JUST IN: Many Unknowns Remain About Downed Objects, Says Air Force Chief

By Laura Heckmann

After downing a suspected Chinese spy balloon followed by three unidentified objects that entered U.S. air space in recent days, the Air Force is still searching for answers about the objects and who launched them, according to the service's top officer. 

The latest incident took place Feb. 12, when an Air Force F-16 shot down a mysterious object over Lake Huron in Michigan.

“We don’t fully appreciate or understand what we’re seeing,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown III at the Brookings Institution’s U.S. Air Force and American Defense Strategy event Feb. 13.

Brown said the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, first detected Jan. 28 in U.S. airspace and shot down by an F-22 off the South Carolina coast Feb. 4, “got all of our attention.”

Brown said the incidents have prompted “better scrutiny of our airspace” over the past week or so, as well as changes to radar sensitivities, “which means we’re seeing more things than we would normally see.”

As recovery efforts of the downed objects progress, the focus is ensuring the defense of the United States — which, in this case, means equipping the North American Aerospace Defense Command with the tools they need to work the Homeland Defense aspect, Brown said.

“We take that part seriously. My job here is really provide the capability to organize, train and equip,” Brown said.

As the Air Force flexes its sensing and shooting capabilities with the balloon and other object takedowns, efforts continue on connecting those capabilities across the military as part of the broader joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, initiative.

JADC2 is an effort that seeks to link sensors to shooters and boost decision making using artificial intelligence. Or, as Brown said, linking the right sensors to the right shooter at the right time.

He likened the concept to a smartphone, relying on one phone plan while still maintaining the ability to connect anywhere and access data. It’s the same concept, he said — to be able to access data, put it into a cloud and access the data through applications, not just service by service by service.

“It’s how we move that data around to determine who is the best to actually execute against a target, or to use that information to be able to make a decision,” he said.

Aligning each service’s separate programs as the transition progresses has proved a challenge, Brown said. Each service has invested in its various command and control systems, “and then how do you align those.”

He said the goal is not to connect every airplane to every tank, but to answer the questions of how to achieve some level of commonality in how the data is moved — how transfer useful data from airplanes to ground or maritime commanders that need it.

Brown said he feels the services are making “a lot more progress” and the Air Force has spent “a lot more time” with the other services. He described his initial introduction to the concept as “power point” deep, now encouraged by staff energy and communication.

The original architecture of JADC2 has been scaled back from grand visions of “palaces” to a “very simple house,” Brown said. Once the house is built — the basic building block — it can be customized and expanded upon.

He said a key aspect of alignment with the other services will be the space domain — to be able to move the data, “which is why the Space Force is so important, to be able to lay out that architecture.”

As new technology tracks and delivers more and more data, one concern is it may be too much information, he noted.

“It’s good to have all the data, but now you have to figure out how to sift through it, and so that you still have an airman in the loop … who has time to do some critical thinking and not have to spend all the time sifting through data,” he said, adding that there is a collective shift taking place about the importance of data.

Meanwhile, Brown addressed the upcoming defense budget, scheduled to be released March 9.

Brown said he sees some “positive things” for the Air Force from a resourcing standpoint, but there are “tough decisions” to be made. He said one of his responsibilities is to make the case for the resources the Air Force needs to be effective to the joint force, and that he feels “pretty positive” about what is being done.

Brown said he feels the Air Force is making the case of why they need to transition from a revenue standpoint. Modernization is a priority because the average aircraft is 30 years old, breaking more often and taking longer to fix, he said.

“But I also realize that there’s a dialogue of this particular Congress of potential funding levels,” he said. “I would really not like to see a continuing resolution, particularly a year-long continuing resolution, because all we do is give our adversaries a year to move forward.”

Topics: Air Force News

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