WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force office responsible for the development of the B-21 bomber and X-37 space plane has been handed the reins of the Advanced Battle Management System program, the service’s top acquisition official announced Nov. 24.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office will now share responsibilities for developing the ABMS with the service’s chief architect, Preston Dunlap. That will pave the way for the service to begin buying the system’s first elements as early as next year, Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper told reporters during a roundtable Tuesday.
Originally envisioned as a replacement for Air Force platforms like the E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance plane, ABMS has evolved into an Internet of Things for the military — a sprawling family of IT and communications gear meant to seamlessly connect the aircraft, sensors and other weapons systems.
For the past year, the Air Force has focused ABMS efforts on a series of on-ramp exercises meant to bring industry to the table and test whether off-the-shelf technology — everything from SpaceX’s Starlink constellation to artificial intelligence systems — could plug into the military’s existing platforms and provide better awareness of a battlespace.
Having proven that the technologies are available and work, the next step is to create a concrete plan to acquire them, Roper said.
“It’s a pretty no-brainer thing,” he said. “ABMS is ready for a program executive office.”
According to a memo sent from Roper to the Air Force’s acquisition workforce Tuesday, the chief architect will remain responsible for codifying ABMS’ technical requirements, overseeing on-ramp exercises, and approving the overall architecture and digital standards for the system.
Meanwhile, the Rapid Capabilities Office program executive has been tasked with conducting an audit of the program over the next 90 days, which will detail all efforts, contracts and resources associated with ABMS. That will inform the ABMS acquisition strategy, where the program office will lay out what it plans to buy and when that tech will be procured.
Most importantly, the RCO will have the difficult job of making trade-offs that impact legacy platforms, program offices and companies that span across the Air Force’s different mission areas, Roper said.
“It is 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. Rarely is there all the money that we said we needed to get the job done, so we prioritize across different programs,” he said.
“The thing I’m going to be looking to the RCO to do is ensure that we deliver usable, internet-type capabilities to the joint force and not more partial capabilities that don’t add up to the same operational effect,” he said. “I would rather have 70 percent of ABMS completed at [a] 100 percent level and be ready to be used operationally, than 100 percent of ABMS completed at a 70 percent level.”
The Air Force views ABMS as pivotal for executing the military’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept, which seeks to link all of the military services’ sensors and shooters. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown listed the program as his second-most important modernization priority, during an interview this month with Defense News.
However, Congress has been more reticent to buy into the program, raising concerns about the service’s lack of an acquisition strategy and detailed requirements.
That the RCO will now delineate a more thorough acquisition plan for ABMS is a “happy coincidence,” Roper said, though he expects it will help alleviate some of Congress’ concerns about the program.
“I’m not getting questions about how is the Air Force possibly going to build the internet,” he said. “I’m really getting: ‘Let’s talk about your baselines. Let’s talk about all of your documentation.’ That is a wonderful next set of questions to have.”
Roper expects that lawmakers will get onboard the ABMS program once the Air Force starts buying new capabilities — things like new radios, data fusion systems and mesh networks — and then consolidating the technologies inside pods and installing them on legacy aircraft. That could occur as early as next year.
So what platforms will likely receive modifications first? Roper said aerial refueling tankers — one model in particular — “might get to the goal line first.”
Once a tanker is a part of ABMS, “you can start talking about what’s its smart device function, meaning what does it do aside from its day job. Aside from just being a tanker, what else does it do? It’ll start allowing us to think about how ABMS changes the fight,” Roper said. “But there are other platforms hot on their tail.”
One of those other aircraft is likely Boeing’s F-15EX, with Boeing’s KC-46A as the tanker in question.
Last week, an unnamed official with knowledge of the ABMS program said that F-15EX and KC-46 would likely be “our first platforms that we will be bringing in some of the ABMS enhanced gateway capabilities on,” according to Janes. The official, who spoke at the virtual Defence iQ International Fighter Conference, was not named, as the event was conducted under the Chatham House Rule.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.