This is the future: On a large a screen in front of lines of young Air Force experts and industry coders, data feeds from dozens of sensors—as small as body cameras on ground forces and compact radars the size of a loaf of bread, and as large as Aegis cruisers and E-8 Joint STARS aircraft—converge with real-time readiness information from across the services. Linked with a 5G connection, the data feeds can also be viewed on tablets shared with observers, including congressional staff, who are here to watch this experiment play out in this makeshift nerve center.
This is the second “on-ramp” evaluation of the Air Force’s proposed Advanced Battle Management System. ABMS began as a potential replacement for JSTARS, but has morphed into a massive, game-changing software-based approach intended to replace phone calls and PowerPoints and to accelerate data sharing, communication, and decision-making in the heat of battle. During the one-day exercise that followed, dozens of aircraft and more than 60 different sensors took part, a cruise missile was knocked out of the sky by a “smart” bullet, and the head of U.S. Northern Command said he saw capabilities he wants as soon as possible. Contracts are possible within months, not years, to help make ABMS a reality soon.
“The focus is showing we really are building an internet for the military that feels like the internet that we use when we go home,” said Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition. The difference: “The things that we’re connecting are very different than the refrigerators, televisions, smartphones. They are warfighting systems. And the operational need to move data quickly in a way operators understand really came out” during the experiment.
Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of NORTHCOM and North American Aerospace Defense Command put that in context: “If you have an information advantage over the adversary, you’re able to quickly posture yourself and make decisions at the strategic level to the tactical and operational level. For me, as an operational commander moving forces, that would then deter any potential adversary in a more timely manner.”
This one-day exercise in early September took place across four test ranges and multiple operating locations, including the nerve center set up at Joint Base Andrews, Md. The scenario crafted by NORTHCOM and U.S. Space Command focused on a notional, but realistic, threat: Russia acting against U.S. interests abroad. Three days of “tensions” in this scenario played out in a morning, spanning across all domains.
Today’s commands were “designed to match up against a world that didn’t have a peer threat … able to hold the homeland at risk,” a NORTHCOM official involved in planning the event said. “And so, we have a contested environment inside of our area of responsibility for NORAD and NORTHCOM. … Space is rapidly becoming a contested environment that needs a combatant command with the capabilities to deal with those threats.”
In the scenario, Russian actions prompt the U.S. military to shift its posture, for example changing forces’ alert status and gearing up deployments. As the scenario progressed, Russia opened up with a cyber attack, then moved on to space. For the exercise, real-world U.S. military space assets were both jammed and “dazzled” by lasers to limit their effectiveness. At sea, ships playing bad-guy roles harassed U.S. Navy and Coast Guard assets. On the ground at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., a convoy from U.S. Strategic Command was on the move and “attacked” by small unmanned aerial systems.
In response to adversary air threats, U.S. Air Force fighters scrambled, supported by tankers, an E-3 Sentry, and the E-8 Joint Stars. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets used in the exercise included satellites, MQ-1s, MQ-9s, and an RC-135. A C-17 and C-130 brought in a Marine Corps M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, as well as contingency-response Airmen to seize and defend an airfield, including by using a Ghost Robotics “robot dog” outfitted with sensors to help on patrol. Every sensor and shooter fed live data into the cloud-based command and control system, with commanders and operators watching the scenario playing out in real-time—thanks to satellites, landlines, and mobile 4G and 5G networks.
“Future battlefields will be characterized by information saturation,” Roper said. “One of the key objectives of this on-ramp [exercise] was to present a dizzying array of information for participants to synthesize, just like they would see in a real operation.”
The cloud-based software fed screens at Joint Base Andrews, called “OmniaONE,” that combined all of that sensor and tracking data into a single accessible screen resembling a real-time video game. Artificial intelligence fused live sensor feeds with readiness data from Air Force bases across the country, providing options to commanders that could just be clicked to enact.
For example, by zeroing in on a map of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, commanders could see how many F-22s were currently on alert, how many were fully mission- capable, and also what fuel and weapons was available. Commanders could order a scramble with a pull-down menu, rather than a phone call. Redirecting the map to Russia showed their bases, along with intelligence showing the most recent reports on how many aircraft might be available there, plus the recent pattern of life on the base, hinting at what their course of action could be.
