Much has been made about the ability of ISIS to master social media to recruit and broadcast their victories. But the U.S. Air Force is turning the militant group’s eagerness to share on social media into that intelligence that produces targets.
Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, described Monday how airmen at Hurlburt Field, Florida, with the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, recognized a comment on social media and turned that into an airstrike that resulted in three Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs destroying am Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) headquarters building.
“It was a post on social media to bombs on target in less than 24 hours,” Carlisle said. “Incredible work when you think about.”
Carlisle was careful not to share all of the Air Force’s secrets to include the location of the building but this is how he told the story at the recent breakfast meeting in Washington D.C. hosted by the Air Force Association.
“The guys that were working down out of Hurlburt, they’re combing through social media and they see some moron standing at this command. And in some social media, open forum, bragging about the command and control capabilities for Daesh, ISIL. And these guys go: ‘We got an in.’ So they do some work, long story short, about 22 hours later through that very building, three [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] take that entire building out.”
The vignette on how this airstrike came to be offers a broader picture into the intelligence gathering being done by Air Force intelligence specialists back at home and stationed forward. Many observers have questioned how the U.S. is producing targets in Iraq and Syria for coalition fighters and bombers with few boots on the ground. Carlisle offered a window into at least part of the process.
The story also offered a view into the Air Force’s updated intelligence organization.
In February, the Air Force stood up the 363rd ISR Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., — a new wing that provides “cross-domain targeting and analysis” that produces targeting products. The wing is subordinate to 25th Air Force, which had been the Air Force ISR Agency before it became a Numbered Air Force under Air Combat Command. The airmen assigned to the 361st in Hurlburt have fallen under the 363rd since it was stood up.
Air Force intelligence officials have said their collection efforts must utilize a wide network of tools to include social media in order to keep up with the enemy. It appears these re-organization efforts are producing targets.
Carlisle also used the vignette to highlight how the Air Force doesn’t need to deploy as many airman as it may have in the past. Of course, many have discussed how many Air Force pilots are flying MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers out of U.S. bases like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
But Carlisle pointed out how that also can extend to intelligence units. He said the Air Force still needs a presence in deployed locations, but maybe not as large a footprint as the service required in the past.
“It’s about how can you build that system for the future?”
However, he warned that wars and conflicts in the future won’t allow the U.S. military as much freedom to pass on intelligence like the social media tip collected in Florida as easily in the future. Carlisle suggested that satellite communications will be a target for more advanced enemies and militaries in future conflicts.
Until then, it appears the Air Force is happy to collect intelligence on ISIS militants in Florida and turning that into targets in Iraq and Syria.
— Michael Hoffman can be reached at Mike.Hoffman@military.com