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AFNIC History

Even though the Air Force became an independent service in 1947, its initial communications systems changed very little from the time it was the Army Air Forces. In point-to-point communications, for example, the old Army Command and Administrative Network formed the pattern of operations. The equipment installed was Signal Corps single-channel voice, telegraph, and torn tape relay, operated over low and high frequency radio and wire carriers.

One of the lessons communicators learned in World War II was the need for integrated communications systems. The first such integrated system for the Air Force was the Military Flight Service Communications System, installed in 1947. It handled flight plans and aided in the control of aircraft for all Air Force bases within the continental United States.

At the same time, navigational aids were set up along established air routes to enable aircraft to reach their destinations safely. Aircraft warnings, weather changes, and alterations in flight plans were instantaneously relayed to aircraft by high, and very high, frequency radio. The airfields themselves were connected to one another by interphone and teletype.

In the area of air defense, human operators on the ground watched radar scopes, then verbally guided subsonic manned interceptors toward suspect aircraft, and manually passed control to the next sector as the aircraft moved beyond the limited range of their radars. Air Defense Control Centers received verbal data from these operators, and the information was displayed manually by grease pencil on transparent plotting boards for use by commanders. Command and control functions between the ADCCs and the aircraft were by low and high frequency telegraphy and by high, or very high, frequency voice.

In the early 1950s, the changing global political climate and continued scientific developments combined to impact the Air Force critically. The Soviet Union had the atomic bomb by 1949 and detonated its first thermonuclear weapon in 1953. Jet aircraft rapidly replaced piston-driven aircraft. Air defense systems needed earlier detection, faster analysis, and more rapid and accurate communications to defend North America from possible Soviet nuclear attacks. No longer a local affair, air defense now covered the entire northern hemisphere and was dependent upon reliable long-distance communications.

When the launching of Sputnik I by the Soviets in 1957 demonstrated that they had the potential to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, the warning time needed to defend the United States against an enemy attack was drastically reduced to minutes. This Soviet missile threat led to the construction of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, known as BMEWS, which could survey the air space over the Soviet Union itself.

Each progressive extension of these air defense capabilities was accompanied by increasingly demanding requirements for communications. These requirements were changing so rapidly and drastically that the basic systems and techniques which had once proved satisfactory were soon outdated. Weapons, radar, and communications could no longer be operated as separate systems joined by human operating links. The need to reduce the time lapse by the greatest amount possible, while attaining the highest reliability and accuracy, called for meeting stringent new requirements.

Such new capabilities became possible with the advent of the electrnic computer and the development of associated data processing, conversion, and transmission equipment. The electron tube, the transistor, and a common-language system of digital data gradually reduced the human functions to maintenance and decision-making. The first attempt to incorporate these new elements into a single system was the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment system, which became operational in 1957.

The decade of the '60s marked both a challenge and a revolution in Air Force communications. Rapid advancements in electronic communications technology combined with dramatic changes in the world political situation had an impact on Air Force communications. The most visible manifestation of this impact was the creation, in July 1961, of the Air Force Communications Service as a major command.

Communications had always been an integral part of the various air commands, with each commander owning and operating most of the facilities needed to support his mission. Increasingly, however, the evolving character of military operations dictated centralized control over widely dispersed forces. At the same time, the mounting costs of communications equipment made individual command ownership and support increasingly prohibitive.

By the early '60s, most Air Force leaders accepted the idea that command, control, and communications were inseparable, and the Air Force needed to find a way to achieve a new management concept for its growing global networks, which already transcended geographic, political, and military boundaries. Over the next few years, Air Force communications responsibilities were consolidated under AFCS.

In terms of communications themselves, two of the major developments in the 1960s were the increasing use of computers and the introduction of miniaturized electronic components using integrated and high speed data circuits. The former permitted large scale data recording and analysis; the latter opened new avenues in the communications field. In many ways, the development of high-speed, inter-base record communications systems provided the most dramatic accomplishment in Air Force communications during the early '60s.

One of the most significant technological innovations to enter the Air Force's communications inventory in the 1960s was the communications satellite. After a series of experimental satellites paved the way, such as SCORE and Echo, the military use of satellites became a reality in the late '60s. Under the Initial Defense Communications Satellite Program, the first communications satellite terminal was placed in operation at Clark Air Base, Philippines, on July 1, 1967.