The live-fire part of the exercise took place at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., where six BQM-167 targeting drones launched to simulate a cruise missile threat. Several legacy and new sensors tracked the BQM-167s, providing real-time altitude, speed, and heading information into the ABMS system. A series of shooters lined up to take a shot, to test if they could be repurposed for future base defense missions against a cruise missile threat.
Among them: AIM-9Xs from an F-16, an MQ-9, a ground-based launcher, and the new Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP)—a small “smart bullet” that can track a fast-moving target—fired from a U.S. Army M109 Paladin howitzer and a U.S. Navy deck gun. The projectile was developed by the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which Roper ran before taking his current post.
While legacy systems showed promise, including the MQ-9 and ground-launched AIM-9Xs finding their targets, Roper was quick to announce the newly developed howitzer-launched HVP successfully downed the BQM-167 cruise missile threat.
“Just for the record: tank shooting down cruise missiles,” Roper said. “That’s just awesome—that’s video games, sci-fi awesome. You’re not supposed to be able to shoot down a cruise missile with a tank. But, yes, you can—if the bullet is smart enough. And the bullet we use for that system is exceptionally smart.”
The test showed how a relatively small howitzer round could have massive implications for defense from a relatively high-end threat. That suggests howitzers could become part of a “raid-breaking system to defend a base against hundreds of incoming cruise missiles,” Roper said, which could “completely change the calculus of how we go to war in a contested environment and defend critical assets for power projection.”
“It took a lot of selling to the Pentagon and to Congress, that hypervelocity guns could take on a variety of threats at a very low price point with a very high magazine to be a disruptive defense mechanism,” Roper added. “We were able to put it at center stage today, and it was successful.”
How It Is Today
Compared to ABMS, today’s PowerPoints and phone calls are positively archaic. If an early-warning radar tracks a possible Russian bomber force flying toward Alaskan airspace, NORTHCOM officials said, someone watching radar sees the threat approaching North America, and picks up the phone to report its speed, altitude, heading, and whether it’s squawking a code. Someone else keys information into a chat service, and others report what they are seeing and what assets are available to respond. Each is operating in isolation.
“None of them are looking at the same picture, none of them have a visual display of what’s going on,” said a NORTHCOM official who helped plan the ABMS event.
NORAD pulls together recent tanker data from U.S. Transportation Command in a PowerPoint to determine what tanking support is available for a scramble, then presents the information to an O-6 by phone so that he or she can decide whether the homeland is actually at risk. By then, about 12 minutes may have elapsed.
“There’s no live collaboration in any common environment,” the official said. “The data is stovepiped. The sensor data doesn’t talk to the Blue Force readiness data, the number of aircraft on alert, how much fuel is at certain locations. The only time all of that data comes together is in the mind of the O-6.
Added another NORTHCOM official: “Isn’t this how DOD works already? No. We have PowerPoint slides.” That’s literally how these kinds of decisions would be made. Right now, PowerPoint slides will be generated for commanders and for operators” and it can take days. “What we showed … was the first time that combatant commands were in the same data cloud architectures and made decisions about posturing forces, and we did it in seconds.”
Another example: The Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar—the nerve center of air power in the Middle East—where real-time data is fed to dozens of analysts through a massive wall of individual screens, each with its own different data set.
“It takes 100 people to make sense of all those different feeds. And because it takes 100 people, you have to play 100 different telephone games to be able to go: OK, I’ve got a threat,” the NORTHCOM planner said. “If you’ve ever worked in a large organization, or [with] a huge staff, decisions don’t happen quickly because it takes a long time to get that information together.”
For the ABMS demonstration at Joint Base Andrews, however, that same kind of data was fused into one screen, accessible on the wall and via tablets.
“This capability did not exist six weeks ago,” the official said. “And as we are putting in more and more courses of action based on what the adversaries are doing, it is starting to learn how the humans like to do these things. And, over time, we create kind of a collaboration between man and machine on the best courses of action.”
A team of all-domain operators—known as “13-Os,” for the new Air Force Specialty Code—watched the feed to monitor progress and give shooters the “go.” A line of software coders from participating companies were on standby, ready to jump in to fix or patch problems, such as latency issues. In one practice run, the flood of data coming into the classified SIPRNet caused delays of up to five minutes on some, until programmers patched the system and solved the problem.
