It all started with a small tip of intelligence.

A U.S. airman in Virginia spotted a piece of intel thousands of miles away. Ten days later, warplanes bombed 11 sites in the Middle East where American military officials say Islamic State militants manufactured deadly drones.

The operation — detailed for the first time by Air Force officials to — underscores a growing trend in modern warfare in which troops at their home bases are intimately involved in wars half a world away. It also highlights a new way of analyzing intelligence to find, track and kill enemies and their weapons, they say.

“Analysis is the foundation that’s going to drive everything,” Air Force Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, the service’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said in an interview at the Pentagon on Thursday. “This [way of] thinking is not just top-down driven. It’s going to be enabled bottom up.”

Jamieson noted the airman — identified only as Senior Airman Jean, assigned to Distributed Ground System-1 at Langley Air Force Base — was able to maneuver her way through the data in large part because of her training in critical analysis and observation.

Jamieson, who assumed her post in November, said the intel career field and the service as a whole are shifting toward an analysis-based infrastructure that will enhance multiple missions across the force.

In this case, the airman’s instincts kicked in while working the Distributed Common Ground System, a globally networked system that can process intelligence from MQ-1 PredatorMQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawkdrones, and U-2 Dragon Lady spy planes, among other aircraft, to visualize strikes and dissect the aftermath. The system also lets users monitor chats between pilots in any theater across the globe.

On any given day, the DGS teams observe more than 50 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties and 1,200-plus hours of motion imagery; produce about 3,000 signals intelligence, or SIGINT, reports; exploit 1,250 still images; and manage 20 terabytes of data, according to a 2015 Air Force description of the system.

The Signal

Jean — who was mission qualified trained, known as MQT in the intel community — had been certified in immediate data collection and involved in the planning team that reviews information over time to establish a pattern of life, Jamieson said. She found herself on a team that was overlooking a MQ-1 Predator mission and, by observing the intelligence, was tipped off to the “needle in the haystack” hit, Jamieson said.

Jamieson didn’t specify what the tip was but hinted it wasn’t a visual cue.

“It was a signal — not seeing,” she said. “So that’s why she was able to talk to the crew and her team and say, ‘Let’s put some eyes on this, so we can see what’s going on.’ ”

Jamieson added, “We noticed it was not a signal we had identified often [before].”

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