Budget, personnel cuts forcing Air Force to refocus priorities

The Air Force must overcome a number of challenges it faces in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, including dealing with data and training.

As the Air Force prepares for impending budget cuts and reductions in personnel that are already underway, the service is finding it must fine-tune focus on core capabilities, including training and technology related to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Besides the same budget struggles everyone else is facing, the Air Force is shedding jobs and must juggle financial pressure with urgent mission needs, according to a panel of Air Force officials. That challenges the ability to move forward with advanced  technology and ISR capabilities.

Speaking at a Feb. 6 lunch briefing held by AFCEA DC, the officials outlined some of their biggest concerns: finding intelligence in the data deluge pouring in from sensors and UAVs, training a new generation of airmen and securing cyberspace.

“The tactics that allow us to do very sophisticated surveillance, specifically to find targets within the [counter-insurgency operations], that pattern of life analysis – it’s driven us to collect lots of data within which there may be one nugget we need,” said Maj. Gen. Brett Williams, director of operations, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, Air Force headquarters.“In the future we need to put the real onus on the operators to help us figure out how to deal with this. Our resources – time, people and money – are all limited.”

The calls for better automated tools to sift through ISR data echoed similar statements made by Defense Department officials over the past few years, which at least one member of the panel acknowledged.

“We’re probably not doing as much as we should be doing,” admitted Randall Walden, director for information dominance programs, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

But Brig. Gen. Scott Bethel, vice commander of the Air Force ISR Agency, said new tools and technologies are being developed and implemented.

“We are working on tools in several lanes – cross-cuing tools where sensors [communicate with each other] automatically. We’re working on using processes that are similar to systems already available in the commercial market; for example, facial recognition,” Bethel said. “We’re trying to take these processes up a notch or two…and allow machines do these basic analytical processes. The notion is to maximize the place where we apply human brain power.”

The Air Force is also adjusting its approach to training incoming classes of airmen. Hailing from the digital generation, these students have different technical requirements and inherently learn differently than the smaller classes preceding them, according to Bethel.

“We are trying to figure out how to prepare our young men and women in a way that works for them, not a way that works for us,” Bethel said. “It’s important that training gets accomplished because as the force grows smaller, those expectations of what those young people are doing will grow.”

Beyond training, Air Force officials also need to change their thinking about cyber threats, according to Williams.

“Our mindset needs to be that we are going to be attacked, that there is going to be information that goes out the door and we need to prioritize our resources. The way to do that is to understand what they use and what happens [to the information] so we can decide what are the most dear things to protect,” Williams said. “We’ve got old think in cyber and we need to figure out new ways to think about it.”