Air Force leaders urged new approaches to commanding and controlling forces in combat, a mission that stretches across the service’s core missions.
The Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force, operational commanders, and retired leaders all agree that command and control (C2) and battle management of air, space, and cyber forces needs a refresh, they contended at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in September. Speakers said effective C2 underpins some of USAF’s thorniest operational problems, from linking up fifth generation fighters to older aircraft, to enabling better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance collection and analysis, as well as fighting in denied, degraded, and anti-access scenarios.
To improve C2, the service and the defense industry must embrace new constructs and tools such as a self-healing information “combat cloud” to forge effective and survivable connections between newer fifth generation aircraft and older assets to push and pull information to where it is needed most.
Today’s combined air and space operations centers (CAOCs) employ tools and processes largely unchanged since the early 1990s.
The very concept of a CAOC came out of the lessons learned from the first Gulf War, where precision weapons, stealth, and effects-based planning won the day. But since then, US operations have mostly been conducted in lightly contested environments, and the process of tasking targets is far different.
Unlike the first Gulf War, fighter aircraft rarely leave on sorties knowing what they will target with their linked ISR pods.
Modern air and space operations, even in relatively uncontested environments, suggest profound implications for the future—especially in regions such as the Asia-Pacific. “Potential adversaries have studied the American way of war and have based their strategies on keeping us out of their neighborhood,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
American C2 networks and communications centers are now the targets of cyber attacks and ballistic missiles. As a result, the 21st century battlefield is increasingly shaping into a competition over who can use and deny information to a potential adversary, said retired USAF Col. David Fahrenkrug, the former senior military advisor to Andrew W. Marshall, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. In the Pacific alone, “China has determined information superiority is critical to winning future conflicts,” Fahrenkrug said. “And they are determined to pass us and win.”
While USAF aircraft and systems are all connected to networks, from data links to gateways to global positioning satellites, they are in conflict or incompatible with each other in many instances—and with the networks of other services.
“We are working on this,” said Pacific Air Forces’ Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, “but we can’t build the right plumbing if we don’t agree.” The Air Force and the Navy, he said, are not yet “on the same sheet of music” in developing resilient linkages between aircraft and commanders and vice versa. The Navy has pushed forward with the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept, but the Air Force has pursued other programs for other assets, such as the Intraflight Data Link and the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL). Carlisle said, “We’ve got to think about how we get to the next level”—how the US military will conduct command and control between services in a denied and disrupted environment—“and we’re not there yet.”
The problems have as much to do with culture and training as technology, said Lt. Gen. Russell J. Handy, commander of 11th Air Force at JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Handy, who worked as the director of plans and programs at PACAF prior to his move to Alaska last year, told the AFA audience that US Pacific Command boss Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III ordered a look at how C2 would work in the Asia-Pacific. This involved exercising a variety of theater scenarios, conducting command and control in denied and degraded environments, and making choices on what decisions and authorities would remain centralized and what could be dispersed to component commanders or joint commanders.
Handy said USAF and military leaders learned that in the Pacific, C2 across the theater has to be capable at all levels and expand and contract as needed. “The concept where we present forces in this area is evolving” away from big bases and garrisons to smaller dispersed units and expeditionary deployments. Future wars will no longer be a “push environment,” where tasks flow out from CAOCs and commanders, but “more important, is bringing data back from employed forces. … We need to think about those type of forces and how they send information back to commanders.”
Connect the Fleet
The problems confronted by commanders in the Asia-Pacific have profound implications for missions across the globe—from air superiority to nuclear deterrence. In response, USAF must make investments in C2 platforms and technologies and rethink operational concepts, training, and long-held battle management practices.
