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The Air Force Networks its Networks

May 1, 2014
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Connecting air assets involves the entire theater force.

  • A U.S. Army soldier monitors information in a combined air and space operations center during a Red Flag exercise. Future U.S. Air Force networking will involve greater joint connectivity among its own air assets and land and sea units of other services.
     A U.S. Army soldier monitors information in a combined air and space operations center during a Red Flag exercise. Future U.S. Air Force networking will involve greater joint connectivity among its own air assets and land and sea units of other services.
  • An Air Force EQ-4 Global Hawk carrying the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, awaits takeoff in Southwest Asia. Unmanned aerial vehicles will be relied on to an increasing degree for providing vital network links among a broad range of theater forces.
     An Air Force EQ-4 Global Hawk carrying the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, awaits takeoff in Southwest Asia. Unmanned aerial vehicles will be relied on to an increasing degree for providing vital network links among a broad range of theater forces.

The U.S. Air Force networking that links its air assets has extended its reach into the rest of the service and the joint realm as it moves a greater variety of information among warfighters and decision makers. This builds on existing networking efforts, but it also seeks to change longtime acquisition habits that have been detrimental to industry—and, by connection, to the goal of speeding innovative capabilities to the warfighter.

The Air Force has broadened some of its research to apply to other networks such as the Joint Information Environment (JIE). One vital effort is the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN. It provides airborne links aboard crewed and unmanned aircraft, and future iterations may take the form of pods attached to combat aircraft. Other networks and capabilities are being developed or expanded.

This method is in line with the overall Defense Department approach to networking. “We’re starting to think much more ‘system of systems,’ but we need to graduate to ‘enterprise of enterprises,’” says Dr. Tim Rudolph, chief technology officer (CTO) at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. “It is that much of an integration of different features of different platforms.”

Rudolph also supports the Program Executive Officer (PEO) Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks (C3I&N) as CTO and chief architect, and he is a senior leader/technical adviser for integrated information capabilities. He explains that networking air assets includes domains such as terrestrial, space and cyber.

“Networking is like plumbing,” Rudolph analogizes. “Most people don’t hire plumbers because they like cast iron or copper [pipes]; they do it because they want to move something through the pipes.” The Joint Aerial Layer Network (SIGNAL Magazine, June 2013, page 52, “Joint Aerial Layer…”) provides a construct that allows a great deal of interoperability among assets in various domains, he observes.

The thrust toward joint airborne networking also strives to enable more cost-effective missions, Rudolph offers. “We’re in even more dire circumstances now to make every node in that network the same,” he says. “Our objective is, with increasingly austere budgets, a recognition of the fact that we can’t put the same interface on every air platform, on every groundstation [and] on every interacting element to the battlespace. So, interoperability is a key construct.”

The joint aspect of Air Force networking does not focus purely on kinetic effects. Rudolph characterizes it as an aspect of broader operations such as humanitarian assistance. For example, the Air Force is working closely with the U.S. Navy on the Naval Tactical Cloud, which is increasing in importance with the strategic pivot to the Pacific. Rudolph offers that this type of interoperability, which can be difficult to achieve, can take advantage of new technologies such as software-defined networking and storage.

When an element such as BACN is used in a larger aerial layer network, it becomes a node that enables effective communication between systems that originally were not designed to interoperate, Rudolph points out. On a broader scale, the JIE is very terrestrial-network-intensive, but the information environment will require the flattening of terrestrial networks and bring down costs.

Gateways and related technologies have been a strong suit of the Air Force, Rudolph continues. So, the service has worked on leveraging that capability into the JIE. As the JIE progresses, the Air Force is working to shape the identity management and content-based security of the broad environment, he says. This effort builds on existing Air Force network research, which recently has been broadened to extend across other networks.

The Air Force will be depending on aerial communications nodes aboard unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). BACN is one format that will serve as both a mediator and an information router, Rudolph allows. Because BACN offers both manned and unmanned air vehicles, he notes, it has both broad coverage and flexibility. It will enable greatly increased coverage to the warfighter.

BACN’s airborne nodes will provide direct connectivity between airborne platforms. Unlike satellite communications, BACN will streamline the information flow among warfighters, including directly to ground troops.

UAVs are a centerpiece node in BACN, Rudolph notes, describing them as “an unmanned router in the sky that not only routes information, but also can mediate or translate between different datalinks and provide some level of storage—really the connective tissue that enables the battlespace from a communications standpoint.

“Those [unmanned aerial] assets will be significantly needed as part of that glue or connective tissue in theaters of operation,” he declares.

This becomes especially valuable in large theaters where anti-access/area denial may take place. “In these larger theaters … we really do need a way to link communications between manned aircraft, ships, satellites and an unmanned aerial system,” he states. “Vehicles are an opportunity to help support that broad distance approach in an antijam, antitamper way.”

Among the challenges facing Air Force networking efforts is what Rudolph describes as a precautionary principle. In that, risks of use are not taken unless and until something is 100-percent correct, leading to expensive and unique solutions. Alternatives cannot be proven to be better, so planners tend to overlook more cost-effective capabilities and reject innovation.

For example, the Air Force has a “significant overcapacity” in servers. These servers are running at 1 to 6 percent of capacity, Rudolph maintains, with an occasional rare usage spike that may rise as high as 50 percent. Yet, both the material solution and the business model will improve when the service adopts very secure, innovative approaches to the same task.

“The pace of innovation is significantly increasing, but the challenge to me has been less about technology and more about the business model and the cost model,” he states.

Rudolph continues that the Air Force must pursue innovative approaches. “We can’t just perpetuate the current situation of having unique solutions,” he declares. One of those unique solutions is an extension of current defense and joint networks, which is a precursor to the use of any data center. Rudolph describes this as problematic in multiple aspects—time consuming, costly and a greater threat surface for an adversary. “We’re taking an arguably brittle networking infrastructure and adding and expanding it so it becomes even more brittle. That’s just a bad approach,” he charges.

He calls for striving for a culture that is more accepting of proven technologies and having confidence in them—looking at how they are more secure in many ways. This is the next horizon, he says, adding that this a different approach to moving innovation into the hands of the warfighter.

Industry needs to provide opportunities to leverage innovations, Rudolph states, in ways that would provide new usable capabilities rapidly. “There are gaps in the entire networking strategy that can range from tactical communications/satellite communications to how we’re approaching cyber weapons systems—both defensive and active defense and others,” Rudolph maintains. “We’re working on a life cycle that can go from many years—similar to a large weapon system—to months, days or sometimes hours. We need to be agile and able to do that.”

Rudolph concedes that the Air Force may have a bad reputation in that, when a capability is required, a door is shut on industry and creative approaches to partnerships essentially are cut off well into the contracting portion of an acquisition. However, he says the service is turning the corner on it.

“We need to take a step back and look at how those connecting capabilities can better support what our more immediate goal is for a specific capability,” he suggests. Cost effectiveness, resilience, security and mission effectiveness are the key criteria, he says.

One significant ongoing change involves data centers. “The age of creating legacy data centers is over,” Rudolph declares. “A great deal of networking is dedicated to connecting those data centers—a very slow and very heavyweight process for providing information.” Commercial information technology can help alleviate this challenge to supporting warfighting operations.

“The core competency of the Air Force is not information technology,” he contends. “The core competency of the Defense Department is not information systems.

“One of the significant aspects of the federal government is to provide the common defense—it’s not to build infrastructure or to own and operate certain aspects of an enterprise environment that can be done more effectively elsewhere,” Rudolph continues. He calls for harnessing commercial models and technologies as well as skill sets. The military should use proven capabilities and ensure it has these skill sets internally, he says.

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