The Army’s missile defense force is getting a new brain. That’s the real meaning of a successful test yesterday of something called the Integrated Air & Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS for (mercifully) short.
IBCS doesn’t blow stuff up. A Patriot missile destroyed the target in last week’s test at White Sands Missile Range. IBCS doesn’t detect the target: A Patriot radar did that. (Even the target was a Patriot, simulating an inbound ballistic missile). So what does IBCS do? It links the radar, the launcher, and the human decision makers — and in more flexible ways that ever before.
“The ultimate long range goal is to be able to engage any target with any weapon with data that comes from any sensor,” said Northrop Grumman vice president Dan Verwiel.
Last week’s test demonstrated that IBCS software, network, and command post function as well as the existing command system. The next IBCS test will attempt something the current systems cannot do, connecting a radar and a launcher that were never designed to work together.
That first test will be a Patriot launcher and a Sentinel air defense radar, Verwiel told me. The ultimate goal is to mix and match freely: not just among Army missile defense systems, but between the four armed services, and not just among existing systems, but with easy plug-and-play for any future system, including exotica such as laser weapons. The program has already gotten IBCS to talk to the Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) — albeit in a lab, not in a field test — and it will eventually link up to the Missile Defense Agency’s command network for continental defense, C2BMC (Command & Control, Battle Management, & Communications). Of course, just getting all the Army’s systems to work together will be challenge enough to start with.
That flexibility is what makes IBCS — not new missiles, not new radars, not even lasers — the “Number 1 priority” of the Army’s air and missile defense force, Space and Missile Defense Command’s Gen. David Mann said at a February conference.
“Many folks can just dismiss it as a network,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Spillman, commander of the Air Defense Artillery School, at the same Association of the US Army conference. “It’s much more than that.”
Currently, each anti-aircraft weapon or missile defense system comes with its own launchers, its own command-and-control, and its own radar. That’s straightforward as long as you only deploy one thing. But each system is best against a different kind of threat — that’s why the military buys more than one thing in the first place — so the best defense is a layered defense. When you try to use more than one system at once, however, some human being has to look back and forth between two screens (or three, or four, or however many systems you’ve deployed) to try to figure out if the threat that (say) the Patriot is seeing is the same incoming missile the THAAD radar has picked up. If the human gets confused, you might take multiple shots at one threat while letting another get through unhindered. Or you might blow a friendly aircraft out of the sky, as happened twice in 2003, killing two British air crew and one American.
To prevent these tragedies, IBCS is designed to create “a single integrated air picture” fusing data from all available sensors into a coherent and consistent whole. All told, IBCS will replace seven separate command-and-control systems currently in service.
That means IBCS has to talk to all the software and hardware those seven systems currently control, software and hardware that was designed at different types to different standards by different companies. Most also predate the current push for open architecture, which means they rely on proprietary technology jealously guarded by the original manufacturers. Just getting everything to work together without violating anyone’s intellectual property was a major effort, Verwiel told me.
The need to plug into all these existing systems also led to a “tremendous number of requirements,” Verwiel said. (Requirements is an acquisition term of art for specific things the government says the product must be able to do).
There were “literally many thousands of requirements,” he said, “which is an order of magnitude greater than anything we’d ever dealt with with this customer before.” Those requirements also grew over time as the military became more conscious and more stringent about protecting its networks from cyber and electronic warfare (i.e. hacking and jamming).
So Verwiel is understandably chuffed that his baby’s first test went off without a hitch. Three more flight tests will follow over the next 12 months — he declined to give details — and the official Limited User Test will begin next spring. Then in comes the big one, the Pentagon’s Milestone C decision in August 2016 about whether the program is ready to move from development into production.
How’s that coming? “The IBCS program [was] identified by OSD as an exemplar program for should-cost and Better Buying Power,” said Barry Pike, the Army’s deputy program executive officer for missiles and space, speaking at the February conference.
In particular, Pike said, IBCS should allow Army missile defense to keep pace with the threat at a price we can afford. Under the old model, if you needed to replace an obsolescent radar (for example), you needed to upgrade — or replace — the weapon and command system that went with that radar as well. Under IBCS, which allows components to plug and play, you just need to replace the obsolescent piece, without having to touch anything else– a major cost savings. That’s the kind of modest, incremental modernization that the cash-strapped and chastened Army sees as its best path forward.