Information Adds Lift to Air Force Wings
Rapidly improving technologies are changing traditional tactical roles.
A U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft, the F/A-22 Raptor, engages in future air combat in this artist’s concept. The aircraft is a key element in the Air Force’s future as a networked force.
A successful future U.S. Air Force tactical operation may end with both a bang and a whimper. Traditional munitions-based operations employing kinetic weapons increasingly are sharing the airspace with information-based nonkinetic measures. The result soon may be an air strike that neutralizes an adversary with only minor damage, if any, to enemy assets.
At the core of this shift in applied airpower is the introduction of new information technology systems and capabilities. Pilots have access to a wealth of battlespace information, and increasingly they are able to contribute vital data to a common operational picture. New sensor systems and communications assets promise even greater situational awareness along with the potential to serve as effective nonlethal weapons.
The integration of the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability through the service’s various sensors and command and control (C2) systems has given commanders and other warfighters better understanding of the battlefield, according to Brig. Gen. John W. Maluda, USAF, the director of communications and information systems, Headquarters Air Combat Command (ACC), Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. As a result, they know better which target to hit and how to reduce collateral damage.
The future information-driven Air Force likely will have “robust and ubiquitous network services,” the general says. Every operator will be, to some degree, an information operator. “Everybody is going to be an IT [information technology] individual in some aspect or the other,” Gen. Maluda declares. “There will be an awareness, at all levels of command, of the nonkinetic options and capabilities available to us. In network warfare, electronic warfare and influence operations, commanders will be able to define their intent in terms of both kinetic and nonkinetic effects.
“Everything is involved and engaged from an information technology viewpoint. IT is embedded in everything that we do.”
One way that information technology already has transformed operations is that the Air Force can conduct tactical operations as if it were in a garrison mode, Gen. Maluda imparts. This effect extends beyond the ACC across the spectrum of U.S. Defense Department organizations. Air warfighters now can exploit reach-back capabilities to bring information systems from a deployed location back to a garrison-type environment, the general explains. This helps reduce the force footprint in theater while still providing the warfighter with the needed tools.
Gen. Maluda decries the constant demand for more bandwidth, preferring instead to aim for more efficient use of existing assets. “I think we have a pretty good handle on bandwidth,” he says, citing the work that the Defense Information Systems Agency has done with existing satellites and fiber assets as well as other emerging systems. “We have a good bit of bandwidth. What worries me more is how we utilize that bandwidth and how we pull actionable information out of that.
“The efficient use of bandwidth—and some of the great tools that industry has provided us—has enabled the reach-back management of C2 and the Air Force portion of the Global Information Grid, to include our tactical networks,” he states. The Air Force’s C2 portion of that grid, known as the GIG, treats every element as a key part of the service’s node.
The ACC’s own reach-back facility can bring back theater ISR information from sources such as the Predator, the Global Hawk and the Army’s Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles. As more aircraft incorporate improved sensor suites that provide increased information, this capability will increase in scope and importance.
That is exemplified by the F/A-22 Raptor aircraft, which Gen. Maluda characterizes as “truly a key to enable success in the future.” In addition to its air-to-air and air-to-ground combat capabilities, the F/A-22 will function as part of the GIG. Its ability to penetrate the battlespace with a much smaller footprint will be a key technological enabler, the general predicts.
One emerging trend that may be a glimpse of the future is the use of nonkinetic warfare. Gen. Maluda declares that nonkinetic warfare will play a defining role in Air Force tactical operations. “The line between kinetic and nonkinetic warfare continues to blur,” he indicates. “Nonkinetic warfare currently enables and enhances kinetic warfare. But, future warfare will be conducted with nonkinetic, in addition to kinetic, impacts on the battlefield.”
Kinetic operations traditionally have involved Air Force aircraft launching munitions against targets on land, at sea and in the air. Gen. Maluda emphasizes that nonkinetic operations—such as information operations, electronic warfare and network warfare—will take their place alongside their explosive counterparts as an important element of tactical operations.
These nonkinetic operations can include influence operations ranging down to the level of psychological operations. The general posits that one future strike profile may achieve identical mission goals by employing either kinetic munitions or leaflets strewn from the air among the target audience. And, the two could be employed in a complementary fashion to achieve the desired result with a minimum of conflict.
