C4ISR Concerns for Air Mobility Command

By Isaiah Oppelaar

Last week, in an interview with General Carlton D. Everhart II, the Commander of USAF’s Air Mobility Command, OTH highlighted some of the issues with future multi-domain operations, specifically those limited by the current equipment. This article will dive into some of the specific systems that support the C2 architecture mentioned by Gen Everhart and highlight some of the vulnerabilities that currently exist.

Underpinning the capabilities of US Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability is the logistics necessary to deploy, sustain, and operate the system of systems, specifically those that reside in the USAF and provide the rapid global mobility capability. Although logistics systems are not normally viewed as vital components of the C4ISR infrastructure, many of the systems automatically transfer huge quantities of data between command and control (C2) systems and the logistics systems. The USAF uses a “networked suite of Automated Data Processing (ADP) applications, tools, and databases, which reside on the Global Command and Control System (GCCS)…to submit CCDR movement requirements to USTRANSCOM.”

Air Mobility Command C4I systems

The system of record for USAF deployment and sustainment operations is Deliberate Crisis Action Planning and Execution Segments (DCAPES), which provides “a consolidated environment for planners at all command levels to access and influence force projection data.” “DCAPES helps joint combatant commanders reduce the fog of war” by allowing commanders to know where their assets are, how to employ them, and providing a clearer picture of logistics, manpower, personnel, and operations. In short, DCAPES manages the USAF contribution to the joint force by providing unclassified and classified deployment data and “automat[ing] the daily process of querying the DCAPES/JOPES (Joint Operational Planning and Execution System) operational plans” for requirements.

In addition to DCAPES, the USAF also provides the capability to transport massive amounts of cargo, personnel, and materiel by air. This movement is scheduled, tracked, and managed by a system tied to JOPES and DCAPES called the Global Decision Support System (GDSS). GDSS, “is the TRANSCOM system that provides command and control capabilities to the planning and management of airlift missions. Because GDSS supports airlift missions, the Air Force serves as the executive agent for TRANSCOM and manages the program […] integrating data and applications for optimal mission planning, as well as storing, sharing, and protecting that data.” Due to the multi-modal process for cargo deployment, AMC shares much of the information in GDSS with civilian partners who work within the same distribution chain. Classified missions are not tracked in the unclassified version of GDSS, but some sensitive missions, such as the transport of nuclear warheads, are assigned in GDSS as Special Assignment Airlift Missions (SAAM) with the classified payload details omitted. When tied to the other systems, USTRANSCOM’s air component, Air Mobility Command, through the 618th Air and Space Operations Center, manages the daily logistics air requirements across the globe.

Regional Commonalities and Differences

Each geographic combatant command (GCC) has unique challenges for logistics due to the varying nature of the terrain comprising the Area of Operations, the distance between ports of embarkation and debarkation, status of allies and partner nations, and numerous other political and military challenges. Pacific Command, due to its vast size, requires significantly more air and sea logistics than European Command, which can source many items from within its AOR and use Europe’s expansive rail network to move items. However, when looking at the specific logistics networks mentioned above, each GCC faces unique challenges.

USTRANSCOM manages the inter-theater logistics requirements for all regional combatant commands via the 618 AOC for air delivery, the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command for ground transportation, both of which are at Scott AFB in Illinois, and the Military Sealift Command, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia, with five area commands corresponding to the five USN fleet commands for maritime delivery. For USTRANSCOM, rail and sealift is the preferred method for logistics delivery. For many pieces of equipment, rail and sealift may be the only transportation solution due to size or weights attributes precluding airlift. However, for the GCCs, airlift is often the preferred method because the equipment arrives as much as a month or more faster and potentially delivered much closer to the final destination. Additionally, the only method to deliver cargo to airfields or airdrop in higher threat environments is by military airlift.

Within each geographic combatant command, the flexibility of logistics capability of the USAF depends greatly on the robustness of the en route structure, the Global Air Mobility Support System (GAMSS). GAMSS is the collection of airfields, personnel, command posts, maintenance, and cargo capability around the world currently in place to support logistics movement. In some areas of responsibility, such as NORTHCOM, EUCOM, and CENTCOM, the GAMMS infrastructure is well established, redundant, and secure, enabling rapid global mobility via airlift as well as transitioning to intermodal transportation. In other AORs such as AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM, the USAF has virtually no en route capability, which forces a reliance on beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) communications for in-transit visibility and accurate tracking and transfer cargo, equipment, and personnel.

