Connecting Communications Across the Indo-Pacific
The Pacific Air Forces provide command and control solutions for airmen operating in the challenging region.
Operating across the great distances of the Indo-Pacific region requires robust communication solutions. To meet the technological demands of airmen in the region, the U.S. Air Force, and in particular the Pacific Air Forces, are considering resilient network architecture, advanced software, battlespace command and control center solutions, new high frequency capabilities, low-earth-orbit platforms and decision-making tools, among other innovative solutions.
The region is a complex environment given the current atmosphere and threats. The Indo-Pacific is host to 44 percent of the world’s trade and 60 percent of the world’s population. And for the United States, four of the five major challenges and threats identified by the National Defense Strategy and the National Security Strategy are in the Indo-Pacific region, including revisionist powers China, Russia and North Korea, according to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Charles Brown, USAF.
For the Pacific Air Forces, operating in the Indo-Pacific Command Area of Responsibility (AOR) requires not only a fifth-generation warfare mindset, but also a different kind of command and control to support agile forces that can generate air power from multiple locations, emphasizes Gen. Brown, who is also air component commander for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the executive director, Pacific Air Combat Operations Staff, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii.
The general, who has talked recently at several Air Force Association events about the challenges that the Pacific Air Forces—known as PACAF—faces, has outlined the need for robust command and control solutions that support an agile, mobile force, which sometimes relies on partner nations’ infrastructure.
To put in place advanced command and control solutions, PACAF has to pursue innovation, a priority that Gen. Brown has set out for the AOR, explains Lt. Col. Ryan Raber, USAF, deputy chief, Command and Control Capabilities Integration Division, Headquarters PACAF.
“Gen. Brown has been great about this, for us to embrace innovation across the board from industry,” Col. Raber says. “We’re always trying to keep up with what they’re doing next.”
Foremost, operating in the Indo-Pacific region necessitates communicating over long distances, which compounds any command and control solution. “Obviously, we have the requirement to be able to go over long distances,” he notes. “And we have interesting challenges associated with being in other nations and not controlling the infrastructure, but having to deliver that same level of service across the AOR.”
As such, PACAF is focusing on creating a resilient network infrastructure. It is looking across industry solutions for flexible technology and self-healing resilient networks, as well as infrastructure. This could encompass hybrid infrastructure that includes both traditional information technology infrastructure, such as servers, connectors or desktop models, the deputy chief says.
“What we’re attempting to do, and even across the range of military operations, is to create a self-healing resilient network that allows us to still continue to work in a disconnected or low-connection environment, as well as a high-connection environment. We want to be able to put as much data and processing as possible into the hands of folks out in the theater that supports the commanders’ direction in terms of authorities.”
When airmen are not connected to the network, they still need solutions that work, Col. Raber emphasizes. “So if a leader has designated one of the Numbered Air Forces as a lead command for an activity, and for some reason they get disconnected from the headquarters, they need to have all the tools that are available here on Hickam,” he states. “They still need to go ahead and continue in the mission until they get reconnected and we can level the data. So we’re looking to use best of breed and align that with the Air Force’s goals to make sure that those things happen.”
Across the technologies or capabilities they are seeking from the industry, PACAF, as well as the greater Air Force, wants nonproprietary software-based solutions. “Gen. Brown has asked us to look at new ways of doing things, and better, faster, smarter ways of doing things as well,” the deputy chief emphasizes. “A lot of that leads us to software-based solutions that reside in either iron that we already have or things that we’re buying in the near future. So instead of buying a specific piece of gear that only does one thing, we’re trying to buy a Swiss army knife that does multiple things in support of warfighter requirements.”
As far as its battlespace command and control center, or BC3, PACAF is running a version of BC3 called TORCC, or theater operationally resilient command and control, while Air Forces Central Command is running BC3-T or a theater-level device. For the future, however, the Air Force is developing a more robust BC3 that employs a decision-making toolset, augmented by data analytics and artificial intelligence, Col. Raber states.
