The U.S. Air Force is building on new capabilities tested in Afghanistan and Iraq with a push for networked operations that exceeds many of the dreams of air combat planners of only a few years ago. New warfighting technologies in the pipeline for years are being melded with advanced sensors, data processing and information systems to produce a networked force that increasingly resembles a multicellular organism working to be the dominant life form in its environment.
The U.S. Air Force's toughest opponent in its mission to maintain air supremacy may be the march of time. Its aircraft are flying more hours and serving well past their original service lifetimes, and new network-centric operations are impelling technology upgrade across all wings.
A new U.S. Air Force organization will conduct base maintenance, logistics and communications systems operations as part of a broader restructuring of the service's capabilities. It will work closely with the commands to provide essential services such as electronic records management and databases, information assurance for military operations and force structure, and organizational issues analysis.
Smaller proved to be better for U.S. Air Force special operations forces that were inserted into Afghanistan. The smaller aspect was in the reduced communications footprint that allowed small teams to quickly begin operations in remote hostile territory. The better element was the advanced communications and situational awareness capabilities that were established well before the entry of conventional forces.
The next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles may owe more to winged insects and birds than to the Wright Brothers. U.S. Air Force engineers are tapping nature's flyers for new designs that push the limits of aerodynamics.
Future U.S. Air Force pilots will rely on an extensive array of sensors and interconnected platforms to detect and destroy enemy forces. Lessons learned from recent combat operations over Iraq support the service's network-centric operational concept that envisions shortened sensor-to-shooter cycles, networked weapons and increased information sharing among all echelons.
Within the next decade, the U.S. Air Force plans to field a rapidly deployable satellite launch capability to support joint and coalition operations around the world. By working with the national research and development community, the service aims to identify and nurture technologies that will enhance the nation's military space efforts.
The U.S. Air Force is moving its communications and command and control systems to an on-demand, Internet-based model. This will consist of wired and wireless data pipes connecting ground installations, aircraft and satellites in a seamless architecture. However, while many parts of this structure are in place, the service still faces the challenge of establishing and managing what will become a massive system of systems.
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.