International guardian Azar Ali
On Jan. 6, the U.S. Geological Survey detected a 5.1 seismic tremor originating about 30 miles northwest of Kilju City, where the government of North Korea maintains a nuclear test site. Although North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, not everyone was so sure. Decision-makers in Washington, D.C., and allied countries needed more information. One of those charged with finding and distributing it was Azar Ali, ’81 ENG, MS ’86 ENG, chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force’s Pacific Air Forces, headquartered in Hickam Field, Hawaii.
Ali’s job is to manage the communications networks that monitor the air traffic and cyberspace of 36 nations in the Asian-Pacific region. His goal: to maintain international security by providing information to the numerous military bases in Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, Guam and South Korea as well as to naval vessels patrolling the Pacific.
Ali heard about the nuclear bomb test on the Al Jazeera news network, which PACAF monitors. The initial reports were troubling. “There are always grave concerns that tensions in the region could lead to armed conflict,” he says. “We needed to be vigilant and continued to maintain situational awareness over the entire region.” Within a week, the U.S. and South Korea acquired enough intelligence to conclude that while the tremors were caused by a nuclear test, they were too small to have been produced by an H-bomb explosion.
The North Korean government “keeps us up at night,” Ali says. “We’re constantly monitoring them. We don’t know all the things that are going on there, but whenever they fire warheads, we worry about it. We always have to be prepared if they [might one day] target one of our bases or the bases of one of our allies.”
Coming to Illinois
Born in Guyana, Ali was 18 years old when he and his family moved to New York City. His first job was driving a taxi. Eager to escape the howling winter wind one afternoon, he sought shelter in a storefront office that turned out to be an Air Force recruitment center.
“I began talking with the recruiter, and he asked me what I’d like to do with my life,” Ali remembers. “I said I wanted to be a chemist. I’ve always been interested in studying physics and chemistry, but in Guyana, there wasn’t a lot of equipment in the schools. The recruiter said, ‘You can be a chemist in the Air Force,’ so I signed up.”
“Well, that didn’t exactly work out,” Ali says with a laugh. “I became a medic. But I was interested in becoming an engineer and wanted to attend one of the best engineering schools in the country. They said the University of Illinois was one of the top five. The Air Force paid for me to go to school there at night.”
At Illinois, Ali studied under Raj Mittra, Ph.D., former director of Illinois’ Center for Computational Electromagnetics and Electromagnetics Laboratory. “He was a very good mentor,” Ali says. “He always helped me break down difficult problems and showed me the research I needed to solve those problems. And he was good at connecting me with other Ph.D. students so we could work together to solve problems.”
After graduation, Ali was stationed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., for which he designed a satellite dish communications system. Impressed with his work, the Air Force sent him back to UI to earn his master’s in electrical engineering. He continued installing satellite links for the Air Force while teaching electrical engineering at the Air Force Academy and earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado in 1993.
Ali retired from active duty as a major in 1998, but stayed with the service, designing munitions and space-based navigation systems. In January 2015, he was appointed chief scientist, a position he’ll hold for four years. Ali and his wife, Seeleema, live in Hawaii. Their daughter, Alexandria, works in the U.S. Patent Office, and their son, Omar, also is an engineer with the Air Force.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Ali says. “The Air Force has been very loyal to me.”
Keeping an eye out Ali and his unit have a broad portfolio that includes tracking threats from cyberspace. “Hackers all over the world try to breach our system,’’ he says. “I’m constantly updating our firewalls because we continuously distribute air tracking orders to our forces in the region and have to make sure the information we send is what we intend to send.”
Ali’s other duties include keeping an eye on the sky using satellite technology to watch for unauthorized airplanes, which could signal drug trafficking or human trafficking, and for suspicious boat movement, which may indicate pirate ships.
Keeping an eye out
Ali and his unit also participate in relief efforts. After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook Nepal in April 2015, PACAF coordinated U.S. aid efforts with international groups to bring much-needed food and medical supplies into the country.
Ali points out that the PACAF region is home to 60 percent of the world’s population as well as five of the world’s eight nuclear superpowers. So monitoring the area means always staying vigilant—an important duty he is glad to perform: “I feel fortunate that I’m able to do my part to promote peace in our area,” Ali says.