The Electronic Triad

Jan. 1, 1998

The scenario has become increasingly familiar to Air Force planners: A regional commander in chief detects signs of trouble in his Area of Responsibility and looks for options. In response, the Air Force offers up an Air Expeditionary Force and sends out aircraft within 48 hours.

In the future, however, that force won’t always be F-15s, F-16s, or B-1B bombers, as now is the case. The CINC might well be getting a small number of Boeing 707s, having no hardpoints for weapons but loaded with the Air Force’s premier information-gathering systems.

This force of the future is called the Information Superiority/Air Expeditionary Force. It will be built around an “electronic triad”–the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, and the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, plus whatever other unmanned aerial vehicle and space systems may be useful.

The IS/AEF “is the leading edge” of Air Force efforts “to gain information superiority both for the commander in chief and the National Command Authorities,” said Brig. Gen. James E. Sandstrom, the Air Force’s director for command and control. He said that the goal is to reveal the enemy’s mind-set to American planners early on to support decision making before a crisis erupts and then after hostilities have broken out.

Sandstrom added, “We want to paint the clearest picture we can to send back to our decision makers so they can make timely and accurate decisions.”

Many Missions

The initial mission for the IS/AEF will be to collect real-time information to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlefield, such as establishing an electronic order of battle and tracking forces on the move. Next, it would try to determine the enemy’s intent and expose it to the world in the hopes of avoiding further escalation. If, however, knowledge-based deterrence fails and hostilities break out, the information that is being continuously gathered can be used to dynamically task fighters and bombers to targets.

The time lines for the IS/AEF are no less stringent than for the fighter or force application AEFs. The assets are to be on station within 48 hours, said Air Force officials. Air Force officials expect that, once the USAF systems are in theater, they will be able to provide 24-hour continuous coverage of the Joint Operations Area.

Just as it does with force application AEFs, the Air Force is looking to keep each IS/AEF small. As a result, much of the critical data fusion capability so vital to the operation will remain in the continental United States and will be accessed by in-theater assets through their command and control systems.

Air Force officials said they are excited about the IS/AEF concept for several reasons.

First, it is expeditionary and, therefore, able to respond rapidly worldwide. Second, its reliance on “reach- back” systems and capabilities gives it a small footprint in a theater and thus keeps its exposure to theater-based threats to a minimum. Third, the construct is seen as highly tailorable because it can be made up of a number of different types of assets. Finally, the IS/AEF will be readily adaptable to future needs.

The core assets for this new breed of AEF can easily be identified. They are the operational heavyweights of Air Force information superiority: the Rivet Joint for electronic signals intelligence, the AWACS for air surveillance, and the Joint STARS for ground surveillance. Current plans call for the airplanes and their different battlefield pictures to be fused together into a single, multispectral picture of the battlespace.

In this task, they would be aided by other assets. These include high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, reconnaissance UAVs, and space surveillance and communications systems, which would be “plugged into” the IS/AEF as needed. The Air Force said that the relevant aircraft of the other services could play a part as well. Among them: the Navy’s air surveillance E-2C Hawkeye and maritime surveillance P-3 Orion.

The current Air Force concept calls for the IS/AEF to be able to deploy on its own with only limited fighter coverage. In some cases, however, the IS/AEF may be followed quickly by a regular, fighter-heavy AEF or deploy concurrently with one.

Air Force officials said that, compared to the standard combat AEF, the IS/AEF brings certain advantages. One is that it is less likely to be viewed as a serious military escalation in a crisis situation. Gen. (sel.) John P. Jumper, who was deputy chief of staff for air and space operations in November when he spoke with Air Force Magazine [now commander of US Air Forces in Europe], pointed out that “these platforms in themselves are nonthreatening” because they don’t carry weapons.

Not Like a BUFF

Another benefit is that the aircraft assets of the new AEF have extreme standoff capability, so the United States does not have to take the step of penetrating enemy airspace. Sandstrom noted, with considerable understatement, that the IS/AEF “looks different and feels different” from a collection of B-52s.

