Pentagon Struggles with Avalanche of Data

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SAN ANTONIO — The amount of data being collected by U.S. government satellites and aerial surveillance platforms is overwhelming the Pentagon’s ability to process it, a situation that cannot be corrected by hiring new analysts, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command said Oct. 19.

U.S. Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler said the storm of data is 1,500 percent heavier than it was just five years ago, while the U.S. government’s ability to process, exploit and disseminate it has increased by about 30 percent.

In an address to the Geoint 2011 symposium here, Kehler said it would take thousands more analysts to handle it all, a prospect he said is “not realistic.”

Kehler proposed two solutions.

In the midterm, he said, analysts should be federated so that an expert in the European theater could be tasked with sifting through data coming from Asia. Currently, he said, analysts are assigned to regions and are not available to other regional U.S. Defense Department commands.

What Kehler called a “globally connected, unified PED [processing, exploitation and dissemination] structure” would use existing analysts more |efficiently.

“Let’s bring the information to the analyst, not the analyst to the information,” Kehler said. Neither the geographic location of an analyst nor the surveillance platform should be a focus of assigning, processing and disseminating data, he said.

The question remains as to which organization would be given the authority to coordinate image analysis on a global basis.

He said Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, which was created in 2005, is one possible home. But he stressed that his office is “not looking for more work” and that perhaps another agency should handle it.

Longer term, he said, it is only through technology that the data stream can be sifted through and then made ready for analysts to evaluate. “Let machines handle the data so that humans can handle the decision,” he said, adding that today’s processing and dissemination network dates from before the Internet.

What should not be done, he said, is to reduce the raw data coming in on the subjects that commanders are already interested in. If five priorities are listed, he said, surely the most important data will be found in a sixth.

In a separate address, Michael G. Vickers, U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said that the amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data being produced over Afghanistan today is five times the amount produced over Iraq at the height of the war there.

The data stream, he said, amounts to 53 terabytes per day — the equivalent of 2.5 million full-length films.

Vickers said the terrestrial and satellite bandwidth made available to support that data flow, which is often in the form of full-motion video, has increased by 1,000 percent.

Vickers agreed that the budget crunch facing the Department of Defense will force defense managers “to make tough choices” about where to find economies. Commercial satellite imagery, he said, is economical but cannot substitute for government-operated surveillance spacecraft.