Opinion

Making the most of the Air Force’s investment in Joint All Domain Command and Control

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this commentary was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Air Force recently requested $302 million for the Advanced Battle Management System, the leading technical solution to the problem of Joint All Domain Command and Control. JADC2 describes an emerging concept whereby sensors and shooters in all domains — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace — are linked and can rapidly target adversary forces. But as the Air Force develops and demonstrates its technical solution for JADC2, it will encounter organizational constraints that impede its ability to operate and acquire new technology jointly. Making the most of the Air Force’s investment, therefore, requires a commitment from Department of Defense leadership to not only build technical links between sensors and shooters but organizational links as well.

Technical solutions for JADC2

The Air Force’s ABMS has emerged as the leading technical solution to connect sensors and shooters and to enable JADC2. The Air Force, in turn, plans to initially develop ABMS using a “DevOps " strategy, with new capability demonstrations every four months. ABMS’s first demonstration, for example, tested a technical architecture consisting of data-sharing interfaces between several systems, including an Air Force F-22 and a Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. It also tested a new cloud-based repository for storing shared data.

By focusing first on tactical demonstrations and technical connections, the Air Force plans to build its technical architecture from the bottom-up. Central to this approach is the Air Force’s “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. Essentially, Air Force leadership hopes that the other military services will accept ABMS as the starting point for JADC2 and will begin developing and fielding compatible technology. The other military services, however, have already publicly questioned this approach; for example, Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command, recently noted that “ABMS cannot be the sole solution, because it doesn’t account for, in some cases, the scale or the unique requirements of all the other services.”

The Army’s concerns, as voiced by Wesley, illustrate the limitations of the Air Force’s bottom-up approach. Although Air Force demonstrations may accelerate technology development and fielding, researchers at MITRE have rightly noted that command and control is about more than just the technical connections between disparate systems. Command and control is about decision-making — and who has the authority to make and implement decisions.

Despite its initial technical work on ABMS, the Air Force has no authority over the other military services that build technology nor over the combatant commands that operate it. For this reason, the Government Accountability Office recently warned that “unclear decision-making authorities will hinder the Air Force’s ability to effectively execute and assess ABMS development across multiple organizations.” If ABMS is to evolve into the technical solution for JADC2, new organizational connections—among the Air Force, the other military services, and the combatant commands—are required as well. Therefore, to make the most of the Air Force’s investment in ABMS, DoD should use its technology demonstrations to identify the limitations and weaknesses of current organizational constructs.

DoD leadership should then work across the military services, combatant commands, and perhaps even with Congress to reorient or restructure relevant organizations so they can take advantage of new ABMS capabilities. In doing so, DoD will confront problems of operational and acquisition authorities that cannot be solved via bottom-up technical demonstrations nor by the Air Force alone. Instead, DoD leadership should adopt a complementary, top-down approach that is informed by technical demonstrations but that simultaneously addresses one of the toughest problems in the Pentagon: who is in charge?

Operational authorities

Technical solutions to the problem of JADC2 enable operators to detect and affect targets. Therefore, in developing ABMS, the Air Force first needs to decide what data to collect and connect. Next, it needs to identify who tasks sensors to collect that data and who adjudicates competing priorities when sensors are assigned more than one task. The Air Force also needs to determine who will store and analyze data and who will decide to initiate an effect, task relevant shooters, and adjudicate competing priorities.

The tough questions here relate to operational authorities: for each step outlined above, who decides? Answering these questions is especially challenging when sensors and shooters cross domains as envisioned in the JADC2 concept. When this happens, relevant operational authorities may exist in separate organizations — which may not have clear or efficient authority structures connecting them.

For example, within a specified region of the world, geographic combatant commanders have authority over assigned forces. Within these commands, however, forces are often organized in structures that exacerbate military service stovepipes and that separate the traditional air, land, and sea domains. Connecting sensors and shooters across domains may require more horizontal connections between the service stovepipes. It may also require new, multi-domain organizational structures within existing commands.

JADC2 may also require new connections between the combatant commands themselves. For example, the commanders of Space Command and Cyber Command have authority over operations in the space and cyberspace domains. All-domain operations, however, will integrate space and cyberspace with operations in the air, land, and sea domains, where geographic commanders traditionally have authority. Therefore, to integrate all domains — including space and cyberspace — JADC2 will require new links between combatant commands. It will also require DoD leadership to identify who has the authority to dynamically link sensors and shooters across more than one command.

