July 14, 2009

Across the River: Highlights from an Air Force Meeting

Yesterday I attended a small “National Security Scholars” conference put together by the Air Force. Here is a survey of the natural security issues mentioned in this one-day, on-the-record chat – mentions were low in quantity but, most important, high in quality:


  • The day began with a panel of young Air Force talent. One young Airman mentioned his use of Iridium phones in his medical units in Afghanistan as part of a run-down of his usual activities – a system that relies on a worldwide network of phones, modems, ground network devices, and constellation of 66 active satellites. Another described his work as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, where he often relies on robots to find and safely disable or set off IEDs and other explosives. Their stories of multiple tours in Afghanistan consistently included reference to their high-tech equipment, and provided a stark reminder that as the military increases its use of such tools it is likewise increasing the need to get a firm grasp on its potential critical mineral vulnerabilities.
  • Air refueling was listed on one PowerPoint slide as a joint “enabler,” and one Air Force representative discussed with me privately that he’d been thinking about the issues of the extra energy demand created by fueling in flight rather than on the ground, on the one hand, and the operational flexibility it provides – one General said that “one cannot minimize” its importance – on the other.
  • In discussing the policy and command and control issues that the Air Force is debating with regard to unmanned aircraft, the presenter mentioned NASA’s use of UAVs to monitor the 2007 California wildfires as the first non-military CONUS use of the technology. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters in some areas in the coming decades, such uses may be more common – this in addition to recent suggestions that unmanned systems be increasingly used for climate monitoring. Some in the Air Force and the FAA are working on the challenge of just how to manage a potential web of civilian unmanned craft flying around.
  • The natural security prize-winning point of the day went to General Norton A. Schwartz, who said that the question of whether the Air Force could move away from hydrocarbons underlies a lot of other issues. This was great to hear from a top military leader, unprompted by his questioner. (In fact, another attendee responded that we have plenty of oil, shale, and natural gas reserves, as if that mitigated the security risks involved or the need to make the transition General Schwartz identified.) He expanded to say that the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on it, and that the commercial interests involved do give him hope on the issue.

My main take-away from the conference was to remember that solutions to natural security problems should by and large allow the military to focus on its missions without having to constantly balance against these concerns. Often in operational use the benefits to the mission of burning more petroleum outweigh the costs. We need to look for ways to use the Air Force’s R&D efforts and demand pull to commercialize cleaner fuels that minimize the need for our top military leaders needing to weigh burning high-carbon fuels and with them precious funds against what it considers critical enablers to their work.

Photo: A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle in theater in Iraq. Courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson and the U.S. Department of Defense.