USAF’s New Info Warfare Group Coming Into Focus

USAF Maj. Gen. Timothy Haugh, 25th Air Force commander, presents first remarks during 25 Air Force's change of command ceremony at JBSA-Lackland, Texas, on Aug. 29, 2019. Air Force photo by Sharon Singleton.

The new organization spearheading information warfare for Air Combat Command will be called 16th Air Force and will be led by now-25th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Timothy Haugh, pending his confirmation by the Senate, ACC announced Sept. 18. Haugh is also nominated to receive a promotion to lieutenant general.

Sixteenth Air Force is the result of an ongoing merger between 24th Air Force, which manages cyber operations, and 25th Air Force, which handles intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cryptology, and related fields. Other missions, such as weather analysis, will also fall under the group. The new numbered air force’s headquarters will be in San Antonio, Texas, where the two organizations that will comprise it are already located.

“Tim brings unique experience to us as both an intel professional, and, then, he’s been working with [Army Gen. Paul] Nakasone as one of his task force commanders in [US Cyber Command], so he has broad experience across all the things we’ll ask that numbered air force to do. We’ll stand it up when he’s confirmed,” ACC boss Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

The unified organization aims to take a new approach to modern warfare that increasingly uses cyber offense and defense as well as electronic spectrum effects like jamming, and requires more awareness of what is happening in those areas. At the same time, Air Force policymakers are building out new career fields to define a new spectrum of roles for airmen in the combined enterprise, according to Lt. Gen. VeraLinn Jamieson, the service’s deputy chief of staff for ISR and cyber effects operations.

Holmes suggested that together, the forces can explore how the military could push the envelope and better understand action-reaction dynamics in the burgeoning world of cyber operations.

“Cyber teams are dependent on [ISR] just like the rest of our component is, so on one level it’s making sure that we have the ISR that’s required for cyber by putting the organizations together and that we optimize the use of cyber for ISR,” Holmes said. “Can you imagine a world where we’re able to go take some ax in cyberspace, trying to see what their response is, and preposition intelligence tools to be ready to measure that response”

On another level, he continued, the shift will integrate the similar worlds of cyber and electronic warfare more seamlessly. Ultimately, Holmes said, 16th Air Force will be “trying to drive changes in behavior in this competition phase by influencing people” so that actions don’t rise to the level of all-out war.

“We think bringing all those things together offers us some opportunities to do that better and provide some options for combatant commanders,” he said. “The Air Force is not going to run independent information warfare campaigns, but we’ll organize, train, and equip tools for combatant commanders.”

The Air Force aims to provide those forces with tools that can keep conflict from escalating, as America’s adversaries try to influence others through the digital domain. Those capabilities are mostly routed through US Cyber Command, which oversees offensive and defensive cyber operations for much of the Pentagon. The service is also growing some skills for its mission defense teams, which protect in-house networks and systems from cyber attacks.

“We think we can present more robust teams with better intelligence support behind them and present some information ops options, which we have some game at already, but to improve that and be able to offer it on a larger scale to more [combatant commands],” Holmes said.

Standing up 16th Air Force isn’t expected to detract from the ISR enterprise’s existing mission to provide the highly in-demand intel products that shape air combat, or cast a shadow on the Air Force’s airborne ISR assets like the MQ-9, RQ-4, and various manned platforms.

Holmes said legacy platforms like the RC-135 and RQ-4 can also benefit from a closer relationship with the cyber realm, and the service will still use the same information-gathering sensors that fly on those aircraft—at least for now. But the ISR enterprise is evolving to include not only things like images and signals intelligence, but also to encompass publicly available information like social media and to focus more on ISR in space and cyber.

“How do we pull those together” Holmes said. “There should be some ability to do that a little better when we’re combined with the cyber tools. In the short term, we’ll still keep doing some of those same things, but we have the opportunity to, again, align them up to tip and cue.”