Defending the Homeland: Globally Integrated Layered Defense (GILD)


Gen. Glen D. VanHerck uses a story to illustrate why the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) are implementing a digital strategy to redefine homeland defense: In 2015, a man flew a gyrocopter through restricted airspace — undetected — before landing on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

For VanHerck, the incident is emblematic of a rapidly changing security environment that requires NORAD and USNORTHCOM to accelerate efforts to better recognize, anticipate and act — “deter, deny, respond” — to threats that could range from ultralight aircraft to strategic missiles. “Today’s threat environment is likely the most complex we have ever faced, as potential adversaries threaten us in all domains and from all vectors,” VanHerck has said.

The list of those potential adversaries is topped by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russia Federation. In the 2022 National Defense Strategy, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III identified the PRC as the “pacing threat” for the U.S. Such a description means the PRC is the only nation “economically, technologically, politically and militarily” that can challenge the U.S., Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said in a June 2, 2021, Department of Defense (DOD) News story. Russia may not be able to challenge the U.S. in all of those areas, but its formidable nuclear arsenal, as well as its aspirations in the Arctic, make it a “proximate” military threat.

The response to threats posed by the PRC, Russia and rogue nations, according to a NORAD and USNORTHCOM strategy released March 2021, is a global framework that integrates domains and organizations.

“It doesn’t [necessarily] mean I needed a bunch of new satellites or capabilities,” VanHerck said in a 2021 online conversation attended by The Watch. “It’s about taking information today that exists, oftentimes in stovepipes, and … sharing that information.” (Pictured: Special operations forces are a layer of the globally integrated layered defense of the homeland.)
VanHerck says that about 98% of available data is not shared. By establishing a digital infrastructure that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to synthesize all available information, he said, NORAD and USNORTHCOM can respond quicker — giving critical decision space and options to senior U.S. leaders. For example, he mentions the development of a capability called Pathfinder that allows his commands to share data from military, commercial and government sensors, then uses AI and machine learning to analyze it.

VanHerck ends his gyrocopter story with a sort of digital denouement: When AI is applied to the data available in 2015, it identifies the aircraft.

This sort of detection is included in the goals outlined in NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s 2022 Digital Strategy that prioritizes all-domain awareness, information dominance and decision superiority. The commands are now better poised to protect the homeland and contribute to layered defense because of capabilities such as Pathfinder and through exercises such as the ongoing Global Information Dominance Experiment (GIDE) series.

These digital building blocks are part of NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s contributions to a globally integrated layered defense that consists of “geography (forward regions, approaches and the homeland layers), domains (air, land, sea, space, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, cognitive) and whole-of-governments/nations,” according to the March 2021 strategy document.

Sherrill Lingel, a senior engineer at the Rand Corp., says that “NORTHCOM has made some strides” through those efforts.

“The argument with needing a digital infrastructure and JADC2 [Joint All Domain Command and Control] capabilities, etc., is that we need to be able to do those steps faster,” she said. “We need to leverage … existing technologies, if you will, that are out there and environments that are going to put us in the advantage.”

JADC2 is defined as the “warfighting capability to sense, make sense, and act at all levels and phases of war, across all domains, and with partners, to deliver information advantage at the speed of relevance,” according to the DOD in a June 11, 2021, briefing card from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs). All U.S. military branches are developing solutions that will contribute to JADC2, according to the briefing.

As VanHerck said: “I’m focused on getting [data and information] to the right players at the right time, from the tactical level to the strategic level to make the right decision.”

The right players range from civilian agencies to the other combatant commands to NORAD partner Canada and U.S. allies. (USNORTHCOM is one of 11 unified combatant commands of the DOD.)

“I would say the [the U.S. armed] services are about connecting the capabilities that they need for the kill chains that they’ve identified, and that … in parallel what needs to happen is this digital infrastructure,” Lingel said.

That development will require a resilient “multicloud infrastructure along with advanced capabilities for data management, analytics and AI integration,” according to the 2022 Digital Strategy.

The strategy requires that the architecture adhere to four strategic principles: improve all-domain awareness, achieve information dominance and decision superiority over competitors, and support global integration into DOD digital efforts such as JADC2 as well as those of NORAD partner Canada. Domain awareness is defined as the effective understanding of anything associated with a domain — land, sea, air, space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum — that could affect the security, safety, economy or environment of a nation, according to a story in the November-December 2021 issue of Military Review.

To speed up the development of those capabilities, USNORTHCOM in April 2022 asked the U.S. Congress for an additional U.S. $29.8 million for equipment and to optimize infrastructure for AI and machine learning at its operations center with NORAD. The upgrades would bolster efforts to ingest, process and share data across the DOD, according to the military technology website C4ISR.

“[The PRC and Russia] have invested heavily in weapons systems that can be launched against distant targets with little to no warning, as well as stealthy delivery platforms specifically designed to evade detection by existing sensors,” VanHerck said.

The key to countering such systems and maintaining military superiority, VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his 2021 testimony, is a “fused ecosystem of networked sensors extending from space to the seafloor.”

Experts such as Lingel say the ultimate success of digitally transformed operations is a U.S. ability to “get inside a potential adversary’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop,
creating doubt and ambiguity, which buys us both time and space to make meaningful decisions
about the use of military force.”

The U.S. Air Force Digital Transformation Office in September 2022 recognized more than 175 “digital doers” from across the service and the Space Force as part of its Digital Agents of Change campaign. The goal of the program is to motivate grassroots digital transformation.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Rodriguez of the 321st Contingency Response Squadron security team patrols with a Ghost Robotics Vision 60 prototype at a simulated austere base during an Advanced Battle Management System exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in 2020.

Air Force Lt. Col. James Forrest uses a virtual reality headset in support of the Advanced Battle Management System Onramp 2 exercise in 2020 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

In an era of transformative change, where Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the leader of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, says: “I’m focused on getting [data and information] to the right players at the right time.”

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