The Future Global Force

Jan. 1, 2009

The modern Air Force packs an impressive array of world-spanning military capabilities—nuclear, space-based, cyber-borne, and even conventional. Yet, to keep them effective, USAF will have to rethink and restructure virtually all of them.

USAF, moreover, must do this at a time of high operations tempo and slack funding, and with no assurance of success.

That was the consensus of top officials at the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium, held Nov. 20-21 in Los Angeles. The roster included senior officers and experts in the fields of space, strategic nuclear forces, cyber warfare, ISR, and Pacific regional requirements.

They offered their unique perspectives on how the service could or should cope with the needs of global operations.

A B-2 takes on fuel over the Pacific Ocean. (USAF photo by SrA. Brian Kimball)

Fixing Military Space

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley fingered the space realm—systems, architecture, acquisition, operations—as a mission area in great need of an overhaul. As Donley put it, “We need to forge a new path.”

He observed that the space industrial base is shrinking, dependence on space is rising, and new threats in space are multiplying.

Within the Air Force, Donley continued, space acquisition has a long way to go before attaining true efficiency or timeliness. Although satellites tend to work well once in orbit, they take far too long to develop and cost too much.

They are also increasingly vulnerable to nations with proven anti-satellite capabilities and a willingness to use them.

“We … need to consider ways to harden and protect the end-to-end space architecture of ground stations, satellites, and command and control links against various types of threats,” Donley said.

In one sense, that points to a need for better space situational awareness—the ability to locate, identify, and then characterize objects in orbit. This, in turn, will require unprecedented cooperation among all members of the space community, including those outside the defense space enterprise.

Attempts at knitting these disparate agencies’ space efforts have been “inconsistent,” Donley said.

“I am not convinced that we are tying these discussions together into a sufficiently robust interagency framework for developing a national space vision, strategy, and resourcing plan,” he allowed.

The US should recognize its dependence on space and invest accordingly, according to Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander, US Strategic Command.

“I don’t want to be holding my breath on every launch,” he said, arguing that the nation should be willing to spend the money to ensure adequate backups in case of failure.

“We need robustness,” Chilton asserted. “If you need four, why not build five?” The US military establishment is utterly dependent on space, he said, and without it, warfare would rapidly lapse into brute force battles like those seen in World War II.

Donley added that intense focus must be placed on “ways to streamline and strengthen interagency governance” of the space enterprise.

With the change of Administrations under way and a new Quadrennial Defense Review coming, “the time is ripe” to overhaul the national security space enterprise, Donley said. There are numerous “complex and overlapping structures for addressing [space] policy” in the executive branch and Congress, and these need to be rationalized.

The last Defense Support Program satellite heads into space atop a Delta IV evolved expendable launch vehicle. (USAF photo )

Mushrooming Cyber Issues

Chilton said there are some similarities between the emerging cyber mission and space operations. Like space, cyber is global, something “we use every day” and is a domain that “we defend, [and] prepare for attack from this domain.”

He said cyber can be used to create combat effects, and “we need to demystify it.” He added that the nation is as dependent on cyber as it is on space, and isn’t moving quickly enough to organize its defense. “Are we in denial about that? Yes, we are.”

The toughest job in cyber defense, he said, is to keep Web-based traffic moving even when fighting is going on. It won’t be possible to just shut it all down in the middle of a fight. “We have to operate it, and fight through” attempts to corrupt or disrupt it, Chilton said.

The Global Information Grid, he maintained, “is a weapon system, and deserves to be treated like one.” Cyber defense should be in the hands of a combatant commander for that reason, and STRATCOM is the right place to do it, he said.

He also warned that enemies looking for “a chink in the armor” of the US have settled on cyber as an excellent place to make mischief, and “we don’t have the luxury of time” to conduct a long debate over who’s in charge of the domain or how to fight back.

Dr. Rebecca Grant, independent airpower analyst, Senior Fellow of the Lexington Institute, and Director of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, said cyber warfare will not develop along traditional lines.

