GAO Warns ABMS Could Fail Without Firmer Plans

The Air Force launched its Advanced Battle Management System project to connect its vast array of weaponry with a pledge not to build a typical defense program. That’s gotten the service into trouble with the Government Accountability Office, which says ABMS needs to more formally document its costs and capabilities.

A GAO report published April 16 issued four recommendations for the Air Force that it believes will clarify and strengthen the ABMS program. The Defense Department agreed with all four points:

  1. Develop an initial list of needed ABMS technologies and a roadmap for maturing them as needed, and brief Congress on that progress four times a year;
  2. Create and brief Congress on a cost estimate, and regularly update it to reflect program changes and real costs;
  3. Regularly update an analysis of the program’s affordability; and
  4. Formalize and document the acquisition authority and decision-making responsibilities of the USAF offices involved with running ABMS, including its chief architect, and send it to Congress in June.

“Weapon systems without a sound business case are at greater risk for schedule delays, cost growth, and integration issues,” GAO wrote. “While the Air Force has taken some steps to establish an ABMS management structure, the authorities of Air Force offices to plan and execute ABMS efforts are not fully defined. Unless addressed, the unclear decision-making authorities will hinder the Air Force’s ability to effectively execute and assess ABMS development across multiple organizations.”

ABMS replaced the Air Force’s effort to buy a new aircraft to take on the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System’s battle management and ground target tracking missions. It has since evolved into the Pentagon’s main push to connect aircraft, ships, ground vehicles, satellites, sensors, and other assets into a massive data-sharing network enabled by artificial intelligence that would ideally move faster than current warfighting.

Instead of a single major defense acquisition program, USAF is setting up ABMS as an overarching idea that could impact all parts of the service. That decentralization under Chief Architect Preston Dunlap raises red flags for GAO, which added that the Air Force has not determined if it can afford ABMS’s hardware and software investments.

Air Force Magazine reported last year that the Air Force expected ABMS would cost $3.8 billion through 2024. USAF hopes ABMS can be smarter and more affordable than continuing to buy mission-specific tools that can’t connect to each other.

Several sections shed light on the service’s latest planning steps:

  • “In March 2020, after we sent a copy of this report to DOD for comment, the Air Force provided us a draft tailored acquisition plan for ABMS in lieu of an acquisition strategy. … This document includes some elements of a traditional acquisition strategy, such as contract and test strategies. However, this tailored acquisition plan does not include key information such as the overall planned capabilities and estimated cost and schedule for ABMS.”
  • “The Air Force also began preparing an analysis of alternatives in January 2019 to assess options for delivering capabilities such as surveilling moving targets and battle management command and control. The Air Force expects to complete the analysis in 2020, but Air Force officials expect it will inform only some aspects of ABMS planning. The Air Force has not defined what additional planning documentation it will develop to help it establish a business case for ABMS.”
  • “The only existing documentation of ABMS’s requirements resides in the ABMS Initial Capabilities Document from 2018, which generally focuses on the capabilities needed to replace [the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System]. That document does not address the expanded [Joint All-Domain Command and Control] requirements and capabilities ABMS is expected to eventually fulfill.”
  • “In January 2020, the Air Force provided us with a draft version of high-level descriptions of the 28 development areas; however, the document did not fully define the requirements or capabilities for the development areas nor identify which organizations would lead each effort. For example, the cloudONE description does not indicate specific technical requirements that must be met, such as amount of storage, the number of users, or data transmission rate. … They do not plan to identify all technologies needed while pursuing development activities.”

The Air Force defends ABMS as an opportunity to learn as it goes, holding experiments every few months. An initial demonstration event in December sought to prove out various means of connectivity, like sharing data between an F-35 and F-22 and tapping into commercial Internet while airborne. The second demo, scheduled for this month, was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.