Gen. James Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command. Credit: DVIDS

WASHINGTON — In a future war against a technologically advanced military foe, the U.S. Air Force may have to fight as it did in the industrial age: With little to no access to high-speed communications or big data pipes.

Air combat forces are hugely reliant on information networks and space systems, and adversaries are expected to target those capabilities regardless of how hard the U.S. military tries to defend them, said Air Force Gen. James Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command.

“It’s not something that we’ll ever solve,” he said Thursday during a talk at the Brookings Institution.

It is now assumed that enemies of the United States will use cyber and electronic weapons to attack American satellites and communications systems. The newly released National Defense Strategy recognizes that problem and specifically identifies Russia and China as nations that would seek to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities in cyber and outer space.

This is a reality that will not change, Holmes said. “It’s a continuous game, with the step and the counter step,” he said. ‘We will never have perfect comms.”

The minute one vulnerability is fixed, the enemy builds a new jammer or hacking tool, Holmes said. Air Force pilots are learning this as they prepare to fight in the so-called “contested battlefield,” he said. “This means “we routinely train for environments where we can’t talk to each other.”

Developing and deploying more resilient communications and space systems are among the Air Force’s top priorities, nonetheless. “We want to work on our ability to communicate, and on our ability to fight when we can’t communicate.”

Holmes said all branches of the military need to work more closely together in a “multi-domain” battlefield to stand a better chance to beat future enemies. The military services have joined forces in past conflicts but the next war could be much tougher and will require tighter integration, he said.

He listed three must-haves in multi-domain fighting. One is a live picture of the battlefield with “sensors pulled together in the right way to get the information that commanders need.” The second is “battle management” tools to analyze data in real time. And the third is resilient communications.

“All three depend on space capabilities,” Holmes said.

Figuring out how the military will protect satellites from enemy attacks is on the agenda of Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John Raymond. “He has to think about how he is going to reconstitute some of the aging parts of that system,” Holmes said. “He has to think about how he is going to defend them.”

Everyone talks about military forces on the ground and in the air being dependent on space, but it also works the other way around, Holmes said. Raymond will have to work closely with air and ground forces to help defend space, he added. For many years the Air Force has done “a day without space” exercises. “A day without space is a really bad day for the people in Air Combat Command when they go to the battlefield,” he said. “But a day without conventional terrestrial forces will also be a very bad day for space because many of the primary threads to space systems are launched from the ground.”

The plan is to bring everyone together in training exercises. “We’re working not just on how space will continue to support terrestrial war fighters but also on how terrestrial and air war fighters and multi domain war fighters will bring those tools together to help General Raymond’s forces operate.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...