Electronics Experts Chart Air Force Future

February 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The E-10A will help define the future U.S. Air Force as a multifaceted network-centric force. Its sensor capabilities, which will migrate to other aircraft, will be vastly improved over existing systems. And, its ability to share data will be the linchpin of the Air Force's digitized battlespace. 

Progress may hinge on solving hardware and software challenges.

The U.S. Air Force is building its future around an info-centric force that must solve a myriad of problems related to networking of facilities, platforms and people. With new capabilities being tested and validated in combat operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is streaking headlong into becoming a networked force that operates around the concept of information as a constant throughout the battlespace. But, until challenges such as security, data commonality and funding are met, the future of the network-centric Air Force remains up in the air.

Many of these vital capabilities are expected to emerge from the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center (ESC) at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. A major portion of the work underway at the ESC involves communications in the ground arena, between ground and airborne assets and between airborne and satellite assets, explains Dr. James A. Cunningham, deputy for support at the ESC. The ESC is striving to develop the needed connectivity and architecture to provide communications between every network node, he says.

Brig. Gen. Edward L. Mahan Jr., USAF, the outgoing deputy for acquisition at the ESC, emphasizes that “getting the cursor on target” is the dominant goal of the ESC’s efforts. In as little as three years, the enabling technologies have progressed from being immature to being ready for implementation. Web-based technologies and reduced interreliance on point-to-point exchanges are facilitating better information and its faster delivery to the decision maker, he says.

Some of the initial work on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) turned prototypes into rapidly developed systems, the general relates. Many leading-edge technologies have been passed to the warfighter with immediate results. These accelerated processes have produced a mindset of “what we thought was possible isn’t [just] possible—it’s real,” the general explains. Now, Air Force technologists are being directed to make some of these technology promises happen.

This challenge is becoming operational rather than just technological. The Air Force can provide more data than the warfighter ever expected, the general offers. So, the warfighter must determine actual wants and needs, and information system professionals must be able to provide the warfighter with pieces of information instead of all information possible.

This already is taking place in areas such as connectivity between aircraft, network-centric collaborative targeting and air operations center activities, Gen. Mahan continues. It is the warfighter who must determine tactics, techniques and procedures for using information.

A key to achieving the cursor-on-target goal may lie in implementation of extensible markup language (XML). Gen. Mahan offers that the “XML cursor-on-target logic” will be the breakthrough that will allow the Air Force to achieve its goals.

Cunningham describes the possibilities offered by XML as the “keystone” for the major breakthrough needed to network the force effectively. Already, vital data can be transferred in nanoseconds instead of the hours required for a person to manually transfer it. The Air Force has been able to shorten the kill chain to just a few minutes from the time a target is identified until when munitions are placed on that target. And, this increasing use of XML will benefit both the combat and business operations sides, as the Air Force will be able to improve efficiencies to hitherto unseen levels, Cunningham says.

“A large percentage of our work here at ESC is software-related,” Gen. Mahan states. This work includes programs such as the mission planning system that is serving all of the Air Force’s weapon systems. The general observes that the ESC is using as much commercial off-the-shelf material as it can in this arena.

ESC experts are not limiting their activities to conventional warfighting assets. Gen. Mahan reports that they are working on providing information to Air Mobility Command aircraft such as aerial tankers to exploit their theater presence in support of warfighting. In areas with Web-based information access, these aircraft now can receive both information that they can use, such as enhanced weather reports, and data that can be passed to other aircraft.

This Web-based network-centricity enables aircraft heading for a rendezvous to alter their plans without missing their meeting. For example, if bombers divert from their flight plan to avoid bad weather, the tanker they are slated to meet is informed and reprogrammed to meet the bombers at a different time and place. And, if the bombers’ original target is no longer applicable to their mission, they can be reprogrammed in the air to strike at another target. These capabilities were only experimental three years ago, but they are operational today, Gen. Mahan points out.

