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THE CHIEF OF THE AIR STAFF’S AIR & SPACE POWER CONFERENCE 

The pursuit of Information Advantage is the theme of this year’s ASPC and will build on the multi-domain themes introduced at the 2019 Conference. 

Chris Pocock summarises the debate at ASPC 2019 as a prelude to ASPC 20

The RAF’s 2019 Air & Space Power Conference was attended by 550 people, including more than 100 Air Force commanders and senior officers. Many more participated remotely via a video livestream that was broadcast to more than 50 RAF stations and partner nations’ bases abroad. The theme was “Multi-Domain Operations for the Next Generation Air Force”, but the presentations and discussions ranged widely, from geopolitical and technological challenges in a changing world through the enhanced role of space to new imperatives in training and career development.

A Changing World

Various speakers referred to the ‘Grey Zone’ that lies below overt inter-state conflict. “State competition has returned and is taking on non-traditional forms such as malign influence in the information environment and ‘little green men’ acting as proxies,” said General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff, US Air Force. “We’ve moved beyond hot wars or cold wars to a new age of ‘sombre wars’ conducted in the shadows, on the dark web, in the business world,” said The Right Honourable Penny Mordaunt in her final keynote address as the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence. “Our most dangerous opponents are deliberately calibrating their activities to just below the threshold that might incur a direct military response,” said Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, RAF.

But how can that threshold be defined? “Is blinding a satellite the same as shooting down a spyplane?” asked Angus Lapsley, Director-General Strategy at the UK Ministry of Defence. Major General Tonje Skinnarland, chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, noted that her country had experienced frequent GPS jamming, and some cyber attacks, affecting both military and commercial air operations.

For Charles Kriel, a specialist on Disinformation and “Fake News”, even though malign actors can exacerbate public grievances through social media to such an extent that they threaten national stability, this must still be considered “below-the-threshold interference.” The UK’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) had developed ‘working definitions’ for sub-threshold persistent completion and hostile state activity short of armed conflict, said its Head of Doctrine, Air Commodore Phil Lester.

Dr Kori Schake, Deputy Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies IISS), noted that state authority is reducing as the control of information is dispersed. “There’s simply no substitute for winning your public, in a free society,” she added. To that end, the coalition fighting Daesh had conducted “the most transparent conflict in history,” said Air Commodore Justin Reuter, commander of the RAF’s 83rd Expeditionary Air Group in the Middle East. The coalition obeyed the Law of Armed Conflict and had strived for low collateral damage in a context where Daesh had no hesitation in using children as human shields, he continued.

The Required Response

In facing such situations, “our key strength is agility of thought and operations,” said Air Vice-Marshal Ian Gale, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, RAF. “We must have faster decision-making,” he added. Air Commodore Lester called for conceptual thinking to be more tied to requirements. Air Marshal Edward Stringer, Director General Joint Force Development & Defence Academy, agreed. He called for more engagement of RAF leaders across government, for instance by postings to the national security structure.

ACM Hillier noted that the need to pursue an “information advantage” had been a key reason for re-forming No 11 Group last year. It was “now exercising robust command and control…across the air, space, cyber and information domains.” Air Vice-Marshal Simon ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, RAF, said that information would be the lifeblood of the Next Generation Air Force. Ms Mordaunt announced another organizational change. Joint Forces Command (JFC) would be transformed into Strategic Command because “we must have integration across the five warfighting domains – air, land, sea, cyber and space.”

AVM Rochelle announced that the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) that he oversees, was creating an Air Integration Experimental Laboratory (AIX) with five partners from the defence industry.

Multi-Domain Operations

There was some debate about the extent to which combined operations across all five domains was already practised. Rear Admiral Matt Briers, Director of Carrier Strike in the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), said that it was “nothing new.” Air Vice-Marshal Ian Duguid, Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group, agreed, citing his own formation as well as the UK’s Permanent Joint HeadQuarters (PJHQ). But, he added, we need to embrace space, cyber and information.” Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said that NATO was adapting its command and control to include space, cyber and hybrid warfare.

Air Cdre Reuter said that true multi-domain operations had not yet been achieved. The anti-Daesh Coalition had achieved some dramatic effects, but against a relatively static enemy. Against a peer enemy, the 72-hour Air Tasking Order (ATO) system practiced in Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs), where command and control was still “essentially 1990s” vintage, would have to change. Simultaneous and synchronized cross-domain actions were required. A move from closed to open-loop architectures was need, said AVM Rochelle.

Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, described the country’s “One Defence’ review which had made the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff responsible for joint force integration, including multi-domain operations. “We’re working to become more coherent in space,” he added.

In a comprehensive review of the subject, Gen Goldfein said that air commanders are uniquely positioned to integrate domains and capabilities. “What I’m talking about is a fully networked force where each platform’s sensors and operators are connected. Not by point-to-point circuits, but in a mesh network that is highly resilient and self-healing,” he explained. “They’re part of a command and control system that automatically pairs the right sensors to the right targets…fusing data…and allocating weapons” he continued. He played a video that provided a practical scenario of multi-domain operations.

John Clark, Vice President for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,  and Unmanned Aerial Systems at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, said that such a construct would require artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomy. “We’ve had a lot of internal debates on centralized versus decentralized warfare – the latter is where we need to move forward,” he said.

But Air Vice-Marshal Chris Moore, the RAF’s Director Operations, Information System and Services, warned that “data is unloved but fundamental. We must cleanse it before giving it up for artificial intelligence or machine learning.”

