The missions and tasks the Air Force is charged with today, particularly in the realms of space, cyberspace, and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, are both critical and growing in importance. Dominance in these domains is far from assured.
An artist’s conception of an imaging intelligence satellite on orbit. DOD tracks 22,000 satellites and pieces of space debris.
From the Predators flying over Afghanistan, to the protection offered by missile warning satellites, to troops navigating unfamiliar streets thanks to Global Positioning System satellites—all of this will be endangered if new approaches are not used to protect capabilities.
Shelton called the service’s budget struggles "the most pressing and perhaps the most vexing challenge our military is facing," saying any budget cuts north of $800 billion in the next decade would not only necessitate force structure adjustment but also a conversation about an "entirely new national security strategy."
The Air Force’s cyber capabilities, resident in AFSPC’s 24th Air Force, also known as Air Forces Cyber, cross boundaries around the world and muddle the difference between civil, military, and law enforcement operations.
AFCYBER, for example, is covered by a range of authorities under US law—from Title 50 for war and national defense to Title 10 and even Title 18, encompassing criminal activity. "It’s not about line and block diagrams," said Maj. Gen. Suzanne M. Vautrinot, 24th Air Force commander. "It’s about relationships you need to make in order to make this mission happen." Operating in cyberspace is a unique area for USAF historically, she noted, as it is a medium where vulnerability is inherent.
"We don’t own it, we didn’t build it, but we have to get comfortable that this is the structure we work in," she added.
USAF is also looking at an uncertain future in space. It has presided over the buildup of an impressive array of space capabilities, but other nations are building theirs, too, and concern over the security of DOD’s on-orbit tools is a topic that comes up in top-level discussions with frequency.
Today, 11 countries maintain 22 launch sites, and 60 countries and consortia operate satellites on orbit, said Lt. Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, commander of USAF’s Space and Missile Systems Center. DOD tracks 22,000 satellites and pieces of space debris on orbit, and those numbers are slated to steadily creep upward in the years ahead.
Bridging the Gap
The ground crew chases a U-2 landing on a runway in Southwest Asia. USAF officials predict the need for "top shelf" ISR, such as that provided by the U-2, will continue to grow.
To navigate this environment, Shelton said, USAF must move to save money and preserve the programs critical to the future of the entire DOD, and must focus on a few key concepts: keeping costs down and rethinking how the Air Force builds space architectures, curbing excessive requirements growth, and working closely with the aerospace industry to find new ways to save money and deliver needed capabilities.
"There won’t be additional money. Let me say that again. There won’t be additional money," Shelton said bluntly. "That’s just the cold, hard reality of today. So it will be these innovative approaches that will help us make our own money internally, freeing up resources to do things that we know we need to do." There’s a "foundational level of space capability" the US must retain in order to remain a global power, he added, and to avoid reverting to fighting the way it did in Vietnam, Korea, and the second World War.
One of the areas being scrutinized is the launch business—and getting more value from it, Shelton said. USAF buys a lot of space launch, having ordered 15 evolved expendable launch vehicles since 2007. But the cost of EELVs has crept upward at a rate outstripping even the rising cost of health care, Shelton noted, and AFSPC believes a block-buy strategy will help stabilize the industrial base and save money.
Economies of Scale
Airmen compete in Cyber Nexus, the 67th Network Warfare Wing’s force-on-force cyber competition. Cyber capabilities will likely play a large role in the Air Force’s future.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley noted "significant concerns" with the growing cost of EELV operations. "We have cracked into the cost of operations at [United Launch Alliance] and we’ve developed an acquisition strategy for EELV that will help us modulate the best deal for the taxpayer in terms of block buys," Donley said. Simultaneously, the Air Force has worked with NASA and the NRO on new launch entrant criteria and to get a three-agency agreement on standards for ventures and companies to get into the business.
USAF leadership is encouraging competition and newcomers for the space business, but national security space is a risk-averse environment and officials are taking a cautious approach. Still, Shelton noted, not everything AFSPC launches is in the category of a critical payload, such as experiments in the space test program. "While we certainly value these, ... it’s clear that they aren’t in the same class as some of our satellites," such as those in the Space Based Infrared System, he noted. "They may present an opportunity for certification launches of a new entrant, due to our willingness to take a bit more risk."
Reusability and increasing economies of scale will be crucial to launch savings in the future. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, said the company’s Falcon 9 booster will push the state of the art for commercial launch. Larger satellite carriage capacity means a "virtuous cycle" could begin where satellites get less expensive due to the lower costs of launch. Today, Falcon 9 is about $16 million for a flight, but if a launch vehicle could be rapidly turned and reused, much like a jet airliner, space in the 21st century could become more accessible—and costs would drop.
"The big breakthrough is rapid and complete reusability," Musk said. "When you think of any mode of transport, they are all rapidly reusable."
In addition to opening up launch competition, USAF is attempting to clamp down on contracts and requirements. The key to reform in this area, Shelton submitted, is to focus efforts on building mission "architectures" that leverage multiple assets to achieve a range of effects on orbit.
