June 1, 2000

The U-2 aircraft taking photographs of targets in Kosovo during Operation Allied Force were bedded down in the theater with strike aircraft sent to bomb those same targets, but the pictures taken by the U-2s traveled halfway around the world and back before the photo intelligence found its way back to the pilots of the strike aircraft.

The U-2 imagery was transmitted to a ground station in southern Italy and then bounced off a satellite to Beale AFB, Calif. At Beale, intelligence experts analyzed the pictures and transmitted refined imagery, suitable for selecting targets, back to command posts in the European theater-sometimes in less than 30 minutes. This satellite arrangement meant that 200 USAF intelligence specialists did not have to deploy to overcrowded European bases. They essentially telecommuted to the war.

The Air Force hopes the next conflict will be, to an even greater degree, a stay-at-home affair-the result of a concept called “reachback.” The Air Force is experimenting with ways to dramatically reduce the number of people physically present in a combat theater. Typically, the staff at a theater air operations center triples or quadruples during war. In Allied Force, for example, the staffing at NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza, Italy, grew from 400 to more than 1,300. Breakthroughs in telecommunications could let many of those people do the same jobs from remote sites.

High-capacity computers linked by satellite could let weather forecasters or logistics analysts in the United States provide information to commanders as easily as if they were standing next to them. Some officials think complete Air Tasking Orders, which coordinate the entire flow of aircraft during a war, could be formulated at US bases such as Langley AFB, Va., and then sent forward to theater commanders. Reachback proponents think the concept ultimately could lower the need for people at forward command posts from 1,500 to about 300.

Reachback would, in effect, make available to local, tactical commanders all of the benefits of the military network’s basic communications infrastructure. It would provide high-speed data transfer, efficiencies, high reliability, and security of information as well as security of personnel.

More Tooth, Less Tail

“Reachback offers a solution to the Air Force’s commitment to reduce its forward footprint,” says Col. Joseph May, a top command-and-control expert at Air Combat Command, headquartered at Langley. “I see more tooth and less tail going forward.”

This smaller forward footprint would translate into fewer gas masks, beds, tents, mess halls, and other equipment needed to support troops. That would free the Air Force’s cargo airplanes to ship more bombs, missiles, and other items for combat operations. In certain places-such as the air operations center at Osan AB, South Korea, which is within striking range of North Korean missiles-fewer people would be put in danger. Reachback would also give commanders in the theater the ability to quickly tap into expertise where it resides-at bases back in the United States. The latest weather forecasts from the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt AFB, Neb., or airlift data from Scott AFB, Ill., would be just a few clicks away.

In the Gulf and Balkan wars, officers had months to work up campaign plans. In the future, commanders may have to send warplanes into action in unfamiliar places with little notice. They may not even know at the outset where their troops are going to sleep or how food will be supplied. That will require far more help from facilities such as the Operations Support Center at Langley.

The transformation won’t be easy. The push for reachback confronts some serious real-world obstacles.

Chief among these are technical limitations. The Air Force is not certain it will have computer networking capacity that is sufficiently large and sufficiently reliable for transmitting data as vital and voluminous as an Air Tasking Order from the US to a combat theater.

“If we’re going to do things like that,” remarks one Air Force officer, “you can’t just say, ‘If one line goes down, well, I can’t do the ATO.’ “

Last September, the Air Force tested reachback during its Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, or JEFX 99. USAF demonstrated the ability to send an ATO from a rear base in the United States to a forward command post in South Korea. However, one computer system repeatedly crashed, forcing battle managers into the time-consuming process of manually figuring out which airplanes should attack which targets, slowing down the decision-making cycle.

Allied Force featured reachback of modest scope. Even so, NATO struggled with bandwidth limitations. “Numerous graphically intense briefing presentations, reports, imagery products, and e-mail threatened to overload systems throughout the theater,” read the Pentagon’s after-action report, released Feb. 7. “People had difficulty identifying and locating real-time sensitive data. The overwhelming amount of information also caused severe problems with network file servers, slowing the acquisition of needed information.”

Building Up Bandwidth

The Air Force is trying to solve the problem. For example, it is developing a Global Broadcast System, which should help to ease that kind of crunch by providing extra satellite bandwidth. However, GBS won’t be fully operational until at least 2006.

Even when newer systems are in place, there still will be concerns about whether USAF’s communications backbone is robust enough to handle reachback. Much will hinge on where the war occurs. South Korea, for instance, boasts a modern fiber-optic network that would make it easier to transmit huge amounts of data to and from the United States. Countries in the Persian Gulf theater are less well-wired, and some Third World regions have very little standing communications infrastructure. The rigors of operating in such places would raise the demand for satellite communications, already in short supply. And it could test the Pentagon’s ability to conduct space control, which includes preventing an enemy from disrupting or attacking friendly satellites. American policy-makers have yet to resolve the sticky question of how the Pentagon would respond to a hostile act in space.

Of more immediate concern is the threat of attacks on military computers, especially as reachback blends many computer networks into a global, umbilical lifeline to commanders. In reachback experiments over the last two years, the Air Force set up a “red team” of hackers to try cracking into the computer systems shipping data back and forth. While data on information warfare is highly classified, Air Force officials say the mock attacks revealed some vulnerabilities that have been addressed. The Air Force has since designed a defensive system that includes numerous firewalls, internal networks, and sophisticated software for detecting intrusions. In an upcoming experiment this fall, the Air Force plans to demonstrate new software that can predict the kind and intensity of risks that enemy information attack would pose to a mission and to recommend the most effective countermeasures.

