Accelerating air and space power

By Tim Robinson

Hypersonics, space and multi-domain operations were some of the biggest news from this year’s Royal Air Force Chief of the Air Staff’s Air and Space Power Conference (ASPC) held on 17-18 July in London.

If last year’s RAF Air Power Conference saw 100 years of the Royal Air Force as a major theme, this year’s event shifted into high gear – and was firmly focused on future threats, operations, technology and personnel. The two days of the conference attracted over 550 delegates, including 46 heads of air forces – including the USAF Chief of Staff – who told press at the event: “This is probably the best forum where I get access to fellow air chiefs, industry and thinktanks.” Organised by the Air and Space Power Association, the conference, too, has changed its name this year – adding ‘Space’ into its title – a tweak that will become obvious later in this report.

The two days of the event saw delegates hear from high-level speakers, including the then Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt MP and then Chief of the Air Staff, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier, along with NATO Military Chairman ACM Sir Stuart Peach, USAF Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein, as well as Royal Australian Air Force Chief of Air Force AM Mel Hupfeld and Chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force Maj-Gen Tonje Skinnarland to name a few. The packed event featured a range of presentations from the strategic context, to front-line operations, to personnel with speakers from MoD, coalition partners, industry and academia.

With a subtitle of ‘Multi-Domain Operations for the Next Generation Air Force’ the conference was a timely one, as the UK and its partners face hybrid threats, ‘sub-threshold’ conflict, rapidly changing technology and the erosion of the West’s traditional qualitative advantage in military power. While it is impossible to cover the content of the entire conference – let’s take a look at the highlights and biggest news.

Orbital Manoeuvres in the Dark?

A RAF test pilot is set to fly with Virgin Orbit – giving the service early insight into rapid response space access operations. (Virgin Orbit)

Though the UK’s Defence Space Strategy still remains in a Whitehall black hole after being commissioned by previous Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson MP, the 2019 ASPC saw another Defence Minister, Penny Mordaunt MP, announce a swathe of significant UK defence space news.

A new UK/US project Team Artemis (confusingly, also the name of NASA’s new human Moon mission) will see a £30m MoD commitment for a LEO small satellite constellation – aimed at piping satellite imagery directly into aircraft cockpits. A MoU for Team Artemis, whose industry partners comprise Airbus CIS, Raytheon UK, SSTL and Virgin Orbit, was signed the same week at the Royal International Air Tattoo. This project, to develop a sovereign UK satellite imagery capability, comes hard on the heels of the Carbonite-2 satellite demonstrator – built by SSTL, which was fast-tracked by the RAF’s in-house ‘skunk works’ Rapid Capability Office (RCO).

In support of this, Mordaunt also announced that a RAF test pilot would be seconded to horizontal air-launch company Virgin Orbit – as a way of building up experience and knowledge in this new field of rapid access space launches. Virgin Orbit, which recently completed the first drop test of its LauncherOne rocket from its Boeing 747 mothership, has signed an agreement to operate from Cornwall Spaceport.

All these pieces coming together means that the MoD will be able to benefit from a sovereign rapid-response space launch capability and sees the RAF develop further towards a full-spectrum air and space force. Said Mordaunt: “One day I want to see RAF pilots earn their space wings and fly beyond the stratosphere.”

Additionally, Mordaunt revealed that the UK is set to become the first partner in the US-led Operation Olympic Defender – an international coalition aimed at strengthening deterrence against hostile actors and threats in space. Eight UK personnel are to be seconded to the US Combined Space Operations Centre (CSOC) in Vandenberg AFB, California.

Meanwhile, RAF Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Stephen Hillier also announced that 23 Squadron, previously flying the Sentry AEW1 until 2009, will reform to become the RAF’s first dedicated ‘space squadron’ with a focus on space command and control. ‘Space wings’, too, would be awarded for the first time by the RAF.

Space as a battleground

Is a hostile satellite attempting to move into the orbital equivalent of your vulnerable ‘six o’clock’? 

In his presentation, the RAF’s Chief of Staff Capability, AVM Simon ‘Rocky’ Rochelle, also highlighted space as key a domain for the RAF. He noted that the threats to critical space assets ranged from attacks on ground infrastructure, to cyber, to kinetic strikes on friendly satellites. Holding ‘dogfight’ briefing sticks with satellites instead of fighters aloft as a visual aid, Rochelle told the air power audience that they “have to stop thinking about [space] as just collection.” Traditional air force fighter pilot arguments about turn rates, climb performance and missile engagement zones will need a new generation of future ‘starfighter’ professionals who understand the basics of ‘space power’ – such as orbital decay, DeltaV and power ratings of satellites. Is, for example, a sudden change in an orbital plane of an unfriendly nation’s satellite, an error, failure or some sort of precursor to move it into proximity of a friendly satellite to destroy it, disable it or disrupt communications?

