No one really understands the Navy and the Air Force’s new blueprint for dominating Earth’s seas and skies. But what’s increasingly clear, even to the heads of both the Navy and the Air Force, is that there’s a big challenge ahead for it, one that doesn’t have anything to do with an adversary like China: getting U.S. ships, subs, planes and drones to actually talk to one another.
The watchword for the Navy and the Air Force in the future is an idea called “AirSea Battle.” And if you listen to Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Gen. Norton Schwartz, the heads of both services, it’s more like a state of mind. AirSea Battle is “a concept, a way of thinking things through, a conceptual approach to establishing access,” Greenert said at a talk he gave with Schwartz at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. on Wednesday morning.
If that sounds airy — or, if you prefer, lost at sea — Greenert and Schwartz tried to bring it down to earth at Brookings (where, full disclosure, Danger Room boss Noah Shachtman has a non-resident fellowship). From now on, they said, the Navy and the Air Force will partner closer than ever before to jointly ensure that no adversary can deny the U.S. military access to the “global commons” — that is, the shipping lanes, airspace, low-Earth orbit and electronic avenues necessary for the military to operate anywhere on or above Planet Earth.
In practice, that means connecting the vast fleet of ships, subs and aircraft — manned and robotic alike — that Greenert and Schwartz possess. But there are at least two interrelated problems with that. The networks aboard the Air Force’s stuff and the Navy’s stuff don’t talk well with one another. And getting sufficient bandwidth to connect them across vast distances is difficult and expensive. “Our links need to be similar,” Greenert said, “or at least minimally compatible.”
In other words, AirSea Battle is supposed to make the Navy and the Air Force a hyper-connected juggernaut. But standing in its way, to a significant degree, is the Navy and the Air Force.
Greenert and Schwartz can already credibly claim successes for AirSea Battle that, they argue, prove the blueprint’s value. During the first ten days of last year’s Libya war, submarines sent powerful Tomahawk missiles to destroy Moammar Gadhafi’s airstrips and air defenses while the Air Force planes bombed them and Navy planes jammed their radars — and even Libyan tanks. That cleared the way for the months-long bombing campaign. Halfway around the world, the Navy and Air Force also worked together to help Japan recover from its earthquake and mitigate the damage to a nuclear reactor. They’ve also started using the same stuff: the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program is an Air Force Global Hawk spy drone that carries Navy-specific sensors. And the Air Force has begun testing out its long-range bombing and strike capabilities for use over the Pacific — as with the last month’s secretive “Operation Chimichanga” — efforts that will partner with the Navy.
Now Greenert and Schwartz want to take that teamwork and make it “more of an assumption in the future,” as the Navy chief put it. They’ve got “more than 200 initiatives” to get the Air Force’s chocolate into the Navy’s peanut butter, ranging from combining headquarters staffs to examining data-link protocols for information sharing.
But the problem right now is that those protocols, by and large, don’t yet exist. And the further the Navy and Air Force get out to sea, the harder it is for planes, ships and subs to share data: the bandwidth aboard Navy ships alone, for instance, is already taxed by distance.
Asked about the problem by Danger Room, Schwartz was up front that “data links [are] a foundational element here of what we’re talking about.”
Schwartz said both services are working on a “next-generation data link” for ship-to-plane communication, which involves thinking through “how much data the links should carry [and] its low probability” of an adversary intercepting the information traveling across the pipes. “We’re not thinking about this in the airman’s or the sailor’s stovepipe anymore,” he said. “We will come to a decision on what exactly those interfaces should look like.” In other words, they don’t know yet.
And that’s totally fair; AirSea Battle is a young concept that the Navy and Air Force is still fleshing out. (Phil Ewing of DoDBuzz jokingly tweeted, “Air-Sea Battle is everywhere & it is nowhere. It is everything & it is nothing.”) Schwartz conceded that connecting “legacy platforms” — ships and planes built in the Reagan era, for instance — are “more difficult to deal with.” But Schwartz is already thinking about technical fixes for the connectivity problem: he talked about “communication gateway capability” that “could be lighter-than-air” rather than aboard a plane or a ship. (That sounds intriguingly like using themilitary’s experimental giant blimps, currently the subject of a fight between the Air Force and Congress, as big-ass floating cell towers or data relay points.)
As a stopgap, Schwartz said both services already have developed unspecified data “gateways” that “allow translation between one format or another.” Neither service, however, has decided yet about how deeply these gateways and other communications integration tools will be built into the architecture of the ships, planes, subs and drones of the future — like the Air Force’s next-next-generation Long Range Bomber or the aircraft carriers the Navy will build after 2017.
Other technological challenges may be more fundamental. The U.S. Navy has a huge advantage instealthy submarines. But the more the subs have to communicate with the outside world, particularly over vast distances, the greater the likelihood that an adversary can intercept their electronic signatures.
And that’s on top of higher-level concerns about the uber-concept. Schwartz and Greenert insisted, repeatedly, that AirSea Battle is “agnostic” about any particular adversary or region of the world. (coughChinacough) But a mega-plan to ensure that the U.S. dominates the skies, seas, spaceways and electronic passages of Planet Earth may sound provocative when translated into Mandarin, Russian or Farsi. That is, unless the Navy and Air Force’s big communications challenges make it sound hard of hearing.