HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — At an Alabama-based Northrop Grumman facility, now primed to build a U.S. Army battle command system, three fire-control relays painted green sit side by side.
But these relays that connect the Integrated Battle Command System to sensors and shooters in the field aren’t for the American service. Instead, they are going from Madison to nearby Redstone Arsenal for a final review before shipment to the Polish military.
The three relays seen March 27 marked the last of the equipment that makes up the IBCS technology Poland will receive as part of its first order of Patriot air defense systems it bought years ago.
“That hardware will ship in-country next month. Actually, the Poles will complete their training, and we’ll reach base operational capability, essentially being online at the end of the summer,” Northrop Grumman’s director of network solutions, Ian Reynolds, told reporters at the production line on Monday.
With Russia carrying out an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Poland is clambering to buy high-end defense capabilities. It reached an agreement with the U.S. in 2018 to buy Raytheon Technologies-made Patriot systems bolstered by an advanced battle command system that the U.S. Army was still developing.
Poland received a waiver to acquire IBCS because it wanted the capability before it would be fielded to U.S. soldiers. Typically, American-made weapon systems are fielded to U.S. forces before they’re sold internationally.
Poland’s request was risky because the IBCS program, at the time, was struggling in tests, and the program’s schedule had slipped by roughly four years.
The command system was originally developed as the brains of a future air and missile defense system for the Army. It was to tie together with a new 360-degree radar and potentially new launchers, replacing the aging Patriot weapon.
But the Army expanded the role for IBCS, deciding the system would also connect other sensors and shooters on the battlefield like the still-in-development Indirect Fire Protection Capability designed to defend against rockets, artillery, mortars, cruise missiles and drones. The mission expansion further delayed IBCS fielding plans.
Poland will become the first operational user of IBCS, not the U.S. Army. But the U.S. will benefit from the Eastern European country using the system, Reynolds said.
“As we were proposing [low-rate initial production] in a competition, we were able to show that: ‘Hey, we, Northrop Grumman, have a live, hot production line. We have a team already supporting the software development, the hardware development.’ " he said. “So that really benefited the U.S. Army — just stepping into that already established line.”
The company also took lessons learned from building systems for Poland’s Wisla program — the effort to procure a Patriot capability — and applied it to the U.S. Army’s low-rate production program, according to Michael Hahn, Northrop’s IBCS program director.
The U.S. Army awarded Northrop a $1.4 billion contract for both low-rate initial production and full-rate production of its future battle command system in December 2022.
Poland’s first order, which includes two Patriot Configuration 3+ batteries, came with a $4.75 billion price tag.
As part of the deal, Northrop delivered two firing batteries of IBCS, which consists of six engagement operations centers, six integrated collaborative environment tents and associated equipment, and 12 integrated fire control network relays.
Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced in May 2022 that the country would launch the second phase of its midrange air defense program by requesting the U.S. government sell it six more Patriot batteries with related gear, including IBCS.
The U.S. Army passed through the initial operational test and evaluation last fall, and a full-rate production decision is expected April 10, as well as the delivery of the first two batteries of IBCS to Poland. Other European-based NATO allies are watching Poland and the U.S. program of record evolve, Reynolds said.
Northrop also submitted IBCS for an Australian competition for a joint air battle management system, Reynolds said, and both Japan and the U.K. are seeking international solutions for an air defense battle command capability. He expects Australia will choose a winner this summer.
And Hahn anticipates Japan will soon issue a letter of request for the capability, while the U.K. has already posted a draft request for proposal to industry.
Poland also wants IBCS for its Narew short-range air defense program, and the country is working on issuing a letter of offer and acceptance with the U.S. government before the end of the year as well as a letter for the second phase of the Wisla program. Poland is buying MBDA’s Common Anti-air Modular Missile for the Narew program.
“With current world events, a lot of our allies and partners are increasing their defense spending investment,” Reynolds said. “While air and missile defense has always been important, it hasn’t always risen above the budget cut line, but we are seeing that it is now that they are backing up their intentions around integrated air and missile defense.”
Northrop is touting the IBCS system as an open, modular system beneficial to foreign customers. “There’s real recognition that in a fight, they’re going to want truly integrated operations with the U.S. Army,” Reynolds explained.
The company is busy preparing its IBCS production line for new and existing customers within the 60,000-square-foot manufacturing space, and it has 500 employees across the program. It takes roughly 18 months to build an IBCS, according to Hahn.
While the system struggled earlier in the program, the company says the technology has had 15 out of 15 successful flight tests, meaning they resulted in target intercepts.
IBCS was also chosen as the command-and-control capability for a new air and missile defense architecture in Guam, where it will connect to a variety of sensors and shooters. Northrop is working with the Missile Defense Agency to tie IBCS into other homeland defense capabilities.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.