Air Force: Cyber is a factor in future air superiority

Two studies point out that cyber activities and a changing threat landscape are having an impact on how the service approaches operations in air and space.

The U.S. military is coming to grips with the changing threat environment since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which signified the end of the Cold War and a different power competition. Globalization and technological advances in the last 20 years, particularly with regard to cyber capabilities, have leveled the playing field in many ways and left the United States looking for ways to maintain its superiority. The Air Force is finding that also applies to its accustomed dominance in the air.

“The era of strategic monopoly in the air—an anomaly held for the last 25 years that enabled a generation of airmen to focus almost exclusively on cross-domain force application in support of land warfare—is coming to an end,” according to a report in April by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “As the Air Force no longer holds unchallenged power in air and space, and as the joint force has become so dependent upon both cyber access and leveraging cross-domain advantages, a purpose founded upon a presumption of strategic monopoly will lead to strategic failure. The Air Force must now articulate an operating concept reflecting the loss of monopoly in the air domain, but also addressing the interplay of the multiple competitive domains of air, space, and cyberspace.” 

The Air Force recently released its previously announced study on maintaining its air superiority. The document, titled “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan,” outlines a complicated operational environment that intertwines traditional airpower – planes and associated ground crews – with space assets and new age enablers such as cyber. Ceding that threats and capabilities will continue to advance over the next 15 years, the document bluntly asserts the Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against these adversarial capabilities. 

In order to maintain the air superiority enjoyed in the past and compete in anti-access/area denial environments, the Air Force asserts it must develop a family of capabilities that operate across space and cyber, noting that there is no “silver bullet” solution. 

The Air Force lists several initiatives necessary to continue to fight and win under the guise of five major areas that include basing and logistics; find, fix, track and assess; target and engage; command and control; and non-materiel (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, logistics, personnel, facilities, and policy).

Among these areas, the documents notes, the Air Force must adopt use of agile communications, including potentially increasing resiliency and adaptability of integrated networks, adopting the utilization of multiple sensor platforms including man-machine teaming to overcome shortfalls in battle management command and control, leveraging increased contributions from space assets, and utilizing cyber-based capabilities as well as airmen that can operationally employ them. “We’re now realizing that the air domain is going to have to have airmen, or somebody, focused on air and cyber together,” Maj. Gen. John “Jeff” Newell III, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements for the Air Force, said at an event unveiling the Mitchell Institute’s paper. Newell added that the Air Force must produce cyber airmen that aren’t just doing national cyber but air cyber. 

Other topics of focus include the adoption of a data-to-decision campaign of experiments to examine how to fuse data from cloud-based sensor networks into decision-quality information to be used from the tactical to operational levels, especially as cloud is becoming more important in both DOD and coalition operations. This effort will include assistance from machines with machine-to-machine options to turn data into information and knowledge, ultimately allowing humans to make final decision.   

The Air Force also noted it must examine incorporating the right mix of electronic warfare in terms of electronic attack and protection, a critical capability adversaries have improved and one that Air Force commanders have noted the United States has “stepped away from.”

Finally, the document asserted the Air Force must adopt new development and acquisition paradigms to match the tempo of technology development cycles – something many have called operating at “cyber speed.” Similarly, the continued pursuit of “game-changing” technologies – such as hypersonic weapons and autonomy – will be necessary to maintain air superiority. The Defense Department has stood up several offices to address varying levels of these concerns. The highly secretive Strategic Capabilities Office seeks to test and develop emerging technologies in a rapidly deployable fashion while offices such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aim to develop these “game-changing” technologies in a more traditional, and sometimes drawn-out, fashion.