Space

There was much discussion of the role of space. Major General Stephen Whiting, the USAF Deputy Joint Force Space Component Commander, said that it was a warfighting domain that required the maintenance of space superiority. AVM Gale noted that space was becoming increasingly contested, and AVM Rochelle said that more space situational awareness was needed.

ACM Hillier said that the RAF would re-form No 23 Squadron with responsibility for day-to-day space command and control. Mr Clark said that faster dissemination of space data was required. Gen Goldfein looked forward to space assets cueing air-breathing ISR assets. Ms Mordaunt envisaged live high-resolution video beamed from satellites “directly into the cockpit of our aircraft.” She announced a new £30 million investment by the MoD in a small satellite demonstrator, that would be the forerunner of a constellation. She said that the RAF has founded the transatlantic Team ARTEMIS with the US to research the wider uses of small satellites. Thomas Wilson, Vice President Innovation Systems, Northrop Grumman, said future satellites must be upgradeable, because it would become possible to access them in space.

Of course, space has long been vital for military communications, but more than one speaker called for more discipline so that precious bandwidth was not wasted. AM Hupfeld said that Defence was paying a premium, and the satellite industry should make bandwidth more affordable.

New Equipment

Various RAF speakers looked forward to the arrival of the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft, as well as more F-35s. Major General Skinnarland, noted that the Royal Norwegian Air Force is also acquiring P-8s, and that co-operation with the RAF on that aircraft was developing.

There was some discussion of the UK’s Tempest project to produce a fifth-generation combat aircraft, which was already employing 1,000 people, according to ACM Hillier. He said that a project named the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) to develop an ummanned flying wingman for the Typhoon, F-35 and Tempest, had advanced to the feasibility stage. He announced a new co-operation with BAE Systems, Reaction Engines and Rolls-Royce to design and test hypersonic propulsion systems over the next two years.

ACM Hillier also said that results so far from the RCO’s swarming drones project were “pretty impressive.” He announced the re-formation of No 216 Squadron “to bring this capability quickly to the frontline.”

AVM Rochelle described some other RCO projects, including a co-operation with Chemring to robotically manufacture self-defence flares for aircraft; digital, remotely-operated air traffic control towers; and the BriteCloud programme to produce expendable active decoys for aircraft. Jason Cowell, Chief Technology Officer, Electronic Warfare for Leonardo, provided more details on BriteCloud, including new ‘spiral developments.’ The company was also co-operating with MBDA to develop an electronic countermeasures version of the SPEAR missile.

Simon Jewell, Strategy Director for BAE Systems Air, agreed that ‘incrementalism’ was the way forward, with new equipment or systems designed for subsequent ‘phased drops’ of new capability. Mr Cowell noted that commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS) could certainly be leveraged, but contractors should “not add (bespoke) layers to it, since technology moves quickly.” In similar vein, Mr Clark said that managers must tell engineering teams to avoid the temptation to keep adding more features.

Human Resources

One session was devoted to “Developing Our People”, but this was also a recurring theme of the conference. ACM Hillier described the RAF’s People Transformation Programme that had “widened our recruiting aperture…increased the upper age limit for joining to as high as 48…developed an innovative Rejoiners scheme…and developed a whole range of flexible employment and engagement options.”

“We’re also getting better at recognizing where talent lies in our organization – it’s everywhere. Not just at the top,” ACM Hillier continued. As testament to that, Corporal Dan Beagley described his 17-year career in the service which had led to his current position of considerable responsibility as a console supervisor in the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at RAF Fylingdales. He said that empowerment, development and ownership were all keys to retaining talented NCOs in the service.

“Empowerment is so important; we must cascade down,” agreed Air Marshal Andrew Turner, Deputy Commander Capability and Air Member for Personnel, RAF. He said that the size of the service had reduced, but capability had not. Different employment fields should be created, such as cyber and multi-domain command and control. Gen Goldfein said that the USAF had already created a new career field for that specialty. “All of our airmen must have a working knowledge of naval assets…(and) land component doctrine,” he continued. AM Turner said that all new RAF entrants were now getting lectures on cyber and space.

More than one speaker called for more tolerance of risk-taking, with failure treated as an opportunity to learn. ACM Sir Brian Burridge, RAF (Retd), said that he had learned more about risk appetite after he left the service and joined industry. He offered a retrospective on “what I wish I had known” as he progressed through a distinguished service career. The Higher Command and Staff Course offered some help, but he urged officers to “take control of your own development. Be curious. Think less about the ‘positional power’ conferred by rank, and more about the ‘convening power’ that forges consensus.”

In closing remarks, Air Marshal Gerry Mayhew said that the RAF’s motto “Per Ardua Ad Astra” was more relevant than ever before. He restated some of the conference themes: partnerships, innovation and people. He also said how important is was that so many had been able to follow the conference remotely, before thanking the small team from the RAF Centre for Air and Space Power Studies based at Shrivenham and the Air and Space Power Association, for their roles in making the event possible.

You can find the speaker presentations here:

https://www.airpower.org.uk/air-space-power-conference-2019/programme/

Chris Pocock has been an aerospace journalist for over 30 years, and now also offers commentaries on the industry and the armed forces.

Air & Space Power Conference  2020

The two-day Conference is scheduled for 15-16 July 20 and will focus on how the RAF, together with international air and space power chiefs, sister services and security establishments establish and maintain information advantage in contested environments across all five operational domains – air, space, land, sea and cyber.  The Conference will explore technology, concepts and the ever-critical but changing human element.

For details and to book your place visit:

Air & Space Power Conference 2020