In the summer of 1940, in the months after Nazi Germany had conquered France, Adolf Hitler was set on invading the United Kingdom. He began with an air offensive, and Germany had the clear advantage in numbers: Against the Royal Air Force’s 446 fighters, Germany amassed 3,500 combat aircraft to send across the English Channel. In a war of attrition, the odds were clearly stacked against the RAF.
As the battle began, RAF losses mounted quickly. From Aug. 8 to Aug. 18, the RAF lost 154 pilots and even more airplanes; it had just 63 green pilots to backfill as further losses mounted. The Royal Air Force appeared to possess too few fighters and too few pilots to take on a superior German force.
But the Royal Air Force had a secret weapon to make up for its aviation shortfall. Radar stations along the southeastern British coastline detected German bomber formations as they crossed the English Channel. They alerted information fusion centers, which would interpret the data, combine it with additional reports from ground observers, and map the German formation positions on a plotting board before ordering specific Royal Air Force fighter units to take to the sky. Once aloft, British aircraft could readily distinguish friend from foe, thanks to on board transponders that enabled controllers to vector those aircraft with real-time positions for the German bombers. Thus, despite overwhelming odds, the RAF prevailed.
Three factors proved essential: a robust sensor network of radar and observers; a voice communications network; and a highly integrated C2 [command and control] enterprise in which trained personnel gathered sensor inputs, fused the data, and communicated actionable information to fighter pilots. In short, information, connectivity, and C2 saved England when the chips were down.
Three factors proved decisive for Britain in WWII: a robust sensor network, voice communications, and a highly integrated C2 enterprise.
Today, the United States Air Force finds itself in a similar position to the British 81 years ago. It has too few aircraft and faces burgeoning threats. As then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett explained last year, “The Air Force, as currently constituted, is too small to do what the nation expects of it.” Indeed, the U.S. Air Force fleet has never been so small—and so old. Today’s force lacks the capacity and capabilities required in modern high-end conflict: Capable airframes with the stealth, payload capacity, and the information-technology attributes required to challenge peer competitors. Such systems are in incredibly short supply—USAF has just 20 B-2s, 186 F-22s, and about 300 F-35s presently fielded. The rest of the USAF’s combat forces consist of several thousand nonstealthy, industrial-age airframes with outdated information technology.
These force structure shortfalls increase the need for the Air Force to create enterprise-scale information systems, connectivity, and C2 capabilities that maximize the combat potential of each of its weapon systems. History underscores that these are not mere nice-to-haves, they are essentials.
For the past 30 years, the Air Force has managed most of this challenge with two airborne systems: The E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). Each was remarkable and a game-changer in its day, yet now, newer technologies promise to accomplish their work faster, more directly, and with less human intervention. Air Force leaders are rightfully calling for a broad range of new systems to maximize the potential of emerging information technologies to give U.S. warfighters decision dominance in the future battlespace.
The practical implementation this effort will evolve through the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS); Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is the broader force management construct that ABMS will help to achieve. Yet the overarching intent and concept is not so different from what occurred 80 years ago in the Battle of Britain: Just as the RAF had its network of sensors, communications systems, and experts to direct fighter pilots to their targets, ABMS will provide the same, just at higher speed and greater range. The intent—information and decision superiority—remains the same. The ability for machines to share data automatically without human engagement is simply the next logical phase in development.
“ABMS will be able to perform the mission sets associated with both the JSTARS and AWACS platforms and possibly assume other roles of the Theater Air Control System,” said former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, Will Roper, in 2020 congressional testimony.
ABMS will be an ecosystem of sensors, fusion, and data- transfer networks aided by cloud-based processing power and artificial intelligence that will empower modern C2: a concept that DOD now calls Joint All-Domain Command and Control. The phrase “joint all-domain” refers to the notion of mission systems partnering in real time, and sharing data in a domain-agnostic manner. The composition of ABMS and JADC2 teams will be based on creating the best partnerships at given times and places to achieve desired effects better than what any single asset could do individually. Data gathered by systems in one domain could drive actions in another, which may be better positioned to net the desired goal. As one Air Force document explains, “Joint all-domain command and control connects distributed sensors, shooters, and data from and in all domains, to all forces, to enable distributed mission command at the scale, tempo, and level to accomplish commanders’ intent—agnostic to domains, platforms, and functional lanes.”
In the rush to modernize, however, the Air Force risks focusing too much on technical aspects of its future networks and not enough on the fundamentals of command and control that underpin effective decision-making. Air Force leadership’s overriding focus on network technology reflects this imbalance.
The Air Force must look beyond specific technologies and decide first where the C2 centers of gravity will reside within this new system, what they will look like, and how warfighters will employ them across the spectrum of conflict. Networks, while crucial, are not warfighting ends in and of themselves, nor will they magically manifest C2; they are merely the underlying, enabling technology. To meet the future threat environment, the Air Force must consider three overarching principles for ABMS and its JADC2 vision:
The command and control design strategy must integrate technology and human intellect to ensure command intent is translated into desired action. The rapid flow of raw data or the existence of potentially actionable information does not equate with mission accomplishment; to ensure the commander’s intent is achieved, there must be an appropriately tiered decision-making network—working down from the strategic to the operational and tactical levels of operations.