The evolution of United States defense policy in the 1960s, from a primary orientation toward massive retaliation to one that emphasized controlled response, was the result of both gradual developments and situations that required immediate and selective responses. A series of events in this decade, highlighted by the American involvement in Southeast Asia, dramatically increased efforts to improve the responsive capability of the Air Force.

It was during this period that the continuing Cold War climate and the emergence of contingencies in "Third World" countries like Lebanon and the Congo forced the Air Force to place increased emphasis on developing quick reaction capabilities. In August 1960, Air Force headquarters directed that a prototype flyable communications "facility" be developed to conduct operational tests and evaluations as a model command and control aircraft to serve as an initial, on-site communications facility for contingencies. Ultimately, the result of this directive was "Talking Bird," an air-transportable communications package designed to be loaded in a C-130 and operated from within that aircraft after landing in a contingency area.

The war in Vietnam dramatically tested the responsiveness of communications operators to the various demands of tactical combat as well as counter-insurgency operations. Air Force communications played a critical role in Southeast Asia, providing a wide range of communications services including point-to-point within Southeast Asia, communications to and from the area, and air traffic services throughout the region.

Southeast Asia also proved to be a theater where new communications techniques and equipment were tested. For example, satellite transmission from a tactical theater of operations was employed for the first time in South Vietnam. In June 1966, the first satellite communications terminal in South Vietnam was installed near Ton Son Nhut, using the Synchronous Communications Satellite to provide a very limited one voice and one record circuit between Saigon and Hawaii.

With Air Force communications operations circling the globe, and political and technological forces calling for continued alterations and modernizations of cable, microwave, and tropospheric transmission systems, Air Force communicators, throughout the 1970s, worked on hundreds of communications projects. Among the more significant efforts were microwave modernization programs, transmitter and receiver modernization efforts, satellite communications development, high frequency modernization programs, and updating on-base communications, weather communications, and all aspects of air traffic services.

The full impact of technology is often felt only when separate but complementary threads of invention are drawn together to create new and powerful capabilities. In the 1980s this was exemplified by the merging technologies in communications and data automation. State-of-the-art technology in both disciplines evolved at an unprecedented rate, and simultaneously, the price of small personal computers dropped tremendously.

The lines of demarcation between computers that communicated, communications devices with an innate computing function, and office automation equipment became blurred. The term coined to describe this merged technology was "information systems."

An Air Staff study conducted in early 1982 looked at the growth of information technology and concluded that the Air Force was no longer a leader in this area. As a result of that study, Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, then Air Force Chief of Staff, directed the integration of communications and automation in the Air Force, which, under his direction, proceeded rapidly.

One of the Air Force's major data automation modernization efforts during this period was the program known as Phase IV which replaced the old supply and base level computers with a single system, composed of modern data processing equipment.

Beyond modernization, the underlying purpose of this effort was to provide all Air Force installations a standardized base computer system which would support such base functions as operations, supply, maintenance, personnel, and accounting and finance. Functional policies, operating procedures, and computer systems were integrated into a total systems approach, ensuring that each functional transaction was processed the same way regardless of mission location.

One of the most promising communications technologies devised in the early 1980s was the creation of Local Area Networks. In general terms, a Local Area Network was a base-wide or headquarters-wide communications network, such as the one for the Air Force Academy, designed to interconnect numerous pieces of data processing and communications equipment with a high degree of connectivity and/or interoperability.

These LANs helped alleviate some of the Air Force's communications requirements and problems because properly implemented networks were operationally flexible enough to allow easy addition or deletion of user equipment, or even the reconfiguration of equipment.

As indicated by the development of LANs and office information systems, the '80s marked the period when the "user" became the "communicator." No longer did the user need to go to the data or communications center; such capabilities were now sitting on everyone's desk.

Another of the major activities that occupied Air Force communicators in the early '80s was defining the role of communications in space. In November 1982, a number of panels, consisting of representatives from various major commands and separate operating agencies, began assessing the Air Force's role in space. In terms of communications, the goal was to develop an affordable space force structure that would ensure survivable communications.

One step toward that goal was the Air Force Satellite Communications program, a dedicated, ultra high frequency, worldwide satellite communications system intended to provide the Air Force secure, reliable, and survivable satellite communications for the 1980s and early '90s. This satellite communications program was designed specifically to send emergency messages, direct forces, and provide a network for Commanders in Chief. The first segment of the system became operational in May 1979, and on June 15, 1984, the Air Staff declared the entire system fully operational.

