“Know the enemy” were words attributed to Sun Tzu as quoted by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown in the context of better understanding the need for innovative concepts, adjustments and tactical modifications to successfully “accelerate” with threat adaptation and rapid modernization.
Speaking to an audience at the 2021 Air Force Association symposium, Brown emphasized his well known “change or lose” guidance to his force, an idea grounded in the pointed recognition that Russia and China have been rapidly closing, or even eliminating, the longstanding superiority gap with the U.S. military in terms of technological sophistication, weapons development and sheer force size capacity.
“We must transition the force we have today to the force that’s required, that’s focused on China and Russia. Accepting various levels of risk: risk to mission, risk to force, and some risk to our security,” Brown explained.
Interestingly, Brown emphasized the importance of “knowing” the adversary at AFA’s 2020 Symposium last year, making the point that the U.S. must stay in front of the measure-countermeasure-measure weapons development process. Part of this trajectory, underway with increased focus during Brown’s tenure as Chief, has involved specific efforts to anticipate, find, test and assess particular enemy threats early in the technological development process …. to “bake-in” countermeasures and protections against advanced or newly emerging rival platforms. One key area of this, not surprisingly, relates to cyber protections given the fast-growing extent to which computer processing, advanced algorithms, AI and data management and transmission continues to inform and shape military modernization. The process, Brown explained, requires the force to mature new ideas quickly.
“We stood up the Air Force warfighting integration capability, and we need to continue that future design work. We must accelerate the operational concepts and the force structure that they’re laying out,” Brown told the AFA audience.
Much of the Air Force effort to “bake in” cyber hardening is done through the services CROWS, for Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems. The concept is to envision and enact anticipated attack possibilities most likely to emerge in the event of conflict and “know the enemy” and the specific threats presented … in order to counter them.
CROWS weapons developers consistently hack or jam emerging systems and attempt a full range of intrusions for the purpose of finding weak points. Once vulnerabilities are found, they then can be countered through built-in fixes or accommodating early in the engineering process. Not only does this mean securing targeting sensor networks, data links or video feeds, but also emphasizing what is called “information assurance” intended to safeguard the passage and storage of sensitive data as it transmits from platform to platform. Drone and satellite feeds, for example, are being hardened in response to particular enemy threats through encryption, decoys, redundancy, EW technologies and other methods intended to disrupt or thwart enemy jamming.
Weapons guidance systems are also being hardened against newer kinds of electromagnetic interference. The continued arrival of new enemy capabilities also helps explain why it is not surprising that so many existing U.S. weapons are being upgraded with software-driven sensor and targeting improvements.
For example, the Air Force AIM-9X missile is now engineered with an off-boresight targeting technology, an advancement which enables the weapon to alter course in flight and destroy targets actually “behind” an aircraft. The upgraded AIM-9X can effectively change course or “course correct” to hit enemy targets approaching at various angles such as behind, below or to the side. The AIM-9X is also now being engineered with infrared sensing spectrum flexibility to find new operating frequencies to counter enemy jamming. In radio terms, this idea is often referred to as frequency hopping to avoid enemy jamming.
More prominent upgrades include the often-discussed F-35 continuous development program and the substantial software-driven weapons upgrades to the guidance systems, flight resiliency and targeting technology of the F-22s AIM-120D and AIM-9X.
The F-35 is now in the process of receiving a number of software and weapons upgrades, to include an emerging airdropped weapon engineered with a “tri-mode” targeting all-weather seeker, called Stormbreaker. The weapon, which counters enemy attempts to move targets to avoid attack or utilize weather obscurance to thwart being targeted, uses a “two-way” data link, allowing the bomb to change course in flight as needed. The guidance technology, which can help track enemy targets on the move from distances as far as forty miles, can use semi-active laser targeting, infrared imaging or all-weather millimeter wave technologies.
These few examples of ongoing weapons and technology adjustments, combined with the new tactical and operational concepts necessary to employ them, offer a brief window into Brown’s call for the service to engineer new systems and devise new strategies with a specific mind to “the enemy.”
“Often in our professional military education programs, we talk about Sun Tzu. And one of his quotes is, ‘If you know the enemy, and you know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.’ We need to take those words to heart. You just can’t study ‘em, we’ve got to live ‘em. We’ve gotta know our enemy, we also need to know ourselves, so we can remove doubt,” Brown said.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor of the National Interest.