Modernization: USAF Analog to digital efforts in the late 1970s and 1980s

  • Published
  • By Gregg E. Noud

As the Air Force Network Integration Center (AFNIC) continues to celebrate its 75th anniversary year, this article highlights contributions made during the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s. 


During this period, the Air Force Communications Command (AFCC) was an Air Force Major Command and the predecessor to what is now AFNIC. Three initiatives during this era illustrate Air Force (AF) success in leading a change in culture regarding communications infrastructure thereby utilizing industry to advance technology, reduce cost, and increase speed and quality of implementation.


The three initiatives are the transition from analog to digital technologies, utilization of equipment based on commercial standards vice military standards and the application of industry-provided engineering and installation capabilities allowing AF to increase focus on warfighting capabilities. These opportunities presented themselves due to the emergence of commercially available hardware and software marketed as commodities.


Analog signals are signals that are continuous in both time and value. Digital signals are discrete in time and value. Digital signals are signals that can be represented by binary numbers, "1" or "0".  In the late 1970s and the 1980s, the Air Force communications focus was on the advantages of digital communications. The Air Force embarked on the journey to convert its telephone systems from analog to digital technology with the goals of improving quality of service, enabling better security and increasing physical media capacity. 


During this period, the Defense Communications Agency (DCA), today known as the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), implemented a series of efforts to upgrade theatre communications for the Department of Defense (DoD). DCA chartered the Air Force to take the lead for three programs that illustrate this progression of technology: Digital European Backbone (DEB), Japan Reconfiguration and Digitization (JRD) and the Philippine Digitization Upgrade (PDU). 


In the late 1970s, the 1842nd Electronics Engineering Group (EEG), a subordinate unit to AFCC, provided the lead engineering services for the DEB to convert signals from analog to digital.  The lesson learned from the DEB led to more advancements in the Pacific Theater including Army initiatives in Korea and the U.S. Navy in Guam synchronizing with the JRD and PDU.  The 1842nd EEG partnered with other AFCC units to implement microwave and tropospheric scatter digital radio links, digital telephone switches, as well as underground copper and undersea fiber. These successful efforts provided connectivity to all U.S. military installations in and around the European Command and Pacific Command regions.


The 1980s also saw Satellite Communication (SATCOM) become increasingly important.  AFCC, working with Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) and the Space Missile Center (SMC), provided the engineering and implementation groups responsible for the ground segments of the communication system. These groups were responsible to ensure the ground terminals and the rest of the segment design met the jam-resistant and High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) MILSATCOM link requirements around the world. These projects replaced analog radio, multiplexors and voice switches thereby giving the AF a distinctive advantage in long distance digital communications.


Digital systems proved to be much more reliant and not as sensitive to interference in the radio frequency spectrum. With error correction, bits lost in transmission could be calculated and corrected increasing survivability of the data through adverse radio reception periods caused by anomalies such as electrical interference or changes in the weather. Digital systems also made communications easier to protect in enemy jamming scenarios using capabilities like spread spectrum, frequency hopping and interleaving technologies, hence providing better communications capability for the warfighter.


The newly implemented digital environment offered key advantage for information protection.  Encryption was much easier using simple binary math as compared to the complex phase shifting algorithms required for encryption of analog signals. The same binary math could be used to decrypt the data. 


Implementation of the PDU project marked the beginning of a new acquisition and implementation procedure. The AF opted to not only utilize the equipment supplied by commercial companies, but also contracted for installation and implementation. This was known as a “turnkey” solution, and in terms of AF evolution, marked the beginning of employing industry to provide the cyberspace domain.


The evolution from DEB, provisioned with Military Standards (Mil-Std) based equipment, to JRD and PDU provisioned with commercial equipment reflected a first step in conforming to industry standards to meet AF communications requirements. The DEB’s Mil-Std equipment required development of special interfaces with the commercial capabilities. With the wide spread use of commercially supplied equipment, the AF eliminated the need for special interfaces between the civilian sector and the AF environments. 


As we continue to evolve, the AF is changing its cyberspace strategy to becoming a service consumer instead of a service supplier. Analogous to the operational domains of land, sea, air and space, the AF’s goal is to leverage a cyberspace domain provided by industry. The AF has set a long-term goal in its strategy to operate in cyberspace in a similar way.  



Today, an integral aspect of this culture change is the adoption of a "cloud computing" and enterprise information technology "as a service". This continued evolution will enable a new approach to delivering IT services that promises to be highly agile and operate at potentially lower costs for consumers. We want to continue to leverage industry to develop, deploy and operate the cyberspace domain, allowing the AF to concentrate on building weapon system capabilities that operate in, on and through the domain in support of Air Force core missions.