In January 1991, the world watched in rapt attention as the U.S. Air Force, led by Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, unleashed its overwhelming airpower upon an Iraqi enemy. Having witnessed uncountable tragedies during his service in Vietnam, Horner and his contemporaries probably considered airpower’s triumphs in Desert Storm as a great catharsis. Airpower’s successes during the following quarter century of continuous conflict only strengthened the Air Force’s faith in technologically superior aircraft.
Today, as in Desert Storm, airborne battle management aircraft continue to direct fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance fleets like pieces on an aerial chess board. Regrettably, these Reagan-era platforms, aircraft essential to linking wider service and joint capabilities to frontline shooters, have outlived their utility. While the Air Force decides whether to retrofit or outright replace its air battle management platforms, the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Reconnaissance System and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, it has the opportunity to reassess how it conducts its air battle management mission. Going forward, the Air Force should embrace technological change to transition towards an information-age networked capability — an advanced battle management system (known in the Air Force by the acronym ABMS) that is interconnected, interoperable, user-centric, flexible, autonomous.
To be sure, these proposed characteristics directly challenge the Air Force’s platform-centric approach. While aircraft may function as institutional comfort blankets, they obscure the information demands of modern warfare and the Air Force’s ability to meet them. The U.S. military will be better served by fast, ever-present networked systems to replace these venerable aircraft.
Looking Back to the Battle of Britain
In the summer of 1940, Britain’s future looked bleak. Having vanquished all continental challengers, Hitler and his forces aimed across the English Channel. Outclassed by the Royal Navy, Hitler turned to airpower, tasking Herman Goering and his Luftwaffe to establish the air superiority necessary for an eventual amphibious invasion. Accordingly, British homeland defense efforts rested squarely upon the shoulders of its Royal Air Force, specifically its Fighter Command. Despite being marginalized by Bomber Command during the interwar period, timely civilian intervention secured an adequate home defense fighter force. Additionally, the British presciently invested in radar technology which, combined with visual observers, formed the sensor backbone of its Chain Home defense system. Despite the notoriety of the Hurricane, Spitfire, and Watson-Watt’s new radar scopes, British success during its air war with Germany stemmed largely from the linking of the two: the connection between its sensors and its shooters. To best defend Britain, Royal Air Force planners, most notably Fighter Command’s Sir Hugh Dowding, divided its airspace into sectors. These sectors controlled air defense units in their geographic area, while the sectors themselves were centrally managed from a national air operations center at Bentley Priory in northwest London. Composed of incandescent-lit aircraft status boards, telephone switchboards and a 30-foot by 20-foot map updated by Women Auxiliary Air Force attendants, this operations center fused radar and visual observer sensor data to develop a common operating picture. With the enemy’s position relatively known, Dowding and his subordinate commanders could best position his fighter forces to repel incoming German attacks.
Upgrading Battle Management Today
While modern circuitry has relegated Britain’s air defense technology to an interesting historical footnote, its fundamental air battle management principle remains important today. A testament to the timelessness of the sensor-to-shooter link, the speed and effectiveness of the U.S. military’s “kill chain” rests upon information collection, fusion and its subsequent means of distribution. Arguably, the Air Force’s tactical and operational advantage has stemmed directly from its ability to collect information, analyze and package it, and ultimately delivering actionable data to its shooters. For ABMS to realize the Air Force Chief of Staff’s vision of ‘new-new’ — new technologies to be used in new ways — the Air Force should first recognize information dominance as a must-have.
Modern information systems provide a good starting point to describe the characteristics the Air Force needs to realize an advanced battle management system. Waze, the popular navigation application for cars, is one such example. The app’s website encourages potential users to “join other drivers in your area who share real-time traffic and road info.” After installing the application on any smart device, a Waze user can choose to provide his or her GPS positional data as well as any road condition comments (location of a speed trap or disabled vehicles) to the collective. A Waze user can then view the data of all users and modify his or her driving behavior accordingly. Alerted to police ahead, the driver can slow down. Notified of a traffic accident, a driver can take another route.
Much like Britain’s Bentley Priory operations center, Waze connects users with a massive amount of information. More specifically, both connect users to the information they care about: both are user-centric. A Spitfire group defending a sector southeast of London could care less about the air picture northwest of London much like a driver in Jacksonville could care less about the traffic picture in Seattle. How these systems prioritized and delivered this data was indicative of the age: Dowding utilized human resources while Waze uses computer algorithms and tailored waveforms. Regardless of methodology, both possessed a means of data management. The following sections will describe these three characteristics as they relate to an advanced battle management system.
