Air Force strategic nuclear weapons, space-based communication and surveillance assets, and computer networks have all benefited from top-level Pentagon attention in recent years. These cornerstones of USAF’s global power have been relatively well-supported in every way.
Yet there is unease about the future of these pivotal capabilities. Air Force leaders speaking at the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Nov. 19 to 20, said USAF’s ability to effectively deal with nuclear threats, watch targets around the globe, and control on-orbit military systems are unmatched, but these advantages are fleeting.
Some threats are obvious. For example, USAF’s space- and cyber-based networks were often built as if they would never come under attack. Several officials pounded home the point that the service needs to change its ways, because space and cyber domains are no longer sanctuaries. In fact, they are already under attack. As for nuclear weapons, they are declining in number and modernization is nowhere in sight.
The power of USAF’s strategic forces is exemplified by the nuclear-capable B-2 bomber at left.
All signs are that things are about to get even rougher.
Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley said the USAF’s budget topline was “reduced significantly across the five-year defense program” that begins with Fiscal 2011.
The service has suffered its share of budget pain in recent years. Even so, the times may get tougher, Donley warned, and “within that constrained topline,” the Air Force still faces rising personnel, operations, and investment expenses.
“Simply put,” said Donley, “the Air Force and the rest of DOD are resource challenged,” a statement with which no one would disagree.
Without adequate funding, it becomes harder to provide the unique air, space, and cyber advantages upon which US combat forces depend, Donley concluded.
Even under the current funding paradigm, noted Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of US Strategic Command, capability is sometimes dangerously thin.
“We need to stop managing our constellation programs in ... ‘gap management’ fashion” with no backup capability, he said. In the past, the US had robust development programs that meant satellites often were built and ready for launch in the event a problem developed in orbit. No more.
“We’ve gotten to the point in some cases where this combatant commander has to count on 100 percent launch success” to meet national security requirements, Chilton said. “We should not be in this position. ... We need to do better.”
Fortunately, in recent years, the Air Force has managed to achieve 100 percent launch success. After a string of failures in the 1990s, the service has now had 65 consecutive successful space launches—a record that is expanded with every liftoff.
Although satellite development schedules have been spotty, the launch success allows new capabilities to be reliably put on orbit as soon as the payloads are ready.
A case in point is the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) now in highly elliptical orbit. This sensor gives US forces greatly improved missile-launch detection and warning. As Chilton noted, only the Air Force can provide early missile warning to US troops within range of Scuds and other ballistic missiles.
A Flood of Intelligence
The Wideband Global SATCOM is another space-based upgrade. Two WGS birds are now on orbit, and a third was launched Dec. 5 to orbit over the Atlantic. The Pentagon put WGS-1 over the Pacific. WGS-2 followed last April, and is now improving communications in the US Central Command war zone.
Each provides more communications bandwidth than the entire constellation of Defense Satellite Communications System satellites Wideband Global is replacing.
Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are benefiting from far more than just expanded bandwidth. Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, commander of 14th Air Force at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., noted how much USAF-supplied intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) power is flooding into the region.
By the end of November, there were 39 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) combat air patrols providing around-the-clock ISR coverage. These consist of 31 MQ-1 Predator combat air patrols, seven MQ-9 Reaper orbits, and a lone RQ-4 Global Hawk patrol. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ stated goal is for 50 UAV CAPs over the war zone by the end of 2010. The armed Predators and Reapers offer the invaluable ability to track targets for long periods while relaying intelligence to other platforms. They can also attack enemies with their own weapons if there is an immediate danger.
On the manned ISR front, James cited the success of the MC-12 Liberty Project Aircraft program, which went from concept to fielding in just 10 months. By November, there were six MC-12s flying over the sandbox, with 31 more expected by July.
An airman positions a Minuteman III guidance set at Malmstrom AFB, Mont. The Air Force is working to keep the ICBMs operational at least through 2030.
Officers commanding numbered air forces, major commands, and STRATCOM all desire better situational awareness—knowledge—of what is going on where they work and fight. USAF has made impressive strides in just the past two years, several speakers asserted, but there is often limited depth available, and the capabilities are vulnerable to disruption.
The Air Force has therefore improved its space situational awareness, to help ensure space-based capabilities stay available for combat forces. Space is a naturally hostile environment, one where the US and other spacefaring nations are continually adding to the debris field, noted Gen. C. Robert Keh-ler, head of Air Force Space Command.
Indeed, China recently became the third nation (after the US and USSR) to destroy a satellite with a missile. China’s unannounced anti-satellite test naturally created a debris field of its own.
A year ago, Donley said, 14th Air Force tracked 100 satellites, performing “conjunction analysis” on the lookout for potential collisions. This was before last February’s collision between a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite and a commercial Iridium communications spacecraft. The collision was fatal to the Iridium bird, and created even more space junk for other satellites to avoid.
Consequently, the Air Force today watches 800 satellites, all of which can maneuver, for possible collisions. James said 40 to 50 possible conjunctions are assessed every day. Controllers have actually maneuvered satellites about 30 times in the past nine months, to avoid near-misses and possible collisions.
