Command From the Air

Aug. 1, 2003

In one of the last major actions of Gulf War II, the coalition mounted a heavy bomber strike on a Baghdad site thought to be the hiding place of Saddam Hussein and his sons. The first step was for planners to confirm and approve the target. Once that happened, a very short operational sequence commenced.

An Air Force E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft orbiting above Iraq got the “go” signal. The AWACS relayed the tasking and coordinates to a nearby B-1B. The bomber crew keyed in the data. Twelve minutes later, the target lay in ruins.

“ This is the big one,” said an anonymous air battle manager aboard the E-3, a modified Boeing 707 with a rotating radar atop the fuselage.

He might have said the same about the sophisticated radar aircraft that monitors, tracks, and directs air traffic. Airborne battle management with the E-3—and with the E-8C Joint STARS, in the case of ground targets—gives the United States an awesome asymmetric advantage.

This ability to command and control forces from the air means that battle managers can always be in-theater, unrestricted by access concerns or host nation sensitivities.

By combining advanced intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities with battle management systems, E-3s and E-8s often leave opposing forces nowhere to hide. US forces, meanwhile, enjoy unsurpassed battlefield awareness.

Like AWACS, Joint STARS also played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in Iraq but in a different venue. It located, tracked, and helped lead the attack on moving ground targets.

The E-8, a joint USAF–Army system, aided the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The Army helicopters early in the war struggled with the problems of blowing sand and unconventional enemy tactics—many AH-64s were knocked out of service. Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Army’s 101st Airborne Division commander, said the Army changed tactics, working with the E-8s and other support aircraft for a number of successful operations.

“ When we could not get the target definition that we needed, we went to daylight, deep armed reconnaissance operations,” Petraeus said. These missions, which destroyed “very significant targets on a number of occasions … had J[oint] STARS supporting them, to direct them,” he told reporters.

Looking Through Sand

The advantage conferred by airborne battle management led to what some have described as the decisive point of the war.

At the end of March, when blinding sandstorms immobilized most US and enemy ground forces, Air Force systems such as Joint STARS and other radar platforms kept an overhead watch and were able to “see” through the storm and spot enemy vehicles. The E-8s directed air strikes against opposing forces that attempted to move under the cover of the sand.

The airborne battle management systems also coordinated more mundane events, such as the constant rotation and assignment of hundreds of coalition aircraft that needed mission updates, tankers, and landing sites across Southwest Asia.

The Air Force has 31 AWACS aircraft. The E-3 can track low-flying aircraft at a distance of more than 250 miles, with coverage extending farther for higher-altitude systems. It does this while simultaneously identifying hostile aircraft and offering secure communications capabilities.

The US does not have a monopoly on this system. Several US allies, including the NATO alliance, have purchased their own AWACS fleets. NATO as a whole operates 17; Britain has seven; Saudi Arabia has five; France has four; and Japan has four.

NATO gave thought to operating a similar fleet of Joint STARS aircraft, but this plan never materialized. The US remains the only nation that deploys an operational system and has 15 Joint STARS, each capable of tracking numerous ground vehicles at distances up to 150 miles. Another two Joint STARS have been procured and will join the fleet in 2004 and 2005.

The E-3 and E-8 are classic low-density, high-demand systems, constantly overtaxed by the warfighting commanders in times of crisis. This chronic overuse strains both the aircraft and their crews. According to Lt. Col. Gene Lee, who helps manage the career field at the Pentagon, air battle managers have been tasked “beyond maximum surge capacity” nonstop since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Over these two years, the crews have gained valuable experience and developed great proficiency in what they do. These constant deployments, however, have begun to take a toll. USAF officials say it may take up to two years for the service fully to reconstitute the fleets—that is, for the crews to be rested and trained and for the aircraft to have undergone a complete maintenance cycle.

Training Deficits

It takes a while to catch up on training. During the time they are deployed, air battle managers don’t use all their skills, and training deficits accumulate. Making a bad situation worse is the fact that the Air Force cannot bring on new battle managers because there are no E-3s available for schoolhouse duties. Even if there were, there would be no instructors to integrate the schoolhouse grads into operational units.

By June, all E-3s were headed back to their home base at Tinker AFB, Okla.—the first time that had happened since before the Gulf War of 1991. The AWACS aircraft for more than a dozen years had been “sitting out in the desert” of Saudi Arabia to support operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq, said Lt. Col. Dexter Griffin, another air battle manager at the Pentagon.

