Evolving Threats Require New Approaches to Defending Installations
Defense Dept. photoAURORA, Colorado — On March 23, a suspected Iranian-made suicide drone struck a U.S. compound in northeast Syria, killing a contractor and wounding five troops and another contractor, according to the Defense Department.
The attack was just the latest example of the threats that state and non-state actors pose to overseas U.S. installations today.
Gone are the days of the danger being unsophisticated ballistic missiles that come from one general direction that can be tracked and defended with a platform like the Patriot missile defense system, said Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, commander of Air Forces Central Command, during an interview at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium.
In January 2020, Grynkewich was deputy commander for operations of the Combined-Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve when Iran launched a missile strike against the Al Asad Air Base north of Baghdad. More than 100 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in the attack.
“No doubt in my mind, the precision and lethality of those ballistic missiles was way better than what we experienced a couple of decades before, say back in Desert Storm or even in 2003 and the invasion of Iraq,” he said.
Along with developing more precise ballistic missiles, adversaries like Iran are producing inexpensive cruise missiles with increased range and explosive capability and proliferating them around the Middle East, he said.
“So, it can come from different directions,” he added. “And then [unmanned aircraft systems] — those highly adaptable platforms — you don't know when you see them necessarily, whether it's doing ISR against you, whether it's packed with explosives, whether it's going to drop a payload.” Drones fly low and slowly and are difficult to detect and attack, he added.
Enemy tactics, techniques and procedures have evolved, so they are attacking from every angle at once, he said. “And they are complex attacks, where it's not just a UAV attack, but it’s ballistic missiles with UAVs that are launched a couple hours earlier. So, they're impacting at the same time.
“And now you've got to decide, am I going to pick up the missiles coming at me, am I going to try to find the UAVs, where are the cruise missiles coming from?” he continued. “So, they're able to layer the attack against you as well.”
That has forced the service to reevaluate its tactics, techniques and procedures “and think about how we're executing command and control across all the defensive systems that we've got to meet all those threats simultaneously,” he said.
That requires a mix of passive defenses — concealment, mobility and resiliency — and active defenses, he and other service leaders said during the symposium.
Like the Defense Department’s joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, initiative, active defense requires sensors, networks, communications and artificial intelligence to increase awareness and decrease decision-making time and cognitive load, panelists said.
There are shortcomings in all areas, particularly in sensing and fusing capabilities, said Maj. Gen. Derek France, commander of 3rd Air Force.
“Our active defense right now is somewhat limited as far as a kinetic reaction to a threat if we can see it and cue something on it,” he said.
In other words, it isn’t possible to counter a threat that isn’t detected.
“What we need to get to is a network of sensors that is fused, that every piece — including our coalition partners, airborne, ground-based, passive sensors — all fuse a picture that we have a little more fidelity on what is coming our way,” he said.
Grynkewich described the primary need as an overall defensive architecture that “different things can plug into that's going to be an enduring capacity that we would have — to get everyone a common picture to look at all the data that's coming in from different radar feeds and other sources.
“And if we can stitch that together, then now we've got something we can just rapidly plug in new defensive and offensive capabilities very quickly as those things come online from industry,” he added.
Industry representatives at the symposium said they are working on technologies to get to that architecture and to support the broader concept of Agile Combat Employment, which achieves defense through a hub-and-spoke approach of distributed and mobile bases.
Brad Reeves, director of C4I solutions at Elbit America, said there are two main deliverables for industry to support ACE: expeditionary survivable command-and-control systems, and autonomous force-protection solutions.
Regarding command and control, Elbit is working on a mobile platform “that allows you to conduct C2 at the tactical level,” he said. That could involve a base defense operations center; an air operations center that could allow operations to continue if a location is disconnected from a combined air operations center; or a wing operations center that would use resilient networks and machine learning, he said.