To turn tankers into network nodes, the Air Force uses a Roll-On Beyond-Line-of-Sight Enhancement (ROBE) datalink capability. The service has fielded 40 of these units aboard tankers so the large platforms can serve as a relay point in a communications network. This increases their utility, especially between refuelings, Cunningham says.

Another key issue that Cunningham cites is to place the right types of datalinks on the correct aircraft. An ESC program office is putting together road maps to ensure that aircraft datalinks will communicate properly in theater, he notes. A related step is the development of a family of beyond-line-of-sight datalinks that would use satellites. These links would increase bandwidth as well and move data more quickly, he notes.

Integrating all of these aircraft datalinks may prove the most difficult task that the ESC faces, Gen. Mahan suggests. Cost is a major impediment to reaching this goal, as the center is moving “slowly and incrementally” as funds become available. “There might not be enough money to bring all of the platforms into the network-centric circle to achieve the architecture that we have designed,” he warns.

The ESC is responsible for developing and procuring the air and fixed-marine portion of the Joint Tactical Radio System, or JTRS. Gen. Mahan describes it as a perfect example of how the services are “running toward jointness.” For example, the Air Force now provides data to special operations forces and to the U.S. Army on the ground.

Gen. Mahan offers that the E-10A multisensor command and control aircraft will be the Air Force’s next state-of-the-art platform. Describing its capabilities as “astronomically better than we have today,” he notes that it will have an improved Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Program radar that will generate data that the Air Force will want to move to other aircraft, including both sensor platforms and combat aircraft. “The E-10A is the system of the future that will have the radar of the future, and now we are figuring out how to tie that all together,” the general posits.

Cunningham offers that while the Air Force is pushing the state of the art in radars, it needs to do that to an even greater degree. This is especially important for low-observable and very-low-observable system detection, he emphasizes. “Right now, we are right at the edge of technology being able to detect and locate low-observable targets.

“We must continue to push sensors into the next generation, whether those are multispectral sensors or just bigger and better radars,” Cunningham states.

Cunningham notes that the Air Force is looking at maximizing the use of XML to avoid regenerating huge databases. This becomes especially critical when tying legacy systems together. When data can be defined under a common umbrella (SIGNAL, January, page 37), it can be tagged with an XML indicator so that it can be passed between stovepiped systems that previously could not communicate with each other. This will enable new systems such as the E-10A and JTRS to accommodate legacy systems.

Related efforts involve Internet protocols and activities such as URL addressing, server consolidation and machine-to-machine data synthesis and exchange. A key point in that activity is to determine exactly where humans belong—and do not belong—in the machine-to-machine loop, Cunningham says.

All of these technologies can be valuable in reducing the footprint of the air operations center, he continues. Currently, an air operations center requires hundreds of people working in shifts around the clock. Successful implementation of new Internet technologies could reduce the number of personnel required to run the center significantly.

The ESC also is looking to undertake a major cryptography modernization drive, Gen. Mahan states. All of the Air Force’s cryptographic systems are aging to the point where their algorithms are pretty much expended. Updating these will require common solutions across platforms, he says. “We need systems that [work on] more than one platform. We can no longer afford to buy systems and technologies that are stovepiped,” the general emphasizes. The cryptographic modernization program, which may cost upwards of $7 billion across the entire U.S. Defense Department, has the potential to be the second-biggest program at the ESC, he adds.

A U.S. Air Force communications specialist from the 410th Air Expeditionary Wing works on a mobile telecommunications center in the Iraq War. The Air Force is applying lessons learned in Iraq to its plan for network-centricity, but new challenges to achieving that goal have emerged. 
Information security remains a major problem with the increased emphasis on coalition operations. This will require both multilevel security and the right kind of security guards so that information can be filtered as data moves among different countries. “We don’t have a technological solution to figure out how to do that yet,” Gen. Mahan allows.

