This week the Air Force held one of its periodic meetings of four-star officers to discuss high-priority challenges facing the service. One of the agenda items was figuring out how to integrate and exploit the diverse array of intelligence that its various sensor systems are collecting. In addition to traditional collection systems such as orbital photo-reconnaissance satellites and airborne eavesdropping planes, the service is being inundated with information from non-traditional sources, including an abundance of open-source data. Although it is far ahead of the other services in developing a system for analyzing and disseminating all this intelligence, it needs a better network and communications architecture.
Outsiders who lack security clearances seldom get a complete picture of just how diverse the Air Force’s collection capabilities are. Occasionally an RQ-170 reconnaissance drone will crash in Iran or problems with a missile-warning satellite will surface, but much of what makes the Air Force world-class at collecting and analyzing intelligence remains in the black world. There are whole constellations of billion-dollar satellites eavesdropping on enemies and collecting imagery that the government doesn’t even admit exist.
Over time, the Air Force has learned how to exploit these traditional, technical sources of intelligence to maximum effect. For instance, the ground segment of the Space Based Infrared System became operational a decade ago, and greatly enhanced the value of non-imaging infrared collections from overhead systems even before next-generation missile-warning satellites were lofted into orbit. But the service now has 250 high-end (Tier Two and Tier Three) unmanned aerial systems feeding into the system, and stealthy tactical aircraft such as the F-22 with extraordinary capacity to penetrate enemy airspace and collect useful information. Finding methods for fusing and interpreting all this information in a timely fashion is a big challenge.
So the Air Force is embarking on an effort to define the architecture for a network that can handle all this diversity. It is a crucial undertaking that deserves the support of whoever occupies the White House over the next four years. Barely a week passes in which the President’s understanding of overseas threats and events is not informed by information provided using systems the Air Force operates. No other organization in the world, military or civilian, is as well equipped to collect the intelligence that political and military leaders need.
However, while the Air Force is pursuing new frontiers in the collection and analysis of intelligence, it needs to make sure it has secured its base in traditional collection platforms. The Lexington Institute today is releasing a report on what we believe is the only fiscally-viable approach to recapitalizing the Air Force’s aging fleet of Boeing 707-based electronic aircraft. Many of these planes are approaching 50 years of age. They are essential to the safety and success of the joint force, but they are living on borrowed time and once serious metal fatigue or corrosion problems set in, the fleet is likely to decline fast.
The only plausible solution to this problem in the current fiscal environment is to adapt commercial jetliners for the mission, and the Boeing 737 is the logical candidate. It is the most widely used jetliner in the world with 10,000 ordered, which means it is cheap to build and cheap to operate, relying on a global maintenance network to keep the planes in a high state of readiness. Other military services and nations have already adapted the 737 to missions mimicking the roles of Air Force radar planes, defraying the engineering costs the Air Force would incur if it followed the same path. Even as it pursues a better network for its intelligence capabilities, the Air Force needs to be thinking about how it can use commercial transports to replace its aging airborne collection systems.
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