Thought Leadership

Securing information age combat capabilities demands a new approach

Joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) is an imperative for the Air Force and the broader Department of Defense with good reason. Success in tomorrow’s battlespace will rely on the ability to gather data, process it into actionable information, and share this in real time across every element of coalition or joint force operations. This ability will allow coalition members and the services to collaborate to best achieve a mission effect while minimizing points of vulnerability. The commonly accepted way to achieve this goal is through a concept known as common standards — a standardized technical baseline through which all systems will communicate. But common standards are not the only — or even the best — way to achieve the information sharing fundamental to actualizing JADC2.

If the DoD wants to be able to move at the speed of technology and outpace adversaries, then it must move beyond common data standards to leverage the power of shared information in the battlespace. It also needs to update bureaucratic budgeting and program management processes from the industrial age to those required for success in the information era.

In a perfect world, the notion of common standards makes sense — all systems communicating in the same language. However, reality dictates a far different set of circumstances. The force we have today is composed from numerous generations of technology, using different data links and data standards. Coalitions change from one contingency to the next with different members with different operating systems. Snapping a new chalk line and expecting every existing system and allied country to conform to a single standard is virtually impossible as well as cost prohibitive. Compliance to established standards will prevent future weapon systems from employing the newest data exchange techniques as technology advances.

So the question arises: Is there a middle path that achieves the effect of common standards, while adapting to the reality of diverse means?

The answer is yes. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been developing technologies that do not require common standards or open systems to configure, connect and integrate weapon systems across the domains. Instead of fixating on common standards as the pathway to the future, the DoD should seek to mature and field these kinds of mission integration tools.

One government-owned program already exists that can enable previously incompatible networks and systems to exchange data without the need for common standards or open mission architectures. Effectively a software patch that can be installed on any platform, STITCHES acts like an international translator and software integration tool. STITCHES (the shortened name for the system-of-systems technology integration tool chain for heterogeneous electronic systems) can even enable machine-to-machine coordination and collaboration when programmed as part of the mission planning process.

Yet despite operationally effective performance with real-world weapon systems, STITCHES has struggled to survive in an industrial-age bureaucracy. However, the problem is not about STITCHES. The problem is the DoD acquisition processes. The department must update the defense procedures used to acquire, field and operate the software-based mission integration tools that future warfare will require.

Put simply, the DoD does not have a money category or management structure for software-based programs that span across platforms, domains and services. Still based on a hardware model, DoD acquisition is not equipped to support the software-based technologies that are the foundation of future warfare.

Employing software tools generally results in minor changes to the original configuration of the weapon system. These actions are more akin to dynamic mission planning than anything else, but ill-fitted bureaucratic buckets define them as “research and development.” Because funding categories and statutes are based on a hardware-centric model, these important tools are prevented from being fielded into routine and ongoing operations.

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) strongly supports STITCHES. But the research and development categorization effectively bars STITCHES from being normalized across the force. STITCHES is not unique to any one weapon system, which means that it lacks a champion to ensure its survival. Many more capabilities will share the same fate if funding mechanisms are not changed.

It is not just technology that must adapt to win future warfare — the bureaucratic structures that develop, procure and field these mission integration tools must also change. To that end, the Air Force should establish an integration program executive office to support these kinds of combat-focused, system-agnostic mission integration tools. One program to start with is STITCHES. In danger of losing its funding, the Air Force should reprogram R&D funds to ensure STITCHES is not a lost opportunity. Finally, Congress should create new appropriations categories and accounts that are aligned with these kinds of capabilities.

Warfare in the information age will require sharing that information across the battlespace. Common standards will not be enough to deliver that advantage. Sharing information at speed will require software mission integration tools that can be used at the unit level and as part of mission planning. Bureaucracy is never fast, but we must adapt our current acquisition structures and funding if we are to adapt to the future information battlespace in order to outpace our adversaries.

Heather Penney is a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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