AF looks to IT to help field 'agile' forces

MONTGOMERY, Ala.— Information technology will play a major role in a new Air Force initiative to improve the ability to respond to crises around the globe, according to Gen. George T. Babbit, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, who kicked off the 12th Annual Air Force Information Technology Conference (AFITC) last week.

The Air Force's concept of the Aerospace Expeditionary Force (AEF) aims to leverage the capabilities of advanced IT and digital communications to allow smaller, lighter and more flexible "force packages" to deploy to trouble areas or hot spots around the world on short notice.

"Robust, available [and] secure" military networks are the key elements that will enable the Air Force to move forward with the AEF, Babbit said. IT is the key to making the AEF a reality, Babbit told conference attendees.

The concept is similar to the Marine Corps' Marine Expeditionary Unit-style of deployment, where small, highly mobile units can deploy with their own pre-defined set of supplies for a period of time ranging from 30, 60 or 90 days without being reloaded with supplies.

Advanced communications and IT tools provide the "reach-back" capability— what Babbit called "agile combat support"— which is necessary for obtaining additional support from bases in the United States, he said.

"When I think about user-friendly communications, I think about the telephone," said Babbit, referring to the reliability of service most people take for granted today. "That's the same level of confidence" our warfighters should have when they attempt to access intelligence and planning data, Babbit said.

However, staying true to the theme of this year's conference, "Global Information Assurance for the Warfighter," Babbit said it is critical that the military "ensures the integrity of our data" through the use of centralized access control points.

"A hole in the information security fence at Maxwell Air Force Base" is just as important as a hole in the information security fence in Saudi Arabia, Babbit said. Attaining the appropriate level of security and reliability is a matter of casting the Air Force's vision out 10 to 20 years and then building systems that meet those requirements, he said.

"Maximizing the use of IT is our future," Babbit said. "Your challenge is to reject the status quo."

But the Air Force is a long way from realizing the goal of a global grid and seamless communications across architectures and systems, said Peter Nesky, chief architect for the Defense Information Infrastructure at the Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.

Today "there's not a radio out there that has [the] kind of capability" being talked about by industry visionaries such as Scott McNealy, president and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., Nesky said. McNealy, speaking at AFITC last week, predicted that computing would become just another utility service and would be made up of much simpler devices than the desktop PC.

"The Air Force needs a mobile infrastructure" that is not yet available, Nesky said. The Air Force's goal is to get to the point where "every node [is] a gateway." Only then will the architecture exist whereby "the global grid expands and contracts as a function of the mobile platform's location," Nesky said.

But Sun's McNealy may have made the biggest splash at this year's conference, predicting once again the demise of the desktop PC. (Please see related story on Page 69.)

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