The command and control design must allow leaders to carefully manage the operational risks inherent to innovation as emerging technologies are assimilated. Technological potential does not guarantee operational reliability in the near- or mid-term. Viable fallback capabilities must be available if innovative technology fails to meet schedule or functionality goals, or if adversaries are ever able to defeat it.
The command and control design must be equally effective across the spectrum of operational environments and be both flexible and affordable. While the peak demands of great power conflict must drive investment priorities and associated concepts of operation, design choices must also be sufficiently flexible and affordable to achieve mission results throughout the full range of operational environments.
These design principles have not been at the forefront of current public discussion. Instead, attention has been focused primarily on developing an information architecture and applying it to narrow operational scenarios. Form must follow function, however; failing to pursue a more balanced approach could result in suboptimal results.
The Case for Supersonic C2ISR
C2 is a human endeavor that can be assisted by technology, but cannot yet be replaced by it. Technology can inform and assist with decision-making, funneling the most compelling data to the decision-makers, for example, but it is not yet at the point where it can be trusted to make operational decisions. Professionals will have to be positioned appropriately throughout the C2 decision structure. Additionally, redundancies and flexibility must be built in to enhance high-end operations and allow assets to be employed elsewhere in the threat spectrum when required.
Instead of centralizing air battle managers in JSTARS and AWACS aircraft, they will have to be distributed throughout the battlespace to connect and support defined forces so they can fight through attacks on communications links. But, over-relying on extended network connections only introduces new points of vulnerability. This makes innovative concepts like supersonic C2ISR aircraft worthy of consideration, along with alternate airborne operating platforms, such as refueling aircraft, that will occupy relevant positions in the battlespace for extended periods of time. These notions support the argument for disaggregating C2 from ISR, without closing the door on integrated C2ISR should networked solutions find themselves immobilized due to enemy interference.
The advantages of a C2ISR aircraft capable of supersonic cruise at extended range are several: They could deploy rapidly; operate at speed to get to the destination quickly; and cover vast operational ranges, providing more time on station.
Operating from distant bases would also decrease demands on ramp space closer to the action. Because these jets would operate at very high altitudes, they would also cover greater distances and be harder to shoot down.
Building on commercial bones, these platforms could employ an open systems architecture to support a range of mission systems and modular mission payloads, enabling rapid updates and the ability to swap out sensors and mission systems for different missions or operating environments.
To maximize C2ISR in high-threat scenarios, a layered, three-phased approach is needed:
1) Penetrating, highly survivable sensor nodes.
These are fifth-generation aircraft, such as the F-35 and B-21, paired with space-based systems, and linked to C2 operators providing real-time inputs.
2) High-speed, high-altitude manned C2ISR sensor platforms able to provide supplementary “look-in” and network-sourced decision-making insights, and to provide survivable C2ISR coverage over moderate risk regions.
Supersonic air transports under development by firms like Aerion, Boom, and others could provide unique value by ensuring C2 expertise at appropriate tiers of the battlespace.
3) Standoff C2 and ISR systems able to gather and process data into decision-quality outputs.
This construct could guide force employment decision-making in a timely, prioritized manner with built-in redundancy, capacity, and mission-based affordability. Most importantly, it relies on a balanced approach to information, connectivity, and C2. Each of these facets are represented proportionately.
In the years immediately following the Cold War, Les Aspin, the 18th Secretary of Defense, remarked, “We know how to orchestrate [technology] in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.” That statement holds true today more than ever. Technology can help ensure combat assets will be employed effectively, efficiently, and in alignment with commanders’ intent.
To achieve that, the Pentagon must push significant advances in networks, processing, AI, machine learning, and aircraft design. The investment will be considerable. Some may balk at the cost. However, given what is at stake, the reverse must also be asked: What is the cost of not pursuing this approach?
Like the Royal Air Force at the start of World War II, the U.S. Air Force today is too small, too old, and too fragile to meet all its taskings through numerical superiority. Indeed, even if the Air Force managed to build back up to the 386 operational squadrons required by the National Defense Strategy, it still must be measured, effective, and efficient in employing its forces. The risks to do otherwise are too great.
The Battle of Britain lends a cautionary note for today’s force planners. With Britain facing one of the largest German attacks of the entire conflict, on Sept. 15, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited an air defense command and control center responsible for directing RAF fighters against the attacking German forces. Watching the waves of incoming German attackers on the center’s plotting boards, Churchill asked, “What other reserves have we?” Air Vice Marshal Keith Park replied, “There are none.”
Decades later, this story is often romanticized as an example of stoic pilots defending the United Kingdom against all odds. In fact, it portrays a nation teetering on the brink of disaster. The difference between winning and losing was very narrow indeed. Britain won the battle thanks to superior information, connectivity, and C2. In a future conflict with China, will the United States be able to say the same? That depends on the success of the U.S. Air Force’s planning and investment in a modern C2 enterprise. The future of the free world could depend on it.
Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.