By: Mary Anne Wells, Jason Luchkiw, Wayne McNutt, and Maj. Benjamin Wolak

Photo by Justin Weisbarth, U.S Air Force

Threats to U.S. aircraft force modernization rise as adversarial weapons technologies improve and weapons proliferation increases. To survive in this game of cat-and-mouse, U.S. aircraft developers use threat assessments from the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) to evaluate future threats that may jeopardize aircraft and aircraft component survivability at system initial operating capability (IOC) through system sustainment. With threats increasing in magnitude and lethality at lightning pace, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L)) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) decided to modernize the method of providing threat assessments, replacing the System Threat Assessment Report (STAR) with the Validated Online Lifecycle Threat (VOLT). This shift from delivering static threat products to more “dynamic” web-based products has significantly reduced intelligence production time and will improve customer access to the most current IC threat assessments.


Intelligence threat support to aircraft survivability is at the core of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC’s) mission to “create integrated, predictive intelligence, in the Air, Space, Cyberspace domains, enabling military operations, force modernization and policy making” [1]. Force modernization and weapon system development are complex processes with a high degree of uncertainty and require an in-depth understanding of current and future threat environments. NASIC and the IC support this process by providing assessments, projections, and estimates of adversary capabilities, technologies, and forces to enable Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS); Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE); and defense aquisition decision-making. Threat information is key to supporting many acquisition functions, including cost analyses, risk analyses, analyses of alternatives (AoAs), test plan development, modeling and simulation, tradeoff analyses, sustainment strategies, and survivability analyses. Providing detailed threat assessments and data is key to developing and fielding survivable systems and preventing program delays and cost increases, which can be incurred by unanticipated threat developments late in the acquisition lifecycle.

Providing intelligence threat support early in the aquisition lifecycle reduces program cost, program time schedule, and performance risk. Because of the way the PPBE process works, a significant percentage of an acquisition program’s budget is committed prior to examining current and future technologies that could be adapted to build future U.S. weapon systems. Once the aircraft program enters the Engineering & Manufacturing Development phase of the lifecycle, the majority of a program’s costs are committed, meaning a major design change incurred by unanticipated threats would be difficult to mitigate and could delay the schedule [2].

Intelligence threat support is required by Department of Defense (DoD), Service (e.g., Air Force), and DIA directives and instructions [3–6]. Intelligence threat support is required to support the Material Development Decision (MDD), Milestone (MS)-A, Development Request for Proposals (Dev RFP) Release, the MS-C decision, and the Full-Rate Production (FRP) decision. Figure 1 shows these milestones and decision points and highlights intelligence threat support requirements during the entire defense aquision lifecycle [3, 7, 8].

Historically, the milestone-based STAR was used as the authoritative baseline threat assessment. In 2015, the USD(AT&L) implemented Better Buying Power (BBP) 3.0, which mandated that the DoD better “anticipate and plan for responsive and emerging threats by building stronger partnerships of acquisition, intelligence and requirements communities” [9]. As part of this initiative and revisions to DoD Instruction 5000.02, the STAR was phased out in 2015–2017 and replaced with the new VOLT and Defense Intelligence Threat Library (DITL). The VOLT and DITL emphasize “reducing latency and improving intelligence data integration [to better] inform portfolio planning, technology development, system design, product improvement and technical refresh, and decisions on obsolescence and retirement” [8]. Compared to the milestone-based, static STAR product, the VOLT and DITL are intended to be more “dynamic” web-based products and services. The VOLT process was designed on the premise of speeding up delivery of threat information to the acquisition and requirements communities through the use of the DITL, which includes Threat Modules of pre-approved foundational intelligence to support more rapid threat analysis and decision-making. Concurrent with streamlined publication and approval procedures, the VOLT process goal is to reduce the production timeline of threat assessments for Major Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs).

Figure 1. Defense Acquisition Lifecycle and Intelligence Threat Support Requirements [3, 7, 8].


