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Balancing operations in congested and contested environments

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --

Today’s complex security landscape, characterized by an increased rate of technological change and rising great power competition, means the Mobility Air Force (MAF) faces a unique set of challenges. While maintaining the underpinnings of our nation’s power projection is still our critical mission, we find ourselves balancing operations in contested environments with operations in congested environments.

Over the last several decades, the MAF has largely operated in permissive airspace, resulting in structures and processes built around efficient delivery, assuming bases are sanctuaries and access is presumed. With the ubiquity of air transportation crowding our skies and new technologies making it easier for our adversaries to disrupt our missions, assumptions about how we operate must be reexamined.

Mobility aircrews conduct their global mission every day, into nearly any environment. Maintaining access above another country’s sovereign airspace requires us to be good stewards of the international airspace system. When airspace becomes congested and reduced separation requirements drive updates to systems and procedures, MAF aircraft and crews are compelled to comply. This may result in continuous position broadcasting, automatic data linking and reliance on civilian navigation systems. During peacetime, using these updated technologies and following these rules result in increased safety, efficient mission execution and few limits to our access.

The MAF, however, is not a peacetime-only force. In the face of growing great power competition, our aircraft and crews also require the ability to operate in contested environments. The same technologies and procedures that enable the MAF to be good stewards of international airspace also produce critical vulnerabilities to our force. For example, while continuous position reporting enables air traffic controllers to have better visibility and safely put more airplanes in a smaller space, it also alerts adversaries to our location. Space-based navigation aids, that enable efficient routing in congested environments, are more susceptible to adversary interference and meddling. How, then, are our crews to respond when communications are compromised, and they cannot reach back to our global air operations center?

Balancing operations in a congested environment with those in a contested environment is not as easy as flipping a switch and going into stealth mode. It requires our mission planners, generators, and flyers to think differently about how we operate. Over the last several months, members of the 436th Airlift Wing have deployed to numerous exercises around the globe for this very purpose. Integrating with other military and civilian organizations and closely examining our processes have resulted in novel ways to operate.

The latest in this series was Air Mobility Command’s capstone exercise, Mobility Guardian, in which 2,500 mobility Airmen joined up with aviators from 29 of our international partners. During this three-week event, the MAF capitalized on the opportunity to enhance full-spectrum readiness, deliberately adding layers of complexity to a challenging scenario and preparing our Airmen to operate in the contested environments of the future. These exercises significantly enhance the readiness of the entire enterprise, and over time, we will become better at transitioning between operations in the congested and contested environments, enabling us to more effectively project power.