An F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost, unmanned aerial vehicle. As unmanned and autonomous systems populate the fleet, machine-to-machine data exchange and collaboration becomes more critical. Tech. Sgt. James Cason
Photo Caption & Credits

Accelerating the Air Force’s Ability to Adapt and Win

Introducing unknowns to how adversaries understand U.S. operations can throw a wrench into adversarial decision-making.

Success in future conflict will largely depend on the ability to exploit information networks, automation, and machine learning. If used to their full potential, these capabilities can enable rapid adaptation, as well as enable complex multi-domain kill webs and decision optionality. These attributes are necessary to disrupt adversary strategies to defeat U.S. and allied operations. 

U.S. forces must be able to quickly field new capabilities, modify existing weapon systems, and change weapon system and network configurations to rapidly adapt platform, network, and operational architectures to diminish or even negate adversary advantages. China and other global adversaries have observed U.S. capabilities in operation for decades; they understand both U.S. systems and its employment concepts. By introducing unknowns into their understanding of our weapon systems, U.S. forces can erode the speed and quality of adversary decision-making in the heat of an operation.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Heather Penney is a senior fellow at the Institute. Download the entire paper at

Complex, multi-domain kill webs, enabled by new technology, can help commanders undertake multiple, simultaneous courses of action in a dynamic and contested battlespace. 

Emerging warfare concepts like Mosaic, Joint All- Domain Command and Control (JADC2), and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) all rely on information networks and software integration as their operational foundations. Yet the Air Force is hampered in its ability to quickly develop, fund, field, and employ these mission integration tools because of outdated acquisition, development, and management structures.  

Value of Networks to U.S. operations

The incompatibility of data links and information systems in major weapon systems presents a significant barrier to realizing seamless, machine-to-machine data exchanges. Even major modernization efforts may not be able to retrofit interoperability and connectivity. Radio-specific waveforms and message-types and formats are generally immutable—especially in legacy data links. The Air Force’s well-documented difficulties in connecting the F-22 Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL) and the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) is a case in point.  

Mosaic Warfare, JADC2, and ABMS are complementary approaches to achieving the same general warfighting concept. JADC2 seeks to maintain an advantage through sharing data across platforms and domains to offer commanders targeting options in compressed time cycles. ABMS takes an “Internet-of-Things” approach to achieve high-speed, seamlessly coordinated combat operations. Mosaic Warfare is a force design approach to fielding and adapting JADC2 and ABMS as continuously evolving, tailorable, and scalable warfighting concepts. Mosaic seeks to help implement JADC2 with technologies to enable federated networks, links, and platforms to confound adversaries and ensure operational effectiveness. 

Accelerating the Air Force’s Ability to Adapt and Win
ACK is a decision aide that creates and analyzes thousands of potential kill chains across the range of available platforms, systems, and weapons. DARPA Illustration

Open mission systems and universal or common standards are unlikely to solve integration problems alone. It could take years to retrofit legacy systems to a universal standard, and the static nature of such a standard could render U.S. forces unable to implement state-of-the-art network and data link techniques later on. Future architectures must be flexible and adaptive enough to be both backward-compatible while equally able to embrace future standards. 

Mission integration tools

To help realize this approach, DARPA is developing mission integration tools (MIT) that can seamlessly connect and direct heterogeneous platforms and data links. These tools could include software-defined radios to serve as communication relays between disparate radios; autonomous networks to dynamically route and shape data loads to optimize performance; auto-generated, data-translation software patches to allow disparate systems to share data and mission applications; and real-time recommendations regarding potential cross-domain kill webs for emerging targets autonomously coordinating the subsystems on a weapon system with off-board assets, enabling the synchronization of mission effects in a dynamic battlespace.  

Fielding these mission integration tools offers the potential to employ legacy platforms in a more unpredictable manner, and many of these tools are mature enough to transition to the warfighter today. Moreover, these tools will enable forward and backward interoperability across the force as new systems and technologies are fielded, accelerating the introduction of new operational concepts.

