With a significant shortfall in spending for new power projection platforms, the U.S. faces a core challenge of how to most effectively build forces for the years ahead. At the heart of this opportunity will be to shape joint con-ops for the US Air Force and Navy and to ensure more effective networking among Air Force and Naval systems as well as to shape more effective collaborative C4ISR systems with allies.
At the heart of this opportunity is to leverage new programs in play to ensure that they work effectively together. The cancellation of the future combat system means that the original concept surrounding the program whereby the network would enable the platforms will shift to ensuring that the ground network works effectively with the air systems in play. The air-ground revolution, which was launched by the Iraq invasion, has continued with the surge and with the transfer of forces to Afghanistan. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to shape ground force options and decision and links like the Rover video system which has connected manned aircraft to ground decision-makers has rapidly expanded in the Iraq and Afghan operations.
Now the question is why not take the termination of FCS to shape an opportunity for greater collaboration between the air and ground systems. This will be especially significant as the F-35 enters into service. The F-35 is a “flying combat system” which will significantly enhance the capabilities of the air and ground forces to work together in shaping collaborative con-ops and to share decision-making. Leveraging this new platform as the U.S. reshapes connectivity between the air and ground systems is a significant opportunity for innovation and change.
The USMC can serve as an important catalyst to shape the new relationship between USN and US Air Force assets and the US Army. The USMC adopted Shadow as its common UAV with the Army. In so doing, the USMC and Army have worked through a number of common solutions to the use of data coming from the Shadow to support ground operations. This working relationship can be expanded to shape an important relationship between the USMC F-35 and the US Army. And because the systems on the USMC’s F-35 are virtually identical to those of the USN and US Air Force, an important template would be put in place to re-shape air-ground connectivity as the US Army modernizes and the F-35 is introduced as the common air element across three services.
There are already some elements for shaping such commonality in the connectivity revolution, which needs to take place in order to reshape joint operations. For example, DARPA has sponsored a Rockwell Collins program called Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) which can be used now to more effectively integrate air and ground operations. TTNT [.mov format] is a capable waveform built around an “open system approach.” The technology enables networking between airborne platforms, weapons, and ground forces, and as an internet protocol or IP system operates in ways similar to what is available commercially with systems like Blackberry or iPhone. But unlike such commercial systems, TTNT provides a highly secure structure and long range of operation up to 300 miles for line of sight operations and connections to beyond line of sight operations. In addition, the system is scalable and survivable complimenting existing legacy communications systems.
Navy program officials associated with the Unmanned Combat Air System have recently underscored the cost savings associated with an open architecture system such as TTNT. These officials underscored the significant advantages to having a scalable system like TTNT. As reported by Defense Daily, Glen Colby, the IPT leader for the system, commented: “if you design for scalability…then you pull the old one out, put the new one in, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s the same exact model or not because the design for scalability ensures that you can plug the new one in and you get better capability at less cost. ßIf you don’t design for scalability and you are asking this vendor to give you the exact same model, it’s very costly, because in the commercial world nobody builds [that part] anymore. It’s very important to understand what scalability is because inherent scalability allows you to design in flexibility. In fact, scalability is one of the things that allows you to rapidly update your system.”
And connecting some of the new air assets will provide significant gains in strategic capability as well. Notably, the Osprey with a range and speed which allows ground forces to operate over an entire theater of operation such as Iraq can provide a key piece of the puzzle in making unmanned aerial vehicles a much more effective instrument. Currently, if a UAV discovers a target of interest, which requires prosecution by ground forces and is not appropriate for an air strike, by the time current rotorcraft get the target it is almost certainly gone. And indeed one Osprey is the operational equivalent of three CH-46s and one-to two forward operating bases. With systems that connect the Osprey effectively with UAVs, the ability of the USMC, Special Forces and the US Army to operate rapidly against targets discovered by the UAV would be significantly enhanced.
Another significant area where connectivity creates strategic capability revolves around the Aegis and the F-35. Among the most important international programs for the USN in the 21st century are Aegis and F-35. Efforts to enhance their integration are a natural path to enhance U.S. global coalitions. Many Aegis partners are current or prospective F-35 participants; finding ways to link the two will be an important enhancer for partners. For example, given Norwegian concerns about Northern European energy security, including the Arctic, there is interest in enhanced Link 16 connectivity between Aegis systems and the F-35.
To the extent to which allies work integration of F-35 with Aegis, they create extended “littoral bubbles” into which the USN and USAF can plug their systems to, in turn, extend the capabilities of the allied “littoral bubbles.”
The role of connecting the F-35 and the Aegis is of increasing significance as the US and its allies move forward into the 21st century. The F-35 and the Aegis are the most significant multi-mission and coalition friendly assets to be deployed in the early part of the 21st century. Connecting these assets will be central to the Administration’s planning for more collaborative concepts of operations between the air and sea forces. Intersecting US and allied F-35 and Aegis fleets will be central in a period of declining numbers of platforms for the US and its allies.
There is another key feature of these platforms, which create new options and opportunities for the US decision makers. Historically, when one wanted to signal intentions to adversaries one would sequentially deploy assets of increasing capability. With the collaborative possibilities of a F-35 and aegis fleet, US decision makers need to determine whether to deploy or not. The deployed force can operate to do security missions, defensive missions, and offensive missions without signaling their intensions. These combined assets can operate throughout the spectrum of options and capabilities. This will be a new capability available to President Obama and his successors. But it only works if you have effectively connected the assets.
In short, in an environment of financial scarcity directing confronting the connectivity challenge is central to ensure that the U.S. and its allies will indeed deploy significant capability in the future. Otherwise, as the platform shredding process generated by financial stringencies unfolds, we will simply have fewer and fewer tools to deal with our global military and security challenges.
A version of this post written by Robbin Laird was published on November 2, 2009 in Defense News.
***Posted November 8th, 2009