“In the past, people have thought about the ACC in terms of delivering kinetic effects,” he relates. “I will tell you that we want to bring the nonkinetic aspect embedded in what people traditionally have thought of as a kinetic element.”
Drawing from precedents established in the 1991 Gulf War and last year’s Iraq War, dropped leaflets might warn enemy forces that they could ensure their survival by gathering in a tight formation in a single location, for example. A plainly visible overflight of heavy bombers could emphasize the potential introduction of a kinetic strike, which in turn could be the final action that impels the adversarial forces to give up the fight and gather in the appointed manner. The result would be the defeat of an enemy force without a single shot being fired.
“If we can neutralize enemy assets nonkinetically, then it is a whole lot easier to repair airfields and to do reconstruction of an adversary,” Gen. Maluda points out.
|A B-52 radar navigator with the 40th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron runs a weapons targeting check during a bombing mission in the Iraq War. Future attack missions may combine the established power of explosive munitions with the emerging power of nonexplosive weaponry such as information operations.|
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq provided a wealth of lessons learned on new ways to exploit existing and emerging technologies. Gen. Maluda cites videoconferencing as one technology that emerged from those conflicts with a greater degree of importance. “One thing that we learned is that it is no longer a luxury, but an integral part of the C2 structure,” he states. “Commanders in the field now demand [videoconferencing] as a vital component of the tool set. Where in the past some folks viewed [videoconferencing] and video streaming as a luxury, that no longer is the case.” This demand runs from the combatant commander through all the other portions of the C2 chain, he adds.
Tactical interoperability with other services is improving as they all move to common support platforms. These common platforms include air traffic control and satellite communications systems, for example. In addition to datalinks, these common platforms provide the ability to launch and recover aircraft, the general notes. The Air Force continues to seek partnering arrangements for new radio systems and for network operations, including computer network defense. This is growing in importance as information sharing increases.
The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) will be a key enabler for integrating hardware into Air Force weapon systems, Gen. Maluda states. However, JTRS is not deployed yet. “From an airborne and a maritime viewpoint, we are still a little behind,” he says. “We have weapon systems out there that really need the capability that JTRS brings to the table because if we ever are going to get to the vision of network-centricity and being able to pass machine-to-machine actionable information between the warfighting elements, then JTRS is going to be the device that is going to bring that to the forefront across the Defense Department,” the general declares.
“Today, if you ask if we can be assured that every ACC aircraft, or every transport aircraft, or every Army airframe is datalink equipped, the answer is no. We still have some shortfalls. We need to get there sooner, quicker,” he warrants.
As network-centric warfare provides all of the personnel in the battlespace with shared situational awareness, it allows users to self-synchronize. The result is that forces can respond more rapidly and have more agile operations, the general observes.
It also opens the door for new ways to achieve information dominance over an adversary, he adds. In addition to providing greater information assurance for U.S. and coalition forces, it permits peering down into an enemy’s information capability, which then can be negated—by kinetic or nonkinetic means—if desired.
The information assurance aspect has not faded in importance with cyberspace supremacy. Hackers today have the ability to take down many information systems in both the commercial and military arenas of cyberspace, the general observes. “The ability is out there technologically for people both to harass and to disrupt the information flow that we have,” he warns. Air Force Network Operations, known as AFNETOPS, has helped to negate many of those efforts, and lessons learned have been applied to new security measures.
The Air Force has overhauled its information operations doctrine, but now it must build an information operations force development that includes vital training. Industry will play a key role as a full partner in these information technology efforts, Gen. Maluda offers. At the top of his wish list is better interoperability among vendors, he adds. Many vendors provide similar technologies and systems to different services, but these venders often do not coordinate efforts to develop the network as a whole. While they may be hindered in this effort by contractual obligations or proprietary concerns, this lack of teaming for network design results in a smorgasbord of information technology equipment.
“So I end up with a potato on one, a tomato on the other and a cucumber on the third, and we are supposed to make music out of that,” the general analogizes. “We need [contractors] to work on getting better interoperability among the systems they sell to the services.”
Voice over Internet protocol is another technology with great potential, Gen. Maluda says. This technology exploits the existing infrastructure to provide added benefits.