Air Combat Command’s Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III said that when he flew his first fighter, an F-16A, he could see out ahead maybe 12 miles on a good day and relied on radios a great deal to get information. Today, if a two-ship of F-22s is well-briefed before departing, the pilots may never even talk with one another, due to the sensors and avionics capabilities of the jet. “They are doing a higher level battle operation than any fourth generation fighter,” Hostage said. The “fusion capacity” of fifth generation aircraft is the defining characteristic of F-22s and the F-35, he declared, and will greatly influence combat in the future. “Stealth is just one of those things that came along with it,” he said, adding that the ability to pass sensor data between F-22s makes them revolutionary assets.
However, USAF has a difficult task ahead on its fifth generation fleet: linking its F-22s with F-35s, and with the rest of the force, to ensure survival in high-intensity combat. Raptor pilots can share information with one another via their own data link, but can’t share with anyone else unless the pilot gets on a radio and begins transmitting, Hostage lamented.
The F-35, when operational, will initially suffer from the same limitation. Because of this, the outgoing ACC commander said he has pushed his planners and industry to deploy secure and effective data links to get USAF’s fifth generation fleet connected with fourth generation technology. Although they are both fifth generation fighters, “F-35s don’t talk to F-22s,” Hostage said. “Don’t get me started” about how that happened, “but we are where we are.”
The Air Force will need a large portion of its legacy fleet for years to come, so leveraging the power of F-22 and F-35 sensor and information fusion will “fundamentally [be] the only way we will survive in the latter half of the next decade,” Hostage said. But even then, he noted, this will only solve part of the problem. “I need to leverage that fusion capacity, but I’m just linking tactical platforms,” Hostage said. The next step, for the Air Force, is how to “pull” data at the command level, from CAOC floors for example, and do it from multiple platforms. Even with fourth-to-fifth generation data links, a single link remains vulnerable in a contested environment, while a “cloud” approach to certain data and information could be more survivable.
“When we talk about the Internet, it’s data that just lives out there, it’s constantly refreshed and available any time,” Hostage said. While it is nearly impossible for a combat cloud construct to be as pervasive as commercial cloud technology in a high-end combat scenario, such an approach to C2 and data management would reduce risk in future operations. “I need certainty and availability, and that is the challenge with tactical links. If you break it, … you lose it,” he said. But even with a “gracefully degradable” cloud with lower level of connectivity in some areas, Hostage said, another platform—such as an E-3 AWACS or an E-8 JSTARS—can fill the gap, should connections with the operations center become compromised.
Nuclear command and control and communications for USAF’s strategic forces is also a top modernization priority. Air Force Global Strike Command’s Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson said nuclear C2 demands some broader thinking, noting that AFGSC planners had talked with industry recently to make sure its bombers could connect to the AEHF satellite constellation and could receive and maintain wideband communications as well as narrow band connectivity anywhere.
But Wilson also said USAF’s nuclear forces look to make their air-breathing C2 processes more robust, in a nod to space vulnerabilities. “What can we do incrementally over time, and how do we also have a non-space-based option capability out there for the bomber force?” he asked rhetorically.
Cross-domain thinking—across missions—is essential to the service’s future, senior leaders declared. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said USAF cannot afford to think in domain stovepipes anymore and must leverage aircraft such as the F-35, tools such as cyberspace, and the next generation JSTARS in ways airmen could not have imagined even 20 years ago.
Cyber command and control could have far-reaching effects in combat. Welsh said he wants to see the cyber mission employed to greater effect to aid the air component in “the big war,” not just supporting signals intelligence tasks at the National Security Agency or supporting other missions at US Cyber Command.
“When the enemy starts to shoot missiles toward friendly forces, [we should] employ a tool that allows these missiles to sit and sizzle on the pad or go halfway, turn around, and go home,” Welsh said. “How do we expand that thinking into our Air Force in a big way?”
As one solution, Welsh wants to send cyber airmen to operations centers in ACC or PACAF or Air Mobility Command, helping planners figure out how to perform their mission better “in, through, or from the cyber domain.” Airmen must understand that all of the service’s traditional operating domains are “growing, changing, becoming more contested, more congested,” Welsh said. As a service, USAF has to get better at integrating and synchronizing effects through these domains “in every one of our mission areas.”