Fourteenth Air Force’s surveillance will soon expand to 1,300 satellites. This includes spacecraft that cannot maneuver, but as James noted, it will be good to know in advance that a collision may be coming.
The improved space vision is so valuable that James said if additional money were available, he would work to further bolster space situation awareness. The first Space Based Surveillance System payload is set to launch this year, and James said the Air Force would actually benefit from having two SBSS birds.
Space situational awareness is not just traffic management. It includes knowledge of other nations’ plans, capabilities, and intentions, and insight into whether a system failure is a mechanical problem or an attack. “In the perfect world,” said Chilton, “we know what gets into orbit before it launches, so we don’t have to do the hard job of trying to figure out what it is once it’s up there.”
Although this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review and Space Posture Review will have a lot to say about future military space priorities, “many of our shorter term plans are clear,” Donley said. By the end of 2011, five major satellites will be readied for launch: the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite communications system; the SBSS “pathfinder”; a GPS-2F navigation satellite; a SBIRS payload for geostationary orbit; and the first Operationally Responsive Space system.
Protecting Space Support
Thanks to investments such as these, space accounts for 21 percent of total Air Force modernization spending—including procurement, research and development, and construction dollars. Unfortunately, the boom times (such as they were) may be over. “Resource pressures are ... here to stay,” said Kehler.
That’s what makes Operationally Response Space important to the Air Force. Small launchers and satellites would give the nation a “strategic alternative” to the massive, expensive, and lengthy programs preceding most military space launches. As a concept, ORS is not just about new systems, Kehler added. ORS begins by taking existing programs and making them more responsive.
Space-based systems are the eyes and ears of combat forces worldwide, and losing these capabilities would be devastating. Kehler said lost space support would immediately affect every aspect of US military operations.
Cyber capabilities are equally vital—nearly everything DOD does somehow runs through its computer networks. An effective cyber assault has the potential to make the US military, at least temporarily, grind to a technological halt. The information needed to conduct war the American way flows through cyberspace, and “cyber” is not a mission, Kehler stressed—it is a domain just like air or space.
Dependence on cyberspace can be illustrated by the requirements for strategic deterrence.
A Delta IV rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., on Dec. 5 carrying the Air Force’s Wideband Global SATCOM-3 satellite. With no backup capability, DOD is depending on 100 percent launch success.
Outlining how STRATCOM provides strategic deterrence, Chilton started with early warning capability. This includes warning of attacks in space, against space, or in cyberspace.
After early warning, commanders need attribution to begin planning a response. Attribution could mean determining who fired a particular missile, or who is responsible for a virus invading military networks. The Air Force will play a key role providing this intelligence, even if the attack is not directly against the service.
Next is command and control. As Chilton explained, “Once you’re warned, you have to be able to do something with your forces,” by communicating orders to them. A response could be to flush bombers, or to “adjust the bandwidth in your cyber domain to prepare for the attack.” Air Force network and communications systems make reliable C2 possible.
Only at this point, after USAF’s global ISR and communications networks have performed multiple missions, do delivery systems and weapons come to the forefront of strategic deterrence.
A trustworthy network is a foundation of US military power, and the network is therefore also a liability. “It’s not a convenience for us, ... it’s a necessity. We cannot conduct warfighting operations without it,” said Chilton. Even with perfect logistics, perfect maintenance, and the best trained crews in the world, “you can be shut down if you don’t have your networks.”
A new approach is needed. Improving the “firewall” protecting military networks has probably reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. Cyber defenses have become like the Maginot Line, said Maj. Gen. Richard E. Webber, commander of 24th Air Force at Lackland AFB, Tex., USAF’s new cyber warfare unit. Building a higher wall doesn’t help. What is needed now is defense in depth.
Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, cited China, which aggressively recruits hackers, programmers, and other tech-savvy individuals. The communist government moves them into People’s Liberation Army cyber warfare units where they often disappear from public view—but sometimes leave their “fingerprints” on later cyber attacks, including against the Pentagon.
DOD needs the same dedicated cyber warriors, and may need to keep them in the job for extended periods. The military also needs to learn to “fight through” cyber attacks even if the network is degraded. Shutting down a network under attack simply accomplishes the enemy’s goal, Webber noted, because “we create our own denial of service by disconnecting.”
A potential Achilles’ heel is exposed to adversaries. Vulnerabilities abound: Eighty percent of DOD communications run along commercial networks. The Internet protects anonymity, making attribution difficult. Most satellite downlinks use basic radio-frequency links that can be jammed.
“What would your game-changing target be if you were an enemy of America today?” asked Lockheed Martin’s Charles E. Croom Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant general.
Capt. Kenny Bierman programs Joint Precision Airdrop System software for a release over Iraq. Almost every Air Force capability now runs through computer networks.
“We’ve got to train like we fight, ... and those networks will go down,” said Croom during an industry panel.
Exacerbating DOD’s challenge is just how problematic it can be to shut down networks to simulate an attack.
