Air Force Strikes at New Information Challenges
Costs, security and operations requirements share top billing on priority list.
The U.S. Air Force is looking to overhaul its networking capabilities to meet new taskings in the post-Southwest-Asia era. Limited resources are changing the way the Air Force moves information throughout the battlespace, so the service must confront its challenges through innovative approaches and cooperative efforts.
The Air Force has to determine which networking issues have organic solutions and which problems must be solved by others—government, other military organizations or even the private sector. It must make those determinations without knowing if it will have the funding to tap outside resources that could meet its needs. And, these issues have to be addressed as cyber and coalition interoperability assume greater emphasis in both planning and operations.
Lt. Gen. Michael J. Basla, USAF, chief of information dominance and chief information officer (CIO)/A-6, U.S. Air Force, is in charge of ensuring Air Force networks effectively support the service as well as the joint and coalition communities. His top concerns are built around space superiority; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control.
Gen. Basla relates that, in a discussion with Defense Department officials, he suggested that investments in cyber and information technologies can offset costs in other areas. A nonkinetic effect might be less expensive than a kinetic effect and still achieve an operational objective. But even that option for efficiency faces hurdles, budgetary concerns among them.
The general relates that, during the past 15 years, the Air Force has conducted business in a decentralized manner. This adds a challenge to the task of delivering warfighting capabilities effectively and efficiently. “I don’t have my hands on the purse strings of these capabilities that our Air Force needs and delivers,” he points out. “So, how do I work within the tools and instruments that I have to change and drive the enterprise in a certain direction?
“Half of our table of allowances—for what we could say might be information technology or cyber capabilities—actually are spent outside of the cyber or information technology portfolio,” he declares. “That is a pretty significant challenge as well—getting visibility and getting after that.”
As an example, the general elaborates, the Defense Department has asked the Air Force to deliver 65 remotely piloted aircraft for ISR activities. ISR needs large long-haul communications for command and control and data, particularly for full-motion video. Much of that analysis is performed in rear areas, and the architecture for it has been paid by the global ISR core function lead integrator and by funds for overseas contingency operations, which are drying up.
“The way we have delivered capabilities during our war years has been as expeditious as possible,” Gen. Basla relates. “So we may have to go out on a commercial spot market and find out what’s available, versus [using] a long-term architecture plan that was deliberately developed and fielded in the most efficient and effective way possible.”
The Air Force must “clean up the battlefield” from all the expeditious architectures that have been implemented over the course of the Southwest Asia wars, he continues. It also must improve its methods for tagging and storing data—“storing data has an architecture of its own”—and mining it quickly. The service is limited in its capability to store data for the intelligence community. Also, demand is greater than the service’s current capacity, and this must be resolved at less cost than currently possible.
The general cites as an example how the Air Force outsources its archiving needs to the National Archives, to which it pays a monthly fee. He says that he has tasked his staff to determine if better ways of archiving exist. Commercial firms have offered cloud computing solutions, and the Air Force is working with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) on potential movement to the cloud.
Appropriately, the Air Force is involved extensively in cloud operations. The service is leading the Federal Cloud Compliance Committee, an interagency effort preparing all the clauses that need to be embedded in a procurement contract for secure commercial cloud services. “These [items] are what we are telling industry we need to meet our requirements,” the general explains. They include aspects of the Freedom of Information Act and the Records Management Act as well as privacy concerns.
While the Air Force works with DISA on its cloud efforts, Gen. Basla offers that he has asked his staff to seek opportunities in other military organizations’ cloud activities with an eye toward following suit. The Air Force is collecting its requirements for the different cloud services that are available, “and then we just have to take the step—and that may be the biggest challenge for us,” he allows.
The general wants to move as much of the services and enterprise capabilities as possible to another service provider—DISA or a commercial cloud provider. The Air Force has a large number of data centers with accompanying overhead costs, and he would like to reduce both. Again, the main driver for this thrust is that demand continues to rise while resources do not.
“I’m looking at the data centers, the administration, the unclassified network core services—those are the kinds of things I would like to move to the cloud or to someone like DISA or even another military service,” Gen. Basla declares. Risk and cost will be the two main criteria on which the Air Force will base its decision, he adds.
This is not to say that the Air Force will be moving all of its information activities to the cloud as soon as possible. Gen. Basla emphasizes that elements such as intelligence data collection and the air operations centers’ command and control capabilities will be maintained in-house.
