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Fighter jets, stealth bombers, attack drones and air-traveling missiles all need to “operate at speed” in a fast-changing great power conflict era. What that means is that “sensor to shooter” time (how fast data can go from a sensor to a war-fighter) needs to be drastically sped up. Without that speed, warfighters won’t be able to react as quickly to threats and it will be harder to win.

When faced with fast, multi-frequency, long-range precision fire from enemy air defenses, air attackers simply must “operate at speed,” according to U.S. Air Forces, Europe Commander General Jeffrey Harrigian, who used the phrase in a discussion with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

Harrigian, who is also now the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Africa, ran much of the air campaign during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS; he offered a first-hand war perspective in a conversation with retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute.

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The opportunity to operate with air supremacy in uncontested environments is, essentially, over, as joint forces prepare for warfare in high-threat areas against advanced enemy forces, sophisticated air defenses and rival fifth-generation stealth fighters. U.S. forces, of course, enjoyed overwhelming air superiority during the years of counterinsurgency in Iran and Afghanistan, a circumstance enabling most key combat decisions to travel all the way up the echelon into an “air operations center.” Now, warfighters and commanders themselves operating at the edge of combat will need to be empowered to make more decisions independently for a simple reason: the speed of attack.

File photo - A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.

File photo – A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.
(REUTERS/Toby Melville)

“Years of operating in uncontested environments provided an opportunity to have some time to make decisions and bring them back into a command center. When troops are in contact and you start targeting in a dynamic environment, you don’t want to over centralize. Let your commanders operate, and trust the guys at the tip of the spear,” Harrigian said.

While pilots and Commanders have of course always had the ability to respond as needed under enemy fire or in intense combat situations, newer threats and advanced, long-range sensor technology will require forward-attackers themselves to operate with even more autonomy.

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Advanced command and control technologies, including AI applications and sensor networking are also expected to greatly expedite this kind of tactical approach, as air fighters and commanders on the ground are likely to have a more immediate, informed sense of specific circumstances. Should an enemy fifth-generation fighter or long-range air-attack be incoming, pilots and commanders simply will not have time for a full complement of high-echelon commanders to make a decision regarding counterattack. These combat Tactics, Techniques and Procedures provide key parts of the conceptual inspiration for the Pentagon’s emerging Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program.

The tactical concept, Harrigian explained, is to “trust the guys at the tip of the spear who understand commanders’ intent.”

“As commanders, we need to do a better job of how we provide intent to support decisions in flight. At the end of the day you need to go from sensor to shooter as quickly as possible,” he added.

During the course of his discussion with Harrigian, Deptula asked about how his experience as an Air Commander fighting against Russian-built air defenses has influenced his tactical thinking. Harrigian specifically cited Russian weapons as an area of particular concern.

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“We don’t want to train every three months. We need muscle memory fighting against air defenses,” he said.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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What if AI-enabled algorithms could process sensor data for Army infantry in a matter of seconds, alerting them of targets, enemy movements and relevant moments from drone feeds? Perhaps computer programs could perform real-time analytics on how combat variables compare with prior instances, giving infantry engaged in a firefight a quick range of ideal options for attack? What if a computer program can instantly offer a method of approach that is best for a specific scenario, upon analyzing a wide array of specific quantifiable circumstances?

AI-empowered programs are increasingly progressing with applications able to analyze terrain, weather, sensor data regarding enemy movements, targeting options and attack maneuvers by comparing them against a vast database to make instant calculations.

Operating within the strategic context of viewing a “soldier as a system,” the Army is now working with industry to engineer a data-integrated heads-up display to present organized combat information to soldiers in near real-time.

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“We have created algorithms that can recognize a human in a video feed and recognize the action they are taking. For example, we could identify someone who is raising a weapon, or determine whether someone is planting an IED or merely digging a hole,” Joe Dillon, vice president of Soldier Solutions, Booz Allen Hamilton, told Warrior Maven.

A US soldier from 2-12 Infantry Regiment out of Colorado Springs fires a machine gun at insurgent positions during a firefight on June 22, 2012 in the Pech Valley, Afghanistan - file photo.

A US soldier from 2-12 Infantry Regiment out of Colorado Springs fires a machine gun at insurgent positions during a firefight on June 22, 2012 in the Pech Valley, Afghanistan – file photo.
(Photo by John Cantlie/Getty Images)

The technical challenge, Dillon explained, is to generate “real-time analytics by pushing out only what the soldier needs.”

Much of the success of an initiative such as this hinges upon engineering the right technical infrastructure sufficient to “synergize,” integrate and organize data in a networked fashion. Night vision, thermal sights, radios, soldier-worn sensors and even integrated computers can all rely upon wireless connectivity in combat, presenting an immediate need to organize, analyze and distill an otherwise disparate array of incoming information.

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“There is no microgrid on a soldier. Everything needs to be networked together. We are looking for a synergistic effect. Our job is to build a truly open architecture not biased toward a particular type of hardware,” Dillon said.

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This type of data “fusion” already exists to varying degrees in platforms such as the F-35, which uses advanced computer automation to organize information from otherwise separated sensors into a single operating picture for pilots. Navigational specifics, information from camera sensors, targeting data, altitude and speed information, and threat specifics are all organized automatically for pilots to see as a way to quickly inform pilot decision making.

Engineering this kind of technical apparatus for a single, integrated large platform like an F-35 may prove less difficult than networking data from individual dismounted soldiers operating with an entire sphere of otherwise separate technologies and sensors. This is one reason why the Army and industry are looking to leverage the best available new technologies to bring soldier attack possibilities to a new level of effectiveness.

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