Sense-Making in JADC2: AF ISR Driving Change

Estimated Reading Time: 16 Minutes
By Tyler Troesch

Abstract: As sensors blanket the earth, analysts find themselves drowning in data but starved for information. The Department of Defense (DoD) must smartly and quickly field artificial intelligence/machine learning, automation, and augmentation (AAA) capabilities that allow Airmen to make sense of the vast amount of data available when answering the Joint Force’s greatest problems. This article provides a roadmap explaining how sense-making Airmen (the means) enabled by AAA solutions (the methods) and an integrated battle network (the capabilities) is the change the military needs to compete against our technologically advanced adversaries and to execute Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) operations. The catch is that JADC2 is not an unimaginable concept to comprehend. Analysis and Exploitation Teams (AETs) enabled by initial AAA initiatives, a global architecture, partners, and accesses are already realizing JADC2 operations to a limited extent in theater. The military must realize these initial successes and aggressively innovate to maintain a strategic advantage against peer competitors. China is a world leader in advanced technologies and continues their quest to become a global leader in innovation; the United States must keep pace.

This article is the third in a series designed to educate the Joint Force on the United States Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System (AF DCGS) Next Generation (Next Gen) transformation. The first article provided an overview of the initial changes and outlined in general terms how Next Gen differs from previous AF DCGS models. The second article examined the major factors that drove the AF DCGS Next Gen transformation to the problem-centric model, detailed the organizational and procedural changes, described how AF DCGS Next Gen fits into the larger analytic enterprise and intelligence community, and explored how the transformation positions AF DCGS to prepare the air component for strategic competition and future conflict. 

Only the Innovators Will Win

Over the past decade, the United States maintained an almost perfect record in war games against China – America lost nearly every time. While America focused on countering violent extremist organizations, our peer competitors focused on developing technologies to defeat us. Understanding only the innovators will win, Chinese President Xi Jinping championed technological developments that enhanced China’s combat effectiveness and granted strategic advantageover the United States. China continues developing technologies at relentless speeds, changing the character of war. Most notably, they undertook an unprecedented effort to become a world leader in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology, and plan to become the stand-alone leader in advanced technologies in the coming years. China’s technological achievements “are not just a wake-up call, they’re a fire alarm in the middle of the night” that propelled their military into a world-class force to fight and win wars. Their military leaders envision “a multi-dimensional, multi-domain, unmanned combat weapon system” that enables Chinese victory in future conflicts. China strives to embrace their most advanced technologies to hurdle the United States and become a distinguished global power. As China continues their quest to become the global leader in innovation, the United States must keep pace. 

United States’ military power is often mistaken for platform and equipment numbers rather than creating a more effective kill chain. A key problem is that all sensors cannot talk to each other; the processes are linear, manual, and non-dynamic. Platforms are often disconnected and unable to share information. Joint Force commanders require C2 processes and networks that enable cross-domain coordination, but today’s networks fall-short in providing reporting, analysis, fusion, and dissemination of information to enable all-domain synergy. The DoD must treat data as a strategic asset and an essential resource in preserving military advantage in today’s battlefield. Analysts need to rapidly make sense of what is happening, make decisions based on all data available, and communicate those decisions to the desired point within the battle network.

The described task is easier said than done. Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) growth and manpower reductions pose challenges for today’s military. Today’s environment requires only relevant and necessary information to be shared, but analysts often find themselves drowning in data yet starved for information. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten emphasized, all data from every sensor and weapon system needs to be accessible. Without the ability for Airmen to access, understand, process, and share all available data, our nation remains ill-equipped for today’s fight. Analysts need to handle vast amounts of data at unthinkable speeds to compete against America’s peer adversaries. Competition between the United States and China is centered on cognition rather than arms. Whoever wins “the race over information” will gain the military advantage.The United States needs a coherent strategy to compete in today’s data-driven environment. The strategy must not only focus on the knowledge of big data management but also on the force-multiplying processes that empower analysts to achieve large-scale increases in capability and effectiveness. This article will explain how sense-making Airmen (the means) enabled by AAA solutions (the methods) and an integrated battle network (the capabilities) is the change the military needs to compete against our technologically advanced adversaries. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley tasked the USAF to lead the C2 line-of-effort to enhance the military’s joint warfighting capability. To execute JADC2 operations, sense-making analysts require AAA solutions to sort the data available and need capabilities to rapidly share information across the globe.

