USAF: From Air to Space

Kenneth Bray reflects on ongoing and future changes for USAF ISR, and how commercial capabilities will help them achieve their new goals.


Kenneth Bray closed out USGIF’s 2022 GEOINT Service Day dedicated to the Air Force and Space Force with an overview of where the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is today, where it’s headed, and how industry can help get it there. As the USAF Acting Associate Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Cyber Effects Operations, Bray is in charge of policy formulation, planning, evaluation, oversight, and leadership. Opening his keynote, Bray said, “I am a force provider to the warfighters. And we are changing. We are changing radically, so there are opportunities for you to help us all—across government and across industry.”

The USAF has some big changes in progress and on their way, guided by the 2018 shift in the National Defense Strategy to focus on global peers such as Russia and China. The strategy itself outlines three pillars that the USAF has adopted to align themselves with national goals: Integrate Deterrence, Campaign for Change, and Build an Enduring Advantage for the U.S.

One of the biggest changes to USAF operations that Bray shared is an ongoing push toward spaceborne platforms. As the service decommissions the Global Hawk Block 30 and 40 and the U2 throughout this decade, space-based systems will serve as a replacement. While the USAF has always and will continue to use aerial platforms for their ISR work, Bray acknowledged that space is the new frontier. Space-based systems not only provide highly accurate and precise location capabilities, but they also provide access to geographic areas denied to aerial platforms during peacetime.

Simultaneously with this move to space, the USAF is reimagining how to make a good sensor. While the service’s focus used to be on increasing the quantity, range, and fidelity of their air- and space-based sensors, they’re now shifting to a “working backward” approach: What data do they need and how can they design a sensor (or find a commercially available one) to best fit that use case?

With these changes, Bray sees a huge opportunity for commercial providers. He specifically would like to see the GEOINT community assist with the creation of new battle management systems, development of space-based moving target indication capabilities, and hardening of infrastructure (both kinetic and non-kinetic) to withstand conflict. Because of the prevalence and success of commercial spaceborne capabilities, he anticipates a big investment coming soon in how the USAF ingests both government and commercial sources and puts them together.

The ongoing necessity to bring together data from multiple sources exposes another necessary change for not only the USAF, but all U.S. armed services: a greater focus on data standards. While the armed forces haven’t necessarily supported certain data standards in the past, that’s quickly changing. “We will be applying data standards in everything that we move forward with,” said Bray, “so that we can ingest and use our own algorithms or somebody else’s.”

The shift to commercially sourced data will not only provide new data to the USAF, it will also lead to an increase in the amount of data available for exploitation. This, according to Bray, means that the USAF is also looking for assistance with automating systems of analysis and exploitation, allowing human analysts to focus on the big, complex, unstructured problems that computers struggle with. “We need you to help us go through your data and our data, so that we’re taking the best piece of data to try to solve a problem,” he said.

So, what exactly is the USAF looking for from industry, besides space-based platforms and sensors and raw data? According to Bray, algorithms to implement rapid AI/ML analysis, modeling and simulation technologies, and cloud environments, among other emerging technologies. In short, “if you’re about data, [the USAF] wants to talk to you.”

In closing, Bray reiterated the push toward spaceborne platforms and commercial capabilities: “We are the Air Force. We need space to do our job. We will still have air in the future—very good air—but we’re going to get a lot of space.” In order to do so, the USAF needs to bring in not only new commercial platforms, but capabilities related to data science, automation, augmentation, and artificial intelligence.

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