When the Air Force first began shaping up the IS/AEF concept, officials called it “The Eyes and Ears AEF.” However, USAF quickly realized that the term didn’t encompass everything the AEF is supposed to accomplish. The name IS/AEF, the Air Force felt, better captured its potential for being used on the offensive as well as the defensive.

In a major conflict, the IS/AEF’s main responsibilities would be to support the Joint Forces Commander, carry out dynamic tasking of combat forces, provide real-time battlespace management and intelligence, and deliver surveillance and reconnaissance support. The systems are critical for the Air Force to implement its goal to rapidly “find, fix, track, target, and engage,” said Jumper. “You start out building a picture,” Jumper noted, “but you grow into a targeting mechanism.”

The concept of the IS/AEF–with its central innovation of fusing Rivet Joint intelligence with that collected by AWACS and Joint STARS–has gotten a major boost from a number of pivotal figures. One of the strongest advocates has been Maj. Gen. Doyle E. Larson, USAF (Ret.), the current president of the Air Force Association, who held several sensitive intelligence posts while on active duty. He retired from the Air Force in 1983 after having served as director of intelligence at US Pacific Command, deputy chief of staff for intelligence at Strategic Air Command, commander of USAF Security Service, commander of Electronic Security Command, and director of the Joint Electronic Warfare Center. Today, Larson is a visiting lecturer at the National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Md.

Larson explained that the IS/AEF will help warfighters overcome “blobology,” the problem of having lots of potential targets on a screen without a clear idea of their nature or identity. Overlaying RC-135 intelligence on Joint STARS targets is necessary to get the precision targeting data for today’s precision guided munitions, Larson said.

Joint STARS has become a core player in the new concept as the Air Force becomes increasingly enamored with what the system will do. Sandstrom acknowledges that it’s the “emerging operational capability of Joint STARS” that has been driving a lot of the IS/AEF concept development. The Air Force is hoping to duplicate in the IS/AEF the success it already has experienced in tying together the Rivet Joint and AWACS data.

The role of Joint STARS is getting particular attention as the Air Force fleshes out its concept of engaging an enemy during the halt phase of combat–the early hours or days of a Major Theater War when the enemy has the initiative and the US wants to decisively engage and defeat him. Joint STARS, linked to fighters and bombers, would allow the Air Force to see moving targets and stop them in their tracks, USAF officials emphasize.

In Larson’s view, the IS/AEF “is critical for the development of that halt phase, as I see it. If you’re going to halt the enemy, you’ve got to know where he is, exactly.” The information will create that detailed picture of the battlefield which allows the Joint Forces Commander to begin the targeting process as soon as he gets permission to execute the halt phase, Larson added.

Army Inertia

One of the challenges the Air Force is likely to face in selling the concept to the Pentagon is interservice rivalry. The Army, in essence, views Joint STARS as the property of its land units. The Army already resists the Air Force’s call for increased use of airpower early in a conflict and for making the halt phase the decisive point in the war (as opposed to the land-force-intensive counteroffensive toward the end of the war). Given that reality, the Army is unlikely to greet the use of Joint STARS in the IS/AEF with much enthusiasm.

Air Force officials are of two minds on how to deal with that problem. One community hasn’t forgotten the Quadrennial Defense Review, where Joint STARS production was cut from 19 aircraft to 13. They still attribute that decision largely to Army failure to support the platform and are, therefore, reluctant to listen to potential Army concerns about competing uses of these scarce aircraft.

Other officers want to take a more conciliatory approach. They plan to sell the concept by pointing out that once the Army has gotten its troops in place it will have access to Joint STARS imagery via its ground station module, as called for in the Air Force­Army agreement on the platform. Until Army forces are in place, however, the Air Force will try to exploit that moving target data for its own purposes.

Maj. Gen. John P. Casciano, the Air Force’s director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, emphasizes that using Joint STARS in this fashion isn’t driven by Air Force ambition but by the need to bring to fruition the information superiority goals laid out in the Joint Staff’s Joint Vision 2010 document. He adds that the IS/AEF supports the development of a Joint Force Commander’s entire campaign plan–not just the air campaign portion of it.