Whereas combat power in air and space developed as outgrowths of existing military enterprises, and were shaped by the military early on, Grant noted that cyber is everywhere at once, and “90 percent or so of it is in private hands.”

A big challenge will be to “clarify lines of control” and identify who has the main responsibility, said Grant, who at the symposium released the latest Mitchell Institute special report, “Rise of Cyber War.”

The Department of Homeland Security “has taken on a pretty big role in cyberspace in the last couple of years,” but for the defense establishment, US Strategic Command is the logical place to manage cyber defense, she said.

There have already been some noteworthy examples of state-sponsored cyber attacks—Russia made cyber attacks on Estonia in 2007, and against Georgia prior to actual armed conflict in 2008—but the rules of this new warfare have not yet been written. Is a cyber attack a true act of war, or just a crime? Cyber requires a new way to view the definition of “sovereignty,” especially since attacks come through other, noninvolved combatants.

Cyber is definitely a domain. “We know this is a domain because we all use it,” Grant said, but it remains an open question “where the edges” are. Defining the situation should be one of the first priorities of the new Obama Administration, which should be “straightening out what role we want our military services to play” in cyber, Grant said. However, she believes the services “ought to have a bigger lead … than they do” in performing cyber defense.

L-r: Lt. Col. Tim Sands, Capt. Jon Smith, and Lt. Col. John Arnold monitor an electronic warfare simulation at Eglin AFB, Fla. (USAF photo by Capt. Carrie Kessler)

Strategic Forces Emphasis

Chilton, the US operational commander for all strategic nuclear forces, said that the time has come for the US to be thinking about a follow-on to the Minuteman ICBM system. By the time a replacement is developed, the US will have exhausted the service life extension possibilities of its remaining land-based missiles.

Chilton reiterated calls to maintain a healthy infrastructure to design, build, and test nuclear warheads, but he expressed satisfaction with all the delivery systems for nuclear weapons now in active service.

Nuclear organization and posture has gotten priority attention from the Air Force in the past eight months. After top Air Force leaders were forced out last summer over mishandled nuclear materials, the service has been reinventing its nuclear enterprise.

Lt. Gen. Robert J. Elder, head of 8th Air Force, acknowledged that USAF’s focus on the nuclear mission atrophied in the years since the Soviet Union and Strategic Air Command went out of business. However, the service is deadly earnest about restoring its credibility in the nuclear arena, and has the nuclear operational and security inspection results to prove it.

“We are definitely focused,” Elder said, “not only on nuclear [operations] but nuclear deterrence. I think we’ve been able to recreate the same kind of enthusiasm for what we did during the Cold War that kind of drifted away from us … over the last 15 years.”

Elder explained that 8th Air Force, which is to be folded into the new Global Strike Command, has tightened its nuclear procedures, discontinuing the storage of inert and live nuclear weapons in the same facility. The B-52 wings at Barksdale AFB, La., and Minot, N.D., have survived a half-dozen nuclear operations inspections, some with no notice. While the grades are classified, Elder said the personnel involved were justifiably proud of their showing.

A nuclear weapons convoy moves between two groups of B-52 bombers at Minot AFB, N.D., during a nuclear surety inspection. (USAF photo by A1C Kelly Timney)

Training for the nuclear mission used to be secondary for bomber crews, but no more, Elder said. Bomber crews now report for duty having mastered nuclear skills first, and conventional skills second, and will thereafter maintain a “balance” of skills. The nuclear mission has been reintroduced to the weapons school, and Elder said he is pushing to have more study of deterrence in professional military education.

To maintain emphasis on the nuclear mission, a B-52 wing and a B-2 squadron will always be designated and in training for nuclear duty, although not on nuclear alert. That’s because USAF doesn’t see an urgent threat of attack on the bomber force, and the US isn’t trying to send any other country the message “that we are on a hair trigger, ready to go attack,” Elder explained.

