UK helping US military build intelligence software for drone targeting

The UK has been helping the US military build software to share intelligence for weapons such as drones for the past 14 years

The UK has helped the US military build software to share intelligence for weapons such as drones for the past 14 years.

Those efforts will reach a significant milestone this year when the UK arranges to export software that will interface with a US system, called the Network-Centric Collaborative Targeting (NCCT) system. The NCCT system harvests intelligence data for automatic and computer-assisted weapons targeting.

The US pursued this and related Nato intelligence-sharing initiatives as part of a doctrine of network-centric warfare – an attempt to combine all defence and intelligence systems into one seamless, global military network.

The UK controversially provided part of the fibre-optic backbone for that network, called the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN), through a trunk line between an RAF base in Northamptonshire and Camp Lemonnier, a US base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa that has launched drone operations, allegedly killing civilians in Yemen.

The UK has been the leading US ally in the development of computer systems to target weapons such as drones, by sharing intelligence over DISN.

The partnership culminated last year when the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said it had completed the development of the Co-operative Electronic Support Measures Operations (CESMO), a system to share electronic signals intelligence data with the US NCCT system.

"CESMO software has been released to UK industry and a number of Nato countries under licence for test and evaluation," said the DSTL 2012-2013 annual report in June 2013.

"We are now addressing the transfer of the application to UK industry to develop CESMO for operational activities and export overseas."

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Surveillance information

DSTL performed a "live fly" test link between CESMO and the US NCCT in 2012, according to the 2012 annual report of the Combined Federated Battle Laboratories Network (CFBLNet), a joint UK, US and Nato research body. The trial, called Unified Vision 2012, involved the exchange of surveillance information.

"The purpose of the new link is to collaboratively develop and test a software interface between a DSTL-led electronic surveillance capability CESMO, the similar US NCCT system and a CESMO client developed by Norway," it said.

The trial tested "co-operative geo-location" of targets by the "fusion of electronic surveillance data", using XML data formats.

CFBLNet said the UK might deploy the US NCCT in its own weapons systems: "The system to which the UK will be connected to the US is likely to be fitted to multiple UK platforms in the future."

This collaboration began in 2002 when the US piloted NCCT with UK assistance. The UK's now-defunct Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft programme was involved in NCCT's development, according to budget justifications the US Department of Defense (DoD) submitted to Congress in 2003.

NCCT had been part of the US data fusion programme called Horizontal Fusion, an effort to integrate disparate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sources over a network called the Global Information Grid (GIG), for which the UK's DISN connection forms part of the fibre-optic backbone.

"The outcome of NCCT is to network operational intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors to significantly improve the capability to detect, identify, and geo-locate time-critical targets," said the budget justification for the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2007, the year the NCCT system became operational.

Time-sensitive targets

Time-critical or time-sensitive targets included people, said a presentation last year by the Nato Communications Information Agency, the working partner to CESMO and CFBLNet.

They were targets that appeared so quickly or fleetingly that the military must act in minutes to strike them, instead of the days it would normally take to identify and certify a target, said Nato.

These targets included: ballistic missiles, "terrorist leadership", surface-to-air missiles, "military or civilian individuals who pose a threat", and "mobile radio/TV broadcast stations", it said.

Targets included: ballistic missiles, "terrorist leadership", surface-to-air missiles, "military or civilian individuals who pose a threat", and "mobile radio/TV broadcast stations"


The DoD said in 2007 the UK was considering adopting NCCT as well. Nimrod had been scheduled to take part in a live demonstration of the US system in 2006. UK immediately began developing an NCCT derivative called Project Listener with its Nimrod contractor, L-3 Communications - the same company that developed the US NCCT.

The UK later dropped both Listener and Nimrod. But an international NCCT re-emerged under Nato as CESMO, with DSTL doing software development.

CESMO had provided NCCT with electronic warfare surveillance. The fusion of other ISR data sources was taken up by an international coalition the US convened in 2005, when it signed an ISR data-sharing agreement - called the Coalition Surveillance and Reconnaissance Memorandum of Understanding - with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, UK, and the Nato Consultation, Command and Control Agency.

They formed a technical forum to develop XML data standards to connect their systems to NCCT. Called the Multi-Sensor Aerospace-Ground Joint ISR Interoperability Coalition – or MAJIIC, now run by Nato as MAJIIC 2 - it aimed to get "near-real-time interoperability of data from electro-optical, infrared, motion video, moving target indicators, synthetic aperture radar and other sensors", according to the DoD budget justification for the project in 2006.

US military and intelligence agencies had been doing data fusion for the same purpose. Records of their efforts boast links with allied intelligence systems as well.

A 2008 Task Force on ISR integration for the US Under Secretary of Defense said ISR sensors alone might be incapable of hard targeting jobs such as "tracking people, monitoring deeply buried facilities and discovering WMD".

