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Beneath the Surface: A Navy flight squadron conducts a geological survey of Afghanistan

By Richard R. Burgess

Sea Power Magazine


NOTE: USGS has recently published its full report on Afghanistan’s Oil & Natural Gas Resources. If you would like to receive a copy of the full USGS report (in CD), please visit

Naval aircraft have been a routine presence in the skies over Afghanistan since 9/11, heavily engaged in the campaign to free the land-locked country of Taliban and al Qaeda forces. But this summer, a unique Navy squadron took on the task of helping Afghanistan develop its future economy.

Acting on a request of the Afghan government, the U.S. government tapped the Navy’s Scientific Development Squadron One (VXS-1), based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., to conduct an aerial survey of Afghanistan using sophisticated sensors to map the country and identify areas with potential for exploitation of natural resources.

“The goal of the mission was to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction development by identifying potential oil, gas, mineral and water resources; document civil infrastructures; and collect data to identify seismic risk hazards,” said Khaleda Atta, commercial attaché at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington.

The results will be turned over to the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industries for economic development.

The Ministry of Mines requested the services of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, three years ago to assist in assessing the natural resources of the largely undeveloped country. The ministry requested an aerial geologic survey.

“If we worked the classic way (overland) of assessing those reserves, we’d need 15-20 years to do it,” said Mohamed Ibrahim Adel, minister of mines and industries.

The USGS conducted a limited survey and briefed the results to the Afghan government in March. The Afghan government, through a contract arranged by the U.S. Agency for International Development, provided $8.8 million for the aerial survey, Atta said. Coordinated by the USGS and the Defense Reconstruction Support Office, the survey was supplemented by $2 million from the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and other sources to make up for increases in fuel costs.

VXS-1, established two years ago from the Research Laboratory’s Flight Support Detachment, is accustomed to flying its orange-and-white long-range NP-3D aircraft — modified versions of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft — on exotic research and test missions, many of them geophysical surveys over the world’s oceans and littoral regions. The assignment to Afghanistan, however, is one of the more unusual the squadron — known as the Warlocks — has undertaken.

Under the leadership of the squadron’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Patrick D. Herring, VXS-1 deployed one NP-3D to Kandahar from June-August. The detachment included approximately 50 military personnel and civilian scientists, including some rotating in and out. A USGS representative and two Canadian Armed Forces experts in remote photogrammetric sensing assisted the project.

Excluding transit flights, the detachment flew 40 survey flights totaling 226 flight hours, covering approximately 70 percent of the country, according to Herring. The missions varied from 5.5-8 hours in length.

Herring and Lt. Garron Morris, a VXS-1 pilot, praised the maintenance personnel who kept the 38-year-old NP-3D ready to fly despite the daily temperatures that ranged from 105-130 degrees. In one sequence, the aircraft flew on 17 straight days.

Unlike the squadron’s other aircraft, the NP-3D assigned to the survey — Project Rampant Lion — was painted grey like other Navy P-3s and configured to operate in a combat zone. The aircraft’s cabin features a roll-on/roll-off capability to allow easy reconfiguration with different crew stations and palletized racks of electronic equipment. The bomb bay characteristic of a standard P-3 has been replaced with a reconfigurable conformal package featuring various sensors such as radar and cameras.

Rampant Lion is the first research project performed by Naval Research Laboratory aircraft in a combat zone in decades, according to Dr. John Brozena, head of the marine physics branch at the lab and chief scientist for the survey project. Because its flights took place in airspace busy with other aircraft flying combat missions, VXS-1 closely coordinated its sorties with the theater combined air operations center and exercised care not to interfere with ongoing operations.

It was not an optimum environment for controlled scientific research.

“We were trying to do a grid survey in straight lines over most of the country, spaced about 2.5 miles apart,” Brozena said. “We were flying over operational areas that were hot at the time. We had to worry about tanker traffic and combat operations.”

The deployment went smoothly, even though Kandahar airfield was attacked by Taliban mortars during their stay.

“Our civilian group had never gone into a war zone before, so this is a new experience for us,” said Dr. Vicki Childers, another Naval Research Laboratory scientist on the detachment.

“Walking on the ground would be the standard way to start [a survey],” Brozena said. “In Afghanistan, walking over the ground was a little too dangerous,” referring to the ongoing combat operations against insurgents as well as mines left over from the country’s 10-year war against Soviet occupation.

By using the NP-3D, VXS-1 was able to simultaneously collect data using five different sensors, leading to a complete set of geo-located information from the sensors. If a similar survey had attempted the project with separate aircraft flying separate surveys, scientists would be trying to patch together different information measured at different times with different equipment, different accuracies and various positional accuracies, Brozena said.

