HUNTSVILLE, ALA.: How confident is Northrop Grumman‘s Rob Jassey that the Army’s much-criticized IBCS network has worked out its bugs? Not only does the retired air defense officer see “no obstacles” to fielding IBCS on schedule in 2022, he told me here after recent tests: “We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to set the stage” to deliver an interim IBCS years early if the Army gives the green light and the funding, as it has on other high-priority programs.
“There’s a real capability that can be deployed as soon as the government says it can be,” Jassey said, possibly even in “months.”
IBCS is an Army program, but even the Air Force is starting to like it after a test drive during the massive Red Flag air warfare exercises, Jassey told me. “We’ve gotten very positive feedback” from the Air Force personnel who got to see how accurately IBCS tracked airborne targets, he said. In one experiment, IBCS even successfully downloaded targeting data from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter‘s advanced Distributed Aperture System sensor.
But it was the Army’s latest major test — just officially announced today — that really put IBCS through its paces in its primary mission: connecting widely dispersed Army radars, anti-aircraft batteries, and missile defense launchers of multiple types that were never designed to work together. (IBCS is a cumbersome nested acronym for IAMD Battle Command System, IAMD in turn standing for Integrated Air & Missile Defense).
Over five weeks of exercises involving both live and simulated targets — fighters, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles — IBCS used a mix of satellite relays, fiber optic landlines, and line-of-sight radio to connect 20 sites at three Army bases spread out over about 1,200 miles. At one end of the network was the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico/Fort Bliss, Texas complex; the other end was at Redstone Arsenal here in Huntsville, Alabama. The network took targeting data from both short-range Sentinel radars and longer-ranged Patriot radars, originally designed to work only with Patriot launchers in the same battery. IBCS then fed that data to three types of Patriot missile: PAC-2, PAC-3, and PAC-3 MSE.
Overcoming the Past
How is this possible? IBCS notoriously got a scathing review from the Pentagon’s independent Director of Operational Testing & Evaluation (DOT&E) after a spring 2016 test in which the system glitched and had to abort, on average, every six to eight hours. In 2017, the Army decided on a four year delay in fielding of the overall Integrated Air & Missile Defense System (IAMDS) — of which IBCS is the command-and-control backbone — with the Initial Operating Capability (IOC) slipping from 2018 to 2022. And last week, when I asked one presenter at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium here in Huntsville “how messed up is IBCS?” the room erupted in rueful, knowing laughter.
Northrop wasn’t particularly happy with my phrasing. In fact, they get a little twitchy whenever someone brings up the 2016 Limited User Test, which they argue (a) is old news and (b) was unfair in the first place. (Imagine your normally polite cousin who got into a fenderbender driving Grandma to the airport one freaking time and has gotten tired of hearing about it every Thanksgiving).
Many of the problems in both the test and the subsequent decision to delay the program were beyond Northrop’s control, they say, including repeated failures by the Army-provided generator powering the system. Many others were minor but maddening glitches in the software. In fact, Northrop sources tell me that 50 percent of the problems identified in the 2016 Limited User Test were fixed within 30 days — but by then the testers had gone home to write their report.
Since 2016, however, Northrop and the Army have moved from such big-bang, all-or-nothing tests to what they call “continuous testing,” a larger number of smaller-stakes events that allow a cycle of test, fix, and test again. Northrop benefits because no single glitch or outside factor has a disproportionate impact on its overall score. The Army benefits because its soldiers get to give feedback at every step — and the contractor has a powerful incentive to act on it — instead of just a few times throughout the development process.
This rapid cycle of updates and upgrades is only possible because IBCS uses what’s called open architecture design. The various pieces of hardware, software, and middleware are designed as plug-and-play modules that all follow common standards, so you can remove any one piece without having to change all the others. For example, Jassey told me, “we’ve changed our servers four times”, but each time they could just port the existing code over to the new hardware. Likewise, they can fix software glitches without having to replace any hardware.
That plug-and-play approach may seem obvious to people used to commercial information technology, although Macs and PCs, Androids and iPhones, all still require different versions of any different software. Military programs have a long history of exquisitely bespoke, jigsaw puzzle designs. Historically, Patriot radars only talk to Patriot launchers in the same unit and struggle to exchange data even with other Patriots of different types, let alone completely separate programs like THAAD or Sentinel. With IBCS, the Army’s goal is to connect all its air and missile defense sensors and shooters, so different radars can work together to locate and confirm difficult targets in the face of enemy countermeasures, then pass the targeting data to whatever launcher’s best able to take the shot.
One network to rule them all may be too ambitious a goal, CSIS scholar Tom Karako told the conference here. The more people overuse integration to mean “everything,” he said, the more likely we are to overreach, fail, and get nothing. “We may actually be able to get no-kidding, real integration, say, between IFPC and Patriot and THAAD, but it may be much more elusive and perhaps never achieved for the entire United States military,” he said, if not “impossible.”
Now, IBCS only covers Army systems, but that’s complex enough. Indeed, the Army ordering Northrop to integrate additional systems into IBCS is one reason for the four-year delay.
On the other hand, even as Northrop develops IBCS for comprehensive, wholesale integration, aerospace titan Lockheed Martin is taking a retail approach by integrating Patriot and THAAD with one another — but nothing else. That’s a near-term expedient driven by the Army’s needs on the Korean peninsula, where Patriots and THAADs are both deployed. Lockheed air & missile defense VP Tim Cahill told reporters here his approach is “very consistent” and complimentary with Northrop’s IBCS, just smaller in scope and faster to field. But the very fact that the Army is funding both approaches means it has a potential backup plan if IBCS struggles.
While Karako remained scrupulously neutral on the specifics of IBCS — pointedly declining my invitations to take a cheap shot at the program — he did tell the conference that “we can’t really afford to re-start from scratch.” Even if IBCS can’t achieve its full ambitions, he said, we should deploy an “IBCS-light or IBCS-like” capability. Better integrating our disparate air and missile defense systems, he said, is essential to survival in a future war against a high-tech great power like Russia or China.
“Whatever modifications or accelerations IBCS has done…whoever gets the contract and the benefits, I’m agnostic on that,” Karako said. “The point is the capability.”