Three hurdles stand in the way: 

  • The bureaucratic lag in defining requirements, transitioning to a program of record, and establishing funding beyond initial development is too slow to on-board technologies at relevant speeds. 
  • The Air Force’s program management structure requires a champion to drive development; mission integration tools, as program-agnostic software, lacks such a program executive office to champion, manage, and sustain them.
  • The Air Force does not possess the structures, skills, and manning needed to  employ these software tools operationally.

America’s Way of War: Systems of Systems

The Air Force clearly recognizes the unique nature of operational software and is working to adapt software management, development, and sustainment across its enterprise. Leveraging the momentum of its software factories and maintenance reforms more broadly could enable future mission integration technology. 

The U.S. military increasingly wields its combat power as a system of systems. Although they might be called “fighters,” “bombers,” and so forth, the Air Force officially refers to its combat platforms as “major weapon systems.” Each weapon system, on its own, is an interconnected and interdependent set of sensors, processors, and avionics. As capable as each weapon system is, however, they share information and collaborate to achieve greater effects than any single platform could achieve independently. The dependencies and interactions between these major weapon systems combine in what is called an operational architecture, encompassing information flows, data links, functions, and weapon systems. This structure typically represents a kill chain, an OODA Loop (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act decision cycle), or some other specific mission. Weapon systems are engineered to fit into established architectures, predetermining its systems, data links, and radios. The original requirements for the F-22, for example, envisioned the aircraft operating stealthily, deep in enemy territory. While the Link 16 data link might have enhanced some aspects of mission performance, the omni-direc­tional radio would act like an early warning siren and homing beacon to adversary forces. Thus, the Raptor was designed with a low-probability-of-detection/low-probability-of-intercept (LPD/LPI) intra-flight data link. Even now, three decades later, F-22s can still only “talk” to other F-22s. 

A hypervelocity gun weapon system shot down a surrogate cruise missile target as part of ABMS On-ramp 2 in September 2020. ACK and STITCHES were both key to the successful air defense scenario during the exercise. Col. Jim Fabio, Sta Sgt. Cambria Ferguson, Tech. Sgt. Daniel Asselta, SrA Danielle Charmichael

Modernization upgrades have not substantially altered the F-22’s inability to share information, because program offices steer modernization funds toward performance more than communications. The Air Force explored giving its F-22s the Multifunction Advanced Data Link developed for the F-35, but dropped the plan due to cost and changing requirements. Upgrade Increments 2, 3.1, 3.2A, and 3.2B focused on advanced air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground attack modes, and air-to-ground weapons.  

Adversaries have built counter-U.S. strategies around USAF’s rigid and predictable mission hardware. Having grown familiar with our technologies, tactics, techniques and procedures, adversaries understand the relationships and interdependencies among our platforms and use that knowledge to develop the ways and means to counter U.S. operations. 

Defeating US Operational Architectures 

China is DOD’s “pacing threat,” posing the greatest and most credible threat to America’s national security, according to the “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” a 2020 annual report to Congress. “Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military,”  the report states. China’s strategy is specifically designed to counter American operational architectures.  

China is aggressively investing in advanced military equipment, but it does not plan to compete symmetrically with the United States. Instead, China’s theory of victory exploits U.S. force’s dependency on rigid operational architectures. China’s key to seizing the initiative “is to create conditions which are friendly to us, to seize the war initiative, and to use favorable condition/posture to compensate the inferiority in equipment,” according to the 2013 edition of China’s Science of Military Strategy. “Control of information is the foundation of seizing initiatives in battle. Without information supremacy, it is difficult to effectively organize fighting for control of air and control of sea.” By taking down data links and denying critical information, China will blind and paralyze U.S. operations.

Chinese intelligence operations expert retired Cmdr. Mike Dahm (USN) describes China’s approach as maintaining “battlespace awareness … to preserve information for one’s own weapon systems, while simultaneously denying battlespace information to one’s adversary.” Kinetic military operations, while important, do not form the foundation of Chinese operational concepts. 

China’s advanced air defenses are not simply about denying geography. They are also effective in denying information to U.S. and coalition forces. At the same time, China embraces the “application of information technology to all aspects of military operations,”  calling it “informatization.” China scholar M. Taylor Fravel explains: “The ‘informatization’ of weapons makes them more precise and lethal, and—when networked together—enables the unified, simultaneous command of disparate units and forces.”  