As the Air Force develops ABMS, it’s likely to run into the organizational issues described above. But because these issues relate to operational authorities, they can neither be solved by technical demonstrations nor by the Air Force alone. Therefore, to make the most of the Air Force’s investment in ABMS, DOD leadership—and the Joint Staff in particular—should collect, assess, and address the operational authority issues that surface during each demonstration. And as the Air Force defines technical links between sensors and shooters, DoD leadership should be willing to restructure existing commands by creating organizational connections which mirror ABMS’s technical ones.

Acquisition authorities

After the Air Force develops ABMS, it — along with the other military services — will need to acquire components of the ABMS technical architecture. As noted above, those components will likely include standardized, data-sharing interfaces, systems that comply with those interface standards, and a data repository. To field the ABMS architecture, the Air Force needs to levy interface standards on sensors and shooters — many of which are funded and built by the other military services. Next, all six military services will need to retrofit existing systems and procure new systems to be compliant with interface standards. Finally, the Air Force needs to procure a central data repository that meets the military services’ joint needs.

The tough questions here relate to acquisition authorities: for each step outlined above, who makes technical decisions, and who pays for them? For example, if the Air Force defines interface standards, will the individual military services pay to make their systems compliant? And, if a military service is resource constrained, who has the authority to trade-off interface compliance for cost? Furthermore, if the Air Force fields a data repository on behalf of the other military services, is the Air Force also responsible for funding it?

Because these questions relate to acquisition authorities—again, they can neither be answered by technical demonstrations nor by the Air Force alone. As above, to make the most of the Air Force’s investment in ABMS, DOD leadership—and the Office of the Secretary of Defense in particular — should develop a joint acquisition plan to synchronize and share the burden of procuring ABMS technology. And because DOD has historically struggled with joint acquisition, it should leverage lessons learned as it develops its plan to transition ABMS from the Air Force and into the joint force.

DOD struggles with joint acquisition because the military services’ divergent incentives prioritize individual autonomy over collaboration. To counter these incentives, DOD can structure joint organizations to disincentivize behavior that prioritizes individual interests over joint ones. DOD learned this lesson the hard way with its Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program; luckily, researchers at the University of Maryland documented these lessons, many of which apply directly to the future of ABMS and JADC2.

JTRS, a joint program reminiscent of ABMS and JADC2, developed common radios to connect operators across the military services. DoD originally managed JTRS via a decentralized approach, with the Army as the lead service responsible for architecture development and the individual services responsible for building and funding architecture components. This structure allowed the services to prioritize autonomy over collaboration and made it challenging to resolve interservice disagreements over technical requirements and funding.

After eight years of development, zero radios fielded, and significant costs expended, Congress required DOD to centralize and strengthen the JTRS program office. This restructured office contained a single decisionmaker who reported to OSD, had technical and budget authority over the participating military services, and was empowered to facilitate collaboration by resolving interservice disagreements. Unfortunately, the correction to JTRS’s organizational structure came too late in the program, making it difficult to recover lost time, cost, and capability. DOD cancelled JTRS after spending $15 billion and 15 years on its development.

JADC2, on the other hand, is still early in its development process. Unfortunately, by naming the Air Force as the lead service for ABMS and its subsequent evolution into JADC2, DOD appears poised to repeat JTRS’s flawed, decentralized approach to joint acquisition. Like JTRS, JADC2 requires centralized, OSD-level management to incentivize interservice collaboration and to make cross-service decisions related to both technical requirements and cost. Therefore, to make the most of the Air Force’s initial investment in ABMS, DOD leadership should revise and expand upon its acquisition plan to transition ABMS from the Air Force and into the joint force.

Organizational solutions for JADC2

To make the most of the Air Force’s investment in ABMS, DOD should ensure that once new technology is ready to transition into procurement and operations, appropriate operational and acquisition organizations are already in place. This means that as the Air Force demonstrates new technology, DOD leadership should reconsider organizational links both within and across combatant commands. DOD should also look ahead and devise a joint acquisition plan that addresses historic challenges and incentivizes collaboration.

While the Air Force’s bottom-up approach to ABMS is effective for technology development and demonstration, a complementary top-down approach is also required. The Air Force’s work will undoubtedly raise questions of operational and acquisition authorities that the Air Force cannot address alone. Instead, DOD must leverage the Air Force’s bottom-up approach to identify weaknesses in current organizational structures and employ a top-down approach to correct them. Only by integrating bottom-up technical solutions with top-down organizational ones, can DOD truly make the most of the Air Force’s investment in ABMS and the future of JADC2.

Morgan Dwyer is a fellow in the International Security Program and deputy director for policy analysis in the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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