Griffin said returning the AWACS aircraft to Tinker shapes up as an important first step in restoring the fleet’s long-term health. Although the ultimate goal is to curb the appetite of warfighting commanders for the aircraft, “the real challenge is … to be able to bring that jet home,” he said.

The air battle manager career field is feeling the strain. In the mid-1990s, the Air Force drastically limited production of new battle managers, much as it did with pilots and navigators. It is now paying the price for that move.

Since bottoming out at zero in 1995, the production of new air battle managers has risen again. The force brought in 134 new managers in 2002. The career field, authorized for about 1,300 personnel, remains about 200 short of requirements, but officials say this shortage will be reduced.

About three-quarters are assigned to AWACS units at any given time, but the managers move between E-3s, E-8s, and ground-based air control stations for different assignments.

Air battle managers became a rated career field in 1999. This designation ensures USAF’s top leadership pays attention to air battle manager staffing levels, as is done for pilots and navigators.

The aircraft themselves are in need of improvements. Col. Robert Gordon, space and command, control, communications, computers/ISR “champion” in the Air Staff’s operational capability requirements office, said the Air Force needs to upgrade the systems to ensure it can, in the future, defeat enemies who are “more prepared” than Iraq.

First, battle damage assessment still must be improved. BDA has “consistently shown to be a problem in the past,” he said, and the experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom was no different. Assessment is the last stage of the kill chain.

Second, the Air Force needs to improve the way it prioritizes the flow of information. USAF must be sure the right person is getting the right information at the right time—and in a way that is immediately usable.

“ Some of the things we do are still very manpower-intensive,” he said, adding that a long-standing goal is to increase the amount of processing done by machines so humans can concentrate on what they do best—making decisions.

Finally, blue-force identification remains a concern. Preventing so-called “friendly fire” incidents has been a major emphasis over the years, and a primary mission for the E-3 is to differentiate between friendly, hostile, and unknown aircraft. Yet fratricide still occurs on occasion.

Stronger AWACS

The E-3 entered service in 1977. The Air Force recently modified the aircraft to a Block 30/35 configuration, giving it a secure, antijam communication system, computer upgrades, and Global Positioning System compatibility.

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Behler, commander of the Air Force Command and Control and ISR Center at Langley AFB, Va., said further AWACS upgrades—to Block 30/45 configuration—are “making the back end of the aircraft much more efficient.”

Networking is also creating efficiencies. Network Centric Collaborative Targeting can link the AWACS air picture with Joint STARS ground information and signals intelligence from the RC-135 Rivet Joint. NCCT is “taking all that and putting it over a data link, so you can do the collaborative targeting,” increasing the effectiveness of each platform, Behler said.

Plans call for the greatest possible integration of these capabilities aboard one system, the E-10 multisensor command and control aircraft. Today, say Air Force officials, command and control systems are afflicted by too many stovepipes, despite a concerted effort to break down the barriers that separate various functions. Air operations centers continue to expand as the Air Force fields new capabilities that require additional administrators and support personnel.

Using the E-10 to cut across the stovepipes should save both money and time, officials say. By integrating multiple ISR and airborne battle management functions, the E-10 could end the current situation in which AWACS controls air-to-air missions, Joint STARS runs air-to-ground missions, and Rivet Joint performs intelligence operations.

The E-10 will be the centerpiece of USAF’s next generation command and control constellation and eventually will assume the missions currently performed by several aircraft.

In May, USAF awarded a team of Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon a contract to develop the first iteration of the E-10. The aircraft’s battle management C2 systems will be competed and developed separately.

Plans call for Increment 1 of the E-10 to offer airborne ground surveillance and targeting capability similar to that provided by Joint STARS, plus cruise missile tracking capabilities.

The “most needed” capabilities are being developed first, one official said, but the platform promises flexibility. The E-10 is based on modern Boeing 767s that will be larger and more reliable than the old 707s that host the current BMC2 aircraft. Four Increment 1 aircraft will be built, enough to provide warfighting commanders with one on-station aircraft, around the clock, in a given war zone.

“ Fly-In” Command

The E-10 will provide a rapid fly-in command capability for areas that lack formal air operations centers or that present access problems, such as the Pacific theater. While many BMC2 functions can now be performed via reachback to permanent facilities, that capability is never guaranteed.

The E-10 is expected to be a force enhancer, even if there is a permanent theater AOC available. It may offer the best view of the battlefield, given the aircraft’s altitude and onboard sensors.

The extra size available in the 767 platform should pay dividends. The E-3 and E-8 both have fewer than 20 “back-ender” workstations for the air battle managers, but the E-10 could hold as many as 60 operators, if required.