RAND analyst Jeffrey Engstrom states, “The PLA has increasingly recognized that war is no longer a contest of annihilation between opposing forces, but rather a clash between opposing operational systems.” China intends to use kinetic strikes and other “hard kills” to collapse U.S. information networks, depriving the system of critical sensors, gateways, and command and control nodes, while “soft kills” attack by means of electronic warfare, jamming, and cyber operations. Together, they seek to “paralyze and destroy the enemy’s operational system of systems.” This is the same approach used in the U.S. air campaign that crushed Iraq in Desert Storm. China learned from our success and now plans to use it against us.

To achieve the full potential of JADC2, ABMS, and Mosaic Warfare, DOD and the Air Force should seek to empower the warfighter to rapidly compose federated and tailored operational architectures that are mission-defined, not system-defined. “More kill chains faster” is a good initial goal, but it will not be enough. Unlike today’s structures, success in any conflict will require ad hoc information networks, surprising operational architectures, and resiliency through complexity and adaptation. 

The Joint Interface Control Officer

As data links proliferated and became more important to combat operations, the Air Force had to invent the Joint Interface Control Officer (JICO) to help overcome interoperability deficiencies. Link 16, has more than 12,000 terminals in use among U.S. and allied air forces, but other data links are also in wide use, including Link 11, Link 22, MADL, and IFDL, among others. Taken all together, these make up the joint data network (JDN), which is built and managed by the JICO.  

JICOs work to optimize the joint data link network to support the operational architecture, but there are limits on what they can do. The weapon systems they need to connect often constrain their options, because of incompatible data links or programming that limits which data is sharable. An F-16CJ and an F-15 both have Link 16, but can only share threat emission data if the F-15 was programmed to do so.

If a need wasn’t anticipated during the requirements process, it won’t be possible later on. Other limitations include frequency ranges and waveforms, firmware limitations, and the physical size of the antennae. 

Software-defined radios have not made networks any more adaptive or flexible. Although the software can host more waveforms on a single terminal, the structure and standards of the data links they host have remained constant. This is why so much attention is focused on setting common standards for joint all-domain command and control: The logic, rule sets, and data link formats are the keys to machine-to-machine data exchange. 

Mission Integration Tools

There is a better way to approach this problem. Mission integration tools are software programs that can enable rapid, flexible operational architectures at the time and place of need. In future conflicts, when elements of the force may be disconnected and attrition is likely, preplanned architectures will have to adapt responsively. At the same time, weapon systems will need to be able to support the rapid integration of new capabilities. This could encompass everything from identifying and constructing new kill chains during a mission to programming subsystems on different platforms to collaborate autonomously, or to automatically identify network degradation and reroute message traffic in real time. 

While JICOs can respond to changes at the headquarters level, they are ill-equipped to face the dynamic environment of peer competition at the unit level, where many of these adaptations will be needed.  Mission integration tools could empower these skilled Airmen to integrate previously incompatible systems and networks, create innovative new solutions, and ensure operational resiliency in combat. 

Two mission integration tools have already been proven during ABMS on-ramp demonstrations. DARPA’s Adapting Cross-Domain Kill Webs (ACK) and System-of-Systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems (STITCHES) were both used by the Air Force to create novel kill chains in real time across previously incompatible networks.  

ACK is a decision aide that creates and analyzes thousands of potential kill chains across the range of available platforms, systems, and weapons. Optional kill chains are evaluated based on availability, quality of network service, mission authorities, and even “value” or “cost” trade-offs, before ACK offers commanders prioritized options from which to select.  

STITCHES expands and facilitates the integration of incompatible systems and subsystems. It supports message translation across systems without data loss or format changes. The STITCHES toolchain uses a library of prior translations and a technician-usable software tool to auto-generate software patches to support data exchange between systems that employ different coding languages. It is software that writes translation software.  

