Cover: Examining U.S. Air Force Spectrum Management in the Continental United States

Examining U.S. Air Force Spectrum Management in the Continental United States

Published May 8, 2024

by Jair Aguirre, Justin W. Lee, Nicholas A. O'Donoughue

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Research Summary

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Research Questions

  1. What are the common USAF CONUS spectrum management processes and what technology is used for them?
  2. What are the root causes of delays in CONUS spectrum certification and frequency assignment?
  3. How can timelines be shortened for CONUS spectrum certification and frequency assignment processing?

The Department of the Air Force's (DAF's) ability to test, train, and operate in the continental United States is challenged not only by the increasing congestion of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) but also by DAF and federal administrative requirements because spectrum-dependent DAF equipment must be certified and allocated to an increasingly limited spectrum, which requires long processing times. These challenges result in delays in deploying and training with spectrum-dependent equipment, ultimately challenging the DAF's technological edge in the EMS. 

The authors reviewed guidance documents for U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and federal EMS management. In addition, they reviewed spectrum management training documentation and pipelines. The authors also conducted semistructured interviews and discussions with spectrum managers and EMS operations subject-matter experts at several operational commands, test ranges, and at USAF headquarters to collect input on procedures. In this report, they analyze the collected data and data from spectrum management systems to identify the sources of delays and their potential root causes.

Key Findings

  • Each DAF guideline provides up to nine months to process spectrum certification and assignment submissions within the DAF.
  • Although many of the certification submissions are approved at the DAF level, they can still require up to three months of approval time at the federal level.
  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration processes more than 90,000 frequency assignment applications per year, and the DAF has no day-to-day insight as to the reasons for a delay or the pending length of a delay for a given submission.
  • It is difficult to measure delays in the DAF with precision because corrections and updates to certification and frequency allocation submissions often require manual work and because data on delays and their reasons are not automatically collected over time.
  • There is no standard workflow across the DAF for processing spectrum certification and assignment submissions at the unit level.
  • Enterprise databases for spectrum management are managed by Defense Information Services Agency for all service components and within the DAF, but federal agencies employ different spectrum management databases.
  • DISA spectrum management technology does not produce automated reporting of certification and assignment delays, and DAF technology and workflows are not standardized.
  • Spectrum management within the DAF is carried out by military and civilian personnel; the number of enlisted personnel and their training under a new cyber career field designator do not reflect the importance of the EMS to operations and potential future conflicts.
  • Interactions between spectrum managers and certification and assignment applicants are often focused on correcting submission errors.


  • With support from the Air Force Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Directorate, the Air Force Spectrum Management Office (AFSMO) should establish a DAF-accessible record of delays, flag those outside reasonable guidelines, and describe their impact.
  • The AFSMO should advocate for updates to DoD-enterprise spectrum management tools, such as Spectrum XXI, to identify DAF-wide and DoD problem areas.
  • The AFSMO should develop and acquire technology that aids users and helps automate the certification and frequency allocation submission process.
  • The AFSMO should establish DAF-wide standards for spectrum management technology and workflows for processing spectrum certifications and assignment applications.
  • The AFSMO should develop new training materials for enlisted spectrum managers early in their career that focus on developing core capabilities, such as spectrum expertise, process administration, and engagement with industry and operations.
  • The AFSMO should develop DAF spectrum management community-knowledge management systems so that airmen have access to the most recent and relevant information available to support the unique mission that spectrum managers have within their new cyber specialty designator.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Force Modernization and Employment Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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