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Due on Inauguration Day: An acquisition strategy for the Air Force’s next-gen battle management system

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System effort is a program like no other: a complicated and sometimes confusing web of communications, IT and artificial intelligence systems that the service plans to continuously test and develop with the goal of connecting sensors and shooters across the joint force.

But over the next few weeks, Air Force leaders are aiming to finally answer looming questions about ABMS and transition it into more of a traditional defense program, all in the hopes that both Congress and the Biden administration carry it forward.

In an exclusive Jan. 8 interview with Defense News, Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper said one of his main goals before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20 is to ensure Air Force leaders sign off on an ABMS acquisition strategy. Once approved, the service can begin buying the first wave of cloud-based technologies that will allow stovepiped fighter jets to trade data during combat.

“I believe, based on my last review with the Rapid Capabilities Office, that we’ll get the [acquisition strategy] done before I timeout, and that’s something I think it’s important for me to hand off,” he said. “I owe [the next administration] a program that is baselined with a schedule, a master test plan, everything that a normal program would have so that they can evaluate it like every other program has been handled.”

The Air Force plans to gradually buy pieces of the ABMS system after experimenting with off-the-shelf and developmental products in “on-ramp” demonstrations held several times throughout the year. The first release will comprise a suite of technologies allowing fighter jets and other tactical aircraft to share data with each other in combat, even when those planes use low-probability-of-intercept waveforms — like the F-35′s Multifunctional Advanced Data Link and the F-22′s Intra-Flight Data Link — that are incompatible with Link 16 and other data links commonly used by the military.

The first technologies to be procured will include interim versions of CloudONE, a secure cloud; PlatformONE, a cloud-based software development environment; EdgeONE, an expeditionary cloud; GatewayONE, a data translator; and other products, Roper said.

Aerial refueling tankers will play a critical role in the concept, hosting a podded payload that will make it a “flying cellphone tower and data processor” capable of relaying communications data among aircraft, he said. The tanker would be positioned just outside an adversary’s anti-access/area denial bubble — within line of sight of the fighter but far enough from most surface-to-air threats — and would be able to receive and transmit data through stealthy data links even when adversaries are jamming the Air Force’s communications systems, Roper said.

“If for whatever reason there’s a new threat that popped up and a fighter was not in line of sight of a tanker — just like a fighter has to think, ‘All right, do I need to go back and get more gas before I take on this new mission?’ — the fighter could decide to fly back to within line of sight of the tanker [to get more data],” he said. “And line of sight is a long way away; it’s not like you’re close to the tanker, you’re just close enough to get that directional beam onto the airplane to which you’re talking.”

Air Mobility Command will choose which tanker will first get the ABMS pod, but the command is veering toward its newest refueling aircraft, the Boeing KC-46A.

“There is a lot of potential on the wings currently where the aerial refueling pods go to put a data relay pod so that the tanker doesn’t just act as a fuel tanker [but] it acts as a data tanker as well,” Roper said. “And the KC-46 has some wonderful capabilities that it brings that the other mobility platforms don’t — good radar warning, connectivity with the broader force that other tankers don’t have.”

Then the question will be: How many pods does Air Mobility Command want to buy?

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which was tapped in November to lead procurement efforts for ABMS, will carry development of the pods and other new ABMS capabilities through low-rate production. The first technologies could be acquired as early as this year, Roper said in November.

Once full-rate production is approved, the RCO will transition procurement authority over to other Air Force entities.

For the tanker pods, the Air Force’s program executive office for mobility and training will eventually purchase pods for the service’s aerial refueling planes the same way it buys other tanker upgrades.

An AT&T civilian contractor monitors the status interface of a
An AT&T civilian contractor monitors the status interface of a "Cell on Wings" drone to provide 5G connectivity to participants of the Advanced Battle Management Systems Onramp 2 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., on Aug. 27, 2020. (Staff Sgt. Charlye Alonso/U.S. Air Force)

Roper said the ABMS on-ramps played a critical role in maturing many of the technologies that could roll into the first product release, proving that those items could plug into legacy platforms and connect with other products being tested.

“It’s just time for the program to move into its next phase. And I think once it does, that ABMS will become very boring from an acquisition strategy standpoint. It will seem very normal, although the capability demonstrations will continue to be very often.”

Not ‘Future Combat Systems, Part Two’

Despite having the support of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, the ABMS program has not found solid footing with Congress and oversight organizations.

Last spring, the Government Accountability Office said of the program that the service’s lack of an acquisition strategy could result in schedule and cost delays.

“The Air Force has not established a plan or business case for ABMS that identifies its requirements, a plan to attain mature technologies when needed, a cost estimate, and an affordability analysis. … To date, the Air Force has not identified a development schedule for ABMS, and it has not formally documented requirements,” the GAO stated in an April report.

Congress cut spending for the program almost in half for fiscal 2021, citing unjustified program growth. In the end, it opted to fund about $159 million of the Air Force’s $302 million request.

Asked about what that means for the program, Roper expressed confidence that Air Force support for ABMS would continue, but he acknowledged the program still must answer outstanding questions from Congress.

“We’re during a transition phase — between one administration to the next — which creates uncertainty,” he said. “I think it’s also a gut check for the Air Force. Are we really going to stick with this nontraditional program across an administration change? It’s a good time to change your mind if you want to. Chief Brown and Chief Raymond have been strong advocates in every public engagement they’ve made that this is something the Air Force and Space Force have to do. So I’m very confident that the Air Force and Space Force will stick with this as one of their highest priorities.”

Although Congress still has questions about the program, Roper said he has seen improvement in how lawmakers view the program. Lawmakers are no longer concerned that ABMS could become a “Future Combat Systems, Part Two,” he said, referencing a disastrous Army program in the mid-2000s for a family of systems that would include a high-speed network and a collection of new manned and unmanned vehicles.

Instead, Congress wants answers about what technologies the Air Force will buy in the ABMS program, and the schedule for development, test and procurement — all questions that the acquisition strategy will answer, Roper said.

“I think Congress has given us a lot of latitude to get started, and I think they’re wanting to see: OK, are we really going to stick with it?” he said. “And as long as they’ll let the funding grow in our next budget submission, then I think we’ll be able to keep the program on track.”

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