Though they differ on strategy, Air Force officials agree they can’t let potential differences between the services stand in the way of implementing the IS/AEF concept.

The Air Force wants to carry a strong message to the regional CINCs this year: The IS/AEF is available now. That, too, is driven largely by the maturation of Joint STARS, which reached its initial operational capability in December 1997 with the first three production aircraft operationally available. As soon as the E-8s reached IOC, Sandstrom said, the whole IS/AEF concept was “ready.”

Later this year, the IS/AEF may make an appearance at the Air Force’s planned Expeditionary Force Exercise. Also, it could show up at Red Flag and Green Flag exercises.

The Air Force is confident it can have an IS/AEF ready almost right away because it has been operating all the assets for some time. “This is not rocket science,” Sandstrom pointed out. More than a year ago, wing commanders from the 55th Wing (at Offutt AFB, Neb.), 552d Air Control Wing (Tinker AFB, Okla.), and 93d Air Control Wing (Robins AFB, Ga.) decided to work closely together. The 55th controls the RC-135s, the 552d the E-3s, and the 93d the E-8s.

Linking Up

The communications infrastructure to net the platforms together and to talk to the fighters is being built already. Link 16 is the architecture underlying the information network. The Air Force has confidence that Link 16 will have sufficient bandwidth to handle the necessary message traffic. However, getting Link 16 into the field has proven difficult. Funding problems have delayed installation on several aircraft over the past years.

Larson said that, without the proper communications infrastructure, the contribution that the IS/AEF can make to offensive operations is limited. The Air Force would have to rely on the more cumbersome system of voice commands instead of being able to use a more efficient, automated process. To ensure the effectiveness of an integrated communications infrastructure, Larson said, the IS/AEF and the forces relying on their information will have to employ a common registry of targets on the battlefield using Global Positioning System coordinates.

Another piece of the IS/AEF puzzle is working with a distributed Air Operations Center. That concept, which is being explored at Blue Flag exercises, establishes a “virtual” AOC in theater. In reality, the personnel doing the mission planning and writing the Air Tasking Order can remain behind in CONUS.

Although much activity surrounding the IS/AEF is in full swing, a core notion of the concept is its ability to grow with USAF in the future, to include greater reliance on space systems and improved information operations capability. The Air Force expects that future contributors to the IS/AEF will include the Global Hawk and DarkStar high altitude, high endurance UAVs, the Airborne Laser with its extensive surveillance and battle management systems, and the F-22 tactical fighter with its highly advanced sensing systems. Unattended ground sensors that monitor underground weapons storage facilities some day could play in the AEF.

Offensive information operations, one of the Air Force’s current growth areas, will figure heavily in the IS/AEF concept, according to Jumper.

“There are tools out there,” he said, “that you can put on these airplanes that make the enemy intercept operations center guy see things that aren’t there, making him so unsure about what he sees that he doesn’t have confidence to make a move.”

Jumper maintained that the Air Force doesn’t have those systems yet but added they “are things we will have to pursue in the future.”

The net effect of this activity would be that the Air Force’s information superiority airplanes would act like shooters themselves, even if not in the traditional sense of dropping bombs and firing missiles.

Jumper said that, as the concept is being developed, “we are trying to make sure that we think of information like we think of air superiority. There’s not much of a leap between offensive and defensive counterair and counterspace and offensive and defensive counterinformation.”

There are less obvious payoffs to the Air Force from the new concept. One of them is that data collected by the IS/AEF can dramatically improve mission planning for air strikes. Coupling the battlespace picture provided by the IS assets with 30-meter-accuracy digital terrain elevation will allow the Air Force to create accurate, near-real-time simulations of attack missions against designated targets. Those simulations could deliver important information on what course of action would have the greatest payoff and least risk.

Robert Wall is the Pentagon reporter for Aerospace Daily, a Washington defense and commercial aviation periodical. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.