Air Force Looks At the Big Picture

May 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Service places processes over hardware for maximum benefits.

The U.S. Air Force is embracing force transformation at the operational and organizational levels and moving away from platform-based modernization. To meet its requirements, the service is selecting new technologies and equipment based on the ability to enhance a variety of capabilities instead of a few narrowly defined missions.

As the pace of technological development accelerates, the U.S. Defense Department, like many large organizations, must change old processes to become more flexible in an uncertain environment. However, technological change by itself is useless if it does not enhance business and managerial procedures, or if those methods do not take advantage of new capabilities.

Today’s changes in the Air Force represent only the most recent developments in its history, explains Thomas J. Topolski Jr., chief of the Air Force’s Integration Planning Division, Directorate of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), Department of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Warfighting Integration, Washington, D.C. “A lot of people look at transformation as being something new and different, but it’s not. All of the capabilities we have today that we treat as basic competencies—the expeditionary Air Force, precision-guided weapons, global positioning systems, stealth, all-weather day or night C4ISR—are benefits from our transformation over the past decade,” he says.

The unforgiving nature of aerial combat historically has made technology more critical to the Air Force’s mission than for other services, Topolski observes. “Air combat is different from ground combat in this sense: If you’re 10 percent less effective as an aircraft, any way you measure it—speed, sustain rate, instantaneous turn rate—you’re dead 100 percent of the time. It’s not like you win 10 percent less. You lose every time,” he states.

The Air Force has focused its transformation efforts in three areas: operational concepts, organizational structures, and technologies and equipment. A specialized task force structure was adopted to identify and develop new operational concepts. Unlike that of other services, for which this represents a number of military units with a specific mission, the Air Force approach is geared toward modifying or finding new uses for a set of capabilities.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, USAF, recognized the limitations of this platform-centric approach and took steps to solve them. “He’d try to get people to step back and say, ‘We’re not always talking about platforms. We have to talk about our capabilities. We have an Air Force that produces effects—desired combat operational effects—and how do we do that?’ He challenged a lot of folks to come together and identify the areas that you have to do things in. And the catch word for those areas was task force,” he explains. Topolski notes that in the past five to 10 years, if one were to question pilots about their jobs, they would not simply say they flew F-16s, for example, but specifically that they flew F-16C models with a primarily air-to-ground mission.

The task force structure is a new way of thinking for the service, Topolski offers. Instead of basing operations around a specific platform, it seeks to determine how a platform such as an F-16C can support different missions. Unlike the Cold War model where the service operated from European bases to combat Warsaw Pact forces along the inter-German border, the expeditionary concept sees U.S. forces deploying anywhere in the world on short notice.

The Global Mobility Task Force is an example of this approach. The concept behind this effort is to meet the Air Force’s mission to deliver materiel all over the world. The task force represents those logistics capabilities and processes designed to transport warfighters and equipment globally.

Once a new operational concept is developed, its effect on existing force structures must be determined. The other transformational goal seeks to change organizational systems where necessary. To create an expeditionary Air Force, the service has formed a number of air expeditionary forces. Topolski notes that when the recent transformation efforts began, less than half of the service’s personnel were deployable. Now, more than three-fourths of its manpower can move overseas to support operations.

After operational concepts are identified and organizations are created to support them, the service then begins selecting hardware. “What technologies and equipment do you want? Because then you can start defining your hardware in terms of supporting your concepts and needs as opposed to building everything around ‘here’s your toys, now go do something,’” he says.

Topolski adds that network-centric warfare is an example of how the Air Force has moved away from a platform-centric model to one emphasizing effects-based operations. Network-centric operations include many new capabilities such as the F-22 Raptor, Link-16, the joint tactical radio system (JTRS) and the still-evolving command and control constellation. All of these systems represent aspects of the Air Force’s transformation of operational concepts, organizational structures, technologies and equipment from a C4ISR perspective, he says.

For example, taking a broader view better determines where a system is needed as opposed to simply installing Link-16 tactical datalinks into the F-16 fleet and then determining how that fits into a program’s budget, maintenance and training schedules. “You step back and say ‘Link-16 is a capability. What does it support? Where do we need it?’” he explains.

It may be that F-16CJs tasked with suppressing enemy air defenses may have a serious need for the capability, but perhaps this was not the way the program was prioritized, he speculates. However, from an Air Force capability perspective, this is where it is needed most. “When you start taking the greater view, you look at a different way of equipping the forces with technology. That’s what we’re doing today,” Topolski says.