Moving ISR data down to the individual warfighter is one focus of an Air Force intelligence thrust. An ISR task force under the A-2 is striving to understand the intelligence needs of the warfighter and how the Air Force is delivering them. Gen. Basla allows that the Air Force largely has kept its black and white intelligence capabilities separate, but the service now recognizes it no longer can continue that approach. With the proper clearances and appropriate releases, those two worlds can be brought together to use their capabilities effectively, he says. This will allow national intelligence capabilities to be delivered to the tactical edge.
Currently, the Air Force feeds intelligence directly to liaison officers embedded in its ground forces. This can range from raw data to processed knowledge, depending on needs. Gen. Basla relates he is working closely with the A-2 to mine, store and move that ISR data as expeditiously as possible.
Delivering that intelligence will require greater bandwidth. “The high-resolution information that we have been able to receive and transmit is exactly the kind of information with the quality that analysts and warfighters are looking for,” the general allows. “That takes big bandwidth, and that big bandwidth costs.”
The Air Force is working to determine the right mix of commercial and organic capabilities to deliver intelligence data between forward and rear elements. Then, it must determine the best way to acquire that mix. The organic part seems to be clear, the general says, but the Air Force must figure out which of its long-haul, big-pipe needs are core to the service—and thus of great interest to adversaries. With that determination in hand, the Air Force then can opt for “a little more risk” for some communications pipes and use a commercial service provider that will be held to high security expectations, the general emphasizes.
He adds that the Air Force must find better ways of acquiring commercial capabilities. DISA is collecting requirements for procurement across the defense community, and the Air Force should follow suit as a broker for commodity acquisitions.
The general states the Air Force needs smarter, more autonomous networks that do some of the work currently performed by operators. These networks would alert personnel when a device is infected and engage in self-quarantine. They would be able to mine, collate and display information, he adds. The private sector will need to provide these capabilities along with others that currently dominate the commercial marketplace.
“I need a Top-Secret mobile device that I can walk around with—and fly with—so we can maintain nuclear command, control and communications capabilities for our senior leaders,” he specifies.
“We need innovation,” he says of industry. “We need to find out how we deliver capabilities as economically as possible.
“We do not need proprietary solutions,” the general emphasizes. “We need standard solutions, we need open architecture solutions. As I develop the force to operate and maintain these solutions, I am striving for homogeneous opportunities, versus heterogeneous opportunities. And, that is very difficult the way our acquisition rules are laid down. We have to find a way to share the pie, but do it so it’s advantageous to both government and industry.”
Persistent ISR is a new demand. “We have to have an unblinking eye available,” the general declares, adding that this need has caused the Air Force to examine its mix of manned and unmanned vehicles as well as its space assets. “We can’t depend on any one leg to meet our needs,” he states. “We have to have resiliency in our networks and in our platforms.
“The adversary recognizes our use of these things, and we have to be agile enough to move from one platform to another should interference occur in one of those areas,” he warrants.
The new F-35 fighter aircraft, in addition to its combat capabilities, will function as an advanced sensor platform capable of collecting a wide range of intelligence. Gen. Basla says his office is examining how the aircraft can serve Air Force information needs, although the communications bandwidth challenge will be a factor.
“We are looking at the capabilities it can deliver in some areas that, in the past, we may not have had access to,” he states. Among the issues are which information should be used in real time as opposed to downloaded later. Another issue is how the Air Force would move the information needed in real time into the architecture that moves it to the warfighter. “That is part of the larger ISR look,” the general adds.
More than a decade of war in Southwest Asia demonstrated the growing appetite for command, control, communications, computers and ISR. Gen. Basla notes that U.S. networks have not always been conducive to coalition operations, and he points out that coalition networks developed independently in that theater. While this independent development may have been undertaken for good reasons, that approach cannot continue. The general cites the need for a baseline architecture that allows an ad hoc network to be built and taken down as needed. Future mission systems will be that type, he says, and nongovernmental agencies must be included. “We need something that is standing that allows us to add and subtract partners as quickly as possible.
“And, we have to find ways to incorporate them in the solution, versus bringing the solution,” he states.
Spectrum “is a huge issue” when fighting in a congested area, Gen. Basla contends. Platform demands exceed available spectrum in a region, so the Air Force must parse, filter and co-mingle valuable spectrum more effectively.
Another valuable lesson was the need for better data tagging. This will permit a common network while protecting and compartmentalizing data for appropriate sharing, the general says.
The difficulty meeting warfighter demands is driving changes in acquisition, he continues. Now that fighting is winding down, peacetime must benefit from these changes. “Some contingency is happening at all times, even if it is a humanitarian assistance operation,” he points out. “We need a better way to acquire capabilities faster and cheaper.”