BAE Prepares to Demo Autonomous Air War Planning Software

The Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. BAE’s Distributed, Interactive, Command-and-Control Tool—known as DIRECT—was built to assess air plans before, during, and after operations to determine how risky missions are and then analyze their results. Air Force photo by TSgt. Joshua Strang.

BAE Systems is about six months away from proving whether its new command-and-control software holds up in a live Air Force experiment.

Developed in conjunction with DARPA, BAE’s Distributed, Interactive, Command-and-Control Tool—known as DIRECT—was built to assess air plans before, during, and after operations to determine how risky missions are and then analyze their results.

“The thinking was, in situations where there’s contested comms, there might be limited connectivity between different organizations that are running air operations,” Michael Schneider, a chief scientist in the company’s FAST Labs autonomy, controls, and estimation group, said in an interview.

In that case, other people may have to fill in for colleagues who are cut off. DIRECT was created to make their jobs easier and more efficient if that does happen.

The software predicts what might happen during missions, then pulls tactical data feeds from air operations centers to update those projections using current data and compares them. If the information points to anything unusual, air operators can react, Schneider said.

“The [Resilient Synchronized Planning and Assessment for the Contested Environment] program is working at a larger scale, at the operational level, so looking at an entire region that would be served by the air operations center associated with a combatant command,” he said. “With that kind of situation, the scale is much larger, and the focus then is really helping the operators sift through the large amounts of data that they have available to them.”

RSPACE is also testing out what happens when multiple, spread-out command-and-control cells try to work together with limited communications. The program looks at data-dissemination policies to find which C2 cells could be responsible for broadcasting data and how to prioritize the information that goes out in case communications are cut, Schneider said.

Northrop Grumman is integrating the systems, while Systems and Technology Research is working on the planning piece. Raytheon and Next Century competed earlier in the program.

Eric Jones, STR’s vice president for analysis and decision systems, told Air Force Magazine his company’s software—which offers autonomy on a sliding scale—generates battle plans and tasking orders for BAE’s tool to visualize. In the future, he’d like to pull BAE’s software into the STR system to see each type of mission package as the plan is being constructed.

Because the RSPACE program enables operators at different nodes to work together, Jones envisions one node could be responsible for tanker planning, another for fighter planning, and so on. The construct could even save time and money for forces that would otherwise deploy forward, but could instead stay in the continental US and plug into the C2 enterprise using an RSPACE node, he said.

BAE worked with airmen who offered feedback and helped the company refine DIRECT, an application that AOC users can get to through their Web browser.

“When you get to execution, there haven’t been as many tools that help automate the processes for the combat operations staff,” Schneider said. “People have liked … the fact that there’s a tool that specifically provides capability to the combat operations folks and being able to watch what’s happening.”

The RSPACE program is now in its yearlong third phase. DARPA awarded BAE $3.1 million to continue its work in phase three, which began last September. The first two phases took about three years, Schneider said. The program costs about $17 million in fiscal 2019 and needs around $11 million in 2020, according to DARPA budget documents.

At the end of phase three, a weeklong demonstration will take place in August or September in an Air Force facility where the software is currently being tested.

“The idea is to demonstrate the ability to assess a plan before, during, after execution, be able to ingest an air battle plan,” Schneider said, adding they will assess how the mission diverged from its expected plan.

After the demo, Jones wants to hear what operators think of the distributed C2 concept of operations, and how the technology could be tweaked as CONOPS are refined.

RSPACE software will eventually get picked up by the Air Force and Navy, according to DARPA budget documents. Schneider said there are other government entities—like specialized air operations groups in “other commands”—that handle air planning and could benefit from the technology, but he declined to name them.

He noted BAE will talk to the Air Force about adding DIRECT to the integration schedule for groups like Kessel Run, which develops new apps for the AOC.

In the future, Schneider envisions more technology that can evolve to handle multidomain planning, as the military turns toward more integrated operations.

“The program itself is focused exclusively on the air domain,” Schneider said. “A lot of the concepts that we’re fleshing out specific to the air domain that we’re looking at in the RSPACE program, you could envision also extending out into the multidomain world, but it’s not a current focus.”