WASHINGTON — Command and control isn’t the Air Force’s most glamorous function, but without it, the service would be unable to coordinate air strikes, optimize aerial refueling or manage the evacuation of injured troops on the ground.
Command and control systems also give commanders the ability to conduct highly coordinated joint operations.
Unfortunately, an overreliance on proprietary systems and the slow adoption of critical technologies like data analytics and agile software development have hampered the service’s ability to understand and disseminate information fast enough against a near-peer threat.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has made overhauling the service’s command and control enterprise one of his top three priorities. During an Aug. 25 interview with Defense News, he even went so far as to call the procurement of information technology his biggest concern.
“The industrial age model ― that often takes years to actually have the technology show up or to transition from the lab to the flight line ― quite frankly is not serving us well today and is not going to serve us well in the future,” he said.
“Ask not what this particular program can do. Ask how it connects and whether it shares. Because it’s about information flow that’s got to happen at the speed of light. That’s going to be the secret to our success in the future.”
The Air Force is now closing in on a plan to transform how it conducts command and control. That starts — as most things do in the Pentagon — with a study. It’s being conducted by the Multidomain Command and Control enterprise capability collaboration team headed by Brig. Gen. Chance Saltzman, director of current operations.
During a Sept. 8 interview with Defense News, Saltzman previewed some of the findings of the team, which will begin compiling their report this month and deliver their final recommendations to Goldfein in November.
“I think one of the first things we learned that has continued throughout is that we have to figure out a way to virtualize the data that’s necessary to do C²,” he said. “We know what that data is, but right now, the way we do it is, some sensor or some entity has the data, they ship it to us over some bandwidth into some processor, some fusion engine, that’s done onsite in our C² nodes. Then some person who takes ownership of it looks at it, manipulates it and deals with it. We have got to get out of the business of shipping data to all our nodes.”
“There’s too much data for the bandwidth that we can afford, so that’s not going to work any more,” he continued.
“Second, if you have your data in these stovepiped channels direct to an analyst, it prevents you from using some of the big data analytic techniques, where you need to have access to a mass of information, not just several different stovepipes.”
Saltzman said he didn’t want his recommendations to the Air Force to be too prescriptive, because the Air Force’s C² infrastructure and concept of operations will need to quickly evolve in order to keep pace with technological leaps and cyber threats.
However, the service will need to change how it buys C² products and how it develops command anc control experts, he said.
On the acquisition side, the Air Force won’t need Congress to approve new contracting mechanisms or policies, it just needs to better use what is already available to it by law to quickly field capabilities or build prototypes, he said.
The service also needs to learn from commercial technology companies that are using practices like agile software development or DevOps, where development of a product is done in parallel to it being tested by users.
The Air Force plans on standing up a DevOps environment called the Shadow Operations Center, where operators and software coders can work together to quickly prototype software that’s needed for current operations, Saltzman said.
“Don’t wait until you have the perfect answer before you let an operator test it. As soon as you have a viable product, get it to the field. Let them help you iterate on it. That’s something we really haven’t done before,” he said.
To form the Shadow Operations Center, which the service hopes to stand up this month, the Air Force will buy or lease the capability to virtualize its data — basically creating a cloud infrastructure where mission data filters in and then can be exploited using Big Data analytics. It will also build a lab where software designers, coders and C² operators work together to solve command and control problems.
“Then, if we get a good prototype that we like, we’re going to deploy it to the field,” Saltzman said. “By next summer, we definitely want something up and operating, producing products.”
The Air Force, Saltzman said, will also have to decide whether to adopt another of his recommendations: a specialized career field for command and control.
Currently, airmen from different career fields conduct the C² mission, without any dedicated professional training.
“You drop in, you do a year, you do two years, and then you go back to your real field,” Saltzman explained.
Instead, he envisions a “C² cadre” comprising seasoned airmen with about a decade of experience as pilots, intelligence officers or other related jobs, who would then transfer to the C² profession for the rest of their careers, helping to institutionalize that area of expertise.
Saltzman intends to recruit an initial cadre of about 500 to 700 airmen to fill vital C² positions on the joint staff, air staff, in major commands and other parts of the service, but he expects the size of the group will expand as demand for C² experts grows across the Air Force.
Beyond that, the service will have to do more to develop its own cyber and computer science experts.
“Relying on industry to do all of the software development for us limits us because of the way they protect their code,” he said. “So we’re going to train and operate Air Force coders. … What industry will do is guide us, contribute by offering innovative ideas, but they’re going to turn it over to us, and we’re going to test it, and we’re going to see what we like, and we’re going to manipulate the code ourselves.”
The service doesn’t have as much talent as it will need to continually develop the intricate software necessary to analyze large quantities of data and may have to do more recruiting, but Saltzman says he is encouraged by the small pockets of computer science expertise growing in the Air Force.
Unlike the Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team — which codified the Air Force’s need for its next fighter jet, known as Penetrating Counter Air, and began identifying key technologies associated with the program — the Multi Domain Command and Control ECCT may not define the shape of future C² platforms, such as a replacement to the Boeing E-3 AWACS.
“The work we’re doing will influence how we look at those systems in the future,” Saltzman acknowledged. But more importantly, it will define how future platforms disseminate information.
“You can’t buy a sensor and expect that there will be a stovepiped ground system that supports it and fuses it and ships out the products. That doesn’t work anymore.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.