Roper: ABMS Experiment to Highlight Complexity of Future Warfare

The next Advanced Battle Management System experiment is meant to demonstrate the extreme complexity of a future war, and the need for analytic systems that can make sense of it all, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said.

Speaking during an Aug. 25 online “Ask Me Anything” streaming event, watched by over 1,000 people, Roper spent 90 minutes making the case for ABMS, calling data “more important than bullets” and predicting that future combatants won’t be willing to go into battle without their own version of an “R2-D2” automated assistant to feed them information and share it with other fighters.

The next ABMS experiment, called an “onramp,” is set to run Aug. 31-Sept. 4. Two combatant commanders—the head of U.S. Space Command and U.S. Northern Command—will be the “supported and supporting” chiefs of the experiment.

“There’s going to be so much happening that no one’s going to be able to keep up with it. And that’s exactly why we need digital enablement, to help these future warfighters in what’s going to be a very complicated event, but not nearly as complicated as what a future war’s going to be,” Roper said.

While much of what happens in the space element of the exercise is classified, Roper allowed that “we’re going to be holding space systems in denial, in very much a representative way that a real-world threat could, and require U.S. Space Command to continue to operate [under] those simulated attacks; both to keep space operations ‘clean and green,’ but also to support other domains of conflict.”

There will be simultaneous simulated attacks on national critical infrastructure, which NORTHCOM will have to defend against, using fighters and ships to “beat down simulated cruise missiles.” Also playing will be a “hypervelocity gun weapon system” that will provide point defense and protect “highly critical assets with a deep magazine.”

“Those things” are not the point of the experiment, even though they’ll make good copy and PowerPoint presentations in various post-experiment “hot washes,” Roper said.

“I think the overall challenge, … the real point of the exercise, is that there’s going to be so much happening at so many different locations concurrently, you can’t keep up with it,” he added. That in turn will compel participants to use and trust analytic systems to develop a comprehensive picture of the battle.

“How do these two commanders have situational awareness? Well, today, in truth, you can’t. You’re going to be doing that through hundreds, if not thousands, of people making phone calls.” The experiment will “create a clear signal” that what’s needed is “ways to simplify what these commanders see, and analytics let me do that.”

The experiment builds on the last onramp, run last December, which in turn proved to be a “great trial run” for the COVID-19 pandemic response, Roper said. Then-NORTHCOM commander Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy immediately said he’d prefer the experimental system to the one he was actually operating with, which Roper called a win for the concept.

The initial system “worked for … something as critical as responding to this pandemic, taking complicated data, number of people infected, resources available, … finding a way to synthesize all that.” Now, he said, “We’ve got to show that we can do that for a contested warfight, and if we get that right, by the time we get to onramp 3,” commanders will be clamoring for the system.

Asked to assess how Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. will likely view ABMS, given that his predecessor, Gen. David L. Goldfein, was a champion of the system, Roper said he expected Brown to promote it as well.

“Gen. Brown has hit the building with a force,” Roper said. Having come from Pacific Air Forces, dealing every day with the “very capable” China threat, “he’s bringing in a focus that we must change or we’ll lose, and that’s exactly what we need. And the pivot that we’re making in ABMS, caring more about the data than just the platforms, … that’s exactly what we’re going to need his leadership to continue championing.

“If you want a prediction from me, based on my interactions with him, his litmus test is going to be, ‘what do we need to fight and win in a high-end fight against China and Russia? And if we need it, then we’ll do everything we can to ensure we have it. And if we don’t need it, then we’ve got to get rid of it with extreme prejudice, because it’s taking away resources to do more winning things.” Brown’s urgency will be “exactly what we’re going to need … to get us through the scale-up phase” of ABMS, Roper added.

Efforts so far have focused on the “startup” phase of the system, Roper said, but now it has to be broadened.

In the scale-up phase, “we’re going to lay enough foundation so that it actually forms a road you can drive on.” He added that the end of scale-up will be evident when “enough communities have that personal experience where they can say … the system pushed me this data and it’s exactly what I needed.”

Roper said there will be no lead system integrator on ABMS, as it needs to behave as a system more like the internet than a platform.

Being able to master the U.S.’s own military capabilities to the greatest effect and be agile will be essential to compete with a China, Roper said. China is expected to double its Gross Domestic Product in the coming decades, with a population that will yield a greater number of talented people than the U.S. can match, and this will demand a system like ABMS.

As for those who maintain that the U.S. has succeeded so far militarily by having better-quality personnel with better training and equipment, Roper said the speed of future warfare will likely negate that advantage.

“If we’re not prepared, … human advantage … may be the first bullet in a presentation that begins, ‘back in the days when we had human advantage,’” Roper maintained.

Roper’s worried ABMS will be viewed as “‘cool tech that will is driving, and it’s innovation and the T-shirts and hoodies side of the Air Force and Space Force,’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth.” He said the Pentagon is “not a bastion of risk-taking right now. This is a five-sided coffin of conservatism,” with an allergy to radical ideas.

“If we fail, this won’t be tried again for years, and who knows how far ahead our adversaries will be? We’ve got to get this right,” Roper said.