The bomber force has been sized in recent years to answer mainly the conventional mission. To meet the needs of the renewed nuclear mission, an additional squadron of B-52s will be brought on line. This will allow annual rotations of one B-52 wing and one B-2 squadron in and out of immersion in nuclear training and exercises, though all bombers will be available for nuclear operations at need. They will rotate into conventional emphasis for training, or deploy forward for presence missions—such as in Guam—or to combat in Southwest Asia.

Many process changes have been put in place. Elder noted that nuclear skills had been relegated to being tested and exercised only in the flying parts of bomber wings, but now has been expanded to include the whole wing and the entire support and training apparatus.

“Perfection is our standard, and every part of this mission is being looked at in excruciating detail to ensure that we are in fact living up to the kind of standards that the American people expect us to live up to,” he asserted.

Old regulations have been reconstituted and “all the things we had always done back in what we call the ‘good old days’ are now there.” As for the process problems that got the Air Force in hot water, “we have all those in the bag,” Elder said.

Maintainers and inspectors verify the serial numbers of nuclear cruise missiles before they are loaded into a waiting B-52. (USAF photo by A1C Sharida Bishop)

Building Global Vigilance

After the nuclear mission, the area getting the most top-level attention from the Air Force’s top leaders is the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) mission.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for ISR, offered a “progress report” on how the ISR enterprise has been reorganized, and is now recast as not only supporting operations, but being an operational mission unto itself.

“We can affect enemy behavior” by maintaining persistent watch, Deptula said. The mere presence of Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, and U-2s over the battlefield forces the enemy to hide and constrains his ability to do damage, Deptula said.

He noted that in the celebrated case of an attack that killed a major terrorist leader in 2006, “six minutes of F-16 time” had been preceded by “600 hours of Predator time.” He asked rhetorically, “Who were the operators?” The realities of ISR today mean it’s time for a “culture change” in the Air Force to redefine what “operations” means.

Deptula noted that the Air Force is considering creating a major command for ISR, the better to have it given proper resources and involved across all aspects of the service’s portfolio. Fighters and bombers, he noted, are increasingly able to obtain vast amounts of data that can be sent to whoever needs it. The stealthy F-22, he noted, is “a flying sensor platform,” which will provide enormous amounts of behind-enemy-lines information to the entire joint force. It must be recognized that ISR provides major effects on the battlefield, albeit “nonkinetic” ones, he said.

The ISR enterprise is knee-deep in developing new concepts of operations for unmanned aerial vehicles and ISR overall and creating an ISR roadmap. An ISR strategy is already completed, but is a “living document” that is modified constantly, Deptula said. Career tracks are being built that will again put ISR operators in the running for top service jobs, the better to grow the talent pool.

He also said that ISR missions are being integrated into the air tasking order that schedules combat sorties, toward the goal of making “every shooter a sensor and every sensor a shooter.”

There’s been a 520 percent increase in MQ-1 Predator combat air patrols in just four years, Deptula noted—well above goals specified in the last Quadrennial Defense Review—but the demand for unmanned ISR remains intense. The Air Force plans to eventually field 197 Predators, 352 MQ-9 Reapers, and 77 RQ-4 Global Hawks.

The Air Force would like to have single acquisition authority for the medium- and high-altitude UAVs, Deptula said, for the simple reason that separate programs, contracts, and product lines cost more money and add delays to a system screaming for ever-more ISR coverage.

“We can’t afford multiple [unmanned aircraft system] program offices, independent training, logistics and maintenance operations,” as well as multiple support facilities and procurement contracts, he said.

Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of US Strategic Command. (USAF photo by SSgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Space Acquisition Solutions

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, identified the command’s multiplicity of customers, all with their own requirements, as the biggest problem in space acquisition.

Kehler said “requirements churn”—as each space platform is configured to accommodate many needs—invariably leads to delays and cost overruns. As programs get too expensive—and some are eliminated—the need to pile requirements on those programs still going forward only heightens the problem.