Multi-Domain Vulnerabilities

The US C4ISR capability requires ongoing deployment and sustainment to accomplish its mission and the complexity of managing so many moving parts leads to many potential vulnerabilities. From the air refueling required to deploy E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and E-8 JSTARS to the correct location to execute the ISR mission, to moving the special JP-7 fuel required by the U-2 for high-altitude operations, to the radars needed for area air defense, the logistics network schedules, tracks, and delivers the necessary people and equipment where and when it is needed. Ships, for example, travel very slowly, interact with multiple systems to ensure proper loads are put on, provide constant location updates via commercial satellite systems for in-transit visibility, traverse known choke points such as the straits of Gibraltar or Hormuz, and must offload at established deep-water ports. Each of these steps provides opportunities for the adversary to make decisions within the transit time. For air, most missions are managed from an unclassified system, as cargo loaded onto the aircraft comes from contractors or the Defense Logistics Agency, and is offloaded at the aerial port of debarkation to contractors for final ground transit. Missions are managed in transit using unclassified commercial satellite communications such as Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). ACARS is the “primary means of communication for official messages when the aircraft is not within UHV/VHF range.”

Unfortunately, Air Mobility Command lacks secure BLOS communications on the majority of mobility aircraft and civilian contract airlift. As of 2006, AMC sought to deliver a capability called Real-Time Information into the Cockpit (RTIC) to enable “[Mobility Air Force] aircrews real-time, global, secure voice and data (capable of machine-to-machine and human interface) command and control (C2) and situational/threat awareness.” Furthermore, “aircrews must be able to access required C2 agencies, securely while in-flight, to exchange maintenance status, flight plan updates, and identified threats.” This statement implies the MAF lacked the ability to securely communicate, which is confirmed in the next portion of the document by referencing a series of interim solutions to cover the gap from 2006 until the fielding of RTIC. As of 2011, the US Air Force still had not installed RTIC into any active duty mobility aircraft, but let a contract for the first 28 C-130Js and 24 C-17s to receive the upgrade.

amcc2 kenney

Although the USAF has been working for many years on a fleet-wide C4I capability for its 1,100+ mobility aircraft, it has failed to deliver a common system for a number or reasons. In February of 2011, the Air National Guard released its National Guard and Reserve Equipment Report for Fiscal Year 2012, which identified a shortfall in its ability to “provide timely information to aircrews” and enable those aircrews to “[p]articipate in the present day network-centric battle space and greatly increase survivability in combat operations.” Due to a lack of active USAF support for the system, the ANG pursued its own solution to the secure-communications problem by using $9.6M National Guard and Reserve Equipment Appropriation (NGREA) funds to fund procurement of a system. However, in August of 2011 the United States Congress passed the Budget Control Act paving the way for the massive cuts to defense spending known as sequestration, resulting in the cancellation of numerous acquisition programs to include secure BLOS C2. The USAF has continued to purchase new C-17A and C-130J aircraft, however, while simultaneously developing the KC-46A program for tanker recapitalization. Unfortunately, the USAF has not solved the problem nor installed a secure BLOS C4I system into even a fraction of the 1,100 mobility aircraft executing global logistics, evidenced by the FY2015 Air National Guard Resolutions Package, which requested, “[a]dditional funding for KC-135 RTIC” and “[a]dditional funding for C-17 RTIC.” The FY2017 package again requests an additional $170M for KC-135 RTIC.

Currently, AMC still lacks secure BLOS C2 for the vast majority of AMC’s aircraft.

The lack of airborne global secure C4I coupled with a strong reliance on large numbers of civilian and foreign contractors to enable the DOD’s global logistics capability presents a critical vulnerability to any future US military operation. The vast majority of C4I systems used by USTRANSCOM and the USAF mobility enterprise were developed and procured in the 1990s. Although these systems undoubtedly have gone through many modernizations and security upgrades, the connections between military and civilian logistics networks have been in place for decades. Cyber attackers “are generally looking for human-machine interface solutions,” utilizing mismanaged credentials or using memory corruption vulnerabilities to destabilize a country and achieve military objectives. Using these methods, adversary cyber teams could have gained access to any number of USTRANSCOM systems, including GDSS and DCAPES. It is likely that state-sponsored cyber forces potentially have persistent access to sensitive-but-unclassified USTRANSCOM information networks giving them the ability to monitor the movement of personnel, cargo, and equipment worldwide. In the event of conflict, these states could continue either to passively view the information, or use their access to disrupt or deny the use of the systems by the joint force and our allies.

