol Sector headquarters, as provided by associated sector intelligence. Known areas of interest are provided to the mission commander before mission launch and are passed to the mission commander during the operation via secure radio communications.

“Lessons learned from OEF/OIF and TF ODIN contributed tremendously to the success of Big Miguel. We applied critical TTPs to each mission as taught and utilized in OEF/OIF and TF ODIN. Air-to-ground talk-on tactics, [“sensor to shooter”] radio communications, and target identification played a significant role in the success of Big Miguel.”

“Once the target has been located and identified, the mission commander provides talk-on assist to ground agents, monitors for potential threats, and situational awareness to ensure ground agents do not walk into ambush scenarios. The mission commander also provides laser pointer to positively identify the location of targeted area,” said Ledet. “If helicopters are available and in the target area, the mission commander will provide command and control of target airspace and will coordinate close-air support with CBP’s Office of Air and Marine helicopters, talking them in on the target area to assist with apprehensions.”

Due to the success of Big Miguel, the PdM ODI office has been asked to continue supporting the border mission with additional capabilities. New to the mission will be the ability to conduct intelligence processing exploitation and dissemination (PED) to gain additional value from the information captured by the Caravan sensors. PED will allow for forensic backtracking and increase JTF-N’s ability to disseminate collected information throughout the various organizations involved in the border protection mission.


  • BRANDON POLLACHEK is the Public Affairs Officer for Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Sensors, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. He holds a B.S. in political science from Cazenovia College and has more than 12 years’ experience in writing about military systems.

 

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