A new Air Force unit is expected to generate “unmatched” capabilities for commanders at “a speed and scale that we’ve never seen before,” Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff, said recently.
Leaders say the creation of 16th Air Force in October is transforming the way the service fights. The unit is the service’s first information warfare numbered Air Force integrating global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber, electronic warfare and information operations under a single commander. Prior to its creation, these disciplines were spread out among different organizations, a setup that officials said slowed down operations against sophisticated powers, such as Russia and China.
Another Air Force leader, Gen. James Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, said the new combination will make the service’s cyber teams more capable.
“Cyber teams are dependent on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” Holmes said. “We think we can present more robust teams [to Cyber Command] with better intelligence support behind them and present some information ops options … [at] a larger scale.”
But perhaps the best way to understand the advantage the new unit brings is to consider a typical Air Force challenge: how to defeat Russian integrated air defense systems. Wing commanders who report to the 16th Air Force described how they would help in an Oct. 11 briefing.
The 70th ISR Wing — which, alongside Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, gathers global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data in air, space and cyber — would know how the Russian defense systems communicate, how they’re used and where they’re located This information would create targets, as well as “Swiss cheese” like holes within the air defense space that could allow planes to fly through.
The 363rd ISR Wing is responsible for gathering and analyzing multi-intelligence sources. This team would learn how to exploit the Russian systems and how those systems can harm friendly forces.
The 9th Reconnaissance Wing — responsible for high-altitude ISR with platforms such as the U-2 spy plane — is developing a new electronic warfare suite that would provide stand off and stand in capabilities against the systems.
Another group, the 480th ISR Wing, which provides capabilities for the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) — a global intelligence dissemination platform — has a team dedicated solely to IADS.
Then there’s the 55th Wing, which is responsible for airborne ISR and electronic warfare, as well as signals intelligence. Air Force leaders have said offensive, defensive and sensing capabilities have atrophied over the years and, on the electronic support side, the service will need help from the NSA. The 55th will help rebuild these capabilities.
In the case of the Russian defense systems, the wing’s role would be to gain insights along with tactics, techniques and procedures about the systems. It would also provide a non-kinetic way to defeat the system and passing location data to shooters.
What Air Force leaders wanted to show through the briefing was the power of having these wings under one commander. In addition, by integrating these capabilities into information warfare cells at combatant commands they could offer better options to Air Force leaders and do it faster.
“16th Air Force is designed to lead in the age of information warfare. By combining the disciplines of cyber and ISR and electronic warfare and information operations, 16th Air Force will be the thought leaders to ensure every chief can state with confidence we will collaborate where we can and compete where we must and if we must fight, we will win,” Goldfein said during the activation ceremony.
Later, he told reporters, “If you think about … what 16th Air Force brings together — cyber, ISR, electronic warfare, information operations — you can see where you’re now talking about far more options you can bring against the adversary across the spectrum of competing, deterring and winning.”
Broadly, the 16th Air Force will help in the information warfare sphere by looking to remove the option of plausible deniability for enemies. In other words, the service would use a multi-disciplinary approach to expose enemies’ actions that undermine international norms. One of the early emphases for the command will be producing unclassified intelligence, such as declassifying ISR imagery to document how adversaries are massing troops or military assets.
Ultimately, Goldfein said the 16th Air Force might be a de-escalation mechanism that can help prevent a conflict.
“We’re prepared to fight if called upon, but we prefer not to fight. If there’s a way for de-escalation, absolutely,” he told reporters. “I don’t think President Putin and President Xi are going to live forever, so we’re at the back end of this timeframe and taking a long look at this — what do we want our relationship with these countries to be and do we want to still find areas where we can have good communication going forward?”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.