Autonomous force protection solutions could involve “a fully autonomous team of unmanned platforms that are able to conduct observation and sensing around the local area for that commander,” he continued. “This is not just the perimeter security and counter-UAS — though it certainly includes that — it goes beyond the base; it goes through the island; it goes beyond the island even into the lateral maritime region” to create the multi-domain awareness that commanders need.
Ryan Bunge, vice president and general manager for Collins Aerospace’s Resilient Networking and Autonomy division, said network technology is critical, starting with commercial satellite communications.
“As that maybe becomes less available, you move down or degrade to a military satcom, maybe onto a tactical network or tactical mesh network, maybe even all the way down to [high frequency],” he said. “HF is maybe a capability we don't talk a whole heck of a lot about, but there are a lot of advancements going on in HF right now with wider bandwidths and digital mesh networking” that are mobile and hard to contest.
Critical to the effort, he noted, is ensuring systems work in a mission partner environment, since forward bases often rely on host nation infrastructure and support.
“We need that ability to drive the interoperability with our partners that brings in things like cross-domain solutions, different enclaves of security that we need to be able to operate and move that data through to be successful with our partners,” he said.
And that will require assured positioning, navigation and timing, he said. “None of these networks happen without time. And in a GPS-contested environment, you need that APNT ability to stand up those networks, provide that good, known source of time.”
While there is much to do going forward, the services have made significant technological advances in recent years with less expensive and advanced missiles that are optimized for counter-UAS, Grynkewich said during the interview. The Army has the lead on counter-UAS technology for class-three — 55 to 1,320 pounds — and larger drones, he said.
“The Air Force does have some capabilities that we have deployed for smaller UAS, and so there's a bit of an overlap there,” he added. “And that's where we’ve got to stitch things together at the base level.”
As an air defense commander and a combined forces air component commander, it’s his responsibility to pull together all the capabilities from the different services and “make that into a coherent defensive architecture,” he said.
The next big thing will be the unlimited magazine of directed energy weapons, he said.
“That will be big, but it won't be meaningful unless we stitch it into that overall architecture and get the tactics and techniques and procedures down … so, while you can have the technology, you’ve got to have everything else at the same time,” he said.
Because Air Forces Central Command has been involved in hostilities in the Middle East for decades, it has extensive institutional knowledge that can inform operations in the Indo-Pacific as the United States shifts its focus to that theater, he said. Much of what the command has learned about the multi-layered defenses applies directly to operating in the Indo-Pacific.
The commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, said during a conversation with reporters at the symposium that he is leaning into ACE.
“From the Agile Combat Employment standpoint, what we're spending our dollars on this year is expanding the number of places that we can go to, and of the places that we're already at, expanding the capability at those places,” Wilsbach said.
For example, the Air Force recently deployed F-22 Raptors to the North Marianas Island of Tinian as part of operation Agile Reaper, which involved cross-training with Japanese and Australian forces.
“All of our airmen [in] PACAF have to be proficient in Agile Combat Employment, not one person is excused from being an ACE airman,” he said. “And I've told all the wing commanders and the numbered Air Force commanders in PACAF that I expect them to take risk, I expect them to expand the ACE envelope, and I expect them to get better and better.”
For the most part, Wilsbach said he has the equipment he needs for Agile Combat Employment, and there aren’t any significant gaps for conducting such operations with partners and allies.
“We really don't have any technical gaps per se,” he said. “The technology that I want to improve on — these joint operations — is to speed up the process as well as harden it from cyber and electronic attack, as well as allow for greater volume.”
In particular, he wants a self-healing mesh network with artificial intelligence capabilities, he said.
In addition to better networking and communications technology, the Pacific bases need more investment in logistics and sustainment for protection, he said.
“To start up these hubs and spokes, we can do all that, and we've got the equipment, but to sustain that force for periods of time does take additional logistics.
“And fortunately, in the 2022 budget, the 2023 budget — and we're hopeful in the 2024 budget — there's a significant amount of dollars that are associated with prepositioning at our hubs and spokes — mainly our spokes — so that you have sustainment material at those places,” he continued.