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Air Force Aims for Rapid Deployment And Continuous Operational Awareness

November 1999
By Henry S. Kenyon

Exercise acts as testbed for new command and control, sensing and communications methods.

The U.S. Air Force is examining the latest technologies for integrating enhanced communications and targeting methods throughout the command and control structure, reaching down to the tactical level to achieve mission objectives faster and with less risk to friendly forces. These approaches and devices will be applied in future operations such as conflict resolution and humanitarian relief.

As the United States enters the 21st century, the ability to quickly project force remains a necessity. However, budget constraints and rapidly advancing technology are rendering old methods of command and control and battlefield management obsolete. By experimenting with a variety of techniques and technologies, the armed forces can maintain their ability to prevail in tomorrow’s rapidly changing threat environments.

The Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment ’99 (JEFX) sought other ways to tailor forces to specifically match a conflict in a theater of operations. A vital aspect of this approach is getting forces and an appropriate level of combat support to the war zone within several days of the beginning of a crisis.

According to Col. Bruce Mitchell, USAF, JEFX ’99 is different than an exercise because it focuses on experimentation rather than training. The Air Force goal for this event is learning new technologies, procedures and business processes to achieve a light, lethal application of aerospace power. The operation also provided a laboratory environment combining live flight, virtual and destructive simulation and the use of an air operations center. The event’s objectives included a cross-functional, cross-disciplinary range of activities reflecting the core competencies of the Air Force in a realistic, seamless warfighting environment, Col. Mitchell explains.

Last year’s Expeditionary Force Experiment (EFX) ’98 set the pace of this operation, according to Lt. Gen. Lansford E. Trapp, Jr., USAF, commander of the 12th Air Force and U.S. Southern Command air forces, and combined forces air component commander for JEFX ’99. The 1998 event focused on determining whether concepts such as reach-back—continuous datalinks to rear-echelon units—and battlefield connectivity to enhance commanders’ situational awareness were feasible. The goal was to determine if the equipment would work as envisioned, he observes.

This year’s experiment primarily assumed that devices and systems would work and be stable. One such item tested last year, the theater battle management core systems (TBMCS), was the backbone architecture connecting all of the computer equipment in JEFX ’99. The goal this year, Gen. Trapp says, was to use that equipment to rapidly respond to a contingency in a decisive manner.

Set five years in the future, the experiment involved the United States coming to the aid of a fictional ally nation. More than 3,000 personnel from the Air Force, U.S Army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S Navy, civil service and contractors participated at 34 locations across the United States. By comparison, last year’s EFX used half of the locations, Col. Mitchell observes.

The live flight portion of the event consisted of 109 aircraft from 19 units, including a fully operational expeditionary wing flying more than 450 sorties from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

The experiment relied heavily on computer modeling and simulation to represent enemy activity and friendly forces reactions. Virtual cockpits complemented the simulation environment. Col. Mitchell notes that JEFX ’99 featured an F-15 simulator located in the Pentagon. The aircraft’s performance, its ability to hit a target, pilot feedback and battle damage assessment were then loaded into the experiment’s results. In addition, even though the Joint Strike Fighter is not yet in existence, the event also used a simulator for that aircraft operating from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Augmenting the live air operations were more than 500 virtual sorties flown per day, representing 2,000 messages per hour. JEFX ’99 featured more than 26 computer models and simulations injected from 10 locations.

Gen. Trapp sees command and control as one of the important processes under study in the event. If these methods work, they will help senior warfighters more effectively terminate any kind of mission, not just a military action, but also in humanitarian disaster relief response where rapid mobilization is necessary.

One concept tested in EFX ’98 and continued this year was the use of technology to allow many command and control functions, including planning and intelligence capabilities, to remain in place while a core command group moves forward, Gen. Trapp says. The overall goal is to move data not people, creating a smaller, lighter footprint. One objective of JEFX ’99 was to turn more of last year’s experiment into reality, the general observes. The concept of reach-back is important because instead of moving large numbers of people forward, the few troops at the front will rely on a constant flow of information from the rear. It is simply a question of which units a commander decides to put forward and which units stay behind, he says.

Based on experience from both events, if the Air Force deployed overseas to an area without an established command and control network under existing conditions, Gen. Trapp estimates he would need to bring forward between 250 and 500 people with appropriate reach-back to the United States. He cautions that in a perfect world, commanders would like to bring forward as many people as possible; however, in a resource-constrained world, the smaller the advanced footprint, the more assets are available to support it.

This year, the Air Force is experimenting with a platform to support these advanced command groups. Called the expeditionary en-route operations center, it consists of a group of primarily Windows NT-driven PCs loaded onto a pallet. According to Col. Mitchell, when an expeditionary wing is deployed, this operations center accompanies it. The center remains in operation, processing data while in transit, and it continues to provide core command and control capability once offloaded.

Managing the vast quantities of data generated by the experiment, and ultimately any future operation, requires a robust network. Gen. Trapp notes that one advantage TBMCS provides is a common backbone to move information across a network without stand-alone systems. In the past, one problem was interoperability between stand-alone systems.

To support JEFX ’99 and real-world operations, the Air Force maintains a network operations center and a number of network command centers that manage the servers and computer systems. The ultimate advantage of this data processing capability is an enhanced ability to see and react to events in the battlespace, Gen. Trapp remarks.

Moving data globally will also require satellite capability. Gen. Trapp estimates that in the near future there will be less than 100 military satellites available. It would be foolish to believe that these could provide all of the bandwidth necessary for military operations, he says. To avoid this potential shortage, the Air Force piggybacked its data on commercial satellites during JEFX ’99. The general adds that he is comfortable with buying time on commercial satellites and, like it or not, it is the way of the future.

These network-centric assets also are subject to threats from information and cyberwarfare attacks. To simulate this vulnerability, the enemy red team attempted to break into the coalition blue team’s network and satellite systems. This was a robust part of the experiment, Gen. Trapp notes. Because future forces will rely on reach-back, the goal was to ensure that this connectivity is incorruptible. Because information operations is a new field, JEFX ’99 featured several information warfare specialists working on both teams.

Bringing all of this information together to control a battlespace is also a critical element of the experiment. A centerpiece technology at this year’s event was dynamic battle control. This system’s task is providing continuous updates about targets and rules of engagement for those objectives across the battle area. According to Gen. Trapp, as the list of targets is updated, active air units can immediately attack them. To do that, information from platforms such as joint surveillance target attack radar systems, U-2s, Global Hawks and national imagery assets will provide real-time, appropriate information directly into the cockpits of F-15s and F-16s to put the right ordnance against the appropriate targets in real time. In this case, real time falls within a 15-minute window, the general says. Much of this type of operation occurred over Kosovo, and the most difficult element of the effort was getting approval to hit the target, Gen. Trapp offers.

Once approval is granted, prosecuting the target should follow quickly; however, part of the experiment consisted of determining if this procedure works. In the near future, the Air Force should have a relatively clear picture of the battlespace as well as the weapons and other capabilities to rapidly conduct combat assessments, Gen. Trapp notes. Experts continue to debate about dynamic battle management because its exact operational methodology and impact on long-term strategy is unknown, he adds.

The experiment featured 56 process and system initiatives. Forty system building blocks ranged in granularity from large items like TBMCS representing millions of lines of code down to new prototypes such as the rapid precision targeting system, which is a smaller, special purpose application blended into the overall TBMCS architecture. The system transfers imagery and uplink functions from command and control centers down to sensor aircraft and up to shooter aircraft.