Air Picture - (n.) actionable information for tactical decision

  • Published
  • By Dr. Brian "Doggie" Tuttle

Over the past few years, I have found that many external agencies do not understand what Sectors do, let alone how they do it—and Sector personnel have difficulty describing it in understandable terms. Here my purpose is to take a high-level view of the Sector’s mission critical process of generating an air picture within the context of how it is then used to fuel other mission processes. Ultimately, I hope this framework will enable greater understanding of the air picture generation process so that Sectors can articulate it in ways that facilitate improvement of their mission readiness.

This article’s title proposes a definition of air picture. Although probably not the best place for it, I wanted it to be prominent and memorable. So, there it is. I invented this definition to ensure that no one is led to believe that an air picture is simply that which is presented to the mission crew upon a mission system display. In fact, it more closely resembles what Sectors communicate to external agencies via data link or other comm systems.

Now that we know what an air picture is, how does a Sector make one, and how can they improve their capability to do so? Only by describing mission execution tasks as processes can we begin to apply continual process improvement (CPI) to improve Sector mission readiness, as required by paragraph 3.A of the former CSAF (now CJCS) Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.’s Action Orders: To Accelerate Change Across the Air Force (2020)—so that we don’t lose the next war.

So, what is a process (a.k.a. workflow)? Time for another definition, from Villanova University’s Lean/Six Sigma Green Belt program: a process is a set of steps that transforms an input into a more valuable output. My definition of air picture suggests that a Sector must perform a process that creates actionable information.

Basic information theory postulates two generic high-level steps involved in creating actionable information: (1) refine given data (input) into information (output), (2) refine that information (input) into actionable information (output) upon which to base decisions. Whether automated or performed manually, refinement processes separate the wheat from the chaff by selecting pertinent data and information from the pile based upon decision maker’s needs. Ultimately, resulting actionable information feeds a decision process that generates instructions to execute actions that will ideally create some desired results, as shown in the flowchart below.

Air Picture flow

One can adapt this generic process to model a Sector’s air picture generation. (Please refer to the figure below.) The process begins in the Support Squadron (SPTS) where data input is received from many sources. To the extent that they are able, the SPTS then vets that data to ensure that it is not degraded in any way. Any detected bad data that could negatively affect the information’s quality should be removed (e.g., by shutting off a poisoned stream). Lastly, to the extent that stovepipes allow they fuse the data into information called “tracks” and present it to the mission crew on the command and control (C2) mission display.

Making an air picture

Once on the C2 display, the Air Defense Squadron’s (ADS) mission crew executes “air picture management” processes to further refine the information into an air picture. They must first see and report the needed track information on the C2 system. Upon finding a potential threat, they simultaneously attempt (time permitting) to: (1) validate that a reported track represents an airborne object (not a radar anomaly, birds, or a weather phenomenon), and (2) identify the airborne object by determining its type, national origin, etc. Even if this amplifying information is missing from the air picture, the mission crew continually assesses whether the track could threaten national security. All of this information gels to form the air picture.

Air picture quality affects mission results, for the mission crew bases its tactical decisions upon it. If a threat is perceived, a mission crew’s tactical decision could drive communication tasks to take tactical action—to provide Tactical C2 that positions weapons to defend, and/or to provide threat warning to others. To reiterate with greater emphasis, the quality of the air picture directly affects a Sector’s decisions, actions and mission results—i.e., a Sector’s contribution toward winning or losing the homeland defense war.

To summarize the implications, one must realize that the SPTS and ADS operate together to create an air picture. That is, the processes of both squadrons can affect its quality and, ultimately, mission results. Therefore, both squadrons must continually improve their capabilities to perform their roles. How can a Sector do so?

Consider my simple formula for creating a warfighting capability with a human-machine team:

Warfighting Capability = Machine + Tactics, Techniques & Procedures (TTP) + Training.

In other words, warfighting capabilities result from processes performed by a human-machine team: humans executing processes (i.e., TTP) to the extent they are trained to employ machines executing processes (e.g., algorithms). If this formula is valid, the way forward to continually improve Sector mission readiness by improving its warfighting capability might be:

1. Constantly assess the threat environment.

2. Map mission processes—each box in the high-level flowchart above must be better defined so one can understand and improve it. It is only a starting point.

3. Using the process map as a guide, test and analyze Sector performance vs. known or imagined threats to identify capability gaps that require correction (e.g., processes that are too slow or do not consistently yield good results, missing processes, etc.).

4. Determine if the best way to fill the gap is to change the machine, TTP, or training.

5. Prioritize the gaps, set goals, assign action officers, and track progress until goal met.

6. Return to step 1 and repeat.

In short, the EADS mission statement calls the creation and management of an air picture “vigilant detection,” and it is certainly a mission critical process. Thus, we must analyze and understand and treat it as such, then take the steps to continually improve our capability to create a high-quality air picture. To do so, we must be able to articulate our processes in a language that both Sector personnel and those who might help them can understand.