Air Force steps up efforts to merge air, cyber and space data

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Air Force Chief Data Officer Kimberly Crider: Space is one area where we have “huge opportunities for data analytics"

WASHINGTON — Air Force leaders were scheduled this week to hear new details about an initiative known as “multi-domain command and control.”

The esoterically named MDC2 is perhaps one of the most pressing priorities being pushed by Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. In simple terms, it is about how to use data as a weapon — taking data from sensors on the ground, in the air and in space, and turning it into intelligence for war commanders. Goldfein and other officials have argued that a consolidated picture of what’s happening in all combat “domains” like air, cyber and space is what commanders need to make decisions faster and gain better “situational awareness.”

How to do that specifically is still under debate. Creating a “force package” that brings all the data together from sensors around the world and in space is a central question that Brig. Gen. Chance Saltzman, who leads the MDC2 project for the Air Force, is looking into. “I don’t have the answer. I just know we need to investigate, experiment, and explore with those concepts to get it right,” he told a recent Air Force Association gathering on Capitol Hill. He said he planned to give an update to Air Force leaders Nov. 27.

The fragmented organization of the service has emerged as a major obstacle. A lot of information is locked away in stovepipes and not accessible to the users that need it. To fix this, the Air Force named Maj. Gen. Kimberly Crider as the service’s first chief data officer.

Only eight weeks into the job, Crider spoke with SpaceNews about her role in connecting different parts of the Air Force and bringing them into a “multi-domain” world. “How do we ensure that space data can link to air data and cyberspace data?” she asked. “We’re having that conversation.”

Space is one area where we have “huge opportunities for data analytics,” Crider said. Her office is now working closely with Air Force Space Command on “what’s the nature of the data architecture that would best support our ability to learn as much as we can about all the data we’re bringing down from space.”

The amount of data available to analyze continues to grow, and the increased deployment of sensors in space compounds the problem, she said. Crider has been in talks with the Defense Innovation Board, a Pentagon advisory panel that has pushed for greater use of artificial intelligence to cope with the data deluge.

“With so many new satellites and sensors, how do we take advantage of that?” she asked. “How do we apply analytics to understand what’s happening in space?”

Crider has convened an “Air Force data panel” with representatives from every major command. “We are trying to figure out how to link air, ground, cyber, space, so we can see things happening in motion.”

An experimental “combined air operations center” is being set up at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to test “no kidding multi-domain C2 capability,” she said. On the space side, Air Force Space Command stood up the National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, to better coordinate command and control between the military and intelligence communities.

Crider noted that the chief data officer’s post was intended to be autonomous and on an equal status with the chief information officer. “The CIO focuses on the infrastructure and we focus on the mission,” she said. “One of the best decisions the Air Force made was making the CDO an independent organization from the get-go. That gives me a lot of freedom to work with functional commands.”

Saltzman said the experimental operations center at Nellis will be up and running by late next summer and will host a series of multi-domain command-and-control war games starting in the fall of 2018.