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Air war in ISIS fight gets guidance from Cape

Colonel James LeFavor is the commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 102d Intelligence Wing at Joint Base Cape Cod.
Colonel James LeFavor is the commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 102d Intelligence Wing at Joint Base Cape Cod. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

WASHINGTON — The escalating air war ordered by President Obama in Iraq and Syria has increased the flow of surveillance data and images sent back to the United States for analysis — prompting Air National Guard teams, working in a darkened operations center on Cape Cod, to work around the clock to help interpret the images of war.

“Whatever they are looking at, we help them find, whether a house or a village,” Colonel James LeFavor , commander of the 102d Intelligence Wing, said in an interview about the unit’s work supporting US and coalition forces in the Middle East.

“We take raw intelligence that is gathered from different sources — manned or unmanned aircraft — and immediately send back our analysis,” the Mashpee resident said.

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The 102d Intelligence Wing has recently been supporting US air operations in Afghanistan, where it has some 50 communication specialists completing a six-month deployment. But senior officials do not anticipate that sizable numbers of Massachusetts Guard troops will be deployed overseas in response to the new air campaign over Syria and Iraq. Instead, they make their contribution from Joint Base Cape Cod.

The facility, which includes Camp Edwards, is home to four active-duty and National Guard commands that provide training for other units from around the country, and conduct airborne search and rescue, and intelligence operations.

The facility also hosts a Coast Guard air station.

A view of a Predator drone deployed over Afghanistan, a mission that requires monitoring by dozens of analysts.
A view of a Predator drone deployed over Afghanistan, a mission that requires monitoring by dozens of analysts. (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems/The New York Times)

The 102d Intelligence Wing, one of the few such units in the part-time National Guard, is already in high demand at home. With some 1,300 personnel — one-third of them full time — its largest mission is performed by the Intelligence Operations Group, consisting of about 400 personnel analyzing the video and other data streaming in daily from dozens of surveillance aircraft flying across the Middle East.

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The intelligence analysts, who have been conducting the mission since 2008, are linked a classified global information network that shares surveillance data from a variety of aircraft, including the U-2, a Cold War-era reconnaissance plane, as well the Predator, Reaper, and long-endurance Global Hawk spy drones, according to Colonel David V. McNulty, who oversees the intelligence analysis.

The work is conducted for air, ground, and naval forces operating across the Middle East, he said.

The specific geographic areas, he added, changes “day to day” because of the dynamic nature of the mission.

This is the type of military mission that has expanded dramatically in recent years with the growing reliance of the US military and intelligence agencies on spy drones.

Two of the most widely used drones — including some that are armed with missiles — are the Predator and a more advanced model, the Reaper.

In recent days drones have reportedly been flown over the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has been reported to be living in recent months.

“One of the major requirements of operating aircraft that are shooting live-motion video, 30 frames per second, is you have to have people who can look at that video and analyze it,” said Richard Whittle, a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and author of “Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution.’’

A Pentagon-funded study in 2012 reported that for every Predator or Reaper “combat air patrol” there was a need for more than 80 personnel to conduct “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” of the information they provide.

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“Now hundreds of people are needed to analyze the video every day from the dozens of drones that are flying,” said Whittle, including some aircraft outfitted with highly advanced sensors that can monitor an entire village around the clock and store every image.

The Pentagon had anticipated that it would be able to cut back on its drone fleet after US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and with the war in Afghanistan winding down this year.

But in light of the new conflict that reduction is now under review, a top Pentagon official, Michael Vickers, said last week.

US Representative William Keating, a Bourne Democrat whose district includes the Cape Cod base, said he anticipates the intelligence unit’s mission will only grow.

None of them are on the ground, and none of them are in the theater of operations, but they are contributing from here, conducting essential frontline functions,” he said.


Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender.