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Advances Forge an Information Air Force

July 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Information technologies have improved weapon systems. Now they are changing the nature of warfighting.

The U.S. Air Force is undergoing a change in its operational capabilities as significant as when missile-armed jets replaced gun-bearing propeller aircraft. Information technologies, which long have enhanced weaponry and improved capabilities, now are taking their place alongside other key types of hardware as defining elements in Air Force operations.

Disparate sensor systems are being linked to provide magnitude improvements in capabilities for existing weapons platforms. New algorithms offer the possibility of smarter intelligence processing tailored for specific customers. And, consolidated data from multiple sensors and sources is leading to information operations designed to produce nonkinetic effects in the future battlespace.

One organization already has incorporated so many of these changes in its operations that it is becoming known as the information air force. The 8th Air Force, based at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, has been tasked by the chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force to integrate information operations, including intelligence operations, into the service. Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, USAF, commander of the 8th Air Force and commander of Air Force Network Operations, defines the mission facing the 8th Air Force as meeting a force integration challenge.

“What we need to do is better integrate what we can do in information operations, and in intelligence production and dissemination, into the kinetic operation. When we do that, we eliminate fratricide, we decrease collateral damage, we increase effectiveness and we increase efficiency.

“War, by its very nature, is an incredibly inefficient operation. If we can fight a war with 30 percent more efficiency, that would be an unheard-of quantum leap in warfighting capability. That is what we are shooting for here at the 8th Air Force.”

To hit that target, the 8th Air Force has a series of five thrust areas and five activities designed to integrate information operations and intelligence better into all aspects of the Air Force. Gen. Carlson describes the five activities as representing new or more effective ways of using information technology. First, the 8th Air Force has been designated the command for Air Force forces for computer network operations. The 8th Air Force vice commander serves as this commander. The first job that the 8th took on was the command and control—along with the defense—of the Air Force network enterprise.

As with the other services, the Air Force’s information infrastructure evolved over the years as a patchwork of various systems. Almost everything that the Air Force does today is run on the network enterprise that emerged with the consolidation of these systems. However, the Air Force never emplaced a command and control system that used the network as a weapon system. “We just grew it and hoped that it would take care of itself,” the general relates.

A network operations center at Maxwell Air Force Base Gunter Annex, Alabama, ensures connectivity between locations. Computer emergency response teams (CERTs) serve as the line of defense for data that transits the network pipelines. Gen. Carlson notes that compliance with CERT recommendations tends to be voluntary, so the Air Force chief of staff tasked the 8th Air Force with instilling discipline in the system. This encompassed establishing command and control over the network and defending the network as an enterprise.

The 8th Air Force has established an Air Force network operations security center at Barksdale Air Force Base. This center will evolve over time into a large facility with virtual connectivity with both the CERTs and the network operations center. The security center “will take them under our wing,” Gen. Carlson says, to run the Air Force network enterprise from under a single roof. Also, compliance with security repair recommendations no longer will be voluntary, as the center will issue the security equivalent of notices to airmen, or NOTAMs, which will require security fixes by a given date.

Another 8th Air Force mission involves full-spectrum information operations. This entails direct support to combatant commanders for warfighting, and Gen. Carlson states that the 8th Air Force’s work in this area has ranged from optimizing electronic warfare to direct attack on adversary systems.

This activity brings to light the information force nature of the 8th Air Force. The general notes that the command has been able to incorporate these tools directly into the air tasking order, which makes them part of the scheme of maneuver. When flying aircraft, conducting a ground search-and-rescue operation or performing ground maneuvers in a certain geographic area, the force is able to affect an enemy’s information operations to its own benefit. “For the first time in the history of modern warfare, we are doing that in an integrated fashion,” the general adds.

The 8th Air Force also is deploying an increasingly large number of defensive information network sensors. This increase has occurred both inside and outside of the continental United States. It will allow the 8th Air Force to track attacks coming at its systems, especially from overseas. Until these deployments, most of the sensors were located domestically and could not detect an information attack from overseas until it had reached U.S. shores. In some cases, network operators would not realize that they had been hacked or attacked until the foes were at the cyberspace door.

Now, the much larger network of distributed sensors can allow Air Force officials to map trends by observing these attacks much earlier in their cycle. This also permits establishing more detailed defenses and, if necessary, shutting down entire systems or locations before any damage is inflicted.

A fourth activity involved a technology upgrade. The 8th Air Force adapted new technology from the Litening targeting pod, which is a follow-on to the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) system, for the venerable B-52 bomber. This adaptation was so successful that the force also added Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) video to the bomber’s incoming data, Gen. Carlson relates. The result was much quicker target acquisition and confirmation for the high-flying weapons platform. Ground personnel using infrared flashlight technology could assist by talking the crew into the target in a matter of seconds instead of several minutes, he adds. Bombers also could cross-check their accuracy with the Predator video.

By the end of the Iraq war, B-52s were able to employ these technologies to great effect on just a couple of sorties. They worked so well that the systems were redeployed from Fairford, England, to the air base at Diego Garcia, where they are flying on almost a daily basis to missions over Afghanistan. The B-52’s widely publicized success with satellite-guided joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) now is supplemented by even more precise laser-guided weapons.

In addition to these efforts, the 8th Air Force is working on national tactical integration, or NTI. The 8th Air Force’s goal is to extract selected bits of useful information out of the national intelligence arena—national technical assets and clandestine sources—and pair them with theater intelligence from Predator and Global Hawk UAVs and U-2, Rivet Joint, Compass Call, Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JointSTARS) and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. This collection of data would be processed in a distributed way to send specific intelligence to diverse customers. This would follow the oft-stated goal of providing the right intelligence to the right customer regardless of service.

Over the past few months, the 8th Air Force has worked hard at placing personnel in appropriate billets and establishing the proper connectivity from the Air Force collection platforms, Gen. Carlson continues. This work tends to be extremely labor-intensive because the necessary machine-to-machine interface is not as good as it should be, he notes.

While this is an ongoing effort, it already has begun to pay dividends. During the Iraq war, the Air Force was able to destroy a number of surface-to-air missiles “that we would have never, ever gotten,” Gen. Carlson declares. The Air Force also destroyed several surface-to-surface missiles before they were launched because the national intelligence system provided data that could be applied to tactical forces, processed quickly and distributed to the shooter in less than 10 minutes. Previously, providing this type of information to the shooter would have taken 30 minutes, by which time a theater ballistic missile could already be well on its way to a target.

This enhanced capability emerged less from technology advances and more from improved algorithms, the general relates. These new algorithms “increased the tightness of our ellipses on signals intelligence.” For the most part, “we just teamed better, made sure we had the right connectivity and then worked the problem real hard,” he says.

According to Gen. Carlson, the 8th Air Force’s five thrust areas include two of the five information technology activities: active network defense and NTI. The other thrust areas are horizontal integration; planning, control, execution and assessment of nonkinetic effects; and integration of information operations into the air operations center.

Horizontal integration entails better training of personnel on airborne intelligence and command and control assets. For example, Gen. Carlson notes that the first time an AWACS operator connected a joint tactical information distribution system (JTIDS) link with a Rivet Joint aircraft during the war usually was when the AWACS aircraft took off on the way into Iraq. Ideally, the AWACS operator should know what the Rivet Joint will feed that aircraft, what it expects from the AWACS, what the AWACS can get from a U-2 and what a Compass Call aircraft needs.

This training should be done before entering combat, the general warrants. However, these aircraft tend to be low-density, high-demand assets—there are not enough of them to meet the demand, and they are being used every day around the world. The general would like to see this horizontal integration performed in a distributed mission-training manner. Personnel in various simulators at different sites—possibly along with one airborne aircraft—would interoperate as if they were operating in a battlefield network.

Work on nonkinetic effects is focusing on how the 8th Air Force improves its performance with information operations, electronic warfare and psychological warfare weapons in an integrated manner. The goal is to affect the battlefield in a nonkinetic way, the general states.

This effort yielded some successes during the Iraq war, he continues. However, problems remain. One is that the tools to create nonkinetic effects are highly intelligence-dependent. Predicting an outcome for network activities can be difficult, and the Air Force has not yet developed the necessary intelligence-gathering tools, although experts are working on it, Gen. Carlson maintains. A related problem is the need for accurate measuring of battle damage assessment.

The fifth thrust area is the integration of information operations into the air operations center. “If we don’t push all of these things—cyberspace superiority, nonkinetic effects, horizontal integration and intelligence support to the warfighter—into the air operations center, then who cares?’’ Gen. Carlson offers. “If we are not able to assist the commander in killing enemies more efficiently and effectively—and assisting our sister services to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively—then it all is just a PowerPoint presentation.”

Integrating these capabilities into the air operations center will demand new technologies. Items such as machine-to-machine interface, expanded bandwidth in new and different places, and more connectivity all are on the wish list.

Machine-to-machine interface is an area “that we are going to have to perfect” to make the next significant improvement in intelligence and information operations integration, the general declares. “I can’t continue to expand the amount of intelligence information I’m bringing into the system and still expect a limited number of intelligence analysts to process the data.” He cites automatic recognition algorithms, machines “that know what they are looking for,” to remove much of the burdensome and time-consuming intelligence information processing from the human element and place it in the machine. The result will be information that is intuitive, rather than data that must be processed, he says.

“The most important information technologies are those you don’t have enough of,” Gen. Carlson warrants. The 8th Air Force has sufficient numbers of laptop computers, personal digital assistants and wireless telephones, but it needs bandwidth, especially increased terrestrial connectivity. If the necessary bandwidth is not made available, then data compression technologies are needed to move more data through the same size communications pipe.

If the 8th Air Force were to gain more bandwidth, Gen. Carlson offers that he would be able to improve intelligence support to the warfighter. Right now, these limitations hold back the processing of intelligence information. Moving that intelligence to the processing stage is the holdup. “Once I get it on the ground and get it moving around the United States between [military facilities], I can move that data pretty well here. It’s the celestial bandwidth restriction that keeps the amount of intelligence information that I can process at a minimum,” he explains.

Even supplying all of the needed bandwidth might not solve the problem. “If we had unlimited bandwidth, I’d bet a nickel that we would use it all up,” the general admits. “Then we would be crying for more. So, I think this is just something that we are going to have to continue to manage and work hard every day.”

Better networking is one of the key information technologies that will be needed in the future, Gen. Carlson says. The Air Force “made a quantum leap” in its reach-back capabilities for data processing and distribution, but that capability must continue to improve. The general notes that there are many skilled people in the National Guard and Reserve who could process intelligence information, but the Air Force does not have the capability to move that information to them and permit them to disseminate it to the appropriate customers.

These five thrust areas hold the key to that 30-percent improvement in warfighting efficiency, Gen. Carlson allows. If the Air Force can be absolutely assured that its network is secure, this will provide some of the percentage increase. If a commander is better able to plan, execute, control and assess nonkinetic effects and integrate them with kinetic effects, then another percentage increase occurs. Horizontally integrating command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to enable personnel to reach full capability very rapidly will deliver intelligence upon arrival in theater for another increase in percentage. And, integrating national and tactical intelligence quicker and better to produce intuitive information for delivery to an air operations center will help bring that total percentage increase to 30 percent, the general offers.