It’s time to recognize that “one size does not fit all” in the space community, and that greater success will be found in narrowing the scope of some projects, Kehler asserted.

He noted that the long-term intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance needs of national policy decision-makers are often at direct odds with the more tactical requirements of forces in the day-to-day fight, which often involves fast-moving situations. Kehler argued that separate programs, individually tailored to the needs of each user, would be easier to design and manage, cost less, and get on orbit faster.

“We need to deploy space systems at the ‘speed of need,’ ” and not at the sluggish pace of development by committee, Kehler asserted.

He quickly added that he doesn’t oppose integration of products in the space architecture, but sees value in segregating “black” and “white” space systems. Acquisition problems, he said, will inevitably arise when “we continue to force” convergence of dissimilar requirements.

Kehler offered the Space Radar as an example of a noteworthy failure to harmonize strategic requirements with those of tactical operators “on one platform.” The needs of either set of users could have been met with technology already on hand, Kehler said, but it proved too hard to meet them simultaneously.

He offered increased prototyping as a way to vet technologies before fully committing to them. Some think this too costly, but “you could decide to afford it if you need it enough.”

Government needs to reinvent its relationship with industry, with more trust and accountability on both sides. That may require thinking back to an earlier, more cooperative time, Kehler said.

“I’m not sure what it was, but all of you say it used to be better,” he added.

F-22s on the flight line at Andersen AFB, Guam. (USAF photo by A1C Courtney Witt)

An Industrial Perspective

In a panel discussion, industry space experts aired general agreement with Donley and Kehler, arguing for smaller, more focused satellite platforms that can be launched with greater frequency and improved in increments.

Greater stability in the government-industry space relationship—in funding, acquisition, and workforce—would improve the process and the product, according to Brian A. Arnold of Raytheon.

Industrial managers need to have a clear and consistent set of rules—long-term—so they can plan program development logically. Arnold also said the government should consider broadening its use of civil satellites to augment and complement its national assets.

Echoing those remarks was Craig R. Cooning of Boeing, who also pitched for “an enduring and sustainable space architecture,” for both government military and civil space activities. If the space industrial base continues to shrink, we can’t “attract the best and the brightest” to the field, and America will lose its space leadership, Cooning warned. Big projects are attractive to young engineers and scientists and serve as a recruiting tool.

“We need excitement for this industry in order to sustain” its space edge, he said.

At the same time, Cooning said it’s important to recognize a paradigm shift from the space age to the information age, and that satellites should be tasked to do only those things best done by satellites. Moreover, there needs to be some willingness to accept risk. As things stand now, “we continue to require … exquisite satellite capabilities on the first satellite system that comes out of the chute.” He voiced his support for incremental developments: “shorter focus missions,” and “responsive, low-cost access” to space.

David W. Thompson, of Orbital Sciences, agreed, arguing for smaller satellites that can be launched quickly, aboard smaller launch vehicles. This would mitigate against the “increasing vulnerability” of large satellites to ground and space threats by having a larger constellation more readily replaceable. Smallsats would also reduce “significant gaps” in coverage that have been occurring. Thompson said he sees “wavering support” from Congress for military space, and that smaller payloads with more focused missions would be helpful in getting a rhythm going that Congress could get behind.

Michael C. Gass, of United Launch Alliance, said his company is focused on increasing launch reliability, and is keenly aware that it only takes one failure to upset the space applecart. There has been a long string of launch successes, but those streaks don’t matter, Gass said. “We must continue to improve reliability.” Like others on the panel, he expressed some concern that the space workforce is graying, but said, “I’m incredibly optimistic. … We are getting more productivity out of our new employees.”

