The Network Way of War

March 1, 2005

With gathering momentum, the Air Force is moving to implement its vision of “network-centric warfare” (NCW), working hard to extract as much information as possible from existing sources of data and streamline the means by which airmen can use the information in combat.

In December, the service consolidated three of its information and communications organizations into a single entity with primary responsibility for NCW.

It also has accepted from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board a new blueprint on how to better integrate allies into the network to improve combined-force operations.

Finally, the Air Force is following a “flight plan” that calls for USAF to realize even its most visionary NCW aims before 2014, potentially revolutionizing the way the service fights in less than a decade.

The Air Force vision anticipates a future in which each force element, no matter how small, is constantly collecting data and “publishing” it over the military Internet. Information would flow in from every corner, from big intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance collectors, such as the E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS, all the way down to airmen on the ground.

Automatically applied rules will channel information to those who need it and in the detail they require. The information will be secure, and it will have been properly analyzed so that commanders and operators can use it for decision purposes.

Speed and Quality

“We certainly want speed of transmission, but we also want to transmit quality information,” said Lt. Gen. William T. Hobbins, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration. The objective, he added, will be Gen. John P. Jumper’s oft-stated goal: to get a cursor over a target.

In December, Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche ordered the consolidation of Hobbins’ group with that of the USAF chief information officer and directorate of communications operations. The result is a single organization for developing policy on information and communications and carrying out programs associated with that policy.

Hobbins is directing the transition. The Air Force has not yet named a leader for the new organization, which will be called the directorate for networks and warfighting integration. The service was expected to appoint a three-star officer with a civilian senior executive service deputy. The director will report to the Secretary of the Air Force.

In a joint memo directing the change, Jumper and Roche provided a basic rationale: The Air Force “has long recognized the growing dependence of warfighters and decision-makers on information generated and shared across worldwide networks. Successful provision of warfighting integration requires an enterprise approach of total information cycle activities including people, processes, and technology.”

An “enterprise” approach simply means that all elements of the network are coordinated and working toward the same goals, Hobbins explained.

There is no single major program on which NCW is focused. Rather, it will be the sum of many programs—some involving hardware, but many involving procedures—that will seek to make the vast amount of data already collected by the Air Force and the other services available to commanders and shooters. The concept of NCW will also exploit previously unused methods for collecting information and work to fuse all data into a format that can be readily accessed and understood.

Hobbins describes the big ISR platforms, such as Joint STARS and AWACS, as “haystack gatherers” that collect vast amounts of data at a single gulp. Meanwhile, fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles, which he calls “needles,” more narrowly gather targeted data.

The big platforms will create a grand view of the battlespace for a joint force air component commander (JFACC), Hobbins said, but these systems will feed an even larger picture of the area of operations showing the location of all US or coalition aircraft. That will help the system tap some sensors when more detail is needed.

For example, Hobbins said, a fighter equipped with the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night targeting pod heading back from a mission might be tasked to provide battle damage assessment of a target struck minutes earlier and within five miles of the fighter’s flight path.

“We can anticipate that he would be in a position to take a picture of that target” using the pod, Hobbins said.


He also said that work is being done now to create an awareness within the network of new sources of information as they arise and alert those who might benefit from that data.

The military is approaching NCW with many ideas borrowed from commercial use, he said. Just as companies monitor an Internet user’s activities to better target him or her for ads addressing his interests, the Air Force will employ a similar notion to steer relevant information to military operators.

“It anticipates,” Hobbins said. The system as envisioned will predict “what the warfighter needs before he needs it, just by virtue of knowing historical approaches and data.”

The network will keep track of the kinds of information requested by users at particular Internet addresses and will alert those users when “a new domain with that kind of information” becomes available, Hobbins explained, noting the example of the fighter aircraft passing near a target area. He added, “I think that is the future.”

On the military Internet, one already finds “communities of interest” that either produce complementary data or have a need for a particular kind of data. They will be in close contact with each other and work to fuse their data collections.

Along with the products of other communities of interest, information will be passed to combined air operations centers, or CAOCs. There, raw or processed data will be further fused together to produce an easy-to-understand master battle picture.

