On ABMS, Air Force Steers Between Status Quo and ‘Boiling the Ocean’

Since 2018—when the Pentagon began its strategic pivot toward competition with near-peer powers Russia and China—the Air Force has worked to restructure and advance its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) program.

Originally envisioned as a replacement for the E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), ABMS was reimagined as a holistic “system of systems” designed to seamlessly and securely share data across multiple weapons systems, the service’s contribution to the Defense Department’s broader Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort to connect sensors and shooters around the globe.

“What exactly is ABMS? Is it software? Hardware? Infrastructure? Policy?” Gen. David W. Allvin, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, wrote in May 2021. “The answer is yes to all.”  

Five years from the start of that reimagining, Air Force and industry experts made clear at the AFA Warfare Symposium last week that the precise parameters and definition of the ABMS program remain a work in progress. 

“Within the broad construct of what the Air Force is doing with [command-and control and battle management], I would say there is a ditch on both sides of the road we’re traveling that we’re trying to avoid,” said Brig. Gen, Luke C.G. Cropsey, the Air Force’s program executive officer for command, control, communications, and battle management (C3BM).

On one side is the ditch called “status quo,” he said, and there is general agreement in the Air Force that continuing on that legacy path is unsustainable giving the escalating threat. 

“The problem is, if we overcorrect we hit the ditch on the other side of the road, which is trying to connect everything, everywhere, all of the time,” said Cropsey, who characterized that approach as trying to “boil the ocean.”

“That’s not going to work either … because there’s a long list of acquisition programs that adopted that ‘Big Bang’ theory [of connectivity], and they ended poorly as a result,” Cropsey said during a panel discussion.  

The Air Force’s lodestar for avoiding those ditches is to always keep in mind the needs of the warfighter in any future great power conflict.  

“The way we stay in the middle of the road is to be ruthlessly, laser-focused on the operational problems that need to be solved in order for us to win the next fight,” said Cropsey. “We need to stay grounded in the fundamental belief that if we identify and clearly articulate the operational problem we’re trying to solve, and do that in a way that allows us all to share the same vision of the challenge, then we can work our way back through the mission threads and the kill chain and arrive at a solution. That’s what we mean by staying operationally focused.”  

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, general manager of Air and Space Force programs for L3Harris, likened the importance of staying operationally focused to the evolution of the cell phone.

“Frankly, deciding what you want [ABMS] to do from a data perspective is no different from the cell phones we use every day,” Fehlen said during the panel discussion. “I suspect not many of us are using the old ‘flip phones’ anymore, and that’s because we demanded more data and processing power out of those phones, and then we wanted teenagers to be able to stream Netflix on their phones, so we demanded full-motion video.”

That kind of demand-driven process drove cell phone manufacturers towards different bandwidth and security requirements, he noted.

“Similarly, [ABMS] boils down to going through a process of identifying what the warfighter needs, when they need it, and where that data needs to flow” said Fehlen. “Then industry can help take the technology to that next level.”   

Achieving a more holistic command-and-control and battle management “system of systems,” will likely require the individual services to conduct more upfront operational analysis to reach a common understanding of the future battlespace and their roles within it.  

“Many times when we speak to our military customers, we hear ‘Well, we didn’t actually know that the other services were doing it this way,’” said Elaine Bitonti, general manager at Collins Aerospace for connected battlespace and emerging capabilities. “But if the communications system standards for the Air Force are different than for the Army and Navy, and there may be operational reasons for that, it still has an impact.” 

In the case of Collins Aerospace’s work on the largest global command-and-control network for commercial airlines, for instance, the airlines first came together to create a common infrastructure. “They knew that had to have a common infrastructure to run all the data they wanted,” Bitonti noted.  

Dan Markham, director of Joint All Domain Operations at Lockheed Martin, agreed on the need for the armed services to come together early and establish common interfaces and standards.

“It’s important to ensure active participation by the other services early on, so industry doesn’t show up and try and integrate something only to find the interfaces between the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army are different,” he said. “That’s not effective or efficient.”