Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks to the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium, Orlando, Fla., Feb. 22, 2018. Credit: U.S. Air Force

ORLANDO, FLA. — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson warned young airmen that in a future war against a near peer rival, they should be prepared to fight without technologies that most consider essential, like GPS navigation and satellite phone lines.

Rival nations like China and Russia are developing advanced missiles and electronic weapons to target U.S. military space-based communications, command and control networks, intelligence analysts have reported. For better or worse, the most wired generation that ever lived will eventually have to deal with this problem.

Wilson called this the reality of preparing the military for the age of “great power competition.”

“Our relative advantage in air and space power is being challenged,” Wilson said in a keynote speech Thursday at the Air Force Association’s air warfare symposium.

“We still enjoy a powerful advantage,” she told a large audience of active-duty airmen. However, nobody can predict how long the current U.S. lead will last. Rival nations are “stealing the technology we developed,” Wilson said. “We no longer control or define the pace of innovation.”

The Air Force has grown accustomed to “exquisite command, control and communications,” she said. “You could talk to anybody anytime.” In a future conflict against a near peer adversary, access to that technology is not going to be guaranteed, Wilson cautioned. “We are going to have to expect you, as airmen, to take mission orders and execute in a confused environment where communications is not assured, and you still have to prevail.”

Wilson said fighting in “contested environments” will challenge airmen to come up with creative tactics. “That requires airmen to think and innovate without being told how to do everything.”

Since taking over as the Air Force’s top civilian leader, Wilson has urged the service to be less bureaucratic and rigid so younger airmen can get their ideas up the chain of command. At the AFA event, Wilson hosted a “Shark Tank” like event to showcase entrepreneurial airmen.

In the “great power competition,” she said, the advantage will not be for those who just create the best technologies but also to those who can “field them in creative ways.”

The message for troops in the field is that they have to focus on mastering the basics of fighting with degraded technology.

Wilson’s point is that we have to “go back to basics,” said Lt. Gen. Marshall “Brad” Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.

“Every technology has a counter technology,” Webb told reporters Thursday. Preparing for a contested battlefield against near peer powers requires “fundamental blocking and tackling,” he said. “It’s less about high-end technology, more about concepts.”

Air Force Special Operations Command Chief Master Sergeant Gregory Smith said troops routinely train to fight without GPS, cell phones or satellite radios. “We just ran a couple of exercises where we have to go back 20 years,” Smith said. AFSOC airmen are put through tough drills where they are sent into unknown territory and told to accomplish a task without the benefit of technology. “We tell them, ‘Here’s the commander’s intent. You deploy forward and we don’t have comms,” Smith said. “We trust they can meet commander’s intent.”

Smith told SpaceNews that conflicts in contested environments have been a focus of AFSOC for a long time, even though the issue of “denied space” is now grabbing more headlines and attention from senior leaders.

“As we see advances in competitor technology, we have to rethink ways to compete,” Smith said. “Just like we train to do without food or fuel, it’s the same with GPS or other technologies.”

Efforts to counter U.S. military dominance in space and what to do about it have been the subject of much debate in the Pentagon and the intelligence community.

Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, informed the National Space Council on Wednesday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that China’s capabilities to take down satellites or jam communications systems pose a real threat. “Russia and China are each developing counter-space capabilities to use during a potential future conflict with the United States,” Gordon told Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the NSC. China’s military is training to conduct “robust jamming that can threaten our ground and space infrastructure.”

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...