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Satnews Daily
August 22nd, 2016

USAF's New Warfare ...Satellites Instead Of Bombers Or Fighters 

US Air Force Academy

How many airmen does it take to turn off the lights?

That depends on whether you choose to use a computer virus or bomb the power plant. And it's a new question for Air Force leaders who are preparing for wars where computers and satellites could have as much impact on the battlefield as bullets and bombs.

The new tools were tested in the Nevada desert this month in a training exercise led by Colorado Springs Col. Deanna Burt. That Burt was in charge of the Red Flag training was a sign the Air Force is changing. As commander of Schriever Air Force Base's 50th Space Wing, Burt flies satellites instead of bombers or fighters and was the first space officer to head up the Red Flag training.

Burt said the Air Force is shifting to a new style of warfare that will integrate the service's entire arsenal, including space systems and computer attacks.

"You're going to take everything but the kitchen sink and throw everything you have at that enemy," Burt said.

Integrating computer warfare, satellites and air strikes is a concept that has long been discussed in Air Force circles, but has seldom been put to the test.

Brian Linn, a professor of military history at Texas A&M University, said the military has a rich history of trying new battle concepts in elaborate training exercises.

"A lot of those initiatives have been experiments that really didn't work," Linn said.

This latest shift could revolutionize warfare, Linn said, akin to the Army adopting tank tactics ahead of World War II.

The Red Flag training is designed as the toughest peacetime test for Air Force pilots. The exercise Burt led included 115 planes and hundreds of airmen on a massive Nellis Air Force Base training range that included 1,900 targets along with realistic simulations of enemy air defenses and flying adversaries.

It was also the debut for the military's newest fighter, the F-35 Lightning, which was flown by Marines during the training.

Burt said integrating satellites and computer experts required some planners and pilots to think in new ways.

"They weren't real familiar with cyber and space," she said. "I was able to push them out of their comfort zone early."

In the past, the Air Force has looked at jets, computers and satellites separately. The crews who worked in the different areas - called domains in Air Force speak - seldom trained together and war plans brought them together only at the highest levels.

This month that changed, with low-ranking officers hammering out attack plans that incorporated computer warfare techniques including using hackers to damage enemy anti-aircraft networks.

"How do you go against those networks to force those shooters to be autonomous?" Burt asked her airmen.

The training also recognized the possibility of space becoming a war zone. Fighter pilots were forced to deal with simulated jamming attacks on the Global Positioning System that's crucial to navigation on the battlefield. Space experts fought to overcome the enemy attack.

The level of training shows America's continuing pivot away from a focus on counterterrorism battles against groups including the Islamic State.

Burt said the three-week mock war simulated a "peer" enemy, meaning a rival state like Russia or China that possesses many of America's technological advantages.

Linn said the focus on technology in the training is reminiscent of past efforts to make the military more efficient in combat. The basic goal of battle, though, is unchanged he said: defeat the enemy.

"I have seen changes in the conduct of operations, but not in the fundamental nature of war," he said.

The conduct of war, though, could be in for huge changes soon, Burt said.

In addition to incorporating computer attacks and limited attacks on satellites, the next generation of war could verge on what is now science fiction. The colonel, who was one of the first space officers to attend the Air Force's weapons school, said rapidly evolving commercial technology could soon make manned commercial space flight commonplace.

When people head to space, their penchant for conflict could follow; "Star Wars" escapes the silver screen.

"The nature of warfare is changing," Burt said. "I tell my airmen every day that Luke Skywalker is not far away."

Tom Roeder