STITCHES generates lightweight code that can be inserted in-line with other types of code without disrupting the original programming or operational flight program and without adding discernible delay. STITCHES can virtually disaggregate a weapon system into its disparate parts, from a radar warning receiver to a targeting pod, and program them to collaborate autonomously. The system enables different systems with different languages and software to understand each other and to dynamically work together at a machine-to-machine level.  

ABMS on-ramp 2 employed both ACK and STITCHES. While the four-day exercise tested many ABMS technologies, ACK and STITCHES were key to the successful air defense scenario of “shooting down a cruise missile surrogate with a hypervelocity weapon.”  

According to program manager Lt. Col. Dan Javorsek, “the ACK decision aid software analyzed thousands of options to form cross-domain kill webs and recommended the assets for the kill chain and the best command-and-control ‘play’ to the mission commander.”  Surveying all of the available capabilities in the battlespace, ACK was able to use nontraditional assets to build a resilient operating picture and provide the mission commander with prioritized kill chain options. These courses of action considered cross-service authorities and the interdependencies of how each kill chain could affect ongoing missions—a critical requirement for superior decision-making. Some of the thorniest problems in the JADC2 concept involve navigating across organizational and command boundaries. ACK helps do that. 

The STITCHES tool chain was key to enabling the machine-to-machine data exchanges that made such battlespace awareness and kill chain options possible. By enabling extremely low-latency, high-throughput data exchanges among previously incompatible platforms and subsystems, STITCHES was essential to ACK’s success. Gen. Mark D. Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, said that one of the key takeaways from  the ABMS demo was the need for speed and connectivity, “which really comes down to decision superiority.”  

DARPA further demonstrated the capabilities of its mission integration suite through a field test of the DyNAMO (Dynamic Network Adaptation for Mission Optimization) tool. This test, conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), used DyNAMO to share information across disparate and incompatible tactical data links in a spectrum-contested environment. DyNAMO automatically routed data to the user who needed it most and managed the flow and prioritization of data, so that lower-priority data never interferes with delivery of higher-priority data. 

Data links in the AFRL test included Link 16, Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT), Common Data Link (CDL), and Wi-Fi networks. To simulate a contested environment, engineers disabled the TTNT network while data was being transmitted. DyNAMO automatically detected the degradation and autonomously transferred the messages to Link 16. Users at each node were unable to detect any operational impact. The DyNAMO program manager shared the warfighter’s perspective that “from a user’s point of view, they don’t care if the data is coming to them from LINK 16 or TTNT or CDL; all they care about is whether they can send and receive a message.”  

The ABMS on-ramp and DyNAMO demos provide a small insight into the potential of how these mission integration tools can enable the construction of surprising and optimized operational architectures engineered to create the desired effects in any given scenario. Creating the ability of aircraft subsystems to autonomously communicate, collaborate, and synchronize actions through adaptive networks and among unrelated weapon systems is a crucial step toward creating the operational architectures that JADC2 anticipates. As just three tools of a much larger mission integration suite, ACK, STITCHES, and DyNAMO provide powerful demonstrations of the potential these mission integration tools present. 

Funding Mission Integration Tools

The Air Force procurement system—or DOD’s, for that matter—is not structured to develop, acquire, field, or sustain combat software tools like ACK, STITCHES, DyNAMO, or the many technologies that will comprise the Advanced Battle Management System. Yet even as the Air Force recognizes the importance of software in mission effectiveness, it struggles to procure, sustain, and modernize software.  Mission integration software will be the foundation of JADC2, ABMS, and Mosaic warfare, but unless current funding and management structures are changed, the development and fielding of these crucial enterprise-wide mission integration capabilities will falter. 

The ABMS experience illustrates the problems: ABMS does not neatly fit into any established acquisition process, nor does it clearly belong to a single program executive office (PEO). That’s why Will Roper, former Air Force head of acquisition, designated the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) to act as the “integrating” program executive office for ABMS: “probably needs a new construct for how we manage and execute,” he said. GatewayONE, also referred to as the “Airborne Edge Node,” is the latest of many efforts to create an IFDL-MADL gateway and is not subject to either the F-22 or F-35 for sponsorship. As part of the Air Force’s ABMS family, gatewayONE is now managed by the RCO within the broader ABMS portfolio. ABMS is often described by service officials as a “military Internet of Things,” a suite of technologies that will form a data network to connect weapon systems, sensors, and command and control nodes across the Department of Air Force and the other services.   