Also complicating the drive for reachback are questions about how to handle coalition partners, whom strategists expect to be an integral part of future operations. Last September’s JEFX was unable to involve coalition representatives in air combat planning and other aspects of the mission. The biggest barrier was the requirement to keep all classified information in US­only channels. The exercise revealed that routine reliance on a classified US Internet computer system often reduced allies to limited over-the-shoulder access to information-a situation allies would be unlikely to tolerate in a war.

“The amount of reachback will be tempered by coalition members’ capabilities and sensitivities,” observes one Air Force official. “If the [South] Koreans are a large part of planning, and they’re not good in English, they’ll probably want to do a lot of face to face.”

Up to Here With Teleconferences

Even US commanders were uncomfortable with the daily videoconferences conducted between senior staffs at various European headquarters and the Pentagon during Allied Force. “The widespread use of video teleconferencing and other advanced technologies for command and control and collaborative planning presented numerous limitations and challenges,” reads the Pentagon’s after-action report. While the report found that real-time sharing of information enhanced situational awareness and should be developed further, it also concluded, “It was very apparent that there is still a need for written documentation and dissemination of decisions.”

Air Force officials who ran last year’s JEFX proposed extending the use of a Coalition Wide Area Network, making it accessible, as needed, to all members of an alliance. They argued that US forces must develop an information system to make all data relevant to a combined operation releasable within the coalition. In such a system, highly classified US­only information would be automatically sanitized and dumped into the coalition system. That would make US forces less dependent on their own classified Internet system, which the experiment identified as a key condition for making reachback succeed.

While Air Force officials disagree over just how much reachback will be feasible in future wars, there is little doubt that greater connectivity and information sharing will provide a key advantage.

The 1999 experiment linked together more than 5,000 airmen operating from 11 major locations and covering a range of functions-intelligence from Kelly AFB, Texas, and Vandenberg AFB, Calif., weather data from Offutt, airlift input from Scott, sophisticated target analysis from the Joint Warfare Analysis Center at Dahlgren, Va. The experiment affirmed the Air Force’s ability to bring together data from dispersed locations. “We have accepted that we can do distributed operations,” says Col. Terry S. Thompson, director of the Air Force Experimentation Office at Langley.

The 1999 experiment left lots of work. A key requirement identified by that experiment was the need for commanders to plan for the war while they are en route to an operation. That is more than just a theoretical requirement. During the early hours of Operation Desert Fox, the four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998, Lt. Gen. Hal M. Hornburg was still airborne on his way to the theater. From his airplane, US Central Command’s senior Air Force commander could talk on the phone to subordinates running the first night’s attack out of Saudi Arabia. But until he arrived at the operations center in Riyadh, he couldn’t receive intelligence data, review the status of the forces under his command, or download the Air Tasking Order that detailed which aircraft were being sent to bomb what.

In the Rearview Mirror

The Air Force hopes to develop the capability to do all of that from a command-and-control aircraft, without relying on an existing air operations center in the theater. “As we become more of a garrison Air Force, more expeditionary, we’ve got to be able to get out of Dodge pretty quickly,” says Thompson. “We’ve got to have dynamic command and control.”

Moving information around quickly isn’t enough, though. As the 1999 experiment demonstrated, there’s also a critical need to organize it effectively and efficiently.

“What we have to do through further experimentation is refine the information further,” says Thompson. “We got a lot of information coming forward to the [air operations center], but we didn’t catalogue it well. We need an information management process to get information much quicker.”

Further experiments, including JEFX 2000 this fall, will work on developing doctrine for distributed operations, further integrating intelligence and planning information, and establishing a team that can rapidly assemble Internet­style Web pages containing war planning information during a contingency.

USAF officials will put increased emphasis on dynamic planning-that is, short-notice retasking-after a daily Air Tasking Order has already been established. Many commanders viewed the lack of dynamic tasking as a key shortcoming in the Kosovo air war.

Experiments this fall will test USAF’s ability to retask transports to deliver spare engines or other critical supplies on short notice. There will be other tests of how quickly the Air Force can redirect strike aircraft to ground targets not identified in the Air Tasking Order. After the 1999 experiment, officials at Langley recommended that such scenarios be worked into Red and Green Flag exercises at Nellis AFB, Nev., and other regular training events.

Other kinds of reachback have already been validated and will soon be fielded. Medical corpsmen, for instance, will soon be equipped with a device called RAPID (for Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device), which will help determine whether a stricken service member has been infected with a biological agent. The corpsman will take a fluid sample from the airman, insert it into a portable detector, and then plug the detector into a communications device that transmits key data via satellite to a lab in the United States. The lab should be able to transmit results within four hours.

Today, a fluid sample would be put in a pouch and then shipped to a theater hospital, a process which may not produce a result for three days. While waiting for an answer, commanders may have no choice but to order their troops to wear cumbersome protective gear, even if the danger turns out to be a false alarm. The Air Force plans to start buying the RAPID devices in 2002.

Meanwhile, senior Air Force officials will continue to tussle with the trade-offs between being there with a large on-scene contingent and being there in a virtual sense, with electronic links to other locations.

“You’d like to have everybody face to face, but it’s not practical,” says Lt. Col. Sean Kelly, an intelligence expert based at Langley.

USAF commanders already have learned to make such sacrifices. During the Kosovo war, says Kelly, “There were times when [commanders] wished they had the image right in front of them and they could talk to the analyst.” Instead, the analysts back at Beale did the next best thing: They placed a phone call to a commander in the theater when he needed additional expertise on “hot” targets requiring immediate attention. Even in war, sometimes help is just a phone call away.

Richard J. Newman is the Washington-­based defense correspondent and senior editor for US News & World Report. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.