AFA 2019: First there were ‘pitch days’ for start-ups to demo their new ideas to the Air Force. Next there will be “connect-a-thons” where industry is invited every four months to test platforms, devices or applications that might work with the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) — the crucial foundation for enabling multi-domain command and control (MDC2), says the service’s acquisition czar Will Roper.
This innovative model for rapidly developing ABMS as the “connective tissue” to link platforms to each other and to shooters will be first demonstrated in four months, Roper said. It will also, as close observers of the Air Force know, help build the first versions of what will become Multi Domain Operations.
“What we are going to use is a Skyborg attritable drone, a cheap attritable aircraft, to link an F-22 and an F-35 that speak two different languages,” he explained. “We want to use the attritable drone to be the universal translator for both, or if you like the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the ‘babel fish’ to talk to both, and we’re even going to push the connection down to a tablet on the ground to simulate a soldier being there.”
The sinister-sounding Skyborg program emerged from the Strategic Capabilities Office program called Avatar, Roper said. Avatar is also known as the “loyal wingman” concept that would give drones a measure of autonomy to carry weapons, jammers and other systems and to work in tandem with fighter jets.
Breaking D will remember that the Air Force Research Laboratory in March demonstrated one such “loyal wingman” drone, the XQ-58A Valkyrie was built by Kratos. And colleague Valerie Insinna at Defense News reported in May that Roper told lawmakers Valkyrie would be transitioned to the Skyborg prototype program, albeit with new where the drone will be outfitted with new sensors and payloads to enable it to network to the piloted aircraft.
The “connect-a-thon” concept will allow interested Air Force programs offices and industry to “come with anything they’re working on that they’re envisioning to be part of ABMS” and see if it actually works.
Roper stressed that the focus of the demonstration, and of ABMS itself, is on “the connective tissue between programs, not the end states, the platforms themselves” — that is, networking capability via software-defined networks, software-defined radio systems, and cloud-based coding and infrastructure. The ultimate goal, Roper enthused, is to “build a families of systems” and “create something that feels like the Internet of Things for the Air Force.”
“It’s not far-fetched,” Roper stressed.
Further, he said, that once the Air Force can talk more publicly about the fiscal year 2021 budget, it will become clear that ABMS “is a top priority for us.” The 2021 budget, he noted, will be the first where funding for ABMS is consolidated into one budget line to make it easier for Congress to track. Congress has been skeptical of the program, dubbing it as simply too vague to make sense of. Roper said that he hopes as the demonstrations get under way, it will help make the program more “concrete.”
ABMS, he said, is critically important because the service has decided not to recapitalize the venerable Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) airborne C2 platform. The service “is pursuing nine lines of effort” that make up what Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein calls the ‘highway’ — the “thing the trucks run on,” Rope said. These include “software defined networks, software defined radios, data architecture, adaptability, autonomy, mesh ad hoc networking,” Roper said, “stuff that we treat like buzzwords in the Pentagon but we never actually put resource to.” The Air Force, with ABMS, is “putting serious resource to” those concepts, he stressed. “We are no kidding going to do it.”
Further, by not tying ABMS to any platform, the Air Force opens up “a competitive environment for programs and the vendors they’re working with to come in and be part of ABMS-ing their platform,” Roper added. This allows “forward-leaning programs” to move first to adopt the system, until eventually every service sensor is connected to every platform and every type of ground receiver. The beauty of the ABMS design, he said, is that it can first be deployed with new platforms but also be connected “backwards” to existing ones.
“We’ve already heard thoughts from F-16, F-22, space programs — Low Earth orbit programs — who say we can do this, we want to be part of the networked family,” Roper said. Indeed, Roper is working with Space Command head Gen. John Raymond to identify a space program that could be next to undertake a similar experiment to the first airborne demonstration, linking satellites via the nascent ABMS system to a ground station.