The Digital Future of USAF and USSF

Panelists at USGIF’s GEOINT Service Day: Air Force and Space Force discussed the future of data, resiliency, and digitization in the airborne services.


USGIF’s 2022 GEOINT Service Day: Air Force and Space Force focused heavily on what future technology the USAF and USSF are looking toward. A panel titled “Geospatial Information and Technology Efforts” brought this issue to the forefront, bringing in experts from both branches as well as the private sector.

Moderated by Patty Mims, Director of Global National Government, Esri, the panel discussed Air Force and Space Force information and technology investments and how they can be integrated with geospatial data and software. They explored how the services can work with the GEOINT community to utilize data and software for precision, accuracy, timeliness, and assurance requirements in meeting mission objectives.

Data is front-of-mind for USAF and USSF leaders looking toward future service. Intelligence is created from data, and doing so requires collecting, processing, analyzing, and exploiting data in efficient ways. Maj Gen Clint Crosier, Director of Aerospace and Satellite Solutions, Amazon Web Services, and Former director of the DoD Space Force Planning Task Force, is seeing a shift in the USAF and USSF’s role from “flying satellites and launching rockets” to data. It’s now not only about launching hardware—it’s about what you can do with the data collected from those systems.

Crosier also pointed to technologies that enable data exploitation and “bring speed to the fight,” citing a need for “out of the box ways to process data…AI, ML, and quantum computing.” Preston Dunlap, Former CTO and Chief Architect Officer, Department of the Space Force and Air Force, agreed: “You can have all the hardware in the world, but if you can’t bring the information together to make use of it, then it doesn’t do you much good.”

In addition to data collection and exploitation, the USAF and USSF are seeking ways to become more resilient. Part of this task is striking a balance between security and flexibility. When there are just a few major operation centers around the country, those are the golden targets for enemies. In what could be a blessing in disguise, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the Intelligence Community to find ways of working remotely, while keeping sensitive information secure. Crosier envisions a future in which all operation centers are virtual “so that [people] can work from anywhere in the world…this creates an infinite number of resilient nodes. You cannot take out any number of their bases.”

Developing a resilient USAF and USSF will require digitization. Crosier hopes that the USSF will become a truly digital service, using a common platform and distribution system, or “digital backbone,” to distribute data securely, making it discoverable and searchable.

And where do GEOINT and its commercial providers fit in? Innovation, said Dave Harden, CEO and Founder of The Outpost and Outpost Ventures. Harden emphasized the importance of shifting workplace cultures to solve problems and think in innovative ways. He believes that the GEOINT community can contribute to the USAF and USSF and help the mission by overcoming a risk averse culture.

Crosier and Dunlap agree with Harden: Commercial capabilities and partnerships are the key to future Air and Space Force missions. Dunlap predicts that “private capital will become the predominant player” in the space, with services opting to procure commercial capabilities rather than “reinventing the wheel” and doing it themselves, while Crosier noted that “it takes innovation to do things different than how we have in the past.”

Harden encouraged the community to “figure out what your contribution is in GEOINT technologies that makes an impact,” and reminded them that “the tools are out there. You have to have the courage to use them.”

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