The Complex

The Air Force Still Has No Idea How Vulnerable It Is to Cyber Attack

This week the Air Force Association held its annual conference outside Washington in National Harbor, Md. This year's show was markedly slower than previous ones, with fewer attendees on the floor and in seats listening to the speeches being given by Air Force brass. One attendee working for a large defense contractor even told yours truly that the show was "dead." Still, there was plenty of news. Here are a few under-the-radar items that might have slipped through this week's coverage of the show.

The Air Force doesn't know how vulnerable its networks are to cyber attack.

The U.S. Air Force's Space Command is about a quarter of the way through an effort to figure out just how vulnerable its networks are to cyber attack, according to the service's top officer in charge of network defense.

"We're doing reviews of vulnerabilities on every network and this is a significant undertaking so it's going to take some time," said Gen. William Shelton, chief of Air Force Space Command during the Air Force Association's annual conference just outside Washington. "We're probably 25 percent done, somewhere around there."

The command is trying to build all new electronic systems with cybersecurity in mind, added Shelton.

Shelton's command is in charge of the Air Force's cyber arm, known as 24th Air Force, one of the largest cyber organizations in the armed services. 24th Air Force consists of full-time 5,400 airmen and civilian contractors who are joined by 11,000 reservists who serve on a part-time basis.

Right now, the air service doesn't have a full picture of all the weaknesses in its networks, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. Brett Williams, director of operations for U.S. Cyber Command. But, rather than focusing on fixing every vulnerability it finds, the service must figure out what data is of vital important and figure out a way of defending that from likely threats.

"As a commander . . . I'm gonna have way more vulnerabilities than I can address, so I need to go to the intel community and say, ‘is there adversary that has both the capability and the intent to affect this system that I care about that is my key cyber terrain, that is my most important set of systems right now,'" Williams told Killer Apps. Once a commander knows which vulnerabilities are most important, he or she can pour resources into protecting them from attack.

"About a year ago or so the Air Force did that with the [drone] enterprise," said Williams. In 2011, news emerged that the Air Force's drone control stations were infected with malware recording pilots' keystrokes.  "I would argue that as soon as that was done, something significant changed in that environment and it needs to be done again" with cyber.

Stealth Bombers as Spyplanes?

Meanwhile, it's starting to sound like the Air Force's new bomber might also pinch-hit as a long-awaited replacement to the legendary SR-71 "Blackbird" spyplane.

"Resource constraints are driving us toward fewer and fewer aircraft types, which then drives the idea of multirole [aircraft] to a whole new level," said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula during a speech on the future of Air Force strategic bombers. The ex-three-star general stepped down as the Air Force's top intelligence officer in late 2010.   "We need to build the next generation of aircraft to perform more than just one function."

He then repeatedly referred to the new stealth bomber that the Air Force is planning on buying as "the next-generation long-range ISR/strike aircraft." Deptula's comments echoed those made by several top Air Force officers during the conference arguing that the service can no longer afford aircraft that specialize in only one mission.

The retired general's remarks also come several months after the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Robert Kehler, said that he wants a new stealthy, fast, long-range spy plane to snoop on countries like China.

When Killer Apps asked the Air Force general in charge of the service's fleet of spy planes if he is developing a new stealth spy plane or if the new bomber will handle this mission, he gave a vague response.

"In terms of how we do ISR in a contested environment, I'm not gonna tell you exactly how I'm gonna do it but yes, I'm looking at different ways to do it with flying platforms, non-flying platforms, a family of capabilities," said Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command.  He added that he wants both a new bomber and an aircraft that can spy on an enemy with advanced air defenses by the 2020s. Maybe they'll be one in the same.

Spraying the Desert With Epoxy to Protect Ospreys

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is spraying landing zones in the New Mexico desert with epoxy to prevent damage to the engines of its CV-22 Osprey tiltrotors flying training missions there. The Osprey's have suffered from particles of earth damaging their massive engines whenever they get close to the ground since entering service with the Air Force and Marines late in the last decade.

The finicky engines must be pulled off the aircraft and repaired roughly every 250-300 hours of flying time due to the amount of grit that gets inside them when the aircraft land and takeoff in the field, according to AFSOC's chief of requirements Brig. Gen. Albert "Buck" Elton. To make the engines last longer, the command has started spraying epoxy down on stateside landing zones used by the CV-22s in an attempt to reduce the amount of dust kicked up by the craft as they land and take off.

On "training missions, we were wearing out our engines and that just wasn't acceptable," said Elton. "We can spray about a 300 foot radius helicopter landing zone" with a Rhinoliner epoxy to keep the dirt out of the CV-22s engines. "This is a cheap, fast way we can keep the dust down."

While this helps keep dust out of the engines on stateside missions, AFSOC mechanics can't go around the globe coating warzones with epoxy. The ultimate solution to the Osprey's problems with grit damaging its engines will be the development of high tech filters to keep sand out of the tiltrotor's motors.

"It's a short-term mitigation to keep the dirt out of the engines, what we really need is a good filter to be able to go anywhere," said Elton.

Terrible Tires are the F-35's Latest Problem

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has made a ton of progress over the last year and is on track to be combat ready with the Marines by late 2015 and the Air Force by late 2016. However, seemingly basic things like its tires are still causing problems, according to Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon's F-35 program manager.

"You would think that tires are not rocket science," said Bogdan. However, the tires used on the Marine Corps' version of the plane, the F-35B, are wearing out far too quickly. This is because the F-35B lands both vertically like a helicopter and like a regular airplane. Therefore, the plane's tires must be softer than a regular jet's tires in order to absorb some of the shock caused by a multi-ton jet landing vertically. Bogdan calls this softness "float." The problem is, the soft tires wear out fast when the F-35B takes-off and lands on a runway like a regular plane.

