Defense, industry partner to plan for future multi-domain conflicts

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Staff Sgt. Titus Poulose of the 263rd Combat Communications Squadron with the North Carolina Air National Guard, operates communications equipment inside of a special cold-weather tent while deployed in support of Operation Deep Freeze (ODF), at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Dec. 6, 2018. ODF is a military mission in support of the National Science Foundation throughout the continent of Antarctica, to provide air, land, and sea support to McMurdo Station. (Photograph courtesy of Johnny Chiang)

The U.S. military finds itself at a flashpoint, shifting from a period focused overwhelmingly on violent extremism to state competition.

It won’t be tanks, planes and ships that are the central differentiator in tomorrow’s conflicts, but the disruption of the U.S.’ ability to link and choreograph those elements together — a concept the Air Force is intently focused on.

“In my opinion, multi-domain command and control [C2] is the most critical element of achieving future victory through multi-domain operations,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein.

Goldfein explained this priority in a 2017 letter, adding that “the evolution in our command-and-control capabilities requires new thinking, new training, and perhaps new technologies or new ways to use older technology.”

This led to the implementation of Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, a concept intended to ensure forward deployed forces are ready for contingencies with little notice.

The National Defense Strategy dictates that we ‘develop a lethal, agile and resilient force posture and employment,’” said Brig. Gen. Chad Raduege, Air Combat Command’s chief information officer.

Raduege’s focus is specifically on the Air Force’s ability to apply the ACE construct to C2 and communications capabilities.

“For several decades our forces have deployed forward to what amounts to a fixed-base environment; today the growing need to operate from austere locations, as well as posture to maintain flexibility in the face of contingencies, forces us to take a hard look at our deployable communications capabilities,” he said.

That ‘hard look’ came in the form of a think tank-style workshop at CyberWorx, an organization partnering Airmen, industry and academia to reimagine how technology might enrich and protect national interests.

Experts from across the Air Force and the DOD’s joint community, as well as industry partners, came to CyberWorx to analyze a single, yet complicated problem-set: how do we operate in contested environments ensuring a steady-state of tactical C2 support?

U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party Airmen from the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, communicate to a simulated pilot during a field training exercise near Fort Carson, Colo., July 15, 2019. The exercise tested the TACP Airmen on how to navigate through deployment-like terrain, perform reconnaissance and intelligence on an enemy and close-quarters weapons training. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Matthew Lotz)

Planning for future operations
Under the ACE paradigm, speed, adaptability and resiliency are foundational when operating in contested and austere environments, which is why the workshop included special operation forces. They’ve operated under these constraints for decades as a baseline model for conventional forces.

“I envision a future where the warfighter is able to access necessary mission data from any device, over any network, at any location regardless of classification,” Raduege said.

CyberWorx director, Col. Bill Waynick, led the initiative to analyze and address the challenges to meet the ACE requirements within the Air Force’s tactical communications sphere.

Advances in technology make tactical communications equipment user friendly and provide more options for use in permissive, semi and non-permissive environments, Waynick said.

“What we need is adaptable and resilient equipment to meet the needs of the mission whether it be a large air base, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] launch and recovery element, logistics node or [liaison officer] at an embassy,” he said.

Waynick was candid in his assessment of the DOD’s current state of communications and C2 infrastructure.

“There have been advances in technology such as satellites, satellite terminals, more virtual form factor computing, cloud computing, next generation transmission such as LiFi, laser, and WiFi/Cellular; we have the opportunities to provide resilient and robust communications for C2 and any other mission the Air Force needs,” Waynick said. “We need to acquire and utilize these forms of technology in a less rigid and flexible manner.”

Waynick said the findings of the workshop will be used to try and gain top-level Air Force support needed to meet the tactical communications requirements for ACE and as an input for planning choice for future funding.

“It will make us more adaptable and resilient to meet the variety of current and emerging threats,” he added. “We can’t be a one size fits all type force, we will need to approach tactical communications like a Swiss army knife going forward.”