The Air Force is working to execute its core missions faster. Modern threats and long distances demand that USAF develop faster tools for future missions.
Greater speed is needed across the “kill chain”—the process that covers the time that includes information gathering, decision-making, and action against targets.
“Our most challenging scenario is in increasingly contested environments where gaining and maintaining air and space superiority will be our toughest mission—and our highest priority,” Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy said when asked about Air Staff planning assumptions about future threats.
To meet these needs, USAF is restructuring some organizations, encouraging tactical and operational experimentation, and putting valuable dollars into research and development. Funding for next generation adaptive aircraft engines, hypersonic weapons, and nanotechnology are not just science projects. They are critical aspects of future USAF dominance, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III has said.
“The big picture for me is: Speed compresses kill chains. Real speed really compresses kill chains and reduces the enemy’s decision time. For our warfighting force, that’s an important concept,” Welsh said in July, as he unveiled the service’s new strategic plan. It touts broad USAF investment in technology and tactical experimentation within its missions.
Anything the Air Force can do to speed up the effects it wants to create is a good thing, Welsh said, “whatever domain we operate in.”
Faster execution begins with information, and its wide portfolio of ISR tools drives the Air Force’s decision-making process. The Air Force needs to capitalize and build on its strengths in this area, as it is vital to fast, agile global operations.
Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium this past February, Welsh pointed out that in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, “nobody knew what ISR was.” Since then, USAF has built and adapted a global network of sensors, aircraft, and air and space operations centers to expand its global ISR operations. The Air Force has largely led the charge to build a global ISR enterprise to move data and information “all over the world at the speed of light,” he noted.
But the question today is how the service adapts a system oriented to a sprawling ISR enterprise supporting tactical soda straw ISR operations from remotely piloted aircraft in a counterinsurgency campaign, to one that refocuses on ISR as a mission in and of itself. Intelligence is not a mere support function, and USAF must work to get useful information where it is needed—quickly.
The problem is particularly acute, USAF’s senior ISR airman said, because it is adapting to prosecute ISR in conflicts far different from the last decade. ISR is at a “strategic turning point,” Lt. Gen. Robert P. “Bob” Otto said in June. The Air Staff is updating plans for how it will receive and transmit ISR in contested and anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) environments.
Linking assets that can operate in these environments—such as the B-2, F-22, and F-35—with older aircraft is crucial to future operations. Distributed networks, to help valuable ISR data and targeting information pass back and forth rapidly and reliably, are vital to success.
“We need to get data to places where we can make sense of it,” Otto said. That will allow both pilots and operators and commanders to tighten their decision-making cycles even further.
This need is why, at a time when USAF is slashing command and headquarters staff, it has announced the realignment of the Air Force ISR Agency to become the service’s newest numbered air force this fall—25th Air Force. The NAF provides a single command structure for USAF’s ISR airmen, bringing a wide range of units and organizations under its authority, from the Air Force Cryptologic Office at Fort Meade, Md., to the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick AFB, Fla. Along with processing, exploitation and dissemination, targeting and other AOC-level skill sets now under 25th Air Force, aircraft wings are now also under the organization. These include the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, Calif., and the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Neb. (home of USAF’s RC-135 fleet), among others.
By standing up 25th Air Force, USAF is seeking to “normalize the ISR mission into the combat air forces,” Air Combat Command boss Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III said in July. The new structure better unifies tactical, regional, and national ISR capabilities, streamlining decision-making regarding requirements. “Combatant commanders and other mission partners count on Air Force ISR capabilities every day,” he said, noting that the mission is “fundamental” to the combat Air Force. Airmen will be able to more quickly produce standardized ISR products for commanders and operators, seeking more comprehensive capabilities such as analysis, imagery, and targeting.
In addition to streamlining some organizations, Welsh and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James spoke in July about finding “pivot points” in USAF programs where key technologies can be introduced, to ensure the service’s capabilities do not become mired in obsolescence.
For example, hypersonic technology is critical for the future relevance of USAF’s nonpenetrating B-52 and B-1B bombers, as standoff hypersonic weapons could make these aircraft useful in a fight against an enemy with advanced air defenses.