Given these emerging and fast-growing threats to satellites, should today’s militaries plan on operating without any space support – and expect to revert to maps and compasses for future wars? Maj Gen Stephen Whiting, Commander 14th AF & Deputy Joint Force Component Commander, USAF noted, that while space threats are growing: “We shouldn’t accept we are going to lose our space capabilities facing those threats”. He drew parallels with the introduction of Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAM) in the Cold War and how the USAF did not give up flying, but adapted its tactics and technology to counter the new threats. Space capabilities and infrastructure are perhaps more robust than many imagine. The sheer number of satellites already in orbit (and redundancy from commercial providers) means that adversaries would most likely have to attempt to destroy or degrade the most vital satellites, rather than attempt the virtually impossible task of shutting down entire constellations. In that, a near-future space conflict may resemble an ongoing war of slow attrition and short-term tactical advantage – rather than an overwhelming orbital Pearl Harbor that sees one nation successfully achieve total space supremacy.

While some may worry that this activity around the world amounts to the ‘militarisation’ of space, it could be argued that space has been militarised (or used to support defence aims) for a long time – with Cold War spy satellites. The difference today is the reliance that the world now places on space for military operations, commercial prosperity and everyday life coupled with the willingness of some actors to break or bend long-standing norms – that has awakened politicians and military chiefs that the ‘final frontier’ is no longer neutral territory – but will be a battleground like air and the sea before it.

This activity is not just confined to the US and UK. In the past couple of weeks, France has also announced it is forming a ‘space command’ (to come under the air forces control) and is to commence development of mini-satellites armed with blinding lasers to disable or disrupt hostile threats. Japan, too, is set to form its own military space unit in 2020. Said AVM Ian Gale, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff: “There is an opportunity for air forces to see space as part of an extended continuum for military effectiveness. But space is being contested. We need to chase the air and space power gap.”

UK to accelerate hypersonic research

With a £10m research contract, the UK is joining the race for military hypersonics. (Reaction Engines)

As well as UK military space initiatives gathering pace – there was more headline news from the conference when outgoing CAS ACM Sir Stephen Hillier announced that the RAF would be fast-tracking hypersonic weapon and propulsion research – with a £10m two-year contract to BAE Systems, Reaction Engines and Rolls-Royce. This sees the UK join the US, Russia, China and France in the race towards developing military hypersonic capabilities.

This research contract could take the form of not only investigating military applications for Reaction Engine’s SABRE air-breathing engine – but also using the SABRE’s innovative pre-cooler technology to enhance the performance of current military powerplants – such as the Eurofighter’s EJ200 engine. This propulsion research also has the potential to flow into Team Tempest development.

As AVM Rochelle had hinted at in an earlier presentation at the conference – in 2030 more than 80% of NATO’s fighter fleet will still be ‘fourth generation’ combat aircraft – but what if they could all fire Mach 5 missiles on Day 1 of the war? Rochelle has tasked the RAF’s innovation RCO with a very ambitious deadline – to see whether they can generate a Mach 5 weapon capability within four years.

Integrating hypersonic weapons into an air force, the challenges are not just ones of propulsion and thermodynamics – but of command and control – especially against peer nations armed with similar technology where decision times may be in the range of three seconds. Closing speeds of Mach 10 mean that targeting and C2 will be a major challenge and may have to be highly automated – much as ship defences are now computer-controlled against high-speed sea-skimming missiles.

With US hypersonic weapon programmes now emerging from the ‘black’ and the UK joining the effort – is the era of affordable operational Mach 5+ missiles now just around the corner?

Multi-domain operations

The USAFE’s Operation Rapid Forge tested distributed operations and C2. (USAF)

One of the other key themes from ASPC was multi-domain operations (MDO) – which is envisaged as a way in which in the West can continue to maintain its warfighting edge against current and emerging threats. So what are ‘multi-domain operations’ anyhow? ‘Combined operations’ – with naval, land and air forces co-operating closely and exemplified perhaps by the D-Day landings 75 years ago are not new – so what is novel about MDO? As one speaker, Rear Admiral Matthew Briers, Director Carrier Strike, noted: “Multi-domain is nothing new – we have always aimed to out-OODA the enemy.”

However, whether previously it was called Combined Operations, the Revolution in Military Affair or Network-enabled Warfare – there is a sense that MDO is a significant new chapter – even it it is perhaps an evolution of earlier thinking.

For one – there are more domains to consider and operate in – air, sea and land having been joined by space, cyber and the newest domain, information. Though the last domain might also be argued to be nothing new (previously being called propaganda), the emergence of social media means that the art of persuasion has expanded exponentially from dropping leaflets over enemy cities. Hybrid threats or conflicts, whether they are GPS-spoofing, annexation of regions by unmarked military forces, viral ‘fake news’, pseudo-legal challenges to freedom of navigation, or space debris can thus happen across multiple domains simultaneously – paralysing decision-makers. But conversely, an air force (or military) that masters MDO can, judo-like, also do the same to an opponent – moving faster and synchronising attacks across different domains – keeping an enemy permanently off balance and unable to close the OODA.

