Interview: Lt. Gen. William Shelton
Air Force CIO and warfighting integration chief discusses the essential role of space in combat operations
Lt. Gen. William Shelton assumed the position of Air Force chief information officer and chief of warfighting integration in February. In that capacity, he leads four directorates and four field operating agencies that consist of 1,600 personnel, and he manages a command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance portfolio valued at $17 billion. Previously, he was commander of the Air Force Space Command’s 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic) and commander of the Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with responsibility for missile warning, space superiority, space situational awareness, satellite operations, space launch and range operations.
Shelton recently spoke with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about the capabilities he brings to his new job and how space fits into the information technology domain.
DS: Describe the experiences you have had throughout your career — specifically those in the Air Force Space Command and JFCC Space — that you believe will help you in your new role as Air Force CIO.
Shelton: The new position has two aspects to it. It’s the chief of warfighting integration and the CIO, and in that chief of warfighting integration role, in particular, I bring 32 years of operational experience to the job. That’s probably the major qualification. Space now has become integral to everything we do in combat operations and how we live our daily lives. That space background, particularly the operational aspects, works well in that warfighting integration role.
DS: Let’s briefly discuss China’s antisatellite (ASAT) test, which prompted Congress to boost funding for space situational awareness. What impact has that incident had on space operations, and where do you think the challenges, weak points and opportunities lie in satellite defense?
Shelton: The Chinese ASAT was certainly not a surprise to those of us who had been in the space business for a while, but it was an eye-opening experience for the general public. And it has resulted in an increased emphasis on space situational awareness and in protection of our precious space assets. It has produced some programs and funding that will bear fruit in the next few years of tying various data sources together to produce superior space situational awareness.
Right now, we have access to those data sources, but it is a little bit ad hoc, [and] it is pulled together manually. The integration of that data is really done between someone’s ears as opposed to being done in a machine.
It will integrate these various data sources and pull them together, and our operators here in the Joint Space Operations Center, as well as sharing this data out in a net-centric way, will allow people to have a much better appreciation of what’s going on in the environment of space. You can’t really conduct any space operations without being situationally aware — whether you’re launching into the environment, whether you’re maneuvering satellites or whether you’re just trying to simply navigate your satellite through space. None of that works very well without superior space situational awareness.
DS: What can you tell us about efforts to make our satellites more secure?
Shelton: We have sensors around the globe that provide us with pretty good space situational awareness right now. There are some areas that we would like to have better coverage in; for example, the Southern Hemisphere, because if you look at a map and where our sensors are located, they are either located equatorially or above. We have a couple that are slightly below, but just slightly below. So we’d like to have better coverage of the Southern Hemisphere, and we’d like to integrate everything that’s out there, including Missile Defense Agency sensors — anything that puts radar energy up into space. If we can get our hands on that data, we’d like to do it. We just don’t think there’s a sensor out there that we wouldn’t like to integrate in some fashion. But that’s going to take a very long time to allow us to integrate all that and bring it together in the Joint Space Operations Center. Now, for the protection of our satellites, there is a new program that’s been started called the Space Protection Program. It’s more of a study effort to take a good hard look at data homework on the most efficient and effective way to provide protection of our assets in space.
DS: Under whose purview does it fall?
Shelton: That is something under a dual sponsorship of the Air Force Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office. The two of them are co-sponsoring this organization, and it is just now getting its legs under it. We expect it to start producing some detailed studies and some directions and vectors for the future on space protection. This is a very complex problem.
DS: What do you expect will be the program’s priorities?
Shelton: I think if you could just focus on the low-Earth orbit regime, that’s probably the near-term concern. Certainly the Chinese ASAT…showed us that. A lot of the other threats we see on the horizon are in low-Earth orbit threats, so I think it’s that orbital regime that they’ll be looking at.
DS: What kind of space assets are in low-Earth orbit?
Shelton: There are imaging assets, communications assets, commercial cell phone assets, Earth resource satellites and imaging. So there are some true family jewels, if you will, that fly in that orbit.