While some mission integration tools such as STITCHES and ACK have participated in ABMS on-ramps, it is not clear whether they will be folded into the ABMS portfolio. Many of these capabilities are ready to transition out of DARPA and are even mature enough to be operationally fielded to the warfighter. Air Force budget documents, however, do not describe these software tools in the ABMS budget documentation. Due to the unique and enterprise nature of mission integration tools, depending on a sponsor weapon system will not be a viable transition path. Still, ABMS may not be quite the right fit. It is crucial that the Air Force look to transition these software tools as their own individual programs of record and designate a program executive office to oversee and manage them. 


The unprecedented integration of data will be the foundation of combat operations in the future. Operational architectures that link disparate weapon systems to complete missions and close kill chains can leverage mission integration tools to enable planners and operators to build the operational and functional relationships they need among available platforms to meet their combat objectives. 

Air Force information and operational architectures could benefit from a series of changes to fully enable these tools: 

1. Better enable research agencies like AFRL and DARPA to fund software efforts initiated under broad area announcements (BAAs). The defense federal acquisition regulations (DFAR) limit the ability to apply BA 8 (Budget Activity 8) funding to software programs that fall under a broad area announcement. Limiting software investment under BAAs slows development due to the annual nature of other funding categories. Further, legal constraints on sole-sourcing during transition from development to production risks the loss of the very team and unique code that made a program successful. Congress, DOD, and the Air Force must find a way that enables research agencies to use Budget Activity 8, a category specifically designed to encompass the unique, dynamic, and spiral nature of software development to fund and transition software programs initiated by a broad area announcement.

2. Consolidate development, acquisition, management, and modernization of mission integration tools under a dedicated program office. Funding and management of mission integration tools should not be scattered across the acquisition enterprise or tacked on to a “sponsor” program’s modernization effort. Developing these tools as individual programs of record managed by a dedicated SPO will ensure interdependencies, gaps, and opportunities are addressed as they come together as a system. Unlike traditional systems of systems, where the architectures are fixed and require the simultaneous maturation of every element, each mission integration tool brings standalone value to the force. As such, the development and fielding of each tool should be managed as a separate program of record. 

3. Train and resource JICOs as mission integration officers and embed them at all operational levels—especially at the unit level. Joint integration control officers already understand how to build network architectures in order to achieve operational integration. They often have operational experience and a background in battle management. These are foundational skills necessary to understand how to align information networks to support innovative, new operational architectures and kill webs. JICOs are natural candidates to develop into mission integration officers. These skilled Airmen, however, cannot remain isolated to air operations centers or network development centers. To truly provide rapid adaptation of weapon systems and architectures, these mission integration officers will need to be assigned to the point of need. These are not temporary assignments to install software but must be permanent personnel at the unit level. Mission integration officers should be a crucial component of every mission planning, training sortie, and large force employment—including in combat.

4. Experiment with and develop mission integration tactics, techniques, and procedures. To fully realize the combat potential of these tools, the Air Force must develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for their employment in both training and combat. Experimenting with how mission integration tools can enhance operations is essential to developing TTPs for effective employment. TTPs can serve to identify risk and provide techniques for managing and mitigating risk. Across the Air Force, TTPs serve as validated best practices for each weapon system community. Mission integration tools should be no different. 

Mission integration tools and the officers who will employ them will have an outsized impact on revolutionizing combat operations. At the battlespace edge, they will provide resiliency to combat operations as they adapt operational architectures to changing circumstances and enable machine-to-machine data exchange and collaboration. The Air Force does not need to wait for the future. By beginning to transition already demonstrated mission integration tools; properly supporting their acquisition and funding; developing mission integration officers and embedding them at the point of need; and developing the tactics, techniques, and procedures to employ these tools, the Air Force can begin to migrate its legacy force structure into a future force design.