Software as a Weapon, AOC as a Base

The air and space operations center (AOC) is a weapon system.  We’ve heard it said so many times lately that it generally goes without intellectual challenge.  But maybe we should make sure that we understand what a weapon system is before much more energy goes into this concept.

It’s difficult to find a standard definition for the term “weapon system”.

The on-line DOD dictionary provides the Joint definition: “A combination of one or more weapons with all related equipment, materials, services, personnel, and means of delivery and deployment (if applicable) required for self-sufficiency.”  The same dictionary doesn’t define “weapon” so it might leave a person with some questions as to how the Air Force is using the term.  Is a command center a weapon?  Is an airplane a weapon?  What is a weapon?

While the Army publication “United States Army Weapon Systems” doesn’t define the term, it does list about 129 things that it declares to be weapon systems ranging from rockets, aircraft, and vehicles to an aircrew ensemble, and even a tactical operations center (TOC).  The broad-brush approach the Army uses with the term seems to mean it is anything that can be or is used by a soldier to do a job.  Certainly an AOC falls into that definition.

But what does the Air Force mean when it uses the term?  While “weapon system” is not defined in Air Force doctrine, it has been used by airmen for decades.  I can’t find it written anywhere, but we use it as a synonym for airplane.

However, by saying weapons system, we distinguished it from the manufacturer’s product with the understanding that the airplane was an essential part of a system which had dedicated operators, support folks, processes, procedures, and roles that all came together to support the fly, fight, and win mission of the Air Force.  Being associated with a weapon system has always meant that your career would follow a certain geographical/functional track until such time as you separated, retired, or administratively removed that association.  It defined your purpose as an airman.

So what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, if we keep our heads about us.  We know, the Air Force has a history of standardizing our weapon systems.  The manufacturer standardizes the airframe, but if the rest of it went freestyle there would be no interoperability between like units and thus efficiency would be lost.  We want a B-52 stationed in Minot to organize and train pretty much the same way a B-52 stationed at Barksdale does.  The same idea applies to all the other “weapon systems” in the Air Force, from C-17 to F-22.

Of course that only applies within a weapon system.  No airman would ever think of trying to force F-22s to be standardized with B-52 processes, roles, and procedures:  stuffing five crewmembers into the cockpit of an F-22 would be ludicrous; loading it with 200,000 pounds of jet fuel would be dangerous and impossible; not using the capabilities of the F-22 to fly, fight, and win against our enemies would be criminal.  That’s probably why the Air Force doesn’t refer to a base or wing as a weapon system.  All bases, like all wings are not alike.  They’re different.

What about AOCs?  Are they more like airplanes or airbases?

When Lockheed Martin Corp was awarded the contract to serve as the AOC Weapon System Integrator, the press release referred to 23 AOC sites:  five Falconer AOCs for theater operations; four “tailored” Falconer AOCs for homeland and strategic defense; two functional AOCs for space and mobility; and 12 AOC support functions for integration/testing/assessment, technical support, training, backup, and augmentation.  If in the process of “standardizing” all these AOCs, the Air Force attempts to make them one-size-fits-all, we’ll be taking a process that needed some work and turning it into one that might not work at all.

General Keys once said, “The AOC is fundamental to what makes us great as an Air Force.  If you have a group of airplanes but you don’t have an AOC, you don’t really have an air force, you have a flying club.”  We can’t mess up the AOC and expect to remain great.

The Air Force has made great strides towards correcting many of the problems that General Keys addressed back in 2003, proper training and management of resources.  With a formal training unit in place, AOC personnel now attend centralized initial qualification training and move to their respective AOC to attain their combat mission ready status through their unit training programs.  The AOCs are now working better than ever.

When it comes to standardizing the AOCs, maybe the airman’s view should be that AOC is like a base and the software is the weapon system.  After all, if bombers are tasked to disrupt, destroy, or degrade our enemy, airmen assigned to bases operate weapon systems to generate desired effects.  Likewise when an AOC is tasked to accomplish something, airmen operate software to generate effects.  Viewing software as a weapon system requires us to use a cyberspace perspective in relating the company that produces the software to an aerospace company that makes aircraft; the personnel that operate the software to aircrews that fly airplanes; and the personnel that support the platforms that enable the software to the entire support structure behind the success of our airplanes.

If software is considered the “weapon” in the DOD definition of a weapon system, the airman’s traditional paradigm of being tied to a weapon system becomes easier to grasp.  Using this cyberspace perspective may be the key to avoiding inflexible design in regards to which capabilities can be added to an AOC’s inventory.  If so, then the goal of organizing AOCs for useful data exchange through focused connectivity and interoperability would remain the challenge.  The AOC should be viewed more like a base is viewed.While some Air Force bases are very similar, each base is a little different from the others. Nevertheless, all the units assigned to each base must cooperate within certain parameters to meet the objectives of that base. It is through the diversity of complimentary capabilities throughout the world-wide network of bases that the Air Force is able to remain the nation’s primary air and space power.

It just makes sense.

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