Officials note that this could enable the E-10 to become a valuable joint command center. The E-10 can serve as a commander’s airborne “tactical execution arm,” according to Col. Bruce Sturk, director of warfighting integration at the AFC2ISRC. This would free AOC officials to think strategically and longer term.

Officials note that the E-10 should be able to generate flexibility at the workstation level. Individual stations will perform a wide variety of missions, based on changing operational needs. Currently, AWACS-unique and Joint STARS-unique workstations require air battle managers to move from station to station to perform different functions.

What if, Sturk asked, changing the aircraft’s mission were as simple as asking, “What’s the mission today?” Air Force officials “see a lot of joint capability,” in the system, Sturk said.

The E-10 appears to fit in well with US Strategic Command’s new global strike responsibilities. Retired Gen. Richard E. Hawley, former commander of Air Combat Command, notes there are many ways the aircraft could help the joint commander.

For example, to coordinate a strike halfway around the world, against an emerging target, a STRATCOM commander might want an airborne BMC2 aircraft in the theater. The E-10 would be able to set up an orbit anywhere in the world in less than a day.

The same aircraft could be used at other times to oversee a hostage rescue operation or to coordinate an air strike against a terrorist camp. The bonus, experts say, is that reprogramming the E-10 for various missions would be as simple as loading different programs into the workstations.

STRATCOM, special operations forces, or a hostage rescue mission would all require slightly different C2 systems, Hawley said. By making the back end reprogrammable, the E-10 could quickly be tailored to the specific mission.

The key is to properly “envision the scenarios in which a commander might want [the E-10],” he said. Since flexibility is planned from the start, joint applications should not have a significant cost impact, Hawley added.

Even though there are a finite number of workstations available, they could be distributed according to need. Lt. Col. Rick Painter, a planner working under Sturk, cited an example. Assuming the E-10 has 60 seats, a joint force air commander might devote 40 seats to BMC2 functions in a global strike operation.

In another scenario, however, 20 air battle managers could perform BMC2, while 40 seats were devoted to sensor management, Painter noted. The same air battle managers could perform both functions.

Sturk said that at this time all E-10 configurations are notional: “We don’t know how many operators we need.”

In any event, the center is working closely with the nearby US Joint Forces Command to ensure that the joint airborne battle management requirements are fully understood and taken into account by planners.

It’s an ambitious goal. The Air Force says that, when it comes to airborne battle management, it hopes ultimately to achieve “zero latency.” That buzz phrase means, simply, no wasted time and instantaneous strike capability.

Racking and Stacking the E-10 Radars

The Air Force won’t know—or say—for quite some time just how it will structure all of the radar capabilities for the E-10 multisensor command and control aircraft, or MC2A.

However, USAF does know it will start out with a Joint STARS-like ground surveillance system and cruise missile defense capabilities. Those are considered areas of greatest need.

According to Col. Edward Goehe, director of the MC2A office at Langley AFB, Va., the E-10’s counterland mission will feature a next generation ground moving target indicator (GMTI) sensor.

The first capabilities spiral will also feature a “focused” air moving target indicator (AMTI), for cruise missile defense capability, and “an open system architecture facilitating BMC2 mission suite subsystem integration.”

The E-10 is being designed with flexibility in mind, and the goal is to have a single aircraft perform multiple missions. This would be accomplished simply by changing the programs that battle managers use at their workstations in the back of the airplane.

Future E-10 spirals may add an air surveillance radar similar to that used by the E-3 for the airborne early warning mission. It is not yet known whether the air- and ground-surveillance missions can be combined on a single airframe.

Plans call for conducting studies to determine if combining GMTI and a 360-degree AMTI sensor on a single aircraft “is possible,” Goehe said in a written statement.

If the AWACS-style airborne early warning mission is incompatible with the Joint STARS-style mission, airborne early warning “will be hosted on a second MC2A fleet configuration, leaving us with two distinct variants,” Goehe added.

The Air Force envisions several other capabilities for the E-10s. These include ability to control unmanned aerial vehicles from the air, Space Based Radar coordination, and ISR management functions, officials say.

Final decisions on the exact configuration and E-10 fleet size will have to wait until Air Force studies have determined exactly how to divvy up or combine the missions. Overall, however, the E-10 is not expected to replace 69 E-3s, E-8s, and RC-135s on a one-for-one basis.

Officials are quick to point out that the E-10 is but one part of a future constellation including next generation sensors and ground and space systems. And the AWACS and Joint STARS that the E-10 will notionally replace will likely remain in service for decades.