The Means


Sense-making is a process that translates relevant information or data into usable intelligence. As a critical node within the sensing grid, 480th ISR Wing Airmen must analyze the vast amount of information collected from a growing number of sensors. The Wing’s AETs answer problems within their analytic lines of effort (ALOEs) using all data available through a problem-centric/sensor-agnostic approach. Rather than looking at a single target sourced from a single platform, AETs leverage a greater list of intelligence and data sources to gain a better understanding of what led to an event, why an event is happening, and what may occur next. As fusion leads, AETs play key roles across the kill chain, from providing joint intelligence preparation of the operational environment (JIPOE) before operations commence, tracking integrated air defense systems, and providing indications and warnings supporting near real-time requirements. AETs provide greater understanding of the joint environment and deliver decision advantage.

Figure 1: Image Provided by Air Combat Command

Human capital will remain a critical component for operations across the conflict continuum. Through decentralized execution, leaders will rely on Airmen’s cognitive abilities to make well-informed decisions. Like Special Operation Forces, AETs provide a unique capability, maintain enduring target sets, and generate expertise not fostered overnight. A concern is the human component needs thinking space and time to make sense of what is happening around them. Analysts also must operate at the speed of the problem and communicate horizontally with partners to enable speed and decisiveness at the tactical level. The analytic skillsets and network of the 480 ISR Wing Airmen make them the optimal ISR fusion engine for operations. Sense-making Airmen provide informed decisions to air component and Combatant Command leaders. Mismanaging big data, however, places Airmen at risk of providing decision-makers with assessments and products based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Machines and automation must help mitigate this risk and allow Airmen to spend more time solving complex problems, making operational and strategic decisions, contextualizing critical information, distinguishing between right and wrong, and commanding people and machines to perform critical missions. Therefore, a AAA approach is needed to deliver an effective sense-making node within JADC2.

The Methods

The AAA Approach

Airmen too often find themselves engaged in time-consuming human-intensive processes rather than focused on solving complex problems and informing decisions. Investment in AAA is critical to enable JADC2 in today’s fight (Figure 2). Highlighted in a recent USAFE JADC2 demonstration, the 480th ISR Wing’s fusion role required significant capital due to disconnected networks, lack of cross-domain data sharing, and fully manual fusion processes in planning and execution. Airmen required AAA-enabled tools, information, and processes to close the gap between collection and decisions. AAA solutions shorten the sensor-to-shooter timeline, drive JADC2 efforts, and help analysts solve Combatant Commanders’ problems. Highly automated and augmented processes can help analysts quickly filter out required information and data relevant to the task at hand. The military requires AAA advances to compete in today’s environment where small time savings can provide critical decision-making advantages. AAA is a force multiplier which frees Airmen to focus their cognitive skills on higher reasoning and judgment and reduces repetitive tasks. AAA enhances ISR processes enabling autonomous cross-cueing, distributed and cooperative operations, onboard processing, information fusion, predictive analysis, and dynamic targeting kill chains to achieve desired battlespace effects. Today’s rapidly evolving threat environment requires technologies that allow humans to share relevant information at the speed of need. Analysts require AAA to sift through the vast amounts of data and only put the relevant intelligence in front of them to make sense of the situation.

Figure 2: Image Created by the 480th ISR Wing

AAA Initiatives throughout the Information Warfare Enterprise 

Initial sprints are underway to develop persistent awareness and predictive analytics that generate solutions for strategic competition. The on-ramps and lab integration test new tools and capabilities to make rapid decisions on future utility and provide automated decision support for the ISR and cyber community. These efforts use a “bottom up” approach in which AETs nominate tools to test capabilities determined to be most effective in answering requirements. 