During wargames, for example, if the network goes down, the exercise probably grinds to a halt. Most nations have no hope of matching US dominance in aircraft or weaponry, so building the ability to attack satellites, ground stations, or computer networks becomes appealing.
At the opposite end of the force continuum are America’s strategic weapons. Several commanders lauded USAF’s renewed focus on the nuclear mission but said there is much still to be done.
Much like space and cyber capabilities, nuclear operations are now an area of intense top-level emphasis. High profile incidents with nuclear cruise missiles and ICBM nose-cone components showed attention to nukes had inexcusably flagged in the Air Force. While focus and standards wavered, an entire generation of nuclear experts and research was lost as the mission took a backseat to conventional operations after the Cold War.
Greater Range and Flexibility
Chilton observed that the Navy is already performing preliminary design work and defining requirements for its next generation ballistic missile submarine, even though the first Ohio-class boomer does not exit service until 2027. “The Navy’s got a plan,” he said, and “the Air Force needs to have a plan for a land-based strategic deterrent replacement and for sustainment of the air leg of the nuclear deterrent force.”
USAF’s plan to build a nuclear-capable bomber fielded by 2018 was canceled by Defense Secretary Gates earlier this year, there is no plan for a next generation nuclear cruise missile, and the Air Force was recently ordered by Congress to make sure the Minuteman III ICBM can remain in service through 2030.
Each leg of the nuclear triad is valuable, said Chilton, who does not want any of the delivery types to go away as overall numbers of deployed nuclear weapons decline over the next few years.
For the ICBMs, slow atrophy has never been the plan. “Over the past several years, we’ve been engaged in a roughly $7 billion multiyear program to refurbish or modernize practically every inch of the Minuteman III missile—from the top of its nosecones to the bottom of its first stage nozzles,” said Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, USAF’s newest major command.
All three rocket motors received new propellant. The MM III’s guidance system was updated with new electronics. “The propulsion system rocket engine—or the post-boost vehicle for my space friends—is undergoing life extension,” he said. Newer warheads pulled from the deactivated Peacekeeper system are being deployed on a portion of the Minuteman fleet.
At Andersen AFB, Guam, SSgt. William Perkins gives directions as an Air Launched Cruise Missile is loaded into the belly of a B-52 bomber.
Command and control improvements have also been intensive.
To ensure connectivity, missileers updated the ability to receive “very low frequency and MilStar communications,” Klotz said. The force will use the AEHF Satcom System when it comes on line.
These upgrades have allowed the Minuteman III to maintain an operational readiness rate better than 99 percent, but it’s not too early to think about what comes next.
“Advances in technology suggest the possibility of an ICBM or ICBM-like system of greater range and greater flexibility, while maintaining the enduring attributes of rapid response, high reliability, and assured penetration of defenses,” he said. Maintenance, security, and command and control methods can also be improved.
Even getting to 2030 will take additional work. “Upgrades to the system beyond those currently under way may be both reasonable and prudent,” Klotz said. For example, the MM III guidance system uses gyroscopes and accelerometers in an era when even economy cars can be ordered with GPS guidance systems.
The 1960s and 1970s technology has reached its “practical limits” for accuracy and maintainability, he said, and modern technology could drastically reduce missile field maintenance requirements and the accompanying security demands—while simultaneously improving accuracy.
Recent investment in the Air Force’s global warfare capabilities is paying dividends. The question is whether scarce investment funding will continue to flow to these high-priority systems.
Vigilance Over the Pacific
Gen. Gary L. North, the head of Pacific Air Forces, operates in a region so huge that he comes under some of the same pressures felt by so-called “global” commanders. He cited some disconcerting facts about that theater, facts which compel him to keep his command at a high state of readiness.
Speaking Nov. 20 at AFA’s symposium in Beverly Hills, Calif., North observed that six of the world’s largest militaries operate in his theater—China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, India, and, of course, the United States.
Among those nations, one (not named but clearly China) is investing heavily in fourth generation fighters, advanced “double digit” surface-to-air missiles, and surface-to-surface missile capabilities. China is now also thought to be closer to fielding a fifth generation fighter than previously thought.
Another Pacific nation (Russia) doubled its military spending between 2001 and 2009, exports the aforementioned fighters, SAMs, and ballistic missiles around the world, and has resumed Cold War-style long-range bomber flights over the Pacific.
A third nation (an unnamed North Korea) developed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles “while its population starves.”
In this environment, it is easy to see why “the Pacific is not a theater that is at war, but it’s not a theater that is completely at peace either,” North said.
“Our high-end competition is good, and getting better,” he said—meaning PACAF cannot let its capabilities slip.
To that end, North said the command’s No. 1 focus is on properly posturing its forces in the region. F-22s are now in place in Alaska and are headed to Hawaii. In South Korea, advanced all-weather F-16s have replaced older “Vipers” that will now serve as aggressors for Red Flag-Alaska exercises.
And Guam remains a linchpin of power projection in the region. Andersen Air Force Base there is home to US Pacific Command’s continuous long-range bomber presence. It also hosts rotational tanker and fighter deployments, and—beginning in 2010—will be home to the Global Hawk long-range unmanned surveillance aircraft.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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