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AFA Conference highlights an Air Force in transition

The Government Satellite Report staff had the opportunity to attend last week’s Air Force Association Air Space and Cyber Conference. As in years past, the event was well attended by senior leaders from the Air Force, as well as a large number of representatives and leaders from private industry. Unlike past years, there was an overarching theme and feeling that the Air Force is in a time of transition.

What is the Air Force transitioning from? Over the course of the previous decade or two, the entire Department of Defense has been geared towards a fight against adversaries around the world that weren’t as technologically advanced or sophisticated as our military. That’s no longer the case.

According to Deputy Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, “We live in an era of great power competition. That’s a muscle we haven’t used in a while. In contrast, our great power adversaries have studied our way of war for thirty years and have built systems and doctrine to thwart it.”

Today’s threats are from increasingly sophisticated, near-peer adversaries that are capable of challenging the United States military in practically every domain. These adversaries have historically proven capable of challenging our country’s superiority in the traditional warfighting domains of air, land and sea. More recently, they’ve proven capable of sophisticated attacks in cyberspace, and they’ve turned space from a benign environment into a warfighting domain.

This sentiment was reflected in comments by Gen. John Raymond, the Commander of the Air Force Space Command, when he said, “There’s great alignment in our nation today that space is a warfighting domain, just like air, land and sea…and that’s really the focus of Air Force Space Command today…[we’re] at a strategic inflection point and that’s a point where we used to operate in a benign domain, but today we’re operating in a contested domain.”

Innovate or fall behind
This new, more sophisticated threat has created new pressures on the Air Force, which now finds itself in need of developing unified and comprehensive deterrents and responses to aggression across all domains. What’s more, the Air Force finds itself in a position where it must innovate and evolve at the same pace – if not faster – than adversaries that are investing heavily into technology and military capabilities.

It was this topic of innovation that dominated many of the panel discussions and side sessions at this year’s conference. It was also one of the topics that dominated the keynote Q&A session and discussion with the AFA’s extremely impressive guest – billionaire Amazon and Blue Origin Founder, Jeff Bezos.

Innovation was just one of the topics that was repeated throughout the conference. Another involved funding and investment.

A narrow opening in the funding window
Many of the week’s side sessions and panel discussions ended with time for a Q&A. During these Q&A sessions, the Air Force personnel and industry representatives in attendance were given the opportunity to submit questions. Repeatedly, those questions involved investment in Air Force bases and infrastructure.

Based on the questions posed to senior Air Force leaders – and their subsequent answers – it’s apparent that Air Force bases and infrastructure are in need of long-awaited repairs and renovations. It also became apparent that investment in those areas is forthcoming.

According to Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Stephen Wilson, “[Our team has] mapped out our bases and infrastructure and we can tell you where areas we need improvements are down to every building on every installation across the Air Force. Then we’ve got to stop just looking at it and doing something about it, so we’ve prioritized the investment in our infrastructure…and boosted the funding considerably this past year and made it priority that we’ll fundamentally fund our base infrastructure…”

The timing for this strategic investment works out. There is an open window of increased funding available to the military thanks in large part to the current administration’s desire to recapitalize and rejuvenate America’s military. However, even with the window open, there’s only so many things that fit through it before it closes.

Strict program budgets are forcing the Air Force to make difficult decisions and prioritize initiatives and acquisitions, while still working to effectively build a combat-ready force capable of defending the nation against an increasingly sophisticated threat.

To accomplish this, many of the senior leaders and speakers at the conference proposed turning to partners – especially industry partners.

An eye on industry
If both funding and innovation are problems facing the Air Force, they have an ally in private industry – both as a means of driving innovation and cutting costs.

Private companies are constantly challenging their employees and working to foster a culture that encourages innovation in an attempt to find better, more efficient ways to accomplish tasks and – subsequently – generate more and higher profits. They foster these innovative environments by giving employees the freedom to create, the opportunities to share ideas with upper management and the freedom to fail – and fail quickly – with little fear of repercussion.

Needless to say, there are significant cultural shifts and changes that are needed within the military to foster a similar approach to innovation. To the credit of the Air Force and other military branches, current leadership appears poised and prepared to make some of the necessary changes to foster innovation, but it may not come quickly and easily.

