The National Air and Space Intelligence Center will bolster its ranks with “a few hundred” more personnel at Wright-Patterson in upcoming years, the intelligence unit’s commander said.
Cyber experts and data scientists are two key demand areas NASIC at its Wright-Patterson headquarters will be needed to meet national security demands to assess air, space and cyber threats to the Air Force, according to Col. Sean P. Larkin, agency commander.
“The NASIC workforce is absolutely growing,” he said in a rare interview.
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He declined to comment specifically how many more personnel might be added, but they will in part focus on “emerging and disruptive technologies” such as artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons “because it’s those things that are coming down the pike that are changing the way our adversaries fight.”
“It goes without saying that there’s a very significant cyber threat from a large number of our adversaries and, of course, that’s the thing about this being a very diffuse threat is you don’t have to be a nation-state to pose a cyber threat,” he added.
Among key intelligence areas, the secretive agency assesses potential ballistic missile threats from nations such as North Korea and Iran.
NASIC intelligence data is in strong demand among the nation’s top political and military leaders, from the White House and the Pentagon to troops on the front lines, agency officials have said. The agency provides predictive intelligence – a process that observes, assesses, models and predicts.
“They want to talk to somebody who’s been doing this for maybe 10, 20, 30 years because that’s the kind of deep expertise we have here,” Larkin said.
“I’ll tell you that’s one of the best things I get to do as the NASIC commander is to see a deep expert talk to a four-star general or talk to a national policy maker or a congressman and really see how the analysis that we do here in Dayton, Ohio influences strategy policy and gives our leadership a decision advantage,” he said.
The intelligence agency with about a $350 million budget has a workforce of 3,100 military service members and civilian employees at Wright-Patterson. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, NASIC has grown by about half, the agency has said.
“We’ve seen significant growth since 2000 and we do have projected out additional growth,” he said.
China, Russia ‘making significant advances’
A growing number of sophisticated threats in air and space and the cyber domain has pushed up demand for intelligence data, according to Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“China and Russia are making significant advances in these areas, and the barrier-to-entry for some of these technologies is lower, which allows lesser powers to also pose a more significant threat,” he wrote in an email.
More nations are fielding space-based capabilities as the price tag of satellites and the cost to launch them into orbit drops. “We are also seeing the proliferation of technologies that can disrupt or degrade our capabilities in space and cyber, such as jammers and more sophisticated hacking tools,” Harrison said.
NASIC is in the midst of a $29.5 million building a new 58,000-square-foot Foreign Materials Exploitation facility, doubling lab space, to further understand adversaries capabilities, Larkin said.
Historically, the facility has dissected captured foreign technology, from missiles to MiGs, to understand an adversary’s capabilities.
“Foreign material exploitation is a capability we have had our entire history and through a variety of means our nation has been able to recover adversary equipment,” he said.
This year marks the agency’s centennial since its predecessor, the foreign data section of the aircraft engineering division, opened at McCook Field in Dayton in 1917.
“We’ve been looking at airplanes almost as long as there’s been airplanes,” he said. “As our adversaries have developed additional capabilities, as they’ve moved into space and into long-range ballistic missiles and into cyber, we’ve adapted and innovated and gone forward to understand and characterize those threats.”
Larkin marks his third tour within the walls of the agency he started at as a young lieutenant. After he finished a fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he took the reins as NASIC leader in May.
“I was just really heartened to see how much progress we had made,” he said. “But at the same time, we realize how much farther we had to go because the threats that we strive to understand, the capabilities that our adversaries develop, they’re constantly changing and the technology that’s driving all that, a lot of that is in the private sector, a lot of it is getting widely proliferated, and so we have to continually adapt to overcome and to understand those threats. It’s a never-ending struggle.”
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