The Army’s embattled missile defense network, IBCS, passed a major field test at Yuma Proving Ground in October, contractor Northrop Grumman announced today. In stark contrast to chronic software crashes early on, the command-and-control system accurately tracked everything from drones to helicopters to fighter jets, both Army aircraft and Marine ones. (It’s hit ballistic and cruise missiles in earlier tests). It drew data from Patriot and Sentinel radars that were not designed to work together. And it kept doing this for days all this despite active jamming by a live adversary, the kind of challenge Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley fears existing Army networks may not survive in a high-tech conflict with Russia or China.
“The surprises that I got out of this were all very positive surprises,” Northrop IBCS executive Rob Jassey told me. “Our air picture is getting so good that some of the standard tools we use in environments like that to test them…. are not good enough to measure it. They’ve got to improve the test tools.”
Back in 2016, IBCS crashed every six to eight hours during its Limited User Test. By contrast, in one test this summer at Fort Sill, it ran for 72 hours straight while under constant simulated attack. And both the Fort Sill and Yuma tests were “Soldier Check-Out Events” (SCOE), with Army soldiers operating the systems rather than contractors.
It’s much needed good news for IBCS, whose parent program suffered a four-year delay this spring, with its Initial Operating Capability (IOC) set back from 2018 to 2022. (That parent program is Army Integrated Air & Missile Defense (AIAMD), with IBCS being a nested acronym for IAMD Battle Command System, but IBCS is so critical to AIAMD that the two can’t be discussed separately).
It’s timely news as well for both domestic and international audiences. In the US, Gen. Milley has launched a ruthless review of all Army networks, already all but shutting down the flagship WIN-T program. Jassey confirmed IBCS is under scrutiny like everything else. Abroad, Poland, sitting uncomfortably close to Russia, has announced a $10.5 billion deal to buy American missile defense systems. The hardware is primarily Patriot — launchers, missiles, and radars built by Raytheon and Lockheed — but they want to buy IBCS as the command network. Jassey says the Poles are moving on a similar timeline to the Army, aiming for the first operational unit around 2022, but Warsaw’s still working out the details.
Does It Work?
Can Northrop convince the US Army and the Poles that they can count on IBCS? “This program in particular has been under a lot of review,” Jassey acknowledged. Both the Army — as lead systems integrator for AIAMD — and Northrop Grumman as the contractor for IBCS have “learned a lot,” he said.
IBCS is an “enterprise” program, bringing together radars, command posts, and weapons from across the Army’s air and missile defense branch, many of them not originally designed to work together. Instead of having, for example, a Patriot radar detect a target, feed the data to a Patriot command post, and then fire a Patriot missile, IBCS is supposed to bring in data from all available sensors and then feed it to whatever missile is best to take the shot. Sentinel, Patriot, THAAD, the Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) now in development, future technologies like lasers: IBCS has to work with them all.
“It’s bringing together big pieces, and that doesn’t happen without a lot of people being on the same sheet of music,” Jassey said. The program initially underestimated the sheer amount of work required. “Now that’s been learned and baked into the schedule along,” he said. “We stopped assuming at test that everybody’s going to show up and everything’s going to work perfect… You have to allow time for that.”
The four-year delay also allows time to make IBCS more capable, Jassey said. Important features like the integration of the latest Patriot software and the new Multi-Mission Launcher (part of IPFC) were originally supposed to be added after the Army made its Milestone C decision to begin production. Now the Patriot upgrade and the MML will be fully tested with IBCS before Milestone C, Jassey said, allowing the Army to make a more informed decision on whether to start production. Once production begins, IBCS will work with MML and the latest Patriot software from the start, rather than have to upgrade later.
“The new requirements are only new in terms of the timing,” Jassey told me. “Before they were going to be executed post-Milestone C; now they’re going to be executed before Milestone C. (The Army) made the right decision … to burn down that risk by moving those things in front of Milestone C.”
Software Is Hard
Jassey said that Northrop has already addressed the software problems reported by the Pentagon’s notoriously tough independent tester, the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation. That report was based on a May 2016 Limited User Test (LUT), so the data is now more than over a year old — and Northrop says it fixed the biggest problem in the first 30 days.
At the LUT, a particular software process kept getting stuck, preventing the system from starting up properly, Jassey said, “and every time it occurred it was counted as a failure, (so) that was about 50 percent of the failures.” After the LUT, Northrop got the glitch fixed within a month, effectively doubling IBCS’s reliability. Other fixes included improving the interface for the human operator and improving memory management.
Northrop has made these software fixes while still complying with open architecture standards, Jassey said. “Open” is a popular buzzword nowadays, but it’s easier to pay lip service to than to actually adhere to the standards so anyone can really write updates to your code. “They’re using (open standards) until it became inconvenient, (but) as soon as you deviate from the open standard in one degree, it’s not standard anymore,” Jassey told me. By contrast, he said, Northrop is not only following key standards but is participating in their codification and revision. That will make it easier for the Army to upgrade IBCS in the future as new threats, new technologies, and new systems arise, even if it hires somebody who’s not Northrop to do it.
Northrop, of course, is hoping that IBCS will bring them many years of business to come. Milley recently identified air and missile defense as one of his Big Six priorities (albeit as No. 5), and the Army air and missile defense community has long said the IBCS command and control network is their No. 1 priority. So there’s a lot of high-level interest in making this system work.