A Look Inside a Secret US Air Force Intelligence Center

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LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – While there might not be any American combat boots on the ground in Syria, dozens of manned and unmanned aircraft dot the skies above gathering video and other types of intelligence about the movement of Islamic State militants. The images collected by those aircraft are streamed by satellites in near real-time thousands of miles away to Langley Air Force Base in southern Virginia. Here in a dimly lit room about the half the size of a football field, airmen — some not even old enough to legally drink alcohol — stare at computer screens interpreting people’s movements and producing intelligence reports that could ultimately be read by President Barack Obama. And without those soldiers on the ground in Syria and Iraq providing context, it’s largely up to these intelligence analysts to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. “If you’re looking at the ground and you’re watching folks moving on the ground, to tell a Shia from a Sunni is pretty hard to do,” Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, said Monday. “Unless ISIS is actually flying a flag that says ‘ISIS’ across the top of it, then it’s sometimes more difficult to tell … where those folks fit on whether they’re combatants or not.” With no ground forces to identify targets for air strikes, the airmen here at the 480th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing headquarters, have to process information quickly and accurately, said Col. Timothy Haugh, the unit’s commander. In Afghanistan, for example, a ground commander brings context to pictures gathered from the sky. So if an intel analyst has a question, he or she could give a call to a colleague on the ground for clarification. “Without a commander on the ground, that puts that responsibility on us to be able to take every piece of data and make it make sense to the supporting commander,” Haugh said. “That is a harder challenge to do certain targets in that environment.” The intelligence center at Langley is one of 16 such sites on the U.S. mainland. There are two in the Pacific and another one in Europe. A mix of active-duty, National Guard and Reservists man these facilities. In all, more than 6,000 airmen make up the 480th. More via Defense One.

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