The VOLT is a more modular and flexible product and service, tailorable to a wider range of acquisition and requirements stakeholders ranging from USD(AT&L) and the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) to individual program managers, system engineers, and capability planners. As detailed in the following subsections, the primary elements of the VOLT include the Threat Steering Group (TSG), the VOLT Report, the DITL, and Critical Intelligence Parameters (CIPs).


The TSG is the primary deliberative and working body to coordinate and validate intelligence threat support [3, 7]. The TSG is responsible for preparation and review of the VOLT Report and developing CIPs [4, 7]. TSG membership typically includes the IC, capability sponsor, capability developer, and test and evaluation representatives. The VOLT is tailorable to customer requirements and returns the most accurate threat picture when TSG members are provided system and mission descriptions with high levels of detail early in the process. This approach allows the TSG time to preselect DITL Threat Modules and other sources of information relevant to the program. The TSG also develops, reviews, and approves CIPs for inclusion in the VOLT to provide strategic warning for decision-makers.


The VOLT Report is a regulatory document defined as the authoritative threat assessment tailored for and normally focused on one specific acquisition category (ACAT)—I, II, or III—program and authorized for use in the defense acquisition management process. VOLT Reports involve the application of DITL Threat Modules and other IC authoritative intelligence information and data and are to be written to articulate the relevance of threats to a specific acquisition program or planned capability [7]. For U.S. Air Force programs, engineers and intelligence analysts in NASIC’s Threats to DoD Force Modernization Flight at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, assess threats to aircraft at required decision points and milestones throughout the acquisition lifecycle, providing the VOLT Report as means of presenting adversary threat to an aircraft program from aircraft conception through sustainment. Upon review by the TSG, validation for a specific program VOLT Report is completed by DIA or a Service (e.g., the Air Force), determinant of the program’s ACAT level. Upon validation, the VOLT Report may be used as an authoritative threat assessment for program milestones and decision points during each phase of the defense acquisition lifecycle, as follows.

  • Materiel Development Decision (MDD) and the Materiel Solution Analysis Phase. During this phase, a VOLT Report typically supports an AoA and selection of the Materiel Solution, Draft Capabilities Development Document (CDD), Test and Evaluation Strategy, and System Performance Specification. Because final materiel solutions are yet to be approved, specific system configuration and detailed intelligence mission data (IMD) requirements are typically not known. The program, however, could identify the likely IMD types (e.g., radar, thermal, acoustic, electronic warfare, integrated reprogramming, geospatial intelligence, etc.) based on the intended operational mission. Aircraft systems are dependent on a variety of scientific and technical intelligence products throughout every stage of their lifecycle; however, IMD provides essential data for modeling the system, developing algorithms, designing sensors, and testing and evaluating the system. It is important for systems to consider IMD as early as possible in the acquisition process. Ideally, IMD considerations will inform technology transition decisions and development planning efforts [7].
  • MS-A and the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) Phase. VOLT Reports provided during this phase, prior to source selection, support technology development and aid potential contractors in determining materials or methods during RFP, aid in developing the CDD, and will likewise aid the acquisition community in choosing a design proposal that would possibly eliminate or mitigate threats. When the program approaches MS-B and as the design matures, IMD requirements may need to be refined and submitted to the intelligence production centers, such as NASIC [7]
  • Dev RFP Release/MS-B and the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) Phase. An updated VOLT Report is required to support the Dev RFP Release and the Preliminary Design Review (PDR). During the PDR, the program establishes the system baseline and underlying architectures to meet requirements specified in the CDD. The VOLT Report also supports development of the Test and Evaluation Master Plan (TEMP), Lifecycle Sustainment Plan, and an updated Cost Analysis Requirements Description (CARD) and risk assessment for the EMD phase. During the EMD phase, the VOLT Report further supports the Critical Design Review (CDR) to establish a system-level product baseline prior to system fabrication, demonstration, and test [7].
  • MS-C and Beyond. VOLT Reports written for MS-C and at the FRP decision provide insight into new threats after the system design is finalized, helping the sustainment community develop, design, and fund modifications to fielded weapon systems to keep them survivable. These reports also help determine performance gaps that will support planning on the next upgrade to the weapon system. The test community also relies on the VOLT Report to support operational test and evaluation by mimicking real-world operational scenarios that are key to ensuring aircraft survivability and mission effectiveness.


