How to avoid creating obsolete systems

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. – Innovation.

It’s a word that brings up mixed feelings depending on where a person works.

For the person at a headquarters, forecasting the future of the Air Force or one of its major commands, it speaks to vision and keeping a competitive advantage on ever-evolving adversaries – innovation is necessary to how we stay ahead of “them.”

For the Airman on the line or in the field, the word brings mixed feelings. Innovation can mean, “Here comes another good idea,” or it can mean a method of doing things easier and more efficiently – innovation can make warfighters more effective.

Regardless of how a person defines or views innovation, it’s a necessary part to how the Air Force operates.

So, how does the Air Force make innovation happen?

At bases like Barksdale, where Airmen built a new B-52 Initial Qualification Training syllabus and now use drones to assist in how they conducted civil engineering and safety inspections, Airmen receive recognition for their innovative ideas. The intent is to develop a culture of investment where Airmen at the unit level can focus on how to make the job better for themselves and future generations.

There’s a second look, where the Air Force incorporates non-Air Force world views and ideas, and ties them into our own long-term processes to avoid a situation where we trap ourselves into doing the same thing over again.

Dr. Rodney Miller, Air Force Global Strike Command chief scientist, recognized the latter example as one he could help the command engage in, specifically regarding the long-term way we approach our operations, research and development.

“We’re reaching out to those not for profits, academia and industry, every six months or so and we’ll have an innovation summit where we’ll target a particular topic that we care about for the future, for our mission and we’ll bring ideas in,” said Miller. “So the goal is to capture those ideas as a community and advocate them to the appropriate organizations that have the money to do investment in science and technology, and tell those organizations that these are topics we think if they were invested in would contribute to our future mission.”

Conferences tend to receive eye rolls and beg the question, “What’s actually coming out of this?” Dr. Miller and those joining in the discussion helped to answer that question by shaping the way ahead for the Air Force and providing recommendations to invested parties.

The forum is one where people with influence in the research and development fields that directly affect the Air Force’s current and future capabilities discuss how to better conduct operations both in what and how the services operates.

According to Miller, this is important for the Air Force, because “when they’re writing future requirements, they have a place to start that is not just what we did or what we’re doing now.”

This is an overall effort to keep systems, and the people employing them, ahead of advancing technologies and adversarial tactics, techniques and procedures.

This vision is not a revolutionary one.

“People forget, or are at least unaware, that before the hay day of Strategic Air Command, the Air Force relied on the heavy bomber to take out targets en masse - a terribly inefficient way of doing business by today's standards,” said Yancy Mailes, AFGSC command historian.

Looking back at the days of SAC, the Air Force identified needs, through SAC advocacy, which would shape how the Air Force and the Department of Defense approached national defense and planned strategies, and arguably how global policies shaped in relation to capabilities the service fielded.

Some of the more robust requirements identified were innovative at the time but seem standard operations to the Air Force now, including: air-to-air refueling, weather RADAR with predictive analysis, a secure means of communication between the president and nuclear forces, and advocacy for base housing and Air Force Specialty Code designators

“With the advent of things like GPS, jet engines, RADAR navigation, and air-to-air refueling we saw an extension of our range, increased accuracy of our bombers and ICBMS, and a constant shift in how we conducted operations,” Mailes said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today as an Air Force, or a nation, without the forward thinkers in Strategic Air Command who made these programs and systems happen. It has really been an evolution of innovation.”

Where does that leave us now?

It’s no secret that the Air Force is on the brink of a major modernization effort, both in terms of its bomber and ICBM platforms; however, according to Dr. Miller, without the right focus moving into the future, it’s safe to assume that we’ll only see more of the same, and we won’t leave room to adjust to an adaptable enemy of the future.

This particular look at our future focused on a current topic of interest for many – how the president ‘talks’ to nuclear forces.

As described by Dr. Miller, “we have taken great steps to secure that network, and I think to the level we can today it is as secure as we can make it.”

“However, technology is rapidly advancing,” he said. “We have to assume there will be threats to the future of our command and control capability and if we don’t take action in our next modernization cycle we’ll miss out on a great opportunity.”

Right now, the focus is to identify where we need to update our nuclear communication network, dubbed the Nuclear Command, Control and Communication (NC3) and National Leadership Command Capability (NLCC), to create a future Air Force and Department of Defense that isn’t overcome by rapidly advancing states and non-state actors that may intend us harm.

Prior to 2016, command, control and communication for nukes did not have a single entity ensuring the future progression of security for the network – that is, they had oversight, but independent of each other.

Now, with one headquarters for oversight (scheduled to standup in 2017), the NC3 and NLCC functions will have advocacy on a new level, with a single focal point.

At this point, everything discussed for NC3 and NLCC is predictive and recommended only. To ensure that these recommendations are not merely good ideas, Dr. Miller and his team plan to provide an out brief to AFGSC leadership to ensure future operations are not disregarded in lieu of short-term focuses.

“Left to our own devices, we’ll only develop and use technologies we are familiar with,” Miller said. He further stated that if we look at Moore’s Law – which describes evolution in information technology – as it relates to NC3, “we have to get ahead of [change] so that the systems we develop aren’t born obsolete.”

The members of the talks this week focused on the long-range picture of NC3, taking a flexible look at what the future holds for the system, but they plan to continue engaging in these types of discussions with other fields where long-term development will affect the way the Air Force conducts operations.