“I’ve worked in airborne geophysical survey for a long time and I’ve never seen such a well-outfitted aircraft in terms of a complete set of sensors,” he said. “It’s typical to fly any subset of sensors, but to combine them all together into one single aircraft was very unique.”

The NP-3D featured the capability for self-contained photogrammetry, using a kilometric Global Positioning System that positioned the aircraft within a few centimeters. Because the aircraft is at a certain altitude above the ground, an input from the aircraft’s inertial navigation set is essential to provide an altitude parameter to the camera.

“The importance of providing a stable platform for the science equipment was a lot higher than is typically demanded of us,” said Morris. “Maintaining an accurate course, altitude and stability is important to the science team.”

The Applanix photogrammetric digital camera carried on the aircraft was capable of 16-megapixel resolution and was gyro-stabilized by an inertial measuring unit, with inputs from the Global Positioning System to define position of the images. The stereo camera registered true color images useful for identifying minerals, hydrology and agriculture of an area, as well as civil infrastructure. The imagery also is useful for force protection, combat operations and humanitarian missions.

The CASI-1500 hyper-spectral camera, with 1,500-pixel-wide collection, also can be used for many purposes, including identification of minerals, hydrology and agriculture. It also is ideal for soil and water analysis.

“If you have rock exposure, which you do a lot in Afghanistan, you can come up with an estimate of the actual minerals that you are looking at,” Brozena said.

By looking at 288 spectral bands of reflections and the amount of power in each pixel, the composition of an object can be estimated. Also, the chlorophyll signatures of vegetation can be measured, revealing its health, whether it is stressed or receiving enough water. The suspended sediment loads and clarity of running water also can be measured.

The L-band polarmetric imaging synthetic aperture radar in the NP-3D — an experimental unit designed by the Naval Research Laboratory — was intended to penetrate soil to reveal information about buried stream beds and potential water resources for agriculture. It also was used to complement the camera imagery for looking at rocks and minerals, seismic fault planes (the planes along which the breaks of faults occur) and bedding planes (the surfaces separating layers of sedimentary rocks).

Two other types of the sensors in the NP-3D were dual gravity meters and a magnetometer, standard for oil and gas exploration, according to Brozena.

By factoring in the trajectory of the aircraft and subtracting its accelerations in three axes, scientists are able to determine a gravity measurement. That measurement can reveal a lot about the geology of the area, such as sedimentary basins, which are likely targets for oil and gas exploration.

The magnetometer — similar to that used by P-3s to hunt for the metallic hulls of submarines — is used to measure magnetic variation of an area and give clues to the depths of sedimentary basins and the resultant trapped deposits of hydrocarbons.

Although commercial satellites are able to obtain usable hyper-spectral and photogrammetric imagery, they are expensive to lease and not able to measure gravity or magnetic variation from outer space. Brozena said that it was cheaper to fly the NP-3D for the imagery, along with the advantage of higher resolution and getting five sensors for the price of two.

The initial results of Rampant Lion were briefed in September and October to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Minister Adel, respectively. The geologic data, expected to be available late next year, will be initially limited to the Afghan and U.S. governments for at least the first year. The Afghan government is expected to make the data available to contractors in return for investing in the economic development of the country.

“The results that we see so far are very promising,” Adel said. “To do the interpretation to bring the data to a level acceptable by the private sector [for exploitation], we will need more funds.

“We believe we are 20 years ahead in assessment of natural resources now,” he said. “I believe that in two or three years, the products of this project will help the country a lot. In 10-15 years, you will see that the face of the Afghan economy will be different.”

Herring attributed the success of the deployment partially to the mutual understanding among the leadership inside and outside the Afghan theater of operations of the long-term strategic value of the aerial survey in “building a legal, self-sustaining economy. This was something the Afghans asked for, they paid for and it’s something we’ve been able to deliver to them.”

“It’s interesting to think of Afghanistan going from one of the most poorly mapped countries in the world to probably one of the better-mapped countries, in one project,” Brozena said.

The eastern region of Afghanistan is still in need of the survey, according to Atta.

Adel said that the remaining territory would be covered overland or by a second series of flights.

Brozena hopes to return to Afghanistan for more focused, lower-altitude aerial surveys.

In the meantime, VXS-1 will participate in 2008 in ongoing Project ELDORA (Electra Doppler Radar), conducting imaging of rain bands inside hurricanes. Last year, the squadron flew into Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Brozena and Childers also have flown with VXS-1 on missions researching ocean circulation models for antisubmarine warfare applications.

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