"Wouldn't you know it, that float and durability live kind of on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to designing a tire," said Bogdan. "Those tires today come off the airplane way, way, way too frequently, there is no way operationally we can sustain that."

Bogdan and his team have gone back to the F-35-maker Lockheed Martin and its tire-manufacturer, Dunlop, and said "hey, guys, give us a better tire; they are doing that."

The three-star general added that the military is not paying a dime for the new tires.

U.S. Air Force

The Complex

Predator Drones 'Useless' in Most Wars, Top Air Force General Says

The drones that have proved so useful at hunting al Qaeda are "useless" in nearly every other battlefield scenario, says a top Air Force general. So, for the first time, the Air Force is proposing culling the fleet of little, propeller-driven MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in favor of stealthier, faster aircraft.

This is because the slow, low-flying drones that killed terrorists in the last decade's wars have little chance of surviving against an enemy armed with even basic air defenses. Faced with declining defense budgets, Air Force officials want to retire many of the low-tech drones.

"Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment," said Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the air service's Air Combat Command, during the Air Force Association's annual conference outside of Washington.

"Today … I couldn't put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it," said the four-star general. This week, the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, revealed that an F-22 -- the planet's most sophisticated stealth fighter -- intercepted Iranian F-4 Phantom jets that were closing in on a U.S. Predator drone over the strait last March. In November 2012, Iranian Su-25 ground attack jets fired on, and missed, an American Predator over the strait.

In 2011, the Pentagon ordered the Air Force to have enough MQ-1s and MQ-9s to fly up to 65 combat air patrols (CAPs) around the world by this year. Each CAP consists of up to four drones. Even as the service worked to make this happen, it questioned the order, saying there was no official requirement stating the military's need for what many in the air service believe are little more than flying lawn mowers.

"We're trying to convince [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] that the 65 challenge -- while made sense to the people who gave it to us when it was given, and we dutifully went after it -- is not the force structure the nation needs or can afford in an anti-access, area-denial environment," said Hostage.

"Anti-access, area-denial" is the military's term for enemies armed with advanced radars, missiles, fighter jets, and electronic warfare systems meant to keep American aircraft, missiles, and ships far from their borders.

U.S. military planners expect the Air Force's ability to "stare" at targets 24/7 using its drone fleet to be there in future conflicts, said Hostage. "But they want it in a contested environment, and we can't do it currently."

MQ-1s and MQ-9s "have limited capability" against even basic air defenses, said Hostage. "We're not talking deep over mainland China; we're talking any contested airspace. Pick the smallest, weakest country with the most minimal air force -- [it] can deal with a Predator."

To keep its ability to stare at targets, the Air Force will have to buy stealthier, faster reconnaissance planes or figure out a way to look at an enemy from beyond the reach of its defenses.

The Air Force's top spy, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, echoed Hostage's comments, saying that after the war in Afghanistan ends, he wants the Air Force to get rid of a number of Predators and Reapers and replace them with stealthier spy planes.

"My argument would be, we can't afford to keep all of this capability, so we're going to have to bring some of it down," said Otto while discussing the 65 Predator and Reaper CAPs after a speech at the same conference.

This will free cash to invest in high-end drones and other spy gear that can be used against heavily defended targets, according to Otto.

"I think the place to take risk is in the permissive environment," said Otto of where he wants the service to spend its limited cash for buying new intelligence-gathering tools such as drones.

Once major U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ends in 2014, Otto may scale back the service's intelligence-gathering efforts -- including its drones -- from the fight against terrorism and refocus much of it on high-end threats posed by other nations. This will leave much of the service's anti-terrorism intelligence work to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and its fleet of Predators and Reapers, according to the three-star general.

This shift in intelligence resources may allow Hostage, who is in charge of the forces that fly the majority of the Air Force's drones, to be free to focus on replacing the Predators and Reapers.

"I need to shift the demographics of the ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] fleet," said Hostage.

"We have ways" of doing that, added Hostage, of his plans to modernize the unmanned spy-plane fleet.

"I'm not gonna tell you exactly how I'm gonna do it, but yes, I'm looking at different ways of doing it with flying platforms [and] with non-flying platforms -- a family of capabilities," said the general. "We have shown our joint partners a way of war that they're not going to want us to back away from, so we have to have that ability and my current fleet of 65 Predator-Reapers is not the answer."

He did, however, say that the stealthy spy jet, used to snoop on Iran's nuclear facilities and Osama bin Laden's hideout, is "absolutely one of my capabilities" that can be used for riskier surveillance missions. The RQ-170 is a secret Air Force drone that was spotted throughout the last decade operating out of the U.S. air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Service leaders acknowledged its existence in late 2009 after numerous pictures emerged of the mysterious aircraft at the Afghan base. The plane was believed to be used to spy on Afghanistan's neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, since there is no need for a stealth plane in the U.S.-controlled skies over Afghanistan. These suspicions were confirmed in 2011, when an RQ-170 crashed almost completely intact inside Iran.

This means that the plane can't necessarily be counted on to evade enemy defenses that are being developed. The Iranians, along with their allies, have had a chance to study the jet and learn how to track it. Furthermore, much of the technology used in the RQ-170 is nearly a decade old, meaning that it might be obsolete by the next decade.

Hostage said he needs new spy planes by the beginning of the 2020s if the Air Force is to stay ahead of potential rivals like China or Russia that are fielding -- and exporting -- advanced air-defense radars, missiles, electronic warfare gear, and stealth fighters.

Making things more complicated is the fact that simply fielding new spy planes won't cut it against modern defenses, said Hostage. Instead, DOD needs to look at all of its intelligence-gathering methods -- cyber, airborne, sea, land, and even human-based -- to figure out how these will be used to spy on rivals with advanced defenses.

U.S. Air Force