WASHINGTON — Air Force fighter and bomber crews owe much of their success in Iraq and Afghanistan to their reliance on a collection of high-tech tools: GPS, data links, communications and radar.
But with the drawdown and the pivot to the Pacific, the Air Force is preparing for new enemy threats and has been asking a new question: What happens when those tools are taken away?
“Anything more than eight feet off the ground we owned in Iraq and Afghanistan. We did. We could operate with impunity,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, Pacific Air Forces commander, said this summer. “The potential in other environments to have that kind of sanctuary is nonexistent.”
Instead, the Air Force is preparing for conditions it terms anti-access, area-denial: when air assets are needed against an enemy with the ability to deny capabilities such as GPS.
“Our adversaries have taken careful note, they’ve been investing in asymmetric capabilities,” Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), said recently at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference.
So beginning in 2010, ACC began “Readiness Project 2,” which focuses training at home toward fighting in a contested environment, with pilots using simulators and real-life exercises to be more capable of operating without the tools they have relied on, and to be able to operate in a situation where “such an asymmetric attack will not stop us. It will only piss us off,” Hostage said.
Training to operate in a threatened environment isn’t easy.
“If I want to deny a GPS ability, I can’t just do that in the States,” said Lt. Col. Chris Plourde, the ACC flight operations B-1 functional manager. “We have airliners flying in and around the same airspace.”
For fighter and bomber pilots to get real-world experience at a range, such as the Utah Test & Training Range near Hill Air Force Base, there needs to be 90 days of coordination for the time over the range. The logistical problems, and budget restrictions, have pushed the training to simulators.
“That becomes a huge hindrance there,” Plourde said.
ACC fighter and bomber crews have similar requirements for training in contested environments: denied GPS, denied communications and denied data links. Crews plan on what backup systems they can use or what weapons they can use for a simulated bombing run. If GPS is out, laser-guided munitions are needed.
Plourde compares the decisions to those of a football team on the field. If the stadium is loud and you can’t call plays, does the team have hand signals it can use?
Officials could not provide specifics on exercises or the number of training flights, citing security risks, but Plourde said the training is a constant focus for fighter and bomber crews.
“If you always train in a benign environment, we aren’t going to be ready for that contested environment,” he said.
At Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., a pilot at the Air Force’s Test Pilot School is taking on the challenge of contested environment training himself. For his thesis, Capt. David Levene, an F-15E weapons systems officer, worked with the Air Force Institute of Technology to created an algorithm that would calculate realistic GPS jamming effects directly on the aircraft’s equipment, without affecting other aircraft in the area.
The project, the Simulated Programmable Aircraft-Embedded Jammer — known as SPACEJAM — is focused on hardware in a modified AE-4 antenna electronics unit, which receives the GPS signal from the antenna and can simulate the effect of jamming on the aircraft’s GPS receiver.
“The jammers are simulated, but the jamming is real,” Levene said in an Air Force release on his project. “It’s really jamming your aircraft’s system, based on the effects of a configurable laydown of simulated jammers.”
The program is in the test phase, with eight flights planned. The first flight took place Sept. 10 and focused on how the system would perform in a high-G environment, with future tests studying the impact of jamming on navigation, the targeting pod and GPS-guided munitions, according to the Air Force. Now, jamming of the system for training is controlled by the weapons systems officer or flight test engineer, but officials hope soon it will be operated by the pilot.
“The testing we’re doing now has never been done before,” Levene said. “My hope for the future is that every military aircraft will include a navigation system that can be jammed for training purposes.”
In Pacific Air Forces, officials are looking at the impact of a contested environment on a different aspect of an air war: the control center. For the past 13 years, the Combined Air Operations Center at al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, has controlled the air wars over Iraq and Afghanistan without any threat. But with the pivot to the Pacific, the Air Operations Center at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, is planning for the challenge of a contested environment.
Officials at Hickam are working on how to face that threat, how to make the communication with a battle communications node-equipped aircraft layered and how to prioritize satellite transmissions to ensure that the most important information is getting through, Carlisle said.
“So if we go down to a thin blue line of communications, how do we prioritize and make sure that we’re passing the right information at the right time and not superfluous information or less important information?” Carlisle said. “Then how do we work in degraded ops when we can’t talk?”
In that command, units are working through plans for if they lose communication and how to operate autonomously until communication returns, Carlisle said.
“We’re working all those things ... knowing that again, going all the way back to 1991, adversaries know how well we do when we have that kind of communications and that kind of control,” he said. “So any potential adversary, wherever they’re at, is going to try to deny us that.”