JUST IN: Air Force Advancing Command, Control in Middle East Fight

By Sean Carberry

Department of Defense photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the Defense Department is shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific, skirmishes are being fought today in the Middle East where Central Command is conducting defensive — and sometimes offensive — actions against Iranian proxies. The responses are testing and proving the technologies and concepts of the Defense Department’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative, said the commander of Air Forces, U.S. Central Command.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorism attack in Israel, militias in Iraq and Syria have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. forces, and the Houthis in Yemen have fired 75 different missiles and conducted dozens of drone attacks against ships in the Red Sea, Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich told reporters at a Defense Writers Group discussion April 3.

“The proliferation of unmanned technologies and missile technologies, and the combination of ballistic, cruise missiles, [unmanned aerial vehicles] — all these unmanned things that could come at you at different speeds in different directions — does add complexity to the overall defensive architecture,” he said.

“For how we have dealt with that, it truly is a multidomain, multi-service response that we have to orchestrate in these instances,” he said. “So, there are a number of different systems that we use in the joint world to do this — some of them are top secret systems that pull in a bunch of different intel sources together to try to build coherent understanding.”

AFCENT and CENTCOM use a layered intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection strategy with a priority on Yemen to strike missiles or UAVs before the Houthis can launch them, he said.

“We're rapidly ingesting any imagery that we get from national sources,” he continued. “We're supplementing that with kind of an airborne layer of ISR,” using MQ-9s in the Southern Red Sea and other forms of collection.

“We kind of pull all that together and then we have a small cell that fuses this very rapidly,” he said. “So, as tipping and queuing comes in, we can even rapidly retask assets to go take a closer look at it. And then, we're looking for the telltale signs that something is set up — something is on a launcher, or something is ready to go.”

New to the equation is the minimum viable product of CJADC2, which the deputy secretary of defense announced in February without providing any details of the technology. CENTCOM has been pushing it on all the components, Grynkewich said.

“It's a common operating picture that that pulls in feeds from everywhere,” he said.

“If you remember the game Hungry Hippo, it is the Hungry Hippo of data,” he continued. “And it's going out and it's pulling in lots of data. And then you can layer it and look at it in different ways. So, it's really trying to use data-centricity to build understanding.”

What that does “is that synchronizes us across the domains and components to have a coherent picture,” he continued. Now, when Air Force battle managers have conversations with the Naval Forces Central Command maritime operations center, “they're looking at the same basic picture.”

“You do have to understand the data that goes in there — what's the source of the data? How confident are you in it? But when you understand all of that, you can have that common picture, and now you can make real-time decisions in seconds," he said. "Is a ship going to engage that? Is a fighter going to engage it? Do we need to call one of our partners to warn them about it?” he said.

In addition to using the CJADC2 minimum viable product, the command has been working with other technologies to build a common operating picture with partners in the region, he said.

“To the max extent possible, my air defense liaisons are in our partner nation facilities, and they're showing that picture to them so that they see the same thing or very close to the same thing that we're seeing,” he said. “And then that allows kind of mutual support across defensive lines and boundaries and whatnot. So, it's really the ability to have common understanding of the problem, I think, is essential to getting the next layers of now putting effectors on target.”

Now that the Air Force is working with the minimum viable product, the command is realizing the need going forward is “bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth and secured access to the spectrum,” he said.

“That is going to be essential for things like [CJADC2] to come together. You've got to be able to get massive amounts of data — or the information that you're deriving from that data — rapidly and in near real time to every actor so that they're seeing the same thing,” he said. “And if you can't do that because you don't have access to that bandwidth — either because you didn't buy enough or because it's being contested — then you're stuck on the side of the road and not doing anything.”

In addition to bandwidth concerns and developing CJADC2 capabilities, the U.S. military needs to focus on affordable mass because adversaries are launching drone swarms and multidomain attacks combining drones and missiles, he said.

“Adversaries are attempting to use mass to overwhelm our defenses,” he said. “That's really what it comes down to — it's affordable mass to try to overwhelm our defenses.

“I like that play. I would like to turn that around and use affordable mass to try to overcome the defenses of adversaries as well,” he said.

One way to achieve that is through the Defense Department’s Replicator initiative, which “is trying to identify which of the solutions that we have that is affordable, but we haven't quite figured out how to scale” to achieve mass and to see if industry can produce the numbers needed, he said.

“So, I think that it's a fantastic initiative. The low-cost technologies to get that affordable mass will be really critical in any conflict in any region of the world,” he said.

That doesn’t mean, however, that exquisite systems are no longer needed, he added. In the 1980s, the Air Force paired the high-end capabilities of the F-15 with the “affordable mass” of the F-16, and going forward the Air Force will need exquisite systems like collaborative combat aircraft paired with affordable mass.

“The inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles that we have right now in MQ-9s, MQ-1s, Scan Eagles, etc., they all come at different price points with different capabilities,” he said. “And there's a tradeoff there — more expensive, more exquisite, less expensive, less exquisite.”

AFCENT’s Task Force 99, which is focused on innovation, is trying “to find a way to thread the needle — where we can use commercial-off-the-shelf technologies or things that we develop in house to develop something that has a bit more capability than you might find on a standard off-the-shelf drone but doesn't cost nearly as much,” he said. “And the reason you don't want the cost to be so high is so you can sustain losses when you take them, or so that you can have affordable mass and bring volume to the fight."

Task Force 99 has some promising technologies, he said without providing details.

"I need them to figure out a way to flood the zone with additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance so we can identify these threats to the maritime domain faster, better, cheaper than we can right now,” he said. “They're getting really close.”

Topics: Defense Department