Jumper has for years promoted the development of what he calls the “data wall.” The image is of a large wall covered with a map showing the territory of interest. On this virtual wall, a JFAAC would simply run a cursor over a particular target and say, in effect, “Tell me about this,” and get all available information from many parts of the electronic spectrum.

The data wall is “still a few years away,” Hobbins said, “but I think we’re marching fast toward [Jumper’s] vision.”

The initial version of the data wall, soon to be in place, will show a list of assets capable of watching a point of interest, Hobbins said. The system would tell the commander “you have the Global Hawk here, you have the U-2 here, we recommend you move this asset over … [or] notify these special operations forces on the ground 48 miles away,” said Hobbins.

The commander would be able to decide—with help from analysts looking at the data from all over the world—whether to attack or shadow the target.

“The data wall would instantly fuse information from not only DOD sources but also from national sources,” Hobbins explained. It would show when a satellite might become available or when a reconnaissance aircraft could be diverted to examine a pop-up point of interest.

The network will speed the identification of a target, assess what it’s up to, and decide whether it needs to be struck. It will also work to prevent fratricide by keeping an up-to-date catalog of the location of friendly forces.

US and coalition forces will be able to report positions in an automatic and secure way. The aforementioned fighter with the targeting pod might be tasked to take a picture and send it to the CAOC without the pilot knowing it had happened.

Smart Tankers

To bolster the network, the Air Force is also following Jumper’s proposal to use aerial tankers as Internet relays that can automatically move data around in the combat area.

A number of USAF’s KC-135 tankers have been equipped with a system called ROBE, which stands for Roll-on, Beyond Line-of-Sight Enhancement. These Internet relays literally can be rolled onto tankers modified with the right external antennas to provide more bandwidth (a measure of the rate at which data moves from one electronic device to another) and more “pipes” for information flow.

Fighters with the targeting pods and the tankers with the Internet relays are but two examples of aircraft accomplishing more than one mission at once. Jumper has repeatedly said that the days of “single mission” aircraft are over.

The F/A-22 Raptor, for example is the Air Force’s next generation air superiority and deep strike stealth fighter, but it also has the most formidable array of sensors ever deployed on a combat aircraft and will be a gold mine of data, Jumper said.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill symposium on fighter aircraft in late January, Jumper said, “You put a four-ship of F/A-22s out there, spread them about 40 miles apart, and you have an unbelievable ISR collection platform” gathering data on air defenses, threat radars, the disposition of enemy forces, ground moving targets, and enemy communications.

However, Jumper said, the information collected would ordinarily be considered “so secret that only four people flying the airplanes can look at the data.” He added, “That’s ridiculous.”

The Air Force, he went on, is investigating ways “to get that sort of information out there in the network [and] divorce it from its source.” Tapping into such sources yields huge amounts of high-quality information, the Chief said, and the Air Force is determined to break the bureaucratic constraints on using it.

“What we’ve got to do is stop dealing with it in stovepipes and in terms of ownership,” said Jumper. “We can do a lot better, and we’ve got a long way to go.”

At present, USAF moves information around its aircraft fleets via the Link 16/Joint Tactical Information Distribution System. The Link 16 system is already in use on many platforms. Plans call for it to be installed on all Air Force aircraft by 2010.

Link 16 allows various aircraft to share text information describing target coordinates, fuel situations, and so forth, all without use of voice communications. However, it lacks the power and bandwidth to send more sophisticated information, such as images.

Already in the works is the new Joint Tactical Radio System, which can move Link 16-type information, but it will be able to move more data, and more kinds of data, at greater speed and at greater distances than is the case with Link 16.

For now, much of the information moves through the ground-based Global Information Grid.

The new JTRS has been embraced by all of the services. “We will get ourselves an airborne network that is self-forming and self-healing, over the top of this ground GIG,” Hobbins said. “Then we’ll launch satellites over the years, and that will, in effect, connect to the airborne net as well.”

USAF’s plan, Hobbins went on, is to build on that worldwide information grid with its C4ISR flight plan. The plan has laid out various air, space, and terrestrial steps and set out a vision for how it will develop in years to come.

However, the services’ appetite for information is voracious, and there simply aren’t enough pipes to supply every user with all of the data he wants, all the time, Hobbins said.