The primary source of threat information for the VOLT comes from the DITL. Hundreds of Threat Modules—defined as comprehensive, authoritative, and validated assessments of foreign threats—are produced by IC subject-matter experts (SMEs), validated by DIA, and maintained in the DITL [7]. Threat Modules project threat capabilities out 20 years and are currently organized under the following 7 threat topic areas:

  1. Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, and Nuclear
  2. Counter Sensor
  3. Cyberspace
  4. Strategy/Doctrine/Employment
  5. Platform/Target
  6. Sensor
  7. Weapons

Threat Modules also contain Threat Roadmaps, which show a progression of technology and provide a visual depiction of adversary capabilities in relation to state-of-the art weapons technology. These Threat Roadmaps, especially when annotated with state and nonstate actors having the capabilities described, provide information that help developers and mission-planners within the acquisition community design for survivability.


Finally, a key component of the VOLT is the CIP, which provides warning intelligence to acquisition and requirements decision-makers. CIPs focus on the technical capabilities of foreign threat systems and on critical foreign capabilities that have not yet been achieved by an adversary, but if developed would pose a significant threat to U.S. weapon systems. CIPs, written against a program’s Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) and Key System Attributes (KSAs), are generally established by the acquisition, intelligence, and requirements communities. Most programs have at least one threshold parameter at which a threat to the aircraft survivability, performance, or its mission cannot be tolerated. CIPs address issues of significant concern to a program, and, if breached, they will force a decision to act (change design and/or operational environment) or not to act (assume risk) upon the program. CIPs assure the program that the IC will monitor and report on any emergence of significant technical or mission capability that crosses the threshold or parameters addressed in the CIP. If a CIP report threshold is breached, the TSG and decision-makers are informed immediately.


Staying abreast of current and emerging threats will enable the development, production, and sustainment of more survivable aircraft for the U.S. Warfighter. Early intelligence threat support to the defense acquisition lifecycle is advantageous in reducing program cost, schedule, and performance risk. The new VOLT and DITL are improving acquisition, intelligence, and requirements partnerships and allowing the IC to operate more efficiently, while providing more timely intelligence to decision-makers.


Ms. Mary Anne Wells is an intelligence analyst with more than 20 years of engineering and intelligence experience as a government employee and contractor at NASIC. Her experience includes serving as a STAR and VOLT author for large aircraft and as an SME/ all-source weapons analyst for several weapons disciplines. Ms. Wells has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Akron and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton.

Mr. Jason Luchkiw is an intelligence analyst with more than 10 years of intelligence experience. He is currently serving as an all-source analyst at NASIC. Mr. Luchkiw holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Temple University and a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University.

Mr. Wayne McNutt is an intelligence analyst with more than 17 years of intelligence experience. His experience includes serving as a STAR and VOLT author for large aircraft and as an SME/ all-source weapons analyst for several weapons disciplines. He retired from military service in 2017, after having recently served as a Non Commissioned Officer in Charge for the Threats to DoD Force Modernization Flight at NASIC. Mr. McNutt holds a bachelor’s degree in information technology from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in intelligence, security studies, and analysis from Angelo State University.

Maj. Benjamin Wolak is a program engineer and intelligence analyst with more than 15 years of engineering and intelligence experience. He is currently serving as an Air Force Reservist at NASIC and as a government employee at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Maj. Wolak holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Michigan Technological University and a master’s degree in business administration from Boston University.

NASIC Facility (U.S. Air Force Photo)


The authors recognize Mr. James Reed, Mr. Paul Siemens, Dr. James Sturckler, and Mr. David Turich for their review and contributions to this article.

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