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said as the Air Force modernizes, it must focus closely on being able to “achieve objectives through ways that we have not previously explored.” This means a “multidomain approach” that will demand more investment and focus on how the service uses ISR, space, cyber, and information.
USAF’s space-driven C2 vulnerabilities also impel modernization priorities. Barriers to space capability are lower than ever, and the technology to threaten space assets has become more readily available, James said. Because of this, USAF is evaluating its concepts for space mission assurance—building resilient systems, being able to replace assets on orbit quickly, and disaggregating space assets so it has fewer points of weaknesses where an adversary could catastrophically affect USAF air and space operations.
Information is so important to future operations that Welsh declared his personal belief that USAF will one day establish a major command dedicated to it. “It is the coin of the realm. And it will become more and more and more so in the future,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Linda R. Urrutia-Varhall, the assistant deputy chief of staff for ISR on the Air Staff, said USAF must move to embrace a more scalable model for analyzing and disseminating C2 and ISR information—as supply of data has vastly outstripped the ability to process, exploit, and disseminate it. Air Force units, she said, consume enormous volumes of imagery to support operations, more than 1,600 hours of video on average every day.
Planners and Doers
In 2016, if existing tools and processes remain in place, USAF could need more than 100,000 people to keep up with projected demand. Enabling a cloud approach to ISR, where cleared airmen can analyze and access tagged data, will become an operational necessity as USAF adapts for anti-access and area-denial combat in the future.
The importance of command and control resilience is one of the main reasons recapitalizing the E-8 JSTARS fleet is a top Air Force priority. JSTARS aircraft, while few in number, have performed an outsize role in the last decade of conflict—as their ability to track moving targets, send imagery, and link ground and air assets has proved invaluable in Iraq and Afghanistan.
ACC, this September, approved the capabilities document that will dictate the tools, capabilities, and size of the new aircraft (which USAF aims to have operational by 2022), said Col. Henry L. Cyr, commander of the 461st Air Control Wing at Robins AFB, Ga. Unlike the aircraft currently flying, a future JSTARS fleet would feature greater capability, fewer crew members, and fit in a smaller business-class jet, such as a Gulfstream 550 or Boeing 737.
Though USAF has pushed to recapitalize JSTARS, a capability in great demand across the military, Cyr said its mission is “not well-understood”—and this applies to command and control across the military. “It is a diverse mission set when compared to air superiority, or mobility,” he said. “A layman could describe what global attack is, … but even in the military, describing command and control, you get a different perspective depending on who you ask.” Much like the different data links between the combat air force, C2 is a joint effort with varied definitions in the services.
He said JSTARS is “a platform that merges the operational and tactical level of war,” linking the general officers, who are planning, with the captains and sergeants, “who are doing.” USAF presses the JSTARS program, and seeks support from the other services, to make sure those links remain resilient, survivable, and adaptable.
Several leaders noted some good news in the works, on solving connectivity problems within USAF’s combat fleet. Work between PACAF and PACOM, Hostage said, has led to a Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON) statement being prepared. This will push DOD to produce an initial fifth-to-fourth generation aircraft link on the Talon HATE program. With Talon HATE, Boeing endeavors to combine fighter data networks, ground stations, national networks, and joint C2 assets to speed information sharing and prevent choke points vulnerable to attack. The prototype is carried on a pod already tested on an F-15. However, the program is not yet a “volume solution,” Hostage said. “It will show us the way, but it’s not going to give us a significant tactical capability across the fleet.”
Though the problem set sounds theoretical, Carlisle stressed command and control challenges are not limited to high-end combat and can arise at any time.
He cited the east Japan earthquake in March 2011, when the CAOC at Osan AB, South Korea, was cut off from the network. This happened not because of an adversary attack but because the quake had damaged or snapped undersea fiber-optic cables leading to the combined command center.
Scenarios such as this have served to accelerate and raise the profile of the command and control problems USAF must solve in the coming years.