A second difference is that AI and machine-to-machine communication now offer the possibilities of increasingly compressed and faster sensor-to-shooter ‘kill-chains’ – already having been developed by the US to be staggeringly quick in the realm of close air support for COIN. MDO would see this expand into other missions and become even faster – with a digitised C2 able to understand the overall campaign plan, spot opportunities and re-task sensors, assets and weapons. Giving an example of this, USAF Chief Gen Goldfein revealed that recent USAF demonstration saw a machine-to-machine kill-chain against a naval target reduced to ‘minutes’ with information passed from satellite, to ISR, to C2 nodes – before being handed off to a human ‘shooter’. Goldfein calls this, humans ‘on’ the loop, rather than ‘in’ the loop.

Technology also means that domains are blending into each other. Is a hypersonic missile, launched from a ground unit and which skims the atmosphere, to travel thousands of miles to strike a ship – a land, air, sea or space domain capability? Is a computer trojan that takes down an air defence network a cyber or air domain weapon? There is already anecdotal evidence emerging of how new platforms are connecting domains. At the conference, Norwegian air force chief Maj Gen Skinnarland relayed a comment from a new RoNAF Lightning II pilot that he had worked more with the army and navy in one year of flying the F-35, than in his entire flying career flying the F-16.

Potentially a final difference in MDO is in the way it could use distributed networks for a self-healing, dynamic C2 capability – rather than presenting a central HQ or nodes to the enemy that can be targeted. Speaking to press on the sidelines of the APSC, USAFE Commander General Jeffrey Harrigian explained how, in a recent exercise, Operation Rapid Forge in July, had seen a mobile C2 centre set up in an austere base to support F-35A and F-15Es forward-deployed in eastern Europe with a minimal footprint using cross-trained ground crew. Distributed operations and digitised C2 will thus increase the resilience of a MDO-enabled air force.

In the UK and at the forefront of MDO for the RAF is the new reformed No 11 Group – the legendary front-line command in the Battle of Britain that bore the brunt of Luftwaffe attacks. Its responsibilities range from space surveillance to anti-drone operations, ‘Big Wing ISR’ (RC-135 Rivet Joint and Sentinel) to Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) of intruders in UK airspace and even operational control of the Red Arrows display team on their current North American tour. However, the conference also saw an announcement that the UK’s Joint Forces Command would be renamed ‘Strategic Command’ as a sign of its growing importance in multi-domain operations and countering hybrid threats.

MDO represents a dizzyingly futuristic vision of warfare – a super-fast, agile, resilient AI-powered ‘mesh network’ that dynamically finds and matches targets to effects (whether kinetic or non-kinetic) and operates across multiple domains to throw the enemy off balance everywhere – while still giving humans final authority a – concept more like Ender’s Game than the Battle of Britain. Said USAF Chief Goldfein: “Multi-domain operations may seem bold, but I’d offer that boldness is in our blood as airmen.” Anticipating the future in this way, Goldfein revealed that the USAF has now set up a new career field for multi-domain operators.

But Goldfein also warned allies and partners that the high-speed tempo and technology of MDO to operating alongside the US would require commitment, investment and prior training: “Multi-domain ops cannot be a pick-up game”. This was echoed by another speaker – Air Commodore Justin Reuter, AOC 83 Expeditionary Air Group / UK Air Component Commander, the RAF’s front-line commander in the anti-ISIS operations who observed that despite the success of these combat ISR missions in a complex, contested battlespace – they were not making the RAF ‘match fit’ for MDO against an enemy that lacked an air force, satellites and other advanced capabilities.

Summary

Air power co-operation and discussion at the highest level – just some of the 46 heads of air force at ASPC19. (RAF)

This, the last APC for the outgoing CAS, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier (now replaced by ACM Mike Wigston), and it saw him reflect on his key goals for the RAF from three years ago – deliver on operations, focus on people and grow the air force. On operations, the RAF had played a key role in wiping out ISIS with its coalition partners. Meanwhile, in personnel, the last year had seen the best RAF recruiting figures in a decade. The service has raised its max recruitment age in some trades, encouraged rejoiners (96% of mothers now return to the service) and blazed a trail in gender equality over all roles. Finally, with the P-8 Poseidon MPA to arrive in 2020, two squadrons of F-35Bs now based in the UK, Typhoon having taken over Tornado’s role with Project Centurion, Protector UAVs on the horizon and E-7 Wedgetails committed to – the RAF is growing its front-line combat power.

APSC itself continues to go from strength-to-strength as a global must-attend forum for air chiefs, air and space power professionals, industry, academics and the media. For those on the outside, it is an extremely useful window into current and future doctrine and thinking, unpicking buzz-words and giving observers and analysts greater understanding of where air (and now space) power is heading.

This years conference was also important in grasping the outlines of an answer to perhaps the biggest question facing the ‘western’ allies – with the qualitative gap in military equipment between them and competitor nations closing rapidly – how can they keep their air power edge in age of sub-threshold hybrid warfare? MDO may just be that leap – but perhaps arguably more important than the technology – is willing and committed partners. Said Gen Goldfein: “Our asymmetric advantage is represented in this room. It is all of us working together on a common cause.”

Tim Robinson
9 August 2019