U.S. Air Force Heather Wilson speaking in July at the Air Force Sergeants' Association conference in Reno, Nevada. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Scott M. Ash

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — When Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently visited an air warfare command center in the Middle East, she was “struck” by how different things are now compared to just a few years ago.

The business of “precision strike” more than ever depends on information, Wilson told reporters Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference. What gives war commanders an edge, she said, is the ability to share “exquisite intelligence” across several time zones.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, appearing alongside Wilson, said the service is taking stock of this development and is rethinking future investments.

Specifically, technologies that improve connectivity and seamless networking will take priority over traditional military hardware. “Are we having a platform discussion or are we having a network discussion?” he asked. “We ought to be having a network discussion.”

This thinking already has triggered a shakeup in Air Force procurement plans. A multibillion-dollar acquisition of a new surveillance aircraft to replace the JSTARS radar airplane is being reevaluated and is at risk of being terminated if an ongoing study concludes that it does not fit with this data-centric approach.

The data is what matters, not the platform, insisted Wilson. Sensors are in space, on the ground, at sea and in the air. “Can you fuse that data to get a better picture of the battlefield than you can get with JSTARS or a follow on?” she asked. “Can we meet combatant commanders’ requirements by fusing data rather than just having a better version of what we have today?”

In a keynote speech earlier at the conference, Goldfein summed it up with one question: “What would happen if we looked at the world as a network instead of as individual platforms?”

A greater emphasis on networks could make the military more dependent on space systems, requiring more investments to boost the capacity and the survivability of space and ground-control systems.

“If you are an airman we own space,” he said. “We own it based on an obligation we have to own space superiority for the future.”

The Air Force will train and prepare officers to bring “air, space and cyber capabilities together with all other elements of the military campaign.” Goldfein said. He also called on airmen to “acknowledge the inherently joint nature of air and space power.”

Just as the Air Force has taken steps over decades of war to better support naval and ground forces in combat, it will need to step up support for the space commander, said Goldfein. “That’s what we mean by ‘normalizing’ space,” he said. “The tried and true supported relationships we perfected in the air and sea, we have to apply them to space,” he said. “What we’re doing in Syria is what we want to bring to space.”

Air Force leaders’ emphatic show of support for space comes as a showdown looms on Capitol Hill over language in the House version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would create a separate military service to focus entirely on space.

Wilson and Goldfein have pushed back against the House provision, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Their best hope is that Senate negotiators — who did not support the House language — find a way to get it removed from the final bill.

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...