ACC Planning Integrated Cyber, ISR Ops As AFCYBER Evolves

Air Combat Command boss ?Gen. Mike Holmes speaks at the Air Force Association 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 28, 2019. Holmes said a plan to merge ACC's cyber and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance enterprises will likely be announced this summer. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

A plan for merging Air Force Air Combat Command’s cyber and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance enterprises will take shape this spring, and officials will announce their path forward this summer, the command’s top general said at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium on Thursday.

Last year, the Air Force announced it would shift responsibility for cyber warfare from Air Force Space Command to ACC in order to bring complementary missions under one roof. The 24th Air Force manages cyber operations, while 25th Air Force oversees ISR and electronic warfare. But the specifics of how those groups will work together—and whether further organizational change is needed—have yet to be decided.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Gen. Mike Holmes said during a roundtable with reporters. “We’ve been working through a classic mission analysis of, what are the opportunities to take what we do in cyber and match them up with what we do in our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, to match them up with our conventional forces, and what are the opportunities to pull those together through command and control?”

ACC is taking its time to flesh out the details so it doesn’t interrupt normal operations, as 24th Air Force matures its fledgling cyber mission forces under U.S. Cyber Command and maintains its other service-led teams.

Twenty-Fourth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Robert Skinner told Air Force Magazine Thursday he envisions a future operations floor could bring together ISR, cyber, EW, information operations, and space professionals for closer, faster collaboration to attack and deter enemies. That approach would fall in line with the Air Force’s broader plan for integrated multidomain operations across air, space, and cyber.

Holmes noted they’ve already been testing cyber integration ideas at Red Flag and in the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

“I think the big decisions are going to be made and executed this summer about exactly how we will go forward with an organizational structure at Air Combat Command that takes advantage of the synergies between cyber and our traditional ISR,” he said.

While it remains to be seen how combat operations will change as a result of the evolving cyber-ISR partnership, Skinner said operators’ mission software has to be able to exchange data to be the most effective. That could require new systems to act as a conduit for disparate types of information, or it may mean bringing on new tools altogether.

“I’m not certain there’s any one big system. There’s no silver bullet in this,” Skinner said. “As you start working with open architectures, and you start working with open standards, then I think that stuff can be brought together. … How do we leverage artificial intelligence, machine learning, 5G [networks]?”

He also suggested that the cyber protection teams, which are on call to defend DOD networks for the Air Force and CYBERCOM, are the top priority for resources. But as the Air Force now looks to sustain the cyber mission forces, Skinner said other operators can benefit from the same training so that everyone grows together.

“As we continue to get stronger, then what we’re trying to do is bring up the rest of the water line … leveraging the same training, leveraging the same infrastructure, leveraging the same tools,” he said. “As we continue to learn more with a more focused group, then we can shotgun that out to everyone else.”

Finding ways to be more efficient with the existing cadre of operators will help as the Pentagon continues to build out its cyber organizations, he continued.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in mid-February, CYBERCOM chief Gen. Paul Nakasone indicated the Pentagon’s current cadre of cyber operators are only a starting point as the digital age continues to unfold. He did not answer how many cyber mission forces he thinks would be sufficient in the future.

Skinner also declined to say how many more people Air Forces Cyber may need in the coming years, but believes there are multiple ways to grow capacity. The service first has to make sure it’s operating well before branching out, he said.

“We are going to need more cyber mission [forces], but we’re also going to need more local defenders, we’re also going to need [Air Force mission defense teams] … that are focused on our weapon systems,” he said. “How do we first and foremost make sure they’re the most efficient force? Then you grow that force.”