During this same period, the Air Force was involved with several other communications modernization efforts. Base telephone systems, fiber optics, Mission Effective Information Transfer System, and T-carrier programs were explored to exploit new technological advances to transmit voice and data. Simultaneously, network control improvements in the Dial Central Office Management Information System and the Base Central Test Facility concepts were examined.

As effective as these programs were, they remained a piecemeal approach to satisfying Air Force base level information switching and transmission systems requirements. Air Force communicators developed a new program to tie all these disparate elements together: the Base Information Digital Distribution System. The intent of this approach was to modernize base communications as a system by acquiring, installing and providing operations and maintenance support for digital transmission and switching systems which would provide increased transmission capacity and reliable, low-noise circuits to satisfy both voice and data requirements.

During the 1980s the Air Force was also increasingly involved in joint service programs such as Mystic Star, the worldwide, joint service, high frequency communications network that supported the President, Vice President, members of Congress, foreign heads of state, and other government and military officials by providing rapid, high quality, two-way, air-ground-air voice and data communications while aboard Special Air Mission aircraft anywhere in the world.

One of the biggest, continuing communications needs in the 1980s was providing rapid, but secure, communications. Several incidents, especially an explosion at an Arkansas Titan Missile site in September 1980, revealed a lack of timely and secure communications for dealing with nuclear weapon accidents. To correct this communications shortcoming, the Air Force Communications Command's commander, Maj. Gen. (later Gen.) Robert T. Herres, organized a small, elite, and highly flexible unit, called Hammer ACE, to provide secure voice communications between response teams and command posts during emergencies, contingencies, and special operations. This highly effective unit was used continually throughout the 1980s and '90s.

By the early '90s the world situation had changed dramatically. The most obvious manifestation of this change was the end of the Cold War, the guiding principle of American foreign policy for more than 40 years. In 1989, the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most visible symbol of that struggle, was demolished. That same year, the Warsaw Pact alliance of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, which had endured since the 1950s, collapsed.

Most of those Eastern European countries overthrew their Communist governments without interference from Moscow, and usually without bloodshed. The Soviet Union itself was increasingly beset by economic problems, internal ethnic and nationalistic unrest, and agitation for democratic reforms. In late December 1991, the Soviet Union passed into history as its constituent states became independent entities.

In the United States, certain groups began to agitate for a "peace dividend" and a reduction in military expenditures now that the Cold War had been won. About the same time, there were new disclosures that the Department of Defense was paying outrageous sums of money for some procurement items. Because of these developments, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney directed the military services to review their operations and focus on improving the acquisition process by finding more efficient, cost effective management methods. Eventually, this review was expanded to include all aspects of the military and its business processes.

Clearly, changes of such massive proportions would have an impact on Air Force communications and the way Air Force communicators did business. One of the most obvious changes was the restructure in the way Air Force communications had been organized for the past 30 years. Instead of a centralized, functionally-oriented communications command, the Air Force Communications Command, a new decentralized structure was adopted on Oct. 1, 1990.

At the same time the Air Force was reorganizing its communications structures, communicators themselves faced one of their biggest challenges with Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the American-led operation to protect Saudi Arabia and force Iraq to remove its troops from Kuwait. During that effort, highly effective communications were often supplied in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles.

Operations other than war became increasingly common occurrences in the 1990s. All of these efforts, from Provide Comfort for the Iraqi Kurds to peacekeeping actions in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, involved joint, and often combined, operations. Obviously, communications played a critical role in these endeavors.

By the mid-'90s, as never before, communications equipment had reached the point where the commander could have virtual control of his forces without necessarily being on the front lines. In many ways, especially when dealing with coalition operations, it became more of a political decision as to where the commander was located. At the same time, however, because of modern communications, the "on scene" commander was increasingly subject to sharing the control of his resources and decisions with others who were also in instantaneous communication.

One of the most significant military developments in the 1990s was the push toward interoperability. In the communications arena, this concept was given its voice in the publication C4I for the Warrior produced by the C4 Systems Directorate (J-6) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In looking at command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I), this pamphlet pointed out: "The Joint Force can no longer be viewed as the simple sum of Service and Defense agency-derived capabilities; rather the Joint Force must be the point of departure from which Service and Defense agencies derive those capabilities."