"A well-crafted mission area architecture helps us define efficient approaches and can pay enormous dividends in both procurement and operational successes," he said, adding it would be the opposite of ad hoc. A dedicated sensor for terrestrial weather, for example, could be augmented by a comparable sensor supporting another mission by applying different ground processing. For military satellite communications, a more resilient future architecture might be built around larger numbers of smaller, less expensive satellites, perhaps supplemented by responsive platforms and hosted payloads.
Plotting a New Course
Infrared imagery from the Space Based Infrared System’s Highly Elliptical Orbit-2 sensor shows a missile launch through cloud cover.
How the US buys space capability, and how industry builds it, must change to reflect the realities of the 21st century, said Michael A. Hamel, an Orbital Sciences senior vice president and retired USAF three-star. "If it doesn’t work on orbit, there will be penalties," he said. The industry needs "skin in the game" and should not be afraid of doing business in a firm, fixed-price contracting environment.
If it can blend together tools and practices, from payloads to ground processing systems, the space business could soon see a very different result. "It’s going to take more collaboration between industry and the government," Hamel said. "If we don’t plot a new course, the budgets will plot the course for us."
Both USAF and industry officials feel leveraging commercial assets will be crucial in the near future. Industry must adapt to a more crowded and contested environment on orbit by preparing for a setting that is less permissive, said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, a satellite communications provider. "We want to prepare for the future fight, ... including one that would not necessarily include communications dominance," she said.
Intelsat is thinking "a lot" about resiliency—a subject Shelton echoed—and has invested much in security features in its products, such as type-one encrypted telemetry, tracking, and command links on some satellites. There is a great deal of commonality to be gained between the military and commercial sectors, Sears said, and while the latter will not likely launch nuclear-hardened satellites into orbit anytime soon, much work could be done to improve anti-interference tools, since operators in the commercial realm are seeing a dramatic increase in interference events as technology proliferates around the globe.
Gen. William Shelton, AFSPC commander, wants the Air Force to consider new ways of doing business.
Caution in the space and cyber realm is not merely a parochial concern, as these operating arenas touch almost every mission area in DOD. Vautrinot highlighted the contributions of 24th Air Force’s airmen to the remotely piloted aircraft mission in theater today, as cyber airmen ensure the data collected from Southwest Asia are secured on the worldwide network.
In addition to being flown from thousands of miles away, RPAs were not designed to be efficient, and there are between 40 to 80 "touch points" of vulnerability in their network. The airmen of the 624th Operations Center at Lackland AFB, Tex., are responsible for knowing what those points are and how to protect the RPAs—watching tail numbers from across the world, in a 21st century version of fighter escort for bombers.
Controlling the network is a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances, Vautrinot said, because you can rarely solve a problem for good. "You can make things harder, but you can’t make things impossible," she explained about network protection activity. Today’s cyber airmen have become good at tracking the forensics of intrusions and attacks, she added, because both USAF and potential threats must operate in the same domain—there are both risks and benefits constantly weighed. "What comes in [to your network] has to go back out," she noted.
One of the Air Force’s other enduring global missions—providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—has also proved inseparable from modern warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. The demand for near-real-time intel and imagery has mushroomed since 2001, and the Air Staff is taking a hard look at the future of the ISR mission, said Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, deputy chief of staff for ISR.
An E-8 JSTARS aircraft over Robins AFB, Ga. JSTARS uses a multimode side-looking radar to detect, track, and classify moving targets behind enemy lines
While the ISR enterprise won’t be immune to the budget ax, James believes this mission area would "fare well" since the need for top-shelf ISR will continue to grow.
The technology push in this area will have to be balanced between the collection aspect and the analysis piece, he noted. Operations in Afghanistan have revealed a mismatch between these two pieces of the enterprise, and there remains an urgent need to automate processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of intelligence products—the last leg of the mission—which consumes a great amount of resources and manpower. USAF has pushed state-of-the-art sensor technology into the field, but PED is so manpower-intensive too much of the material gathered in the execution of the mission "falls on the floor," James said.
The military has already transformed how it utilizes ISR, said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, now CEO of Mav6. No longer tied to platforms or tactical or strategic mission stovepipes, ISR has become a critical mission area in and of itself and there is no better time to change and update the organizational models for the collection, dissemination, and analysis of these products.
An MQ-9 Reaper in a shelter at JB Balad, Iraq. Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities such as those offered by these aircraft are expensive and always in high demand.
"We can’t afford to feed the old appetites and structures anymore," Deptula said, and technology is moving faster today than ever before. A soldier or sailor or marine does not care how many RPAs are on orbit, he noted; they care about getting more situational awareness—something maximized by leveraging automation of exploitation and analysis tools while reducing the need for more combat air patrols in the air, even as newer concepts become available to produce the same effects.
"Strategy needs to underpin budgetary decisions," Deptula said. Knowledge—and getting useful information to those who need to make timely decisions about our national security—is what matters. Strategy must remain at the core of USAF’s efforts to embrace and maximize innovation and technology.
"This won’t be easy, but if we don’t do it, our adversaries will," Deptula concluded.
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