Life After JSTARS

March 21, 2019

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, envisions multiple small programs, rather than one big one, to find the next battle management solution. Photo: Mike Tsukamoto/staff

The Advanced Battle Management System could point the way toward a radically new acquisition model for the Air Force—but first, the service needs to get a better handle on what ABMS is going to include.

ABMS is an open architecture family of systems the Air Force hopes to develop in place of the canceled E-8 Joint STARS recapitalization program.

Defining ABMS may not be easy, but that’s the point. “The way our acquisition system works now, we presume we’re smart enough to know the right design before we bend metal. That’s crazy. There’s a huge trade space to explore,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said in an interview.

The Air Force knows it wants the system to include a space component, an air component, and a command and control component, but how those work together, or which element might be more dominant, is still undetermined.

So rather than creating one massive acquisition program, Roper envisions multiple contributing programs, such as ABMS space, ABMS air, and ABMS networking and communications—each with its own funding, its own program manager, and its own schedule. The program manager would be tasked with pushing the program as far as possible over two to three years, after which the service can “reevaluate what the next segment of the race should be and how it should be run,” Roper said.

While each of the program managers will be experts in their field, an overarching “architect” will oversee the big picture. Reporting directly to Roper, that person will be Preston Dunlop, formerly an executive with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

In a March 1 interview with Air Force Magazine, Roper said the architect will spend a significant amount of time modeling and simulating how ABMS could work. The architect likely will have a small staff and leverage federally funded research and development centers or academic institutions, such as MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory or APL for analytical expertise and support.

“We’re going to try to avoid making the major defense acquisition program mistake, and instead, create a new role that we currently don’t have in defense acquisition,” Roper said. “An architect, at least in theory, will be defined by the ability to do technical trades that flow back into the programs.”

Acknowledging that ABMS has gotten off to a slow start, Roper promised the program will pick up pace with his new hire.

The first phase will focus on developing the technology, with multiple goal lines defined by the architect. The more progress each individual program manager makes in the allotted time, the more funding will be available for the next phase of development. This way, Roper said, “you’re incentivized to go big.”

Then, “at that chalk line in time, we’ll evaluate whether we have pushed the technology enough across those different domains to converge to an architecture that we call Advanced Battle Management System,” Roper said.

“If you have, great. You integrate it, then go field it. If you haven’t, then you evaluate who did well and who didn’t, and if someone is further behind with an option to catch up, then you may terminate their tech push and shift it to someone else that still has the ability to go further. That’s where you could see the architecture shifting” to a more space-centric or air-centric model, depending on where the most progress is seen.

The second increment likely will be distributed unevenly across the components, because each component is bound to mature at different rates.

Dunlop will serve as the “honest broker,” Roper said, helping to motivate program managers to smartly take on risk.

“It will be very much a tech-push program initially with rigid delivery times,” he said. “If that technology does not make it, then it will have to go to the next variant. Keeping that constant delivery cadence to see if a design converges that can do the ground moving target indicator mission.”

Roper is already looking at other places this process could be implemented.

He’s spoken with combatant commanders and training leaders about how it could be used in training opportunities. Because the Air Force’s training needs are distributed across the country and utilize a variety of different trainers and simulators, each representing different missions and threat scenarios, this approach could have merit there, he said.

Another possibility could be the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system. Though he declined to provide much detail, saying he doesn’t want to “tell the world what we think the next generation of airpower will be”—he said a family of systems that allows for a diversified portfolio of options would make sense there, as well.

For now, though, ABMS is the focus. “During the next phase of my tenure in acquisition, I think getting ABMS right is a critical thing,” Roper stated. “It creates a new model in acquisition where when we have to create an integrated system—or a family of systems—we don’t automatically default to a Future Combat System-type program.”

The Army’s ambitious Future Combat Systems program set out to replace virtually its entire vehicle fleet. Once envisioned as a $25 billion acquisition extravaganza, it was canceled in 2009—a massive flop.

“The program of programs has not worked very well in the past,” Roper said.