Air Force Aims to Deploy a New Battlefield Weapon: Faster Communications

Air Force Aims to Deploy a New Battlefield Weapon: Faster Communications

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Air Force will propose spending $9 billion over the next five years to build a system to automatically send intelligence to front-line forces, new technology that strategists say will change how the military fights and will help deter aggression by Russia and China.

The new system, officials say, aims to end what has become an increasing vulnerability: The speed of the military’s communications system hardly matches the speed of modern warfare.

Much of the Air Force’s fleet of aircraft was developed and built decades ago, and few planes can pass data between them automatically. Instead, information is collected by a satellite camera, drone feed or fighter plane radar and sent back to a command center where human analysts look at the information and push it out to pilots, ship captains or ground commanders.

“In the speed of war that we are talking about, denying an invasion by Russia of the Baltics, denying an invasion of Taiwan, you will never be able to fight at the speed you need to if you are talking on a radio,” said Brig. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, a senior Air Force official. “You have to do it faster.”

While many people raised on Hollywood movies assume military intelligence is communicated automatically, the Air Force only now has created teams of software engineers (with science-fiction-inspired names like Kessel Run or Kobayashi Maru) writing code to directly connect the drones, ships and satellites, and the Air Force’s new proposal would build on that.

The ultimate goal, Air Force officials say, is to create a combat version of mapping software that alerts drivers to real-time road conditions like Waze. Just like Waze tells drivers about stopped cars and hidden police officers, the new Air Force intelligence system will automatically collect information about emerging threats and push it to pilots, faster than humans and potentially with more information than traditional radar.

“The big idea here is overwhelming an adversary because we can come at them from all domains,” Gen. David L. Goldfein, the head of the Air Force, said in an interview at the Reagan National Defense Forum here in California. “We will come at them from our position of strength. They will be looking up, down, left, right. They are going to be wondering what the hell we have in the hopper.”

All the military branches have efforts to improve how they share information, although Air Force officials hope their program, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, has the promise to link the entire military.

The plan is part of an effort to shore up a cornerstone of American military strategy in the three decades since the end of the Cold War: the ability of the United States to respond to a threat of aggression toward its allies with such overwhelming power that it would be foolish for potential adversaries to try.

China and Russia are now challenging that approach by pushing to develop military technology and strategies that allow them to move quickly, and disguise what they are doing. If Moscow or Beijing can act faster than Washington can respond, they could change the facts on the ground in the Taiwan Strait or the Baltic Sea.

“While our adversaries seek to surpass us by developing these cutting-edge technologies, we must press ahead to preserve our long-held battlefield overmatch,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said at the forum.

Military strategists believe if they can demonstrate that they have sped up military decision-making and, in doing so, increased the prowess and lethality of American forces, then China and Russia will understand the prohibitive costs of any overt military move against Taiwan or America’s Baltic allies.

The effort includes developing some new forms of weaponry, like low-cost drones that can easily switch from intelligence collection to bomb delivery and are designed to be easily replaced if shot down.

But the heart of the effort is to redesign how planes, ships and ground troops communicate. That will require new, more powerful and flexible radios and computers to be deployed throughout the force.

In essence, the military is trying to catch up with civilian technology, where information is synthesized and pushed to people’s phones. But when an airman climbs into the cockpit of an airplane, said William Roper, the head of the Air Force acquisition office, the systems do not talk to one another and do not feel “like the modern world.”

“People go home and data from all over the world gets to their devices,” Dr. Roper said. “They go to war and they get data from almost nowhere.”

Air Force officials acknowledge that the new system will carry its own limitations. Artificial intelligence systems have a certain fragility, and are only as good as the data fed into them. And there are risks, of course, that artificial intelligence might miss targets or threats a human might see.

General Goldfein said a human would always decide whether to drop a bomb or fire a missile as an ultimate check on any system powered by artificial intelligence. “We can never walk away from lethal fires being a human decision,” he said.

The strategy has several other challenges. Congress has traditionally been much more likely to fund airplanes, rather than information technology investments.

“Airplanes look awesome. Satellites look cool. And they are made in people’s districts and flown in people’s states and employ people,” Dr. Roper said. “Digital transformation will employ people, but it is harder to fit into the budget process.”

Air Force officials say it is also requiring them to build software development teams to write code and an investment arm to give the military early access to promising Silicon Valley technology.

“What we don’t have today, and what we have to have in the near future, is the infrastructure to be able to be a data company and a software company,” General Hinote said.

Pentagon officials say that while the military services are making investments individually to improve their intelligence collection and sharing, they have so far not done enough to improve how they work together. For the Air Force system to work, the other services will have to make the decision to connect their tanks and ships to it.

Ryan D. McCarthy, the Army secretary, said that over the next two years, the services are working to revise the way they work together — and are mulling fundamental changes to how they have to fight. Mr. McCarthy has observed demonstrations of the new Air Force system, but said it was too early to tell if the services would be successful at bringing their systems together.

“We have to change together or we are going to splinter,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters at the security forum.

General Goldfein said the Air Force was hoping to connect new planes very quickly, and has also begun experiments to link its aircraft with other ships, each time writing new apps to allow the computers and sensors on board each to talk to each other.

“Every four months we are connecting capabilities that are currently not connected,” he said. “We are seeing what we can do with that.”


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