Cunningham offers that this will require a policy solution to determine which information can be provided to coalition partners as well as a technological solution to the multilevel security challenge. Industry- and government-funded efforts aim at solving these problems, but easy solutions remain elusive.

Gen. Mahan emphasizes that the ESC is looking to industry for innovative ideas and solutions, not those based on comfortable technology that borders on obsolescence. The government must reject the status quo and think about how it will compete innovative solutions, he charges. This may involve risking money and time in an environment that is risk adverse, but it will be necessary to bring in people who can explore “the art of the possible,” he says.

Cunningham lists some criteria for industry solutions. The Air Force needs open architecture systems that are designed with open standards accepted by the community and are under no one’s control. Multilayered software architectures will enable various plug-and-play functionalities. Systems must fit into the Global Information Grid (GIG) and have commonality across all of the services. And, proprietary systems are out.

This extends across the spectrum of technology insertion. Gen. Mahan observes that every large company has its own integration center. However, as each individual company figures out how to integrate its pieces of the puzzle, no one is figuring out how to integrate the entire puzzle. And, the nature of individual company centers raises proprietary issues.

The general relates that The Mitre Corporation, as the ESC’s chief engineer, has its own integration center that reflects the same technologies inherent in the other companies’ centers. On behalf of the ESC, Mitre can undertake integration of cursor-on-target technologies that then become Air Force proprietary data. Unlike integration activities that take place at the other companies, this data can be shared with military organizations as well as with other companies. This becomes especially useful when developing solutions requested by warfighters, the general notes.

Cunningham relates that the ESC is working on data fusion, particularly for multispectral sensors. This can involve using a variety of signals returned from targets to develop automatic target recognition. Currently, two or more positive identifications—possibly including human eyes on target—are required for proper target identification. Technology can help fuse the data and present it to the warfighter for quicker action.

He describes a scenario in which information technologies combine to deliver a warhead on a target. A forward-located controller with a global positioning system (GPS) receiver on a battlefield pinpoints a target with a laser rangefinder that determines the target’s precise GPS coordinates. This data is input automatically into a radio that relays the information to a satellite for downlink to the air operations center. A human operator in the center—the duty officer—decides to attack that target, and other personnel recommend a strike package. They send a signal that includes the target’s GPS coordinates to the appropriate aircraft, which automatically downloads those coordinates into the individual weapon’s guidance system. The pilot receives a prompt on the aircraft’s head-up display indicating a new target and new mission planning, including the warhead release point.

Cunningham notes that the biggest time delay in this chain of events is the human decision-maker in the air operations center. But for the need to maintain the knowledgeable human in the loop, the entire process theoretically could be boiled down to even nanoseconds. This process has been demonstrated successfully, he adds.

By perfecting cursor on target, shortening the time of the kill chain and reducing the footprint of the air operations center, the Air Force consistently will be able to strike an adversary in single-digit minutes anywhere, any time, Cunningham offers. These targets could range from large enemy convoys to terrorists attacking an allied compound with mortars.

Achieving these goals ultimately may depend on “stabilized budgets,” Gen. Mahan declares. Irregular funding causes information technology programs to slip to the point where the warfighter may be receiving systems that no longer represent the state of the art. And, funding patterns do not support network-centric goals.

“We don’t fund toward capabilities,” the general observes. “We still fund programmatically toward individual stovepipe programs. And, until you start funding across the capability, it will take us a long time to get where the Air Force wants to go.”


Web Resources
U.S. Air Force Electronic Systems Center (ESC): http://esc.hanscom.af.mil
ESC ISR Program Office: http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/frame.asp?D=M&BG=FFFFFF&FileURL=http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/esc-sr
Air Force Common Operating Environment Program Office: http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/frame.asp?D=M&BG=FFFFFF&FileURL=http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/dii-coe
ESC C4ISR Enterprise Integration C2 Constellation: http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/frame.asp?D=F&BG=FFFFFF&FileURL=http://esc.hanscom.af.mil/esc-cx