Big data key to global Air Force dominance

The U.S. Air Force​ can no long afford to analyze just a small fraction of the terabytes of big data the service collects every day, a top intelligence airman said — the enemies are catching up.

The U.S. Air Force can no long afford to analyze just a small fraction of the terabytes of big data the service collects every day, a top intelligence airman said — the enemies are catching up. 

“We have this huge intelligence enterprise throughout the United States that gathers some incredibly important stuff, but the senior leadership is focused on maybe 4 percent of it,” said Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “What happens to the other 96 percent? And is there a way that, using big data, we can harness that in a way that we haven’t been to this point.” 

The Air Force is currently developing an open-architecture distributed common ground system, a global intelligence communications and weapons system that processes the data the branch collects from its worldwide platforms and sensors. 

The system is already operational at 27 sites globally, but Otto said Friday during a luncheon with AFCEA NOVA that the Air Force will launch it at two more sites in the U.S. — but under an open architecture, which will allow the service to be more agile in its development of the network. 


This under-development open architecture will be crucial to the Air Force’s ability to take its big data analysis and intelligence sharing to a new level, Otto said.

“There’s a criticism about intelligence services for not connecting the dots,” he said. “I think of how big data might be able to change that equations, connect dots that I’m not even thinking about. And then once we connect enough dots, it rises to a level that hits a trigger that says…’You need to look at this.’ And then we can put our attention where it needs to go.”

To make sure intelligence officials aren’t “swimming in sensors and drowning in data,” Otto proposed the Air Force must develop proper data standards and metadata tagging so airmen don’t have to analyze every bit of data. 

He compared it to looking for one article out of the 150 million-plus at the Library of Congress. No one person could ever read that much, he said; but with the Dewey Decimal System, finding the necessary information is possible, even easy. 

The same is true, Otto argued, with data standards and tagging. “If we have the right data tags … we don’t have to read everything, but we do need to be able to pull it in at the right time when it makes sense,” he said.


This gives the Air Force a human resources advantage, particularly with inexperienced intelligence analysts. 

“We can take a new analyst, combine them with some hard machine work and have the equivalent of a highly experienced analyst,” Otto said.

Sharing and integrating that information is equally if not more important. That’s why the Air Force is focused on ensuring the data collected and analyzed in this new open architecture follows the same common data standards used throughout the intelligence community — so it can play into the IC Information Technology Enterprise.

“It’s going to be very powerful to have data from our major agencies and the services that can reside in an area that somebody with the proper clearance and need to know will be able to access that data,” Otto said. “But that’s only true if the data can talk to each other.”

This is all the more important, he said, because China and Russia are beginning to close the gap on American air dominance, developing stealth aircraft and precision weapons, and “investing in electronic warfare,” areas in which the U.S. has been dominant for decades.


“They’ve studied our playbook,” he said. “They’ve seen just how very capable we’ve been over the last quarter century, and they have methodically targeted ways to bring down our success.” 

But, Otto said, until there’s a new way America can regain its air-space superiority — as it did with the advent of stealth aircraft and precision weaponry in the mid 1900s — the Air Force will just have to be quicker and more efficient in its ability to observe, orient, decide, and act.

“We’re going to have to have and use big data in ways that we have not in the past,” he said.  

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Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing.

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