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Computing Technology and Advancements of the 1990s

  • Published
  • By Mr. Thomas P. Korte

Each decade brings its own innovations, but through the wealth of advancements in computing and networking technologies, the 1990s were truly a revolutionary time in the history of the Air Force. Associated organizational changes also foundationally re-shaped the way the Air Force managed communications and further transformed the military’s approach to traditional warfare. 


The predecessor organizations to today’s Air Force Network Integration Center (AFNIC) were instrumental in leading many initiatives through this period of change. At the beginning of this era, a typical office in the Air Force may have had a few first-generation personal computers with 5 ¼ inch floppy disk drives, a monochrome screen and maybe a 20-kilobyte hard drive.  Some were connected through a local-area network allowing building-level e-mail, while the introduction of office productivity applications, the graphical user interface, and the computer mouse were on the cutting edge.


Organizationally, the Air Force was also assessing how it managed communications and information services.  The newly-redesignated Air Force Communications Command (AFCC) stood up in 1979, emphasized centralized control of Air Force communications services. However, in the early 1990s, top leadership valued local flexibility over centralized control. On July 1, 1991, AFCC was once again redesignated, this time to the Air Force Communication Agency (AFCA) and control was delegated to the bases where innovation thrived, albeit at local levels.


From Aug. 2, 1990, to Feb. 28, 1991 the country was engaged in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. When operation Desert Shield began, AFCC was already planning the transfer of its units to the supported major commands; however, the command still provided technical support to U.S. Central Command including communications and computer planning, installing satellite communications and computer terminals, and developing communications support equipment and computer software. About 100 members of AFCC were deployed to the theater of operations at the end of 1990.  


Shortly thereafter in 1991, AFCC personnel formed a new Technology Integration Center (TIC) under HQ AF/SC, today’s equivalent to the Air Force Chief Information Officer. However, the TIC as an independent unit was short-lived, inactivating in 1992, yet its functions carried on within AFCC headquarters. The next year, AFCC was redesignated the Air Force Command, Control, Communications, and Computer Agency (AFC4A) as a Field Operating Agency under Headquarters Air Force at the Pentagon. 


Despite these frequent restructures of the early 90s, Air Force leaders still valued the need for accountability and responsibility with respect to weapons system management.  When more than one command possessed the same type of weapon system, the “Lead Command” concept allowed for a single advocate to ensure all requirements associated with every system receive comprehensive and equitable consideration. 


Throughout the decade, AFNIC’s predecessors gained Lead Command responsibility for several types of command, control, communication, computers, and intelligence systems used both on and outside the base.  Internal systems included telephone switches, electronic messaging, Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), and base information transport.  External systems included long-haul communications, the Defense Information System Network (DISN), Defense Message System (DMS), and the Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN).  Major commands were still responsible for the “last 400 feet” including desktop computers and telephones.  Overall, the Lead Command concept ensured some top-level communications oversight remained throughout the 90s.


Another key initiative in the first third of the decade were Air Force Major Command (MAJCOM) Templates.  These were long-term strategic studies that assessed MAJCOMs’ information processing and transmission needs while emphasizing compliance with Air Force communications and computer system architectures.  In total, the TIC and AFC4A published 11 template documents for various MAJCOMs and each one took an average of six months and 11,000 work hours to complete. Templates provided a roadmap for many MAJCOM systems, and the missions they supported for years to come. Closing out the first half of the decade, in 1995 AFC4A opened its new Technology and Interoperability Facility (TIF), which still operates today as a pre-fielding proving ground for new capabilities.


AFC4A also provided support to many high profile events.  In April 1995, two of its members were dispatched to Oklahoma City less than 24 hours after the bombing of the Alfred B. Murrah Federal Building to restore communications for the local Secret Service office.  This is one example of the critical support the team provided to the nation along with Presidential Inaugurations, Foreign Dignitary visits, the Olympics, and much more that continue today under the 5th Combat Communications Group. Furthermore AFC4A managed HAMMER ACE (Adaptive Communication Element) deployments to provide communications support for several aircraft crashes; most newsworthy was Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and 34 others who crashed into mountainside near Dubrovnik, Croatia in 1996.  Hammer ACE also provided airborne communications support for Operation KEIKO LIFT, relocating the whale from Oregon to Iceland as captured in the movie Free Willy.  Today, Hammer ACE continues its mission under the 5th Combat Communications Group.


More organizational change came in 1996 when AFC4A was renamed the Air Force Communications Agency (AFCA), working under the Air Force Chief Information Officer.  Then in April 1997, AFCA was aligned as a subordinate unit under the new Air Force Communications and Information Center. Also in 1997, AFCA initiated “Scope Network” to create an Air-Force-level emergency response team for base networks.  The Air Staff expanded the concept to include periodic preventive visits for network optimization.  Scope Network’s mission gave AFCA technical notoriety across the Air Force.


Through the late 1990s, AFCA focused on “last-meter” communications, that is, from the system to the user’s senses.  AFCA partnered with the prestigious David Sarnoff Research Center to investigate stereoscopic 3-D battlespace display technology.  This technology, termed the Joint Operations Visualization Environment (JOVE), used liquid crystal display glasses to provide an “out-of-the-screen” 3D experience using our natural sense of sight.  At the time, AFCA served as the Air Force Executive Agent for Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstrations (JWIDs), and members demonstrated JOVE to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during JWID ’97.  The system ultimately achieved its foothold in the Air Force’s Human Computer Interface Laboratory and for exercise and wargaming use.


The decade ended with the Y2K issue, but AFCA began serving as the Air Force’s Y2K Executive Agent in December 1995, and significantly ramped up activity as the year 2000 approached.  In addition to executing an Air Force-wide awareness campaign, AFCA created a Certification Checklist, tested software products for compliance, and tracked readiness through an online database.  History will recall Y2K as a non-event, but the hard work of AFCA and the greater Air Force were the key to making it so. 


In the 90s, the Air Force was not yet able to leverage the power of cyberspace as we know it today, but one of the first mentions of “cyber” in the Air Force was 1999 when the AF/SC declared, “We saw real cyberwarfare activity by a designated opponent for the first time in Kosovo.”  Communications capabilities and the introduction of cyber warfare have only continued to grow exponentially as time marches on, and the services today’s AFNIC provides help assure every member and mission in the Air Force on a daily basis.