The Long-Range Standoff weapon, a proposed follow-on to the AGM-86 nuclear cruise missile, is needed to maintain the potency of the nation’s bombers, the head of US Strategic Command, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, said in June during a Capitol Hill speech. Proliferating A2/AD defenses require a range of response beyond just relying on stealth, be it in the form of a B-2 with gravity bombs or a follow-on Long-Range Strike Bomber, and speed and reach cannot be separated from this equation.
While testing of hypersonic capabilities such as the X-51 WaveRider has provided the Air Force with a trove of scientific data, it is a costly enterprise. While the Air Force pursues these capabilities, it also needs “to do the right kind of investment in propulsion technologies that allow us to save money,” Welsh said. Though research has not yet reached the “long-awaited goal of practical application,” the service’s new strategy document states, the advantage such a capability would yield warrants USAF’s continued focus.
But USAF is betting the investment will pay off soon, introducing propulsion systems that could send both weapons and aircraft around the world at speeds exceeding Mach 5—some 3,800 mph.
Maj. Gen. David W. Allvin, the Air Staff’s director of strategic plans, said with this kind of speed “you get survivability aspects you haven’t seen before,” as targets previously out of reach could now be held at risk wherever they are located.
This is why USAF has moved to increase funding for hypersonic research in its Fiscal 2015 budget request.
Sequestration forced the cancellation and rescheduling of more than 100 research and development contracts, but now the 2015 budget request includes $2.3 billion for science and technology. This focuses mostly on three core technology areas USAF believes will be vital to speed and reach of future operations: hypersonic and autonomous flight research, nanotechnology, and directed energy.
“I firmly believe maintaining and even expanding our technological advantage is vital to assuring our assured access and freedom of action in the air, space, and cyberspace,” USAF’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology David E. Walker told Senate appropriators in May.
In 2012, the Air Force marked some $213 million for a new Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD) research effort, aiming to develop a new class of aircraft engines that demonstrate variable cycle propulsion, enabling sharp reductions in both fuel costs and raising performance. Since then, senior USAF science and technology officials, such as Air Force Chief Scientist Mica R. Endsley, have vigorously defended the effort, arguing if the service succeeds in these efforts, a host of multimission aircraft will improve range, persistence, and performance.
Engine research is also a platform to explore nanotechnology also prioritized by USAF in its research funding. “Nanotech reduces weight. When you re-engineer things at the molecular level, it enhances speed and range,” affecting everything from how much it could cost to get spacecraft on orbit to building survivability of assets in a contested environment, Allvin said.
Another technology crucial to USAF efforts to speed up the kill chain is directed energy. While long considered by some in the military as a far-fetched science project, senior USAF leaders have increasingly touted its potential value across missions. From aerial weapons to logistics, directed energy applications would give the Air Force the ability to operate in contested environments where traditional weapons may have limited utility.
More importantly, directed energy breakthroughs would fundamentally change the logistics of combat airpower by changing the dynamics of munitions themselves.
In a July talk, ACC chief Hostage extolled the virtues of the fifth generation F-22 Raptor and its speed, reach, and stealth. But, he added, its “magazine depth”—the amount of munitions an aircraft can carry at one time—limits the fighter’s effectiveness.
“One of my great frustrations with our weapon systems today is the limited magazine,” Hostage said. “I’ve got a platform now in the Raptor that can go into heinous territory at great risk, but I can only whack eight bad guys in the process,” he said, referring to the internal carriage for air-to-air missiles on the F-22. “I’ve got to come back, get more, and go back. I’d like to go over there and whack a whole bunch of them before I come back.”
Faster and more efficient engine technologies are not the only approach to the pursuit for greater speed. The Air Force is also adapting existing systems and methods to increase operational tempo, basing and support options, and to give commanders broader tactical leeway and increase their decision-making time.
These ideas, the Air Force believes, will not come from headquarters most times. “Those who operate … systems in the field continue to discover uses that designers never imagined,” the service’s new strategy document states. USAF should move to “rapidly validate operating concepts developed in the field and disseminate them force-wide.” This will foster a “climate for innovation” to push new tactics into the force quickly.