Interconnected and Interoperable
Just as Britain’s battle management system connected Chain Home to its front-line shooters and Waze connects users to traffic and road data, ABMS should first and foremost serve as a means of connection. It should get information from anywhere to everywhere. With this in mind, initial development efforts should first define and where possible standardize connection(s) across platforms. To do so, the Air Force should shed its industrial-age development model which encourages the development of multiple, unique, stove-piped architectures. Similar to Waze, which operates equally on iOS, Android, and Windows-based devices, ABMS should connect all users regardless of platform, sensor, or mission. This networked capability extends far beyond any single platform or aircraft. Frequently becoming a developmental mandate, open software architecture would facilitate opportunities to connect most newer systems while legacy systems would most likely require some hardware modification. Larger, traditional battle management platforms could still serve an important role as flying test beds to both improve firmware and software builds while developing the techniques, tactics, and procedures essential to ABMS implementation success.
Additionally, rather than scrapping legacy networks, ABMS developers should integrate them during all design phases. In effect, ABMS could function as a universal translator for disparate systems each leveraging unique waveforms. Such an approach would maximize platform interoperability and greatly increase the number of potential network participants. Interoperability directly impacts network security as well. Network size and its number of connections is directly proportionate to its utility and resiliency.
A platform and sensor-agnostic interconnected network should facilitate information flows to, from and between users ultimately pushing fused data to the tactical edge. Much like Waze, individual ABMS users would benefit because all users push all of their respective sensor data to the collective. ABMS should fuse this “big data” (think hundreds if not thousands of individual data streams) and deliver it automatically to a specific user or at that user’s specific “pull” request. Armed with information outside their own sensor suites, warfighters at all levels could make better informed decisions and better innovate on the fly. For example, a fourth-generation aircraft could prudently assume more risk, trespassing closer to a fixed surface-to-air missile site confirmed inoperative by ABMS multisource data (overhead satellite imagery, and fifth-generation passive detection systems). Certainly, specific platforms may need to only passively receive data, in effect “turning off” data transmit functionality, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.
A user-centric ABMS architecture would also transform and simplify network security. Rather than linking multiple networks of varying security classifications with exquisite, tailored gateways, a user would pull and/or push information up to the platform’s security level. Rather than securing the entire network, the information itself is secured.
Data Management via Flexible Autonomy
ABMS should rely upon machine autonomy to accomplish heavy data lifting, to sift through and fuse incoming data streams, and then distribute correlated information to users. Far from a Skynet-type scenario, user defined prioritization should guide ABMS autonomy during all phases, from software development to operational use. Flexible autonomy, the optimization of human-machine interaction, would determine how ABMS fuses data into a common operating picture, tailors that picture to meet user mission needs, and ultimately projects a user’s future information needs. Certainly users would benefit from seeing what every platform sees, but flexible autonomy could also provide unmatched tactical and operational agility. Whereas Waze is a passive system, meaning its users are beholden to the input of other users, ABMS would be far more active and responsive to user demands. If a higher headquarters deems one particular target or type of target more important than all others, ABMS would adjust its data prioritization algorithms accordingly. Moreover, and potentially more impactful to user situational awareness, ABMS could task specific idle sensors to meet increased user priority. Continuing the previous example, assuming additional target data is needed, ABMS could task an overhead satellite to slew its sensor in a particular direction, or command a fifth-generation aircraft radar to stare at a specific spot on the ground: machine-to-machine communication otherwise transparent to the host platform. ABMS would not execute these operations of its own accord, but rather because of the user’s increased priority.
As its battle management platforms reach their operational end of life, the Air Force has an opportunity to recognize and address its information age demands.
The Air Force’s “Data to Decision” campaign of experimentation, exploratory offshoots of its Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, expresses an institutional interest in pushing actionable information, a combat cloud, to its frontline warfighter. Although widebody aircraft may play a role in ABMS development, ABMS cannot be a single aircraft. It is a capability; one that connects users with information. Although no system can ever drive uncertainty to zero, decision-quality data remains a noble if aspirational goal. An advanced battle management system like the one described would better afford Air Force warfighters unmatched tactical flexibility in and through multiple domains. It would truly be a new technology used in a new way.
Nicholas Sigler is an U.S. Air Force officer. He currently serves as Air Combat Command’s Strategy and Wargaming Branch Chief. He is an F-22 pilot and has served in both the CENTCOM and PACOM AORs. The views expressed here do not represent those of Air Combat Command, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.