A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is readied for launch at Beale AFB, Calif. (USAF photo)

Frederick L. Ricker of Northrop Grumman noted potential adversaries are “no longer necessarily putting energy into building massive air forces,” but into missile systems instead, and the US should take steps to mitigate this threat. He also spoke up for large satellites, saying that they have, on the whole, lasted “long beyond the design lives” and “delivered performance and benefits that go beyond the original intents of their designs.”

Joanne M. Maguire of Lockheed Martin said that the US today is “no longer” the “unquestioned leader in space” and faces direct challenges from around the world. India, China, and Japan are “acting decisively” to build their space capabilities, particularly with manned spaceflight. “Are we as a nation willing to … let them pass us?” she asked.

Reinventing Operations in a “Global Theater”

With 51 percent of the world’s surface to monitor and dozens of countries with which to engage, Pacific Air Forces is definitely “global” and working to reinvent the Air Force posture in the Pacific, according to Lt. Gen. Loyd S. Utterback, commander of 13th Air Force.

Utterback noted substantial shifts of USAF hardware in the Pacific. He pointed out that three of the seven F-22 squadrons will be assigned to PACAF; two are already in place in Alaska and a third will arrive in Hawaii in 2011.

The command also has two C-17 squadrons—one each in Alaska and Hawaii—and has deployed C-130s throughout the region.

Block 40 F-16s in theater have been consolidated at Kunsan and Osan ABs, South Korea, while the older versions have moved up to Red Flag-Alaska to be “aggressor” aircraft. Along with A-10s also based in South Korea, USAF is ready to “fight tonight” on the peninsula “if the armistice fails,” Utterback said, reminding the audience that “we are still at war in Korea, and we tend to forget that.”

As they become available, “you’re going to see, I hope, F-35s at both Kadena Air Base in Japan as well as Eielson Air Force Base” in Alaska, he added. These beddowns of first-line equipment will be supplemented with routine and unbroken chains of deployments of bombers and Global Hawk ISR aircraft to Guam. Andersen AFB, Guam, will be getting three Block 20 Global Hawks beginning in Fiscal 2010, he said.

The US will have to do more than simply push hardware out into the Pacific and conduct some bilateral exercises if it is to build security there, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Edwin P. Smith, director of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Smith painted a picture of the Pacific region illustrating its diversity of cultures and the need for the US to tailor its policies and strategies accordingly. The US cannot afford to be psychologically arrogant and assume that the things that motivate Americans to cooperate will work everywhere.

Against terrorism, Smith said, the US can be effective in the Pacific region if it addresses the “conditions that enable terrorism,” such as poverty, ignorance, and a perception that the US is culturally disrespectful and tone-deaf. The US should help its allies and neighbors combat political and bureaucratic corruption, which undermines people’s faith in their governments, and maintain long-term policies not affected by political “polarization” in Washington.

“There is no more important security challenge” than the lack of basic education in countries susceptible to terrorism, Smith said, and the US should do what it can to assist public education in countries where extremism sees opportunity.

The US should also be formulating strategies now to deal with a region where growing population and increasing poverty will ensure conflict over “life-essential resources” such as food and water, Smith warned. The US must prepare sustainable strategies, not those that ebb and flow with particular individuals.

He lauded the US willingness to offer immediate and substantial aid in natural disasters and said that, long-term, it does help burnish the American image and win access. He also expressed optimism that younger officers in the US military seem to inherently understand the need to be more culturally attuned in their dealings with other countries.

Besides defending the US, Utterback said PACAF is heavily engaged in many bilateral arrangements for training, and especially providing humanitarian relief in a seemingly endless string of natural disasters in the region.

Utterback said the Pacific region is “not at war today, but it’s not a theater at peace.” Tensions remain high, and the US is striving to remain engaged with other Pacific countries to keep the lines of dialogue open despite increasing competition for resources.

“We … recognize that a stable and a predictable relationship with a growing China … is vital,” Utterback asserted. However, China’s growing economic and military strength, and a willingness to open its “checkbook illustrate that she is seeking pre-eminence in the region and we have to pay attention.”