SrA. Ian Dudley photographs an unarmed ICBM during a test in August. The original ICBM system was developed quickly, but replacing it will take another 12 years. USAF Photo by SrA. Ian Dudley.
The US military’s next adversary is waiting just over the horizon. That adversary is not North Korea or Russia or China, or any other nation by name. For top Air Force leaders speaking at AFA’s 2017 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, the greatest threat the nation faces in the near future is a concept: speed.
“I’m very concerned that our nation has lost the ability to go fast,” said US Strategic Command boss Gen. John E. Hyten. And it’s not just Hyten who is worried. Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein has placed speed alongside ideas like “multidomain,” “multicomponent,” and “transregional” as one of the defining concepts of the war of the future. But what does going faster mean
Goldfein, Hyten, and others made it clear the Air Force needs more speed in areas like combat decision-making, acquisition, space operations, and software development. And the need is being driven by adversaries who are already moving faster in many of these areas. If the Air Force doesn’t get speed right—and fast!—it will find itself in 2030 fighting yesterday’s wars, with unhappy results, the generals said.
For a long time, the US has enjoyed astounding capability advantages on the battlefield. At least since Desert Storm, when the US goes to war, it has done so with “the most dominant conventional force in the history of the planet,” Hyten said. That dominance comes in large part, Goldfein said, because “we have had a luxury for the last 16 years of controlling the rheostat of time that is actually unparalleled in the history of warfare.”
Goldfein said that the US has been able to begin operations on its own terms and within its own timing. Further, US technological superiority has been so automatic the military can announce its battle plans six months ahead of time—as it did in the recapture of Mosul from ISIS—“and there’s nothing the adversary can do to stop us,” he said.
That unprecedented technological advantage is already dissipating. There is widespread concern that, in many ways, China, Russia, transnational terrorist organizations, and even shadowy programmers and hackers may be able to outmaneuver the United States.
Goldfein warned that the Air Force will need to be on the forward edge of making the US military faster as its technological leg up fades. “We as a service are going to have to … be more agile, more adaptive, more responsive as we look at the future of warfare,” he said. A good place to start focusing is acquisition.
World War II was a war of attrition, and Goldfein said the US military acquisition process was built to fit that
need. In B-24 production, the driving requirements were getting the right capability in the platform and getting the right number of aircraft built. Ultimately, Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas, was producing a bomber every hour at its peak, he said. “It was about things,” and making more of them, at the end of the day.
Now, platforms and their inventories are not the core focus, Goldfein insisted. “We’re transitioning from wars of attrition to wars of cognition,” and this change “forces us to ask different questions of industry.”
Wars of the future will be defined by decision-making speed and based on how—and how much—data is gathered, analyzed, and shared. Goldfein said that in this type of war, the service needs to ask industry partners, “Does it connect? Good. Does it share? Even better.”
Danger: Going Too Slow
The imperative for speed is critical even now at STRATCOM, Hyten made clear. “We have adversaries now, and we [see] proof in those adversaries that they’re going faster than we are,” he said. China and Russia are going faster than the US “in nuclear modernization, faster than we are in … hypersonic deployed weapons, … faster than us in space, faster than us in building counterspace capabilities to deny space, faster than us in cyber.”
Since World War II, the US has owned the competition in speed of fielding new requirements because “we’ve always been able to leverage the industrial base” for military purposes, Hyten said. But because of creeping bureaucracy, exploding requirements, and a risk-averse culture, the Department of Defense is now “slow, expensive,” Hyten said. “That’s the way it is.”
In the early 1960s, then-Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips was able to develop the nation’s first Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile system, including 800 missiles and launch facilities, in five years at a cost of $17 billion in today’s dollars. By comparison, the current ICBM replacement program, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, is not expected to reach initial operational capability for another 12 years. GBSD won’t reach full operational capability until 2035, and it has been estimated that it could cost as much as $84 billion to produce 450 missiles, Hyten said.
Phillips was able to build the Minuteman I system quickly and cheaply, Hyten said, because “he had simple requirements” that did not change over time, because he had a budget every year instead of a string of continuing resolutions, and because Phillips understood how to take “smart risk.”
Perhaps the most important factor enabling the Minuteman I achievement, said Hyten, is that Phillips was given the authority and responsibility to execute that program.
Hyten is clearly tired of DOD hand-holding acquisition program managers. He wants the Air Force to pick the right people and send them off to deliver the best product in collaboration with industry partners. “Industry has the ability to go as fast as we want them to go,” Hyten insisted. “If we give them good contracts, good incentives, they will go fast.”
One area where the Air Force is already leveraging commercial partnerships to go faster is space operations, Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick AFB., Fla., said. “We have launched more than Russia, and we have launched more than China” this year, Monteith declared.
“We’ve taken our capability to launch quickly from 72 hours last year, to now I can shoot twice in 24 hours,” Monteith said. The 45th SW has also landed seven SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage boosters this calendar year. As the fiscal year ended, Monteith said the 45th SW had “launched 21 space missions,” representing “over one-quarter of all space missions in the world.”
The speed of SpaceX’s launch operations are a big part of this new efficiency. The company “has forced us to become better at what we do,” Monteith said. “We are adopting commercial business practices; we are becoming more efficient, more effective, more affordable.” In concert with SpaceX, the 45th SW has been able to “reduce the cost of a single launch for them by over 50 percent.”
“SpaceX does not launch on schedule,” he said. “SpaceX launches on readiness.” As the Air Force’s partnership with the company grows, Monteith expects that “they will help us get to 48 launches a year” in the near future.
Spreading the Speed
Goldfein hopes USAF’s accelerating space-launch capabilities will be replicated in other areas as well. The Air Force Research Laboratory is working with special operations forces on a data management interface called Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK). The service wanted to maximize the data it was pulling from devices carried in combat.
“Rather than going and building a system to pull that in,” Goldfein said, “we actually went to a commercial company and they built an algorithm” that saved a lot of time. Now, ATAK can map personnel on the battlefield who are using a radio, which to Goldfein means that “we have now a common operational picture.”
Another key area is cyber operations, where development of new capabilities must be faster than traditional acquisition models allow.
The service recently tasked a Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) team to work with the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid AB, Qatar. The “coders sat down right next to our operators and started actually working design of new software immediately,” Goldfein said. This kind of speed could change the way the Air Force operates in the CAOC.
“In the wars of attrition, we would go out to industry and we would do a request for proposal,” Goldfein said. “We would get competition and then two years later we would maybe, maybe, start looking at an IT solution.” For wars of cognition, that process is simply too slow, Goldfein said. “In today’s and tomorrow’s warfare, we’ve got to be able to own and manipulate the code real time.”
This processing speed will enable the multidomain wars that are becoming familiar. In the wars of tomorrow—and more and more in the wars of today as well—“combined arms is about simultaneous activity from all domains that operate together,” requiring decision-making speed an adversary cannot match, Goldfein said. Simply put, “we have got to think about speed,” he said.