Hobbling supply chains is an easier way for adversaries to counter U.S. military forces than head-to-head combat.
U.S. Air Force officials are recognizing this, as Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper is envisioning the service fielding "logistics at the edge" capabilities to include manufacturing parts for aircraft at forward operating locations.
"You can imagine that once we're able to keep a base operating through tough times induced by an adversary, the next thing we'd be thinking about is how to make that base operate in an environment in the future that is contested, not just from a threat standpoint, but from the point of view that it may be cut off from resupply and logistics that would flow out of the United States," Roper told the AFWERX Fusion 2020 Base of the Future virtual event.
"Well, you can imagine--why defeat the warfighting edge of the Air Force, the fighters and bombers in flight, the Space Force satellites in orbit, if you can simply hold the logistics train that resupplies them at risk?" Roper asked. "So, things we would value in the Base of the Future is the ability to operate more austerely, more autonomously. Are we waiting for that airplane part to come in so we can fix a plane on the ground, or are we printing that part on site? Are we making things locally so we're not dependent on those supply chains? Are we able to reroute and do local logistics and maintenance at the edge?"
AFWERX's Agility Prime effort may influence the Base of the Future. What will be important for the Air Force is the "ability to do logistics at the edge that would traditionally require a very big airplane that is not affordable or sustainable in austere environments," Roper said. "The runways that are needed to keep those planes operating at the edge are not affordable in a broadly disaggregated way. Flying cars may change that. So changing the calculus for what we can do at the edge, whether being able to do more locally, being more autonomous or being more resilient [is important]. We have to be able to put a base in a box and take it with us...A lot of what we'll need to do in future bases will need to be palletized in a way that we can take it forward."
In the running to receive Air Force prototype contracts are 370 proposals presented at AFWERX on artificial intelligence and other capabilities to address six Base of the Future challenges.
Those challenges include improving base security and defense while increasing efficiency and effectiveness; increasing base resiliency by creating stronger infrastructure and the ability to rebound quickly; leveraging technology for operational effectiveness; creating a culture of innovation to allow the free sharing of ideas on base and increasing the speed of technology adoption; improving the well-being of airmen and their families as they face moves and other stresses; and reverse engineering legacy parts with the latest additive and agile manufacturing technologies.
AI may help address a number of challenges, including readiness.
"This idea of being a data-centric service is one I see in the makings, but it's a big pivot for us because every military currently defines itself by its platforms, the things that you can take pictures of, airplanes and satellites, ships and tanks, those things that are photographable, but data isn't," Roper said. "The Cloud isn't. Data architecture is even more obscure. So, if we have to value these, as much as we value our really snazzy fighter jets today, what a wonderful place to bring them in, to bake them into the very foundational concept of what a base is--a data centric entity...So, if you're an AI company, Base of the Future should be your home."
"There are so many, different opportunities to help us--logistics, operations tempo, maintenance, resupply--bringing the power of prediction that machine learning has and putting it to bear on practical problems for the military, both in peacetime and in conflict," he said.
The Air Force/MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, and the Air Force Data Office recently posted the first Datathon on the Puckboard project, a real-time collaborative scheduling website, to deliver AI for optimizing aircrew scheduling for Boeing C-17 transports, as scheduling C-17 squadron aircrew can be time-consuming, manually intensive, and prone to errors, thus leading to unpredictability, poor work-life balance for aircrews, missed training opportunities, and wasted funding.
The accelerator is also examining innovations to reduce U.S. military forces’ reliance on satellites.
Air Force Capt. Michael Kanaan, the accelerator’s director of operations, noted ongoing work on signal enhancement for magnetic navigation. The JuliaCon 2020 virtual workshop is to discuss the challenge.
"Harnessing the earth's magnetic field for navigation has shown plenty of promise as a viable alternative to other navigation systems, like GPS," Kanaan said. "When we talk about how we can operate in these contested or denied areas, we can use variances in the earth's magnetic sphere in order to discover that and then not need the necessary connection back to the satellite infrastructure."
The AFWERX Base of the Future initiative took root from Hurricane Michael's destruction of Tyndall AFB, Fla., in October 2018. COVID-19 has delayed a planned reopening of Tyndall, which sustained more than $4 billion in damage from Hurricane Michael and which moved Lockheed Martin F-22 fighters belonging to the 325th Fighter Wing to Eglin AFB, Fla., after the hurricane. The latter damaged some of those fighters. In September 2023, Tyndall is to begin receiving 72 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters.
The Air Force has been working with AT&T to rebuild Tyndall's communications infrastructure around 5G, which is to begin operation at the base this year, as Tyndall rebuilds over the next three to five years. 5G is to improve flight and maintenance operations at the base.
"Base of the Future has a wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries of 5G to start experimenting with Internet of Things 2.0 where increasingly more things at the edge are going to be things that move in the physical world, where there will be safety implications--drones, self-driving vehicles--all of which could make the Base of the Future much more efficient, much more able to operate autonomously, if we can keep the communications up," Roper said.