"In these cases, human intelligence, cyber ISR and other non-traditional techniques will be essential," it said.

Cross-domain sharing

The US established a firm basis for such "cross-domain" intelligence sharing in 2010, when the DoD said it had successfully harmonised "IT standards and architectural process" with federal and intelligence agencies, and allied partners.

"Cross-domain" meant between agencies and partners who would normally keep their intelligence separate.

Paul Wolfowitz, then under-secretary of defence, had decreed in 2004, in DoD Instruction 4630.05, that all military systems would henceforward be made interoperable across the GIG.

A 2008 order – DoD Instruction 8410.02 – tasked the US Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA - the agency that manages the GIG and DISN) with creating the technical basis of data sharing between defence and intelligence systems.

The Horizontal Fusion program will take advantage of the explosion in battlefield intelligence and information sources such as advanced sensor-equipped UAVs

US Department of Defense

Mike McConnell, then US director of national intelligence, followed suit in 2009 with an order (Intelligence Community Directive Number 501) that all intelligence systems would henceforward be designed to interoperate as well.

Agencies were given a responsibility to share intelligence within classified circles. This was dubbed a transformation of intelligence priorities from "need to know" to "need to share".

Military intelligence joined interoperability implementation boards at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).

The GIG - the network that would make all this possible - became a more urgent priority when DoD advanced its Horizontal Fusion programme in 2004. The GIG and its DISN core were the means by which it would deliver "time-sensitive, net-centric collaborative operations" between US forces and coalition countries, said the DoD budget justification for the programme in 2004.

"The Horizontal Fusion program will take advantage of the explosion in battlefield intelligence and information sources, such as advanced sensor-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles, improved special reconnaissance capabilities.

"It provides more rapid and effective integration of operational intelligence planning to effectively achieve situational awareness without latency and ensure the entire chain of command can simultaneously view events as they unfold," it said.

Communications architecture

The communications architecture for data fusion had reached an advanced stage of development by 2011. The DoD harmonised its IT standards and processes with federal and intelligence agencies, as well as its coalition allies in 2010, according to its 2012 budget justification.

It helped Nato co-ordinate its architecture policy for the same purpose, and undertook this harmonisation under the Command Information Superiority (CISA) programme, which wrote the blueprint for adapting DoD systems to run in a "net-centric environment" over the GIG.

Teresa Takai, DoD chief information officer, clarified this in a data-sharing order on 5 August 2013, DoD Instruction 8320.02.

The DoD CIO would ensure interoperability between military and intelligence, she said, by agreeing metadata policy and standards with the intelligence community CIO.

Sharing data between military and intelligence agencies was routine by 2013. The US Navy's 2013 Program Guide, for example, said upgrades on the EP-3E Aries II Spiral 3 aircraft, its premier manned ISR and targeting platform, would "enable continued alignment with the intelligence community".

The DoD CIO would ensure interoperability between military and intelligence by agreeing metadata policy and standards with the intelligence community CIO

Teresa Takai, DoD chief information officer

The US Air Force's 2015 Budget Justification, published last month, said it put 170 ISR satellites at the service of both defence and intelligence agencies via a global array of eight ground antennas called the Air Force Satellite Control Network.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) meanwhile adapted US intelligence data standards to accommodate the greater demands for interoperability.

NGA and Nato made their ISR image data formats - the National Imagery Transmission Format Standard (NITF/S - otherwise known as IPON) and the Nato Secondary Imagery Format (NSIF) - identical.

"A number of factors have driven the changes made to NITF Version 2.0 during recent years," said the NGA on publication of its updated definition in August 2013.

"Among these are user requirements for improved fusion of information, whether imagery, geospatial, or other data types; and the ever-increasing need to share data within and external to systems of the DoD/Intelligence Community.

"NITF Version 2.1 is based on extensive co-ordination among NITFS users in the National Systems for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) community, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), Allied Nations, national and international standards bodies, and with commercial vendors and groups dealing with related standards and technologies," said the standard definition.

The UK Ministry of Defence refused to say whether UK intelligence had been fused into target intelligence for controversial US drone operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

"We can’t comment on intelligence matters," said a spokesman. "As your question relates to US missions you will need to direct them towards the US military."

DSTL declined to say what weapons CESMO would be used to train on what targets, but a spokeswoman said it would include land warfare systems, while CESMO compatibility had been made a requirement of procurement and development of electronic warfare systems "in many other Nato nations".

"The benefit of establishing a link between CESMO and NCCT networks is the significant improvement in situational awareness that results. This has a direct bearing on the ability of commanders to make timely and informed decisions affecting force movement and target engagement," said the spokeswoman.

The US DoD has yet to provide a comment.

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