To be able to participate in the ABMS on-ramps, and possibly move forward with actual programs of record, companies needed to play by the Air Force’s rules, programming for a single common architecture. This enabled the Air Force to bring in data from old systems, such as Link 16 communications, as well as new ones, such as AT&T and SpaceX, which are developing their systems to speak the same language.
“We are building a common architecture, and we want to plug in both legacy sensors, legacy C2 systems, and be able to plug in future procedures,” the NORTHCOM planner said.
Two more ABMS on-ramps will follow, building off the first two.
Preston Dunlap, the chief architect and manager of the ABMS program, said it was almost impossible to compare the first two events because of the progress made from one to the next. The first event was “joint all-domain situational awareness,” he said, not “joint all-domain command and control.”
“This is so many more challenges, so many more dimensions,” Dunlap said of the second event. “One of those was being able to push more to the defeat side and the command and control. And what that means is … sensing and understanding and exploiting the information, and then you make a decision, and then … execute. ”
The system uses machine learning to develop options, which could be as simple as clicking on a link to give the command to launch a missile.
“It’s now, to them, an additional menu item in the CommandOne layer of the application, which then allows us to either select suggested courses of action or simply decide your own action to be able to pick a defeat mechanism, or just say leave it alone,” Dunlap said. “ In about half the cases … that decision to go ‘use this platform, use this weapon to go strike’ was done in a way that we will call machine to machine. And what that really means is instead of doing a phone call to somebody, or a chat room which is often the de facto approach, … [the] platform and the operator … [were] actually inside the same common operating environment … so they could accept the tasking and then execute digitally. And that latitude, longitude … targeting track was automatically provided to them. So, there’s no mistakes. No human error.”
The third on-ramp, a pared down version in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, was held later in September and the fourth will be held in U.S. European Command in early 2021. The first events included increasing joint participation, which needs to be a reality for ABMS to be effective. Navy and Army data, for example, can’t be stovepiped within their services if ABMS is to effectively provide a real-world picture of what’s happening.
“What we’re really agreeing to do across the services is say ‘Yeah, let me share my data with you, and you are going to share your data with me, and we are going to work together more effectively,’ ” Dunlap said. “And that really comes down to connecting networks, knowing how you speak and I speak.”
In Europe, Air Force officials want to bring in allies, which will be limited to “Five Eyes” partners Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
“We want the ‘family of one system’ eventually to not just be within the joint force, we want them across a combined force,” Roper said.
Following each event, evaluation reports examine what worked and what didn’t, with the results informing the next on-ramp event. Activities or programs that don’t prove valuable can be dropped, and new solutions tried.
Some of the capabilities demonstrated in the second on-ramp had been in development for a while; CloudOne, for example, has been in the works for two years, Roper said.
That effort seems to be picking up steam. VanHerck praised the ability to utilize a cloud to share information. “We need to move quickly and rapidly down that path,” he said. “I was very encouraged by the status, if you will, of those systems and the capability. I think they can be brought online within a year or less. It’s a matter of getting through the challenges with the Department to field them.”
The same could be true of new sensors, VanHerck said. The sensors would be fielded alongside current programs of record to supplement existing capability and build trust and confidence in the new technology.
The on-ramp showed the Air Force can “project forward” its detection capabilities, with sensors currently available from commercial vendors, and combine that information in a way that enables the military to quickly decide if there is a threat and how it can be killed, VanHerck said. Having those advanced sensors fused into a common operating picture as developed in the on-ramp will translate to more effective deterrence and alert missions within NORTHCOM, as some of the ideas and capabilities can come to fruition.
Some capabilities can be brought on using indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, while others—including tools using artificial intelligence, need more development. The potential OmniaONE common-operating picture programs show promise, but aren’t ready for the big time, yet, experts said. Data links in remote areas failed in some cases, identifying challenges to be solved. If nothing failed in the on-ramp, Roper said, it would mean they weren’t trying hard enough.
Future conflicts won’t play out exactly like the cruise missile scenario in White Sands, according to Roper, but the lessons are opening eyes to the potential of these new approaches.
“I was happy to see senior leaders focused on all of the things that led up to the fireball,” he said, calling those technologies ” the real heroes that ultimately will “ help us win the next war. ”
What will that war look like? Roper said there’s no telling exactly right now. But this much is clear: “Whoever brings the best analytics that have been connected to most flexibly designed future warfighting systems … that side will win.”