The need for smaller, rapidly fielded U.S. Air Force communications gear was a key lesson that emerged from last month’s Castle Forge exercise in which U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE)-Air Forces Africa tested out the Air Force’s agile combat employment concepts to use U.S. and allied airpower from dispersed locations to defend NATO countries in the Black Sea region–an area that has become a flash point due to Russian revanchism in Ukraine.
While USAFE had done its own agile combat employment assessments, Castle Forge allowed USAFE forces to get a glimpse of how Air Combat Command (ACC) units from the continental United States (CONUS) would mesh with the USAFE forces in terms of training and equipment.
“What [Castle Forge] allowed us to do is dig into, ‘Did they bring the right comms gear? What do they need for support? Is their package similar to what we’re doing?’ Some real good lessons learned,” Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the USAFE and Air Forces Africa commander, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies forum on Dec. 13. “We’re in the ballpark. It’s not exactly right, but that’s the kind of feedback I needed to get back to [ACC Commander] Gen. [Mark] Kelly and his team back at ACC to continue on this journey together on how they’re preparing their folks to come and park into the way we do business.”
“Probably the key lessons were we have work to do on weapons, and there’s diplomatic things, and logistics,” Harrigian said. “Probably the big one though was the comms side of the house. We have a tendency to want to bring big satellite dishes. Trying to figure out how we miniaturize that and bring small packages and capability that allow them to quickly get up on NIPR [Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network], SIPR [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network] and JWICS [Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communication System] and do that with multi-capable airmen.”
Agile Combat Employment work by USAFE and by Pacific Air Forces may lead to a set of communications requirements service-wide.
ACC has said that “lead wings,” composed of squadrons from different locations under one commander, will train together to permit them to arrive in theater ready for battle.
The Air Force appears to be moving away from its past reliance on fixed bases, which present ready targets of opportunity for “near peer” adversaries, China and Russia, and toward agile combat employment-capable forces’ rapid deployment to expeditionary locations.
The U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and NATO may have 450 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighters by 2030, and European countries and the United States are discussing alignment between the U.S. sixth generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems and European efforts, including the Future Combat Air System (Defense Daily, June 9).
In April, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of EUCOM, told Congress that his top priority is augmenting NATO capabilities for secure indications and warning and command and control systems, as Russia aims to proliferate advanced electronic warfare and drone swarming.