Air Force vice chief needs better solutions for moving data

The Air Force collects a lot of valuable data that will "never see the light of day," and the service's new vice chief of staff is looking for solutions.

The Air Force collects terabytes of data during each mission, but most of it will “never see the light of day.” Gen. James Slife, the service’s newly confirmed vice chief of staff, is making it a priority to improve how the service takes advantage of its own data.

“We’re not at all organized, educated or trained, we don’t have the right policies, we are wholly out of position to be able to take advantage of this,” Slife said at the AFCEA luncheon on Feb. 29. “This is going to be something I’m going to spend the next X number of years being the designated hammer inside the Air Force on this topic. We’ve got a long way to go.”

In his first public speaking engagement since he was sworn in as the service’s No. 2 in December, Slife emphasized the need for the service to address challenges associated with capturing, managing, and more importantly, utilizing the information collected as a strategic asset to enhance its operations.

Every time the F-35 stealth fighter takes off, its various systems and sensors start collecting information. The aircraft’s electronic warfare system, its electro-optical targeting system, the communication suite and cameras provide airmen with a “detailed, cohesive image of everything that [the aircraft] sees and senses.” All the while, it’s recording a massive amount of data, but most of it will most likely be lost.

“There are lessons learned built into that data. There’s the wingman that did the wrong thing. There’s the bad radio call. There is the signal that we’ve never seen before. We need to incorporate that into our future missions to feed our algorithms the truth required for accurate AI models. The problem — there is a high probability that every bit of that valuable data will never ever see the light of day. It’ll all be deleted. And we’ll record over it the very next day,” Slife said.

The reason why this data gets deleted is because it’s just too large to be transmitted. Hours of transit time, unbroken horizon video footage of the plane going from point A to point B — all of it takes up a lot of space.

Recorded data needs to be indexed and tagged — a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. When there is no time, that data just gets dumped into a so-called data lake.

“These data lakes have more unusable data than that which is actually usable. These lakes, therefore, become data swamps,” said Slife.

In addition, there is an issue of overclassification. For example, there is data on one of the F-35s airmen want to use for an upcoming exercise. But the tape includes a short conversation about a B-21 taking off somewhere, making the entire recording classified at a top-secret level, even though “99% of what’s going on that sortie is unclassified and could be more readily accessible to the force,” Slife said.

“Our current solutions are sluggish and they’re not totally accurate. And frankly, our own culture of over-classification and protecting data past the point at which we lose the ability for it to become operationally relevant is part of our own problem,” Slife said.

When it comes to the C-17 cargo plane, a wealth of data flows back and forth across a data bus to all the various aircraft systems, but none of the data gets recorded.

“Every one of those 1553 data buses watches that treasure trove of information speed right past it every second. None of it is recorded or analyzed or saved or looked at — none of it,” Slife said.

Given the challenges, Slife said he needs better solutions for moving large quantities of data. The current setup where airmen have to physically transport hard drives between bases is inadequate and unsustainable.

Additionally, he needs automated data processing solutions to filter out irrelevant information and index, tag, and catalog data efficiently. There is also a need for better cross-domain solutions to securely transfer data between different classification levels, putting the right information on the right classification systems quickly, accurately, and most importantly, in an automated fashion.

“I hope this is a bit of a call to action. We need a more holistic approach to this. It can’t just be vendor product A solving problem A,” Slife said. “I need help getting our arms around these problems I’m outlining to you today.”

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