As individual task force concepts evolve, they will develop what he refers to as a concept of operations. Although he expects the terminology to change before it is formally adopted, this concept drives procurement supporting each task force’s mission. These considerations include risk areas for each mission, new equipment, assessment of legacy systems that require upgrades, and any necessary machine-to-machine interfaces. He notes that the Air Force already is applying this process on a program-by-program basis.

Proper procurement methodologies also are necessary to obtain the most from new technologies. Citing the example of the JTRS, Topolski offers that the system will provide more capable radios for the Air Force’s aircraft while bases will stock fewer units because it will not be necessary to maintain eight different legacy systems. But this in itself does not make JTRS a worthwhile replacement, he says.

The value of JTRS lies in its ability to make aircraft into nodes in an information technology sense, permitting the Air Force to conduct network-centric operations. “By linking everyone and exchanging data, it brings network-centric capabilities. That is the benefit of the program. And that is an example of how technology is supporting transformation rather than acquiring technology for technology’s sake,” he maintains.

However, the Air Force faces several challenges. The first hurdle is complexity. Topolski notes that the service is a very large organization operating in a chaotic world. These factors make it impossible to predict future events, but certain situations can be anticipated.

For example, while he cannot predict that his car will break down on the way to work, Topolski observes that he can anticipate a flat tire and carry a spare. The difference between prediction and anticipation depends on the uses of analysis and synthesis. Analysis is the way problems were traditionally approached in the Air Force. He explains that analysis consists of breaking down a problem into its constituents and solving each piece. “Assuming you solve all the parts of the problem, you have solved the whole of it. Synthesis is the opposite. It’s taking the parts and understanding their interactions to build up a system,” he says.

Medicine is a classic example of the difference between synthesis and analysis. Doctors are taught to analyze specific systems such as the digestive, circulatory and nervous systems. But understanding each one does not form a coherent picture of how the body operates, he says. By comparison, the Air Force and other services with their platform-centric approaches were very good at solving specific problems, but not at viewing the larger picture.

Topolski notes that modern C4ISR systems interact with so many other networks that inconsistencies and incompatibilities often arise. An example is Link-16. All of the services use slightly different symbols to represent targets and objects on their Link-16 systems. Usually this causes no problems because their operators know what they represent. But issues arise when data is exchanged between services. “The problems come about when you take an AWACS [airborne warning and control system] symbol that says an aircraft was identified as a neutral Swiss Air flight transiting the Adriatic. That is translated in the [U.S.] Navy Link-16 system into an ‘unknown.’ There’s a big difference between unknown and identified neutral,” he says.

Another challenge is shortening the service’s lengthy decision and implementation cycle times. Topolski notes that budgets are put together two years in advance, and it often takes a decade for an idea to be fielded. Many management processes were designed for a predictable Cold War environment. “We had a constant potential opposing force, and we understood them well. We knew they weren’t going away, and a slower [implementation] pace was something we could accept,” he says.

To become more responsive to outside changes, the Air Force must replace older management styles with ones that are more flexible and adaptable. But the challenge lies in doing so without losing the current systems’ advantages. “So the question is not how do you get rid of it. The question is how do we change our efforts to compress the cycle time and retain the goodness. That’s tough to do. We’re struggling with it obviously. If it was easy to do, it would have been done already,” he admits.

Operating with an installed base of legacy systems also poses difficulties. Topolski notes that JTRS is a major advance in Air Force capability. However, the service has thousands of aircraft, and it will take several years to install JTRS radios in all of them. He adds that many legacy systems such as the B-52 Stratofortress will remain in service for decades; therefore, the Air Force must find ways to manage aging equipment even as it integrates new technologies and capabilities.

The service also must operate within the limitations of having finite resources. Topolski cites the example of the German army in 1939. Only a small percentage of its forces were mechanized. The majority relied on horses to pull artillery and wagons. However, the part that was mechanized was incredibly effective. “So you don’t transform everything, but you have to set your priorities. We certainly will do that, but you do run into irrevocable resource limitations where you can’t do it all. You can’t maintain your current force and operational levels, transform and pay people what they’re worth all at the same time. You have to prioritize, and because of that it implies certain things won’t happen if you limit them. You accept that,” he says.

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