The big challenge will be in deciding how to set priorities, select which users should be favored, and optimize the system for the proper degree of detail and depth. Fighters closing on a target at 600 mph, he said, need target updates faster than an Army unit advancing at 20 mph.

Plans call for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications System, which will be launched within a few years, to dramatically increase the throughput of data for the airborne network, but steps are already being put in place to limit the claims levied on it. The services, say officials, must be forced to rein in their demands for information.


There are work-arounds, however. Jumper has urged going with a “John Madden” feature in which a ground controller could make marks on an image already in the files of an aircraft above a target, pointing out landmarks and indicating where the pilot should put his ordnance. Sending an image might take up too much bandwidth, but digital “grease pencil” lines on an image that both the ground and air elements already have would consume far less bandwidth.

At present, the Air Force maintains five CAOCs, located at military facilities in Qatar, Germany, South Korea, Arizona, and Hawaii. Hobbins said the Air Force plans to make the five capable of duplicating each others’ functions. That would mean, if one goes down or becomes “stressed” by the weight of effort, the others can pick up the slack without missing a beat, he said.

The CAOCs have a theater battle management core operating system that can run 37 applications, Hobbins said. The idea is to get all those disparate applications to feed a common database that can tap a variety of sources and present information in a consolidated fashion.

The Air Force is moving out on a program called Theater Battle Operations Network Environment. It will have one database which allows instant sharing of information not only at the operational (or CAOC) level but also at the wing level and then all the way up to the joint force commander level.

Combat personnel will be able to participate in planning as that planning is actually happening, said Hobbins, “and be able to change input [and] help the planners.” This capability will be in place in April 2006. Noted Hobbins, “That will be a huge improvement for us, because we are … going to one database, and that database will be aligned with the US message text format, which all our coalition allies already align their data elements to.”

The Air Force is not developing its network-centric warfare systems in isolation. In the past few years, the Pentagon has put heavy emphasis on NCW as a hallmark of transformation. Pentagon leaders believe that a strong and flexible network will not only speed up the pace of warfare and prevent fratricide but also provide the means for getting more combat power out of a smaller force.

“All four services have kind of gotten together and we’ve laid out our individual needs that kind of match what it is we’re trying to do in these areas,” Hobbins said, “and we all agree that there are key critical enablers that we have to worry about and have to [protect] through our respective service budgeting processes.”

Matching Up

The separate branches, he said, are working to make sure their architectures match so that all of the services can take advantage of each other’s programs. That will greatly assist each service in deciding what it really needs to buy.

Likewise, the Air Force can’t operate in isolation from its allies. Sharing of data has become critically important in successfully managing air operations with the disparate air forces of other countries.

In the fall, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board released a major report called “Networking To Enable Coalition Operations.” It warned that both policy and hardware must adapt to make sure the US doesn’t freeze out the collaboration of allies in future air campaigns.

The panel warned that the US has been “risk averse” in sharing battle data with its allies. It recommended a change to a new culture which values sharing as much as possible, as frequently as possible, especially since some allies have data that would be valuable to the US in wartime. It suggested creating “streamlined approval processes” to improve coalition air operations.

The board said the Air Force and its allies should regularly train, sharing data as they would in wartime. It advocated a system where “metadata”—information about information—can rapidly identify what’s releasable to an ally and what isn’t. Digital “tags” can be applied to all types of information, accelerating the process of determining which allies can open and use it and which ones can’t.

The board also suggested that the Air Force designate the combined AOC as a weapon system and set as one of its key performance parameters—the benchmarks by which a weapon system is judged—how well it can coordinate coalition air warfare. This designation would make improved, faster data sharing with allies a priority and work to beat down resistance to sharing, the SAB said.

The Air Force should also take the lead in making sure allied efforts in networking can coordinate with and complement what the US systems do and should encourage allies to adopt systems that can plug into the US network, the SAB recommended.

Hobbins said USAF is going ahead with the implementation of many of the SAB suggestions.

“We’re taking off with this data strategy that clearly marks the information with its releasability levels—first mark and tagged information—and that’s a system that reads those tags and passes them along, allows ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of information to the right user.”