“Let’s be willing to use them—and make mistakes and learn from them,” Allvin said.
Some innovations are already paying off. In summer 2013, a small team of F-22 pilots and weapon officers tested a concept of operations in joint exercises in Alaska to quickly deploy and send the fighters into combat if necessary. The “Rapid Raptor” concept started off as a white paper written by a veteran Reserve pilot and was briefed to Welsh during an official visit to Alaska that August.
Rather than endorsing a faster engine or weapon, the concept radically re-imagined the deployment template for F-22s in a crisis.
Unlike a large-footprint Theater Security Package involving 12 jet aircraft and accompanying personnel and support equipment, Lt. Col. Kevin Sutterfield—working with pilots from the USAF Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nev., and the CSAF’s Strategic Studies Group—started with a small footprint. Using a flexible combination of four F-22s and one C-17 equipped with key materials, munitions, and maintainers, the Rapid Raptor concept was born.
These small cells can land, refuel, rearm, and redeploy again in as little as 24 hours, throwing open planning and deployment options to combatant commanders seeking to maximize assurance and deterrence, and deployment speed—and to minimize vulnerability. From Wake Island in the Pacific to simulated strikes on targets near the North Pole, several exercises tested the concept before it was certified for regular operations.
“This concept emphasizes the fundamental tenets of airpower: speed, flexibility, and surprise by pairing smaller formations of fighters and airlift that can move quickly together and operate from unexpected locations”
Sutterfied said last October. Now, “you can move airplanes to different locations and not leave them at a fixed location for a long period of time. There are a lot of airfields out there,” PACAF commander Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle told Air Force Magazine in September 2013. The concept also supports “passive defense,” the dispersing and rapid movement of critical capabilities, like the F-22, which affects an adversary’s targeting analysis in the event of a conflict. An adversary may know Raptors are there, but “by the time he wants to do anything about it, you won’t be there anymore,” Carlisle said.
New innovations and concept development at the unit level are also taking place in mobility, to enable rapid aerial deployments even in austere and challenged conditions—and to carry out some innovative joint operations with tighter command and control loops.
Last November, Air Force and Army units at JB Lewis-McChord, Wash., worked for a month to develop a unique deployment of ground-based rocket artillery. Airmen with the 62nd Airlift Wing, working with US Army soldiers from the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery, carried out Operation Guy Fawkes at multiple locations in Washington state and California. In the operation, four C-17s left McChord carrying seven High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) vehicles, with about 100 personnel.
Over the next two days the C-17s deployed to three separate airfields, unloaded the vehicles, performed a firing simulation, and then rapidly reloaded the vehicles to return to McChord. Mobility airmen, working with soldiers, deployed HIMARS vehicles on dirt runways and at night. For airmen, it was a chance to think creatively about speeding up unconventional mobility operations to carry out a new and unique scenario.
“You won’t always have publications stating how to tie down every piece of equipment,” said SrA. Ashton Taylor, a 7th Airlift Squadron loadmaster. “It comes down to fundamentals that we learn in tech school.” The November drill was the second joint HIMARS exercise performed in 2013, helping broaden joint planning between air mobility airmen and soldiers. The scenario served to prepare airmen for the “full spectrum of C-17 operations with an emphasis on command and control during wartime,” said Capt. Paul Tucker, the 7th Airlift Squadron exercise lead.
Taken together, USAF is hoping these various efforts will allow it to react and respond faster to a full range of contingencies. With fifth generation aircraft linked to ISR networks, resilient space assets, and new cyber weapons systems that can penetrate adversary networks, new solutions can be brought to bear even more quickly. Allvin pointed out, “You have the opportunity to leverage all three domains”: air, space, and cyberspace.
USAF is the world leader in establishing air superiority, but capabilities are rapidly changing and USAF needs to keep pace.
“If it’s the ‘Enter’ button on the keyboard that makes all the adversaries fall into the ground, I’m OK with that,” Hostage said. “My job is to produce air superiority, air supremacy, and I’m agnostic as to how I do that.”