DS: The tracking of space objects is transitioning from NASA to the Defense Department. What are your thoughts on that transition’s effect on the sharing of object-tracking information?
Shelton: That’s a little bit of a red herring, to tell you the truth. I believe we have had the same kind of mind-set that NASA has had as we have gone through this, but there are also some concerns related to that program. We are sharing some data on where some satellites are located that we care quite a bit about. So that’s something to think about.
DS: Are you happy with the level of cooperation that you get from the other space-faring nations?
Shelton: We are actively working on that now. There are some nations that we’re talking to — I won’t name them specifically — but there are some that have some space-surveillance resources that we might choose to incorporate and trade data back and forth as allies do. But we will continue to work on international cooperation.
DS: I attended the Army’s LandWarNet conference in 2008, and Strategic Command Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton talked about the legs of the Global Information Grid that are necessary to keep it up and running. He thought there might be a bit of an over-reliance on our satellite systems. Do you think we’re possibly too satellite-reliant, and what are the alternatives?
Shelton: We always need to have Plan B in place. And Plan B is what I think the Space Protection Program is going to help work out as well. There are alternatives, certainly, to space platforms. You can think about things like an aircraft having a transponder on it, an unmanned aerial system having transponders and sensors. There are a variety of alternatives we can look at. But again, it’s what can we do that’s militarily effective and also cost-efficient. That’s what I think we need to pursue here over the next few years. It’s really kind of interesting as you consider how you would do this because there is a lot of fiber flowing around the world. So if I’ve got to choose where to conduct military operations, I’d choose to conduct it near a fiber head. But you don’t get to choose, so that’s the challenge. You get ubiquitous coverage with space coverage, but you don’t have that same ubiquitous coverage with terrestrial-based kinds of solutions. So how do you balance those? That’s the challenge.
DS: That’s another thing Chilton mentioned. Even undersea cables get accidentally pulled up and broken. Combined with the concern over ASAT attacks, will there ever be a way to have a totally safe and secure network that isn’t vulnerable to a fishing trawler or an ASAT weapon?
Shelton: There needs to be alternatives put in place. Gen. Chilton has this famous line that he uses where he talks about alternatives, and it may not be the "A" solution, but it would be good enough to win. And I think that’s what we need to focus on — alternatives that would be good enough to win.
DS: What do you think has changed since Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne announced Cyber Command a couple of years ago? What has changed in leaders’ minds that has caused them to pause?
Shelton: There’s been some evolution within…DOD. With the other services certainly, within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, there has been some progress toward standing up cyber capabilities, so I think it’s just a matter of the Air Force trying figuring out the best way to fit into all of that.
DS: Can you talk about some of the culture issues facing the Air Force in IT and what you think will be some of the challenges in getting the other military services to participate in joint efforts?
Shelton: Rapid advances in IT over the past several years have created challenges for everyone, both inside and outside the military. So I think the biggest thing is trying to keep up with the pace of change and the capabilities of our adversaries as well. Can you defend effectively against the rapidly evolving offensive capabilities of our adversaries? I think that’s certainly the challenge that we’ve got, both within the Air Force and the other services as well. I expect that we’re going to continue to struggle with providing defense of our networks. Right now, we believe we’re in pretty good shape on our dedicated classified networks, but we can’t even take that for granted. We’re very concerned about our unclassified network that’s hooked up to the Internet. There are all sorts of tools being developed by folks that allow you access to places that you shouldn’t be, but the capabilities are there to get you to places where you shouldn’t be.
DS: That was one of the big topics of discussion among the Army IT guys at last year’s LandWarNet — the major spike in network activity during the NCAA Tournament, for example. Do you feel that there needs to be greater restrictions on the everyday use of the Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network by soldiers and airmen?
Shelton: That’s the big question. You could certainly shut it down, but one of the beauties of the Internet is all the information that’s available to you with the click of a mouse. You would hate to completely shut down that information. The best-secured network is one that nobody can get on. But I don’t think that’s what we’re after with our IT systems. So finding that right balance between access and defense will continue to be a struggle. And at the end of the day, it’s all about managing the risk.