Air Force nearly ready to begin rolling out its ‘internet of military things’

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The Advanced Battle Management System, a future system-of-systems that the Air Force likes to think of as an “internet of military things” is likely to start delivering real-world capabilities on existing military platforms as soon as next year, the Air Force’s top acquisition official said Tuesday.

ABMS crossed a significant milestone this week when Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, signed a memo saying the construct is ready to move into a “steady-state demonstration-deployment phase” and assigning a program executive office to manage future developments.

The Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, Roper said, will serve as an “integrating” PEO — a recognition that since every part of the Air Force and Space Force will have a hand in building ABMS, no single PEO can tackle the entire project.

“This will be something new, and something that’s new like ABMS probably needs a new construct for how we manage and execute,” he told reporters during a virtual roundtable Tuesday. “The RCO will gain the components that do not have a natural home within the Department of the Air Force, but they will also be responsible for providing the consolidated work breakdown structure, the consolidated baselines and most importantly, making funding trades when there’s not enough funding to do everything. That is something our program executive offices are accustomed to doing, and it’s the reality of this business that we are handed a budget that we don’t make, and we have to do our best job executing it.”

The idea behind AMBS — the Air Force’s main contribution to DoD’s broader vision of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) — was born in 2008, when the service decided not to build a replacement for the Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System, an aging aircraft that tracks targets and sends that information to ground forces.

Instead of acquiring a new airplane to gather and disseminate data, the Air Force shifted to a plan to connect all of its systems through an “internet” of military platforms. Roper said a team he assembled to architect ABMS over the past 18 months has now made enough progress that the service is ready to begin incorporating it into its existing fleet of platforms.

“The radio links — the command ones, the mesh ones, these are ready to go be purchased and installed, and they’ll likely all be consolidated on many platforms into one thing, where you have all of those transport functions and processing functions together,” he said. “They’re ready, but they’re not done — none of this is ever done. So we’ll document where they are, but we’ll also have to have a new form of documentation that captures the ability to continue updating, and we don’t have to look too far for inspiration.  APIs from commercial industry are a really good way to keep evolving your system … I think similar things will help us document how we deliver a radio that has five waveforms today, and that may have five more in two years, and that needs to have the flexibility for waveforms we haven’t even invented yet.”

And the concepts that will be used in ABMS have already been proven, to a significant extent, in several demonstration projects over the last year, Roper said.

For example, the Air Force used the same architectural underpinnings it plans to use for its military IoT project when it created new data links between F-35, F-22, AC-130 and commercial satellites during a December exercise led by U.S. Northern Command. And in September, the Air Force demonstrated new abilities to use AI and cloud technologies to track and destroy a simulated cruise missile.

“All the operational commands have who raised their hands and said, ‘we’re ready to go field this.’ That was a big credibility check for me. Are you ready to go field it, and are you bringing money from your platforms to make it real and your commands? Well, they’re raising their hands now,” Roper said. “Air Mobility Command, for example, is one of most forward-leaning commands we have in JADC2 thinking, and they are ready to go put [ABMS capabilities] on mobility platforms so they can act as data relays. We’ve got tankers that top you up with gas, the vision of topping you up with data makes a lot of sense: You’re going to be there anyway to get fuel. And then that tanker standing off also can act as a battlefield relay and a network node. So they’ve got the right thinking.”

Roper said he delayed assigning a lead program executive office to coordinate ABMS developments until now largely because he wanted other elements of Air Force’s acquisition and technology development community to take ownership of the concept during its infancy. That would have been unlikely to happen if the RCO was given the leadership role before any of the technologies had been demonstrated, he said.

“They’d be like, ‘Okay, what does the RCO do? The X-37 and the B-21 and AMBS. If it’s an RCO program, it’s probably highly classified and not something I need to know about if I’m elsewhere in Air Force or Space Force acquisition land,” he said. “ABMS has been something we have put in front of every PEO and every program office and said, ‘you are part of this, you must figure out how to integrate with this, and we’ve made it personal for them. I think that delay will end up being very important so that ABMS does not become synonymous with an RCO program. It’s an everyone program. The RCO is responsible for integrating its consolidated baseline and execution schedule. But if someone ever walked into my office and said ABMS doesn’t have anything to do with me, that would be a long mentoring discussion that we would have.”

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