WASHINGTON — In fiscal 2021, Congress slashed funding for the Advanced Battle Management System, leaving only about half of the money requested by the Air Force for one of its top modernization priorities.

For the Air Force, it was a wake-up call that the program had become too nebulous and focused on technology demonstration exercises, said Gen. Dave Allvin, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff.

“We understood that, when Congress looked at [the budget], that it was wasn’t clear enough. That perhaps we hadn’t laid out a clear enough path to justify the funds that we were requesting,” Allvin told reporters during a June 24 roundtable. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and say, we need to better align ourselves to be able to articulate more clearly what we want to do.”

Now, the service finds itself having to correct the course of the program.

The cornerstone of the ABMS program up to now had been “on-ramp” experiments where the Air Force and defense companies tested whether various off-the-shelf technologies could give operators an edge during a scripted exercise.

Going forward, the service wants to highlight plans to buy “hard capabilities” that could be pushed to airmen for further testing, maturation and use in operations. Ultimately, the goal is to field layers of new networking, communications and machine learning technologies that would be interwoven to — eventually — connect the aircraft, sensors, and operations centers that identify, track and prosecute targets.

For fiscal 2022, the Air Force has asked for about $204 million for the ABMS program. The sum is a considerable increase from the $158 million lawmakers approved in FY21 but is far short of the $449 million it had planned to request in FY22, according to previous budget documents.

“That’s part of us just being better stewards, quite frankly,” Allvin said. “We anticipate that the investments that we’ve asked for will provide that return, they’ll provide Congress the confidence to help us out in the future if we were to look for more money in the budget years to come.”

What will lawmakers get for that $204 million?

More than half of those funds will go toward the first ABMS “capability release” to be procured and delivered to the field: a bespoke pod for the Boeing KC-46 refueling tanker that will allow it to act as a communications node for the stealthy F-22 and F-35 fighters, which cannot currently share information.

The Air Force plans to field four pods for an early operational capability by the end of FY22 but could acquire up to 10 pods, said Brig. Gen. Jeffery Valenzia, who leads the Air Force’s ABMS cross-functional team.

Some of the FY22 dollars will lay the groundwork for the next two capability releases, which are still in the planning stages. The second ABMS increment will deliver hardware, software and artificial intelligence algorithms to U.S. Northern Command aimed at increasing the speed commanders can make decisions, Valenzia said.

That AI may be trained to identify anomalous patterns of life or characterize objects that could pose a threat to the nation, as well as to provide options to commanders on whether to strike a target or take other action.

“We need to have a good understanding of the quality of the data sources, of the corruptibility of the data sources, of the security of the data sources, because that will inform us as to how much we trust the data coming into the machine,” Allvin said.

The third capability release, Valenzia said, will be more foundational, aimed at building network infrastructure and processing vast amounts of data across a larger enterprise.

Last November, the Air Force announced it was ready to begin procurement of the first elements of what will eventually become the Advanced Battle Management System. With that shift, the service would transition acquisition authority for the program to the Air Force’s Rapid Capability Office.

Valenzia’s cross-functional team would generate requirements for ABMS capability releases and figure out how to integrate those new technologies into the service’s existing doctrine, training and operations. Meanwhile, Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap would continue running periodic experiments with emerging tech that could funnel into later capability releases.

There are signs that the Air Force’s new approach may be more palatable to lawmakers and experts who had previously criticized the structure of the ABMS program.

The Government Accountability Office slammed the program in an April 2020 report, stating that the ABMS effort was at risk of delays and cost overruns because it had not finalized an acquisition strategy or put forward a cost estimate.

GAO Director Marie Mak told C4ISRNet in an interview earlier this month that the Air Force’s transition of the program to the RCO is a step in the right direction.

“When we first started looking at ABMS it was demo after demo, and we were sort of like, what’s your point?” Mak said.

“I think now that the RCO [Rapid Capabilities Office] has taken it, they’ve made a concerted effort to not focus on just the demos … and that’s what the budget seems to be focusing on as well longer term. So that’s a good thing,” she said.

However, the service hasn’t answered all concerns.

Allvin acknowledged that — because of the incremental and iterative nature of the ABMS program — the Air Force is still not able to provide a full cost estimate for the program, and may not be able to ever forecast how much the service will spend on the effort.

“Where the cost estimates really become crystallized is associated with the capability releases,” he said. “That’s where you get an acquisition strategy. And that’s where … those who understand cost, schedule and performance really can dig into that and see the specificity of it.”

The Air Force plans on developing a full cost estimate for each capability release, with the estimate for the first capability release due at the end of June, Allvin said.

“It’s different, which is why we are getting we need to be very transparent with what we’re doing, how we’re approaching it, in order to give Congress and the public who gives us the money, the confidence that what we’re doing has a design and an objective.”

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.

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