A report by a government watchdog that slammed the Air Force’s major command-and-control program did not include key classified information and was outdated by the time it was released last week, the service’s top general said Wednesday.
On Friday, the Government Accountability Office delivered a scathing report on the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, which seeks to overhaul the U.S. military’s command-and-control infrastructure so that any platform will instantly and seamlessly be able to share data with another weapon system on the battlefield.
The problem, according to the GAO, is that the Air Force has not provided enough detail on exactly what technology it needs, how it plans to field it and how much it will cost. But speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said the agency did not have access to key information that may have fleshed out the service’s plans.
“There is a bit of latency to the reporting,” Goldfein said. “Two things I would offer is that they were not able to get to our December ABMS demo. So they didn’t actually … see in real time what we were connecting.”
The other problem, Goldfein said, is that the organization was not cleared to receive information about the classified portions of the program.
“That makes it challenging because if the technology you’re moving forward, if a lot of it is in the classified realm — if a lot of it, quite frankly, was in the space realm — and the GAO doesn’t have access or clearance to be able to look at it, then the report is going to be on a very small portion of what the Advanced Battle Management System really is,” he said.
In an email to Defense News, GAO director Marie Mak disputed Goldfein’s characterization of the report, saying that the organization has a full understanding of past and present ABMS efforts, including the December exercise and numerous classified discussions.
“Those discussions did not change our finding that the Air Force still does not have an overall plan for ABMS, a point which they openly acknowledged and in fact concurred with our recommendations,” she said. “The Air Force still needs to develop an overall plan, to include preliminary costs and schedule. Without some type of overall plan in place, it will be difficult for the Air Force to prioritize this program among the acquisition efforts within the Air Force.”
When Goldfein became the Air Force’s chief of staff in 2016, he made connecting the joint force one of his major priorities. Since then, the service has canceled efforts to replace legacy aircraft that play a role in battlefield management, such as a recapitalization of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft.
Instead, it has put its financial resources toward ABMS, which it envisions as a family of systems that will be more survivable than a direct replacement for JSTARS aircraft or other assets.
The service tapped Preston Dunlap to manage the ABMS effort in 2019. It then conducted its first set of technology demonstrations in December, where it tested 28 different technologies, with 26 of them proving to be successful.
However, some lawmakers have remained skeptical about the Air Force’s approach and lack of transparency. In March, Republican Sen. David Perdue called for the Air Force to deliver an analysis of alternatives and capability development document — two pieces of documentation typical to defense acquisition programs.
“The development of ABMS is encouraging, but we need to make sure Congress has proper oversight throughout the process,” said Perdue, whose home state of Georgia is the location of Robins Air Force Base, where ABMS is slated to be based.
Goldfein did not directly address one of the GAO’s major complaints: that the program is at greater risk for schedule delays and cost growth because it does not have a firm business case that spells out capability requirements and cost. But he acknowledged that the Air Force has to do more to share information with Congress and the GAO in a timely matter.
However, the pace of the ABMS program may also require lawmakers and the GAO to put in more time to keep updated on the effort’s progress, he said.
“The GAO has got to keep up … and we’ve got to help,” Goldfein said. “This is not a poke or criticism. We’ve got to help them. We’ve got to help Congress. We’ve got to help think tanks. We’ve got to help others realize that we are moving out and we are developing capability faster than we’ve ever developed capability before. We’re connecting things faster than we’ve ever connected them before.”
“Every four months we are connecting new capabilities that have never been connected. That’s a hard one to deliver a report on, but I’m eager to sit down with the GAO and get them up to speed.”
Updated on 4/23/19 at 11:45 a.m. with comment from the GAO.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.