In the meantime, many speakers at the AFA Conference discussed how the military can benefit from the innovation that’s happening in private industry by learning from it, ripping it off and purchasing it.

Many of the challenges facing the Air Force are similar or in line with the challenges facing certain industries. For example, commercial airlines and delivery companies face many of the same challenges keeping their fleets maintained and operational. Many large, global retailers, including Amazon, face similar logistical challenges as branches of the military.

By comparing and benchmarking the military’s solutions and operations to those in use in the private industry, innovative techniques and processes can be assessed and – if proven more effective – be implemented to make the Air Force more efficient.

Then, there’s the idea of purchasing commercial solutions as an alternative to buying or building bespoke, purpose-built solutions for the military. This is an alternative that can help the military solve both of the major challenges outlined at the AFA Conference – innovation and budget constraints.

Deputy Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, urged listeners to, “…embrace enterprise solutions and speed,” while claiming that, “Many of the…systems that industry has deployed over the past decade are ripe for our adoption. It’s what I call R&D – rip off and deploy. A custom, federated approach is a trap.”

This sentiment was shared by Jeff Bezos, who accurately stated that, “It’s so important for the DoD and the Air Force, when they can, to use commercial solutions.” That’s because custom built solutions often require more time, forcing the military to wait for the benefits and capabilities they will deliver. Custom-built solutions also tend to cost more, and can stifle innovation because they’re built to the specifications of groups or individuals who may not know all that’s possible or available.

This was also explained by Jeff Bezos when he said, “When the requirements [for custom solutions] are written, they’re not written taking [commercially available solutions] into account. So, when they get something, they’re getting something custom built instead of something that is a commercial system that may not have met those requirements, but may have serviced the military in a better way for what was required.”

The benefits of utilizing commercial solutions over custom built solutions are even more apparent in space.

Commercial space for innovation, cost savings and defense
The commercial space industry has seen a massive wave of innovation and advancement in the past three to five years. From developments in lower latency, higher bandwidth satellite constellations to advancements in less expensive commercial space flight operations, to the announcement of in-orbit servicing and refueling programs, commercial companies are opening the door to a level of space capability that was previously only dreamt of.

It’s now on the Air Force and broader military to begin embracing these commercial solutions to their benefit. As General Raymond stated, “We’re working to strengthen the relationships with industry. It’s a bad word to use in the space business, but there’s an explosion of things happening in the space industry. We want to capitalize on that.”

Innovation aside, commercial capabilities and solutions can also be a less expensive option for the military. Utilizing hosted payloads – placing military payloads on commercial spacecraft – is just one of many ways the Air Force could take advantage of industry services to not only save money, but also get access to new space capabilities more rapidly. Also, utilizing managed satellite services from industry partners is a more cost-effective way to get satellite communications capabilities, in contrast to building and launching satellites, and purchasing necessary ground infrastructure.

Then there’s the issue of protecting military satellite capabilities. As we’ve established, space is now a warfighting domain. With many military satellite constellations built for what was a benign environment, they’re simply unprepared to defend themselves. As General Raymond said, “The constellations that we have on orbit today aren’t all that defensible. They’ve been described by some as the slow kids in gym class that can’t run that fast.”

This is another area where commercial satellite can pay dividends for the military. By utilizing commercial satellites, the Air Force and the rest of the DoD can effectively distribute their satellite communications and satellite capabilities across multiple constellations, making them harder to target by our adversaries. Also, with commercial operators constantly innovating, the military would gain access to new waveforms and satellite technologies that are inherently harder to jam.

This year’s AFA Air, Space and Cyber Conference painted a very interesting picture of an Air Force in transition and with significant challenges. Today’s Air Force needs to retool and reinvest to prepare for a near-peer adversary with capabilities unlike any adversary that we’ve faced in the past two decades. The only way that the Air Force can make the changes it needs to make, improve its infrastructure and increase its readiness is with innovation. Leaning on industry partners – especially those in the commercial space industry – is one of the more surefire ways that the Air Force can accomplish its goals and be best prepared to accomplish its mission.

Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss.

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