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Air Force Leading Way To 3rd Offset: Bob Work

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Robert Work

Robert Work

NATIONAL HARBOR: The Pentagon’s biggest advocate of artificial intelligence just spoke to the Air Force Association for over an hour — and he didn’t mention drones. When Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work talks about autonomy, he’s much less interested in killer robots than in command and control.

The Air Force led the way on C2 by developing the world’s first “offensive battle network” in time to eviscerate the Iraqi military in 1991, Work said. Today, he said, with experiments like the new JICSPOC command center for space operations and “multi-domain command and control,” it’s leading the way again as part of the Pentagon’s high-tech Third Offset Strategy.

“Offset strategies are not about technology per se, so it drives me crazy when people say, ‘oh, the Third Offset is AI and autonomy,’” Work thundered. “Wrong!” Offset is about “operational and organizational constructs,” he said, which are “enabled” by new technology but not simply a matter of tech.

“The first operational organizational construct of the Third Offset is the JICSPOC, the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center,” said Work. “It is designed to perform battle management and command and control of a space constellation (i.e. satellites) under threat of attack.” (Work detailed the importance of JICSPOC in an exclusive interview with us in October last year).

The Strategic Command-led JICSPOC is not the only cutting-edge concept in which Work sees great potential, he said. The Army has its concept of “multi-domain battle,” which seeks to break down service barriers by, for example, land-based missiles sinking enemy ships at sea and submarines launching cyber attacks. The Navy has Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare, which aims to integrate cyber, jamming, spoofing, and careful manipulation of electronic signals to blind and baffle enemies. The difference is that JICSPOC already physically exists.

Combined Air & Space Operations Center (CAOC)

Combined Air & Space Operations Center (CAOC)

Work also endorsed the Air Force effort to evolve their current Combined Air Operations Center model for running an air war into a “multi-domain CAOC” integrating air, space, cyber, land, and sea.

The Air Force already “naturally” thinks of the air, space, and cyberspace as parts of the same battlespace, Work said, so the service can help lead the exploration of multi-domain concepts. Speaking after Work, Air Force Materiel Command head Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski told reporters “multi-domain command and control” would be the service’s signature contribution to the Third Offset Strategy. And at an earlier panel, Air Force Cyber commander Maj. Gen. Christopher Weggeman held up the current campaign against the so-called Islamic State as an example of multi-domain warfare, with traditional airstrikes joined by what Work has called “cyber bombs.”

For the future, Work said, “we need Air Force thinkers to expand the idea of a CAOC and think in terms of building a joint learning C3I (Command, Control, Communications, & Intelligence) network that can mesh operations across domains, across functions, with allies, and sometimes across regions.” The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, has warned current command structures are inadequate to handle spreading but amorphous transnational threats.

Artificial intelligence comes into play to sort through the masses of data moving over these command-and-control networks, find patterns, and advise the humans on threats and options. In some important niches, such as cybersecurity and electronic warfare, the computers may take action on their own when a virus or hostile signal is moving too fast for humans to react. But even so, the role of AI will start “narrow” and evolve “gradually,” Work said.

A lot of people worry about the Terminator and they worry about SkyNet,” Work said. “Look, what this is going to be is a gradual implementation of narrow AI throughout the battle network” — at least “initially.” Over time, Work said, small experiments may add up to revolutionary change as we figure out how to put the pieces together.

“Who gets the technology to field faster doesn’t matter,” Work said. “It only will matter if we can employ it to tactical and operational effect.” All the major powers of the late 19th century had railroads, telegraphs, and rifles, he said, and all the powers of the 1930s had tanks, planes, and radios, but it was Prussia in 1864 and Germany in 1939 that first figured out revolutionary ways to put technologies together.

Victory, said Work, goes to “the person who can put them together in operational and organizational constructs, and then train the force and exercise the force to be ready to employ them — and we’ve got a damn big advantage in that.” A strong professional military with robust institutions can seize opportunities better than its rivals, even if they all start with the same technologies.

The Army's NERO program tested a converted Navy jammer on a Grey Eagle drone, the Army version of the Predator.

The Army’s NERO program tested a converted Navy jammer on a Grey Eagle drone, the Army version of the Predator.

Budget Wars over Electronic Warfare

Getting artificial intelligence on the network is a long-term goal. In the near term, we need to protect the radio transmissions that carry data over wireless networks. Work launched the Electronic Warfare Executive Committee in March 2015 ago to address shortfalls in EW, the art and science of detecting, spoofing, and jamming radio and radar signals. Have things gotten better? “No, not yet,” Work said bluntly.

Electronic warfare, like cyber, space, and nuclear weapons, is hard to manage because it crosses so many domains and jurisdictions inside the Defense Department, said Work. “As a result All of the investment has been decentralized,” he said. The first task for the nascent EW EXCOM has been to get “an enterprise-wide” perspective on the problem, he said.

“In the 18 months that we have had the EXCOM and now the CIMB, the Cyber Investment Management Board, we now at least have a clear understanding of where we’re headed,” Work said.  “The EXCOM is the first step: Tell us how we’re employing our resources. Then we’ll ask the next step: How should we change the way we are doing this?”

“It’s going to make the services a little uncomfortable,” Work warned, because they’re not used to central Defense Department direction of their EW investments. In high-level meetings like the DMAGS (Deputy’s Management Action Group), he said, this is when “things get sporty.”

What do you think?