According to this publication, the "essence of the C4I concept" was to give the warrior "the capability to respond and coordinate horizontally and vertically to prosecute effectively and successfully any mission in the battlespace." By its authors, C4I for the Warrior was seen as a "much needed vision for which to strive and ... a roadmap of how to get there."1

Planners for the nation's military strategy picked up on this concept and declared: "Consistent with the _C4I for the Warrior' plan, all Service- and Agency-programmed systems must be compatible and interoperable to support joint and combined operations across the entire spectrum of conflict."2 Air Force communications planners showed how all these ideas fit into their own concepts in two publications, HORIZON and HORIZON _95, distributed in the mid-'90s.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force Chief of Staff, in 1995 remarked in his introduction to the second of these pamphlets that warfare in the past had been seen as four-dimensional: air, land, sea, and space. He contended, however, that "Now, information is recognized as the fifth operational environment, and information dominance across the spectrum of conflict is crucial to military success."3 In the two HORIZON documents, Air Force communicators came to terms with these ideas and advanced the vision of where they should be going.

To maintain American communications superiority, during the 1990s there were a number of modernization programs, many of them focusing on interoperability needs. One of the most critical of these was the Global Command and Control System. Replacing the old World-Wide Military Command and Control System, GCCS was the principal migration path for defense-wide command and control systems. As envisioned by its developers, GCCS ultimately would provide command and control of American forces across the full range of military operations and through each phase of force projection.

A concomitant system for support was the Global Combat Support System. What GCCS did for command and control programs, GCSS did for combat support. The latter was designed to establish a common foundation for combat support automated information systems. The GCSS emphasized using tested and widely employed commercial or government off-the-shelf products and practices to provide the common technical solutions required to satisfy combat support operational needs.

The 1990s also witnessed what many Air Force communicators saw as the wave of the future--the increasing use of such tools as Local Area Networks, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and networks like SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and NIPRNET (Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Network).

The common building block of most of these military systems, and indeed for the whole concept of interoperability, was the Defense Information Infrastructure specifications for a Common Operating Environment which provided a standard environment, "off-the shelf" software, and a set of programming standards that described in detail how mission applications would operate in that environment.

Another major organizational change in the communications functional area in the 1990s was the creation of the Chief Information Officer of the Air Force. On Aug. 8, 1996, Congress passed the Information Technology Management Reform Act. Under this act, the Air Force was given the full, independent acquisition authority for its information technology investments.

The act also required the appointment of an Air Force Chief Information Officer, who was given a broad mandate to improve the acquisition and use of information and information technology to support directly the service's strategic mission performance. Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall appointed the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition (SAF/AQ) as the Air Force CIO, and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Information (AF/SC) as the Deputy CIO.

During the 1990s, the concept of information dominance surfaced as a recurring theme in Air Force planning. In Joint Vision 2010 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for the U.S. military to have "the capability to dominate an opponent across the range of military operations." Air Force leaders believed that to do this required "Information Superiority, the capability to collect, process, analyze and disseminate information while denying an adversary's ability to do the same."

It was clear that both Secretary Widnall and General Fogleman were determined to pursue this concept of information dominance. In their 1996 published statement, Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force, they listed "information superiority" as one of the "core competencies" of the Air Force. As Global Engagement noted, "In no other area is the pace and extent of technological change as great as in the realm of information." Global Engagement continued, "Information Operations, and Information Warfare in particular, will grow in importance during the 21st Century."4

As part of this same effort to envision where the Air Force should be heading, the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board in the mid-990s examined communications and present conditions, then tried to project future developments in a series of publications entitled New World Vistas: Air and Space for the 21st Century. The SAB contended that "The crucial importance of detailed and timely knowledge and rapid communications to the successful pursuit of our new missions will demand creative use of commercial and military applications to an extent not yet encountered."

The SAB emphasized the critical role communications would play. The Board's succinct conclusion was that "knowledge and control of information is necessary for all missions, whether in peace or war, logistics or combat."5

Communications today are of the types that only science fiction writers dreamed of 50 years ago--wireless cellular telephones, laptop mini-computers, electronic mail, satellite communications. All of these were dreamed of, developed, and brought to fruition over the past 50 years. The challenge facing today's Air Force communicators is to build on those developments and support the Air Force Chief of Staff's long-range vision of keeping the U.S. Air Force as the world's leader in Information Superiority. In facing this challenge, Lt. Gen. William J. Donahue, Air Force Director of Communications and Information, stated clearly the communicators' response: " 'Dominant battlefield awareness' will be realized in our lifetime and we must do whatever it takes to assure that the information, and the systems that support it, are fully protected. Nothing short of success is acceptable--the alternative spells disaster."6