Initiatives such as Open ArchitectureJEMAPythonWATCHBOX, SNAPGLASS, SAURON, ArcGIS, and MavenSmart System deliver needed capabilities and answer tool agnostic requirements that progress the AAA approach to drive JADC2. 480th ISR Wing AETs use JEMA models to plug-and-play search criteria based on their ALOEs. The models run continuously to provide Airmen consolidated reporting; the automation drives deeper analysis and quicker product creation to answer the commander’s priority intelligence requirements. The AET AAA model provides tipping and cueing based on geolocation data, and the analysts receive alerts as new intelligence is collected. AAA reduces manual efforts of querying and downloading data from distinct intelligence community repositories to then manually ingest into analytic tools for further analysis. AAA enabled tools can also relieve analysts from monitoring dozens of chat rooms and hand-jamming questions to users across the battle network. Ultimately, AAA provides Airmen cognitive space to gain a better understanding of what is happening. In testing the Maven Generic Artificial Intelligence Application (GAIA), analysts noted an immediate value to live mission as well as improved situational awareness, collection opportunities, and potential to shrink positive target identification timelines. Airmen also leverage the web applications Watchman and Dragonspell which use machine learning to automatically detect objects in imagery-based collection. Over time, machine learning tools can reorient countless hours of analysts’ time against more complex problems. 

Examining connectedness, the Network Modernization (NETMoD) effort develops next generation architecture that will continue to operate with current platforms and sensors. According to initial tests, NETMoD outperforms the legacy network and allows analysts to process intelligence eight times faster. The effort collapses the point-to-point hub centric network into a mesh integrated network where multiple circuits at each site can reach anywhere on the globe. Finally, Air Combat Command (ACC) is fielding cloud technology for AF DCGS and is looking to smartly expand as bandwidth and capability grow. Cloud expansion gives Airmen the added connectivity and survivability that analysts need in today’s highly contested environment. Additional efforts will continue to equip AETs with new and efficient ways to communicate and collaborate with joint and coalition partners. 

Optimizing the ISR enterprise and leveraging Airmen as sense-making nodes will enable timely answers to the Joint Force’s greatest priorities. These fruitful efforts drive analysts down a path of making-sense of the data available to them and revolve around current operational problems as requested by SECAF Frank Kendall. In recent USAFE and PACAF targeting exercises, Airmen delivered actionable intelligence directly to warfighters in dynamic scenarios. AF DCGS blended multi-source intelligence to achieve fused target custody, and delivered decision-quality analysis at speed. Similarly, USAFE/AFAFRICA depends on the Air Operations Center (AOC) and AF DCGS as the fusion lead for National Defense Strategy targets to meet strategic competition requirements and to enable JADC2 in theater. The challenge is that the overwhelming amount of information and sources available drives a critical need to access, integrate, process, analyze, and produce data at scale while still providing timely and relevant intelligence to commanders. Our nation must ensure Airmen have access to the required technology, infrastructure, and architecture to quicken the sensor-to-shooter cycle. AAA initiatives will define how the ISR enterprise executes operations. 

An Industry-Military Joint Effort

The Chinese Communist Party is coordinating fusion of China’s technology sector and military, while American disagreements between Washington and Silicon Valley persist. Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien, the deputy chief of staff for cyber and ISR, requests the DoD “embrace modern technologies, especially those from our industry partners.” America must break down self-imposed barriers inhibiting change and leverage industry best practices to create a data advantage. The DoD must follow best practices for developing, implementing, and sustaining new tools. In an environment that can soon have unmanned assets blanketing the earth with sensors, analysts find themselves overwhelmed by an iron mountain of data. The DoD needs to empower Airmen with smartly incorporated AAA solutions that rapidly arrange the vast amount of information available. A decade ago the commercial industry realized “data is the oil of the digital world;” industry struggled with and overcame challenges the military still faces today. The military’s appreciation for the importance of data is not enough; Airmen require the military to partner with industry to develop AAA solutions that enable data sense-making at the speed and scale of need.