The reliance on unclassified information systems to track classified missions leads to potential operational security vulnerabilities. For example, due to the limited locations of weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, it is possible to derive the flow of weapons to various locations. If an aircraft known for carrying weapons arrives at a specific base and then flies to a base in a region with heightened tension, an adversary could use information on the unclassified system to glean US intentions prior to the US wanting those intentions being made known. Furthermore, the adversary could also take political, cyber, or military action to preclude US positioning in the region. This same methodology, though looking at slightly different indicators, can be used to track most vital US C4ISR systems deployment and operational status. Accept in very acute and deliberate situations, the logistics requirements of the most sophisticated and sensitive C4ISR capabilities will show indicators of movement, deployment location, and operational status on unclassified USTRANSCOM C4I networks.

Vulnerabilities in Future Operations

Future operations by the US military require the ability to deploy, sustain, and operate from large numbers of potentially remote or austere locations to maximize survivability and reduce the impact of enemy actions. The sustainment portion of this shift in operating philosophy requires significant improvement before any operation of this type goes into execution. A recent RAND study, entitled “Implementation Actions for Improving Air Force Command and Control through Enhanced Agile Combat Support Planning, Execution, Monitoring, and Control Processes,” seeks to dissect some of the historical problems with the Agile Combat Support (ACS) core function of the US Air Force.

The scenario envisioned by this new operating concept varies depending on the adversary and theater, but a common theme is the ability to rapidly deploy and stand up combat operations from virtually any location. One such program is called “Rapid Raptor,” which “[s]eeks to quickly deploy a package of F-22 Raptors and supporting logistics to any forward operating base in the world, and have the aircraft in combat-ready status within 24 hours of employment.” To meet this requirement, the aircraft require significant amounts of sustainment, including fuel, munitions, maintenance, additional pilots, and C2. “USAF airmen evaluate Rapid Raptor concept in Guam.” In addition to the C-17 cargo aircraft, the F-22s required, “the 36th Contingency Response Group (CRG) as a part of the detachment supporting Rapid Raptor [providing] tents, water and air conditioning in addition to moving and inspecting the cargo.” This article begins to show the complexity of moving even a small number of combat aircraft to austere locations. For F-22s, they not only require two airlift aircraft (C-17s in this case), but almost assuredly require air refueling due to the vast distances between Pacific bases and the lack of alternate landing locations. Added to this is the CRG which provides most of the basic infrastructure and C2. “The [Contingency Response Element] (CRE) is a deployed organization at forward locations where air mobility operational support is nonexistent or insufficient. The core capability sets of a CRE are command and control (C2), communications, aerial port, and aircraft maintenance and can be tailored to support contingency requirements.” The Rapid Raptor program shows that deploying only four F-22s takes a significant ACS team to support and sustain the operation.

amcc2 usaf

When operations such as Rapid Raptor are expanded to protect key pieces of the Air Force’s C4ISR capability, the ACS problem becomes exacerbated. “[I]ndividual resources are currently managed and controlled independently—some theater by theater and some globally. However, there is little integration across supply chains or among functional capabilities.” This means that in a resource-stressed environment spread across a potentially large series of disparate and austere airfields, Air Force C4ISR systems may not receive the sustainment required for large-scale high tempo operations. According to RAND,

There are not enough ACS assets to satisfy every operational demand as outlined in OSD planning guidance. A defined process is lacking for determining which operation will have priority and which planners will need to replan because assets are being reallocated to another theater or because they will not have all the assets they planned for. The Air Force has not formally designated an organization to seek priorities from the President and SECDEF for allocating scarce resources among AORs. Currently, planners operate under the assumption that sufficient ACS resources exist and will be allocated to them when needed. However, this will not be possible if there are simultaneous, nearly simultaneous, or increased and continued steady-state events.

This limitation on ACS resources exists across combatant commands and becomes increasingly stressed when coupled with programs such as Rapid Raptor.


Air Force C4ISR capability is dependent on deployment and sustainment capabilities provided by multiple organizations using a mixture of classified and unclassified systems. These systems have significant vulnerabilities in regards to operational security and potential cyber attacks. Moreover, many of the aircraft tasked with deployment and sustainment lack secure and survivable C4I to adapt to mission and threat changes en route. Once deployed, even the smallest unit, a four-ship of F-22s, requires a significant logistics trail, including at a minimum one C-17 airlifter and support from a CRE. This ground support, known as ACS, is currently managed functionally with no organization tasked for synchronization or oversight, which limits the supply-chain visibility for all classes of supply. In a time of war, the logistics shortfalls inherent in the current system provide for multiple single-point vulnerabilities (SPVs) that could cause mission failure of the entire C4ISR capability of the US Air Force.

Isaiah “CHAFF” Oppelaar is a KC-135R/T Evaluator Pilot with over 120 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Unified Protector. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, a student at the USAF Air Command and Staff College, and a Senior Editor of OTH. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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