“We’re looking at MDO MDC2 [multidomain operations, multidomain command and control systems],” he shares. “One of the front runners is the BC3 system, the battlespace command and control center. That’s our go-to engine behind a lot of our warfare capabilities for command and control engines. But we’re also looking at adding in different data feeds on top of that, enabled by some artificial intelligence, machine learning or predictive algorithms.”
Adding in artificial intelligence into a BC3 system can give PACAF leaders a more robust decision-making tool to support operations across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains, beginning with pattern recognition. “What we really want to do is take the millions and millions of data points that we already have access to via the air operations centers and other platforms and say, ‘OK, based on that, let’s map out what the AOR looks like on a normal daily basis,’” the deputy chief explains. “And what does normal look like? As we run that data and as we start to look at artificial intelligence-based engines, we’re looking to determine where the delta is between what daily operations look like versus what anomalous data looks like.”
They would then take the anomalous data and perform object recognition to determine characteristics about an observed activity: Does it fly in a similar pattern, launch at a specific time or perform a specific mission? Using the characteristics, they could “do some predictive analysis to go ahead and cue the operator that something bad or something potentially of interest of a commander’s priorities is about to kick off, and you need to focus in on this specific activity,” Col. Raber offers.
“So really, what we’re using that right now to do is to cue and highlight the operators, to see where that anomalous data is, which is extremely helpful when you’re looking through millions and millions of data points.”
Additionally, the command is contemplating the role of crowdsourcing within applications. As an example, the deputy chief cites WAZE, the navigation application that features user-submitted information for travelers. “Crowdsourcing, that’s of interest to the Air Force and the greater military, because it would potentially be a good way to share information at the lower level,” he notes.
Regarding space-based low-earth-orbit (LEO) platforms, PACAF is considering how LEO constellations can support advanced communications across the region and fill any holes in capabilities. “LEO satellites are not a new solution, but a resurgence of an existing capability,” Col. Raber notes. “What that means is the ability to guarantee communication signals down to anywhere within the AOR, which is awesome. It overcomes some of our requirements for being overwater or overland and just not having access to the places that we need to from a traditional U.S.-based scene strategy. So it closes the gaps out in theater.”
To support future operations, the command also is reexamining high frequency-based communications, known as HF, as a means to communicate over long distances. “So we’re looking at that again,” he offers. Additional technologies that PACAF is considering include advanced data transmission strategies, whether that is through HF, ultrahigh frequency (UHF) or very high frequency.
“In addition, I’d also love to look more into Wi-Fi signals or low-level cellular devices,” Col. Raber continues. “That would give us commercial solutions for classified, allowing [airmen] to get back to the NIPRNet [nonsecure Internet protocol router network] or SIPRNet [secret Internet protocol router network] or higher, within an environment that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of the organic Air Force assets. It would allow us to use multiple signals to get to the same source and gives us that flexibility on the battlefield to not necessarily be cut off, but allows us to jump to the best possible solution for our problem depending on the AOR.”
The capability for commercial solutions for classified would ideally run on whatever mobile network is available, and tap into millimeter wave technologies, or 5G solutions, if secured, the deputy chief shares. “It would be nice to be able to hit that and transition that signal back. That’s the future type of stuff,” he states. “But we’re not quite there yet. 5G is definitely in the outlook, and longer-term we want to see what we can do with that type of signal.”
Because the Air Force is responsible for the capability for commercial solutions for classified, the Pacific Air Forces would have to wait “for them to vet those solutions before we can get into development within those wave forms,” he adds.
Col. Raber suggests that embracing both Air Force instances of cloud as well as industry instances of cloud can help PACAF achieve Gen. Brown’s fifth-generation warfare mindset of being lean, agile and connected. In particular, the Air Force Kessel Run Laboratory’s enterprise service effort may give PACAF and other commands additional cloud-based solutions.
“A great example of what we’re trying to do in the future is the Kessel Run Enterprise, where the AOC is developing applications to run on a cloud-based infrastructure,” Col. Raber observes. “That’s a massive advantage that we didn’t have in the recent past.”
Lastly, the deputy chief advises companies that are developing tools for the Air Force to make sure they have clear understanding of operators’ needs. “The closer that they can get to the operator in terms of understanding our challenges and our requirements, the better off they’re going to be,” he says.