IT and Networks

Air Force curtails ABMS demos after budget slashed by Congress

WASHINGTON — Cuts to the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program, the centerpiece of a concept to link sensors to shooters, mean that the service will only be able to conduct two technology demonstrations this year, the Air Force’s chief architect said Wednesday.

In its fiscal 2021 budget, Congress slashed funds for the ABMS program roughly in half, allocating only $159 million of the Air Force’s $302 million request. As a result, the Air Force will have fewer opportunities to test off-the-shelf tech it wants to mature to more seamlessly connect its sensors and shooters, Preston Dunlap said.

“This year, we were attempting to do three evaluation events or onramps,” Dunlap told reporters during a roundtable. The Air Force held its first ABMS demo of the calendar year — the fourth such event since 2019 — from Feb. 22 to 25.

“No. 5 will be coming up this summer. No. 6, though, we had to cut. That’s the real impact ... It was going to be in partnership with Australia, and allies and partners in the Pacific.”

ABMS is the Air Force’s piece of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept, which seeks to link all of the military’s aircraft, sensors and other weapons systems. Originally envisioned as a replacement for Air Force platforms, such as the E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance plane, the program has evolved into an Internet of Things for the military.

During the most recent ABMS demonstration, held in partnership with U.S. Air Forces in Europe, or USAFE, the service tested an array of IT and communications technologies meant to make it easier for service members to instantly share data across platforms that are currently stovepiped.

For instance, the service incorporated additional sensors into its base defense and counter-drone architecture, and integrated new cyber and space technologies. Much of the specific gear, and the role it played operationally, was classified. Allied and partner nations also played a role in the demonstration for the first time, Dunlap said.

In addition, the service tested several emerging artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to help automate target recognition, he said.

“You’ve seen us do this as an Air Force and Space Force over the last year in different areas, but this for me was a pretty exciting tipping point getting it really to the line of mission action, in a way we’ve never done before,” Dunlap said.

Brig. Gen. Adrian Spain — USAFE’s director of plans, programs and analyses — pointed to technological advances in space-based communications satellites and cloud computing that allowed airmen to quickly connect to a network and push data to the cloud, even in more austere environments where that connectivity is not usually possible.

“Often one of the challenges we have operationally is, we kind of know what we want, but then when we’re tasked on putting it down on apiece of paper, it’s really hard to say specifically, ‘This is what I’m talking about,’” he said. “By doing this event, it really gave us the opportunity to refine our requirements to be able to say, ‘These are definitive gaps that we have in our operational processes.’”

Most of those gaps, Spain added, involved finding areas where machines can be used to automate jobs currently performed by humans.

As of November 2020, the Air Force had awarded indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts to 93 vendors across five announcements, allowing those companies to participate in the ABMS experiments. That month, the service tapped its Rapid Capabilities Office to move the most mature and useful technologies from the ABMS experiments to a program of record.

The Air Force intends to begin buying the first ABMS “capability release” as soon as this year, which will allow the service to equip tankers with gear that allow fighters like the F-35 and F-22 to stealthily share data — something that is not currently possible.

With lawmakers critical of the program’s direction, Dunlap said the program’s biggest challenge going forward will be be proving it can move technologies from development into procurement.

“We trust that we’ll be able to explain what’s going on, and why that’s important and how it’s so critical to enabling not only the DoD joint all-domain concept, but also be able to show the acquisition approach will be successful to achieve that in the end,” he said.

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