The Capabilities

Architecture and Accesses

The ability to make sense of data enabled by AAA solutions brings no advantage without the ability to communicate decisions across a connected battle network. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Brown emphasized, “we must connect all platforms, sensors, and our weapon system; we must develop the infrastructure, the digital backbone for data.” AF DCGS is primed as the sensing grid backbone with current upgrades to a global network and agile release for software. A current success story is an AI system installed into AF DCGS that connects most of the service’s airborne ISR platforms; however, there remains a growing demand to access and analyze data across the Joint Force to feed the global sensing grid. To meet this demand, AF DCGS emphasizes the importance of connecting data with a sustained engineering solution. The result must enable large quantity ingest and automated and standardized formatting, to provide data as a service to all users within the sensing grid. The vision aligns with the DoD strategy emphasizing open-architecture capabilities that allow data and systems to evolve over time while still supporting current user’s needs. The ISR HAF-Directorate and the JADC2 Cross-Functional Team envision a sensing grid that can integrate data from an assemblage of sources to deliver a cross-functional, holistic, predictive, and timely characterization of the operating environment to decision-makers in order to gain and maintain decision advantage during joint operations. AETs present this capability in a limited fashion through their robust and integrated global network, but a continued effort is required to reach an environment where the best available sensors enable any weapon to strike any target at any time with high confidence.

Connections and Convergence

Airmen within the Sixteenth Air Force, the Air Force’s Information Warfare Numbered Air Force, are primed to deliver rapid multi-domain dilemmas against peer adversaries. The Airmen maintain a problem-centric approach and have access and authority to cross-functional data unconstrained by geographic boundaries. The unified approach of integrating capabilities “to create new information warfare outcomes” exemplifies a necessary shift to manage strategic competition. Information Warfare Airmen leverage non-kinetic cyber, electronic warfare, and information operation outcomes, in sync if required, against today’s competitors. Integrating capabilities as the SECAF envisioned when establishing Sixteenth Air Force requires fusing cross-functional data and tradecraft to synchronize joint fires and to generate outcomes greater than each individual capability. The 480th ISR Wing, embedded within the Sixteenth Air Force, maintains special accesses, AOC connections, and ISR C2 authorities, which place Airmen at the crossroads to provide connectivity across the force to allow coordinated actions in support of a common objective. Additionally, as advancing technologies for tomorrow’s fight inherently generate new vulnerabilities, the Wing’s organic Mission Defense Teams (MDT) are postured to protect networks. MDTs ensure persistent and survivable battle architecture and recommend defensive actions to commanders.  Information Warfare Airmen will play a decisive role in the JADC2 warfighting capability; however, Airmen will depend on access to partner capabilities that enable synergy outside the Joint Force. Our nation must focus on building integrated teams that can enable timely effects across the continuum and drive effective Joint All-Domain Operations.  

Way Forward

The Air Force aims to “increase the quality and quantity of ISR production with fewer Airmen while remaining competent across the range of military operations.”  The Air Force can achieve this goal if AAA-enabled solutions eliminate redundancy and allow Airmen to focus on the most pressing analytical challenges. Lt. Gen. O’Brien insists the Air Force “streamline the speed and accuracy of repetitive tasks to shift human cognition toward higher-level reasoning.” Gen. Charles Brown conveyed a similar message in that “we must accelerate change now.” The military must innovate to successfully execute JADC2 operations and shorten the kill chain while preventing adversaries from degrading it. Our success hinges on the ability to deliver a persistent, connected, and survivable sensing grid to compete across the conflict continuum. Sense-making Airmen (the means) enabled by effective AAA solutions (the methods) and an integrated battle network (the capabilities) generate the information advantage and decision dominance required to compete against our technologically advanced adversaries. The roadmap enables the Joint Force to understand, decide, and act faster than adversaries. Smartly integrated AAA solutions will unleash the unimaginable talent of our Airmen.

Capt Tyler “Mars” Troesch is currently the Executive Officer for the 480th ISR Wing Commander and an action officer for the Wing’s Strategic Initiatives Group. He is finishing a MS degree in International Relations, regionally focused in Europe and Eurasia, from Troy University. Email: 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

Featured Image: Image Created by 480th ISR Wing

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