Commentary by Lt. Col. Amy Robinson
50th Operations Group deputy commander
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching an episode of “Meet the Press,” where Thomas Friedman, an internationally renowned author, and a few other pundits were discussing the possible futures of the United States. During that show Friedman referenced his 2005 best-seller, “The World Is Flat,” where he discussed how computer networks and their supporting technologies had evolved in the 1990s leading to unprecedented economic growth in the developed world. Friedman pointed out that his book, even by 2005, was published too soon to address developments like Facebook, Twitter, 4G data pathways and a myriad of other “world-flattening” features of the 21st century information age. As if to endorse and emphasize Friedman’s point on the pervasiveness of technology, my 17-month-old son, with his (maybe) 17-word vocabulary, reached for my iPad, hoping to add it to his collection of far less pricey toys, and squealed, “E-mail! E-mail!” That really caused me to think about how things have changed, since I know “e-mail” wasn’t one of my first words!
Friedman went on to discuss how the technology that has evolved in the last two decades is a game changer for the human race, every bit as profound as the development of writing, farming, the printing press, electricity, germ theory and perhaps a few other advances. Those technological advances pulled us back from the edge of starvation where so many other animals exist; they enabled us to build and manage great nations and ultimately tripled our life spans, raised our standard of living and improved our quality of life in ways unfathomable to our hunter-gathering ancestors. The changes we have witnessed in the last couple of decades are having similar repercussions and our efforts at Schriever are leading the way in some of these areas.
Nobody at Schriever Air Force Base should fail to appreciate the privileged roles we play in the endless endeavor to make life better. My 7-year-old daughter was describing what the world would be like without the U.S. Air Force, and she said, “There’d be no one to fly the satellites, and everyone would get lost.” So there may be some subtle indoctrination going on at our house, but the fact that the free global utility of GPS is operated out of Schriever is pretty significant, and just one example of the dramatic impacts we have on a daily basis around the world that have changed lives during the last couple of decades. Just within the last couple of years, we’ve increased communications capacity by a factor of ten in our newest communications satellites, and we’re now on the cutting edge of providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information directly to warfighters.
Another amazing fact about the role of Schriever is that we are not only involved in developing and operating so much of the technology that is the engine of Friedman’s “flat world,” but we also are responsible to defend it. Crazy as it seems, there are enormous numbers of people whose only appreciation for the technologies of the developed world is in how those technologies can be used to destroy the developed world. Since we depend so heavily on the capabilities provided by the satellites we operate, we have a lot to lose when those systems are threatened. The threats to our systems are changing as fast as the technology itself, with potential adversaries manipulating the very systems that should make our lives easier and attempting to use them against us. We’ve made significant strides in identifying threats to our systems and developing tactics for mitigating those threats — certainly, the advancing technology has resulted in a necessary change to our culture just by the fact that we are concerned about threats, such as adversaries gaining information about our systems through social media, that we didn’t even consider a couple of decades ago.
Unfortunately, no matter what defenses we put in place, cunning adversaries will attempt to develop new ways of targeting our systems. As a nation, we also need to look for longer-term, creative solutions to ensure we’ll be able to maintain the benefits of our technological developments. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the point in an interview recently that the Cold War was won because it was fought as a war of ideas, and that we need to apply the same approach to our current conflicts. Because we were free to critique the underlying principles of the Soviet Union, we successfully showed that our system of government produced a society that was demonstrably better than a totalitarian regime. Beyond our day-to-day efforts to defend our systems, supporting our freedom to criticize and openly debate ideas, and placing a priority on our own formal and informal education will help keep us from showing up to a war of ideas unarmed — which will, in turn, assure we can continue to benefit from the technologies we have developed and will develop in the future.
We live in a world that is dramatically different, as Friedman says “more flat,” than the world I was born into. The resulting improvements to our daily lives to date are incredible, and we play a direct role in operating and defending systems that have been critical to those improvements. I’m excited to see what the next generation of revolutionary technologies will bring and how we’ll continue to influence the world from Schriever Air Force Base.