LE BOURGET, France, and WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has started work on a data architecture for its Advanced Battle Management System, the family of platforms that will eventually replace the E-8C JSTARS surveillance planes.

But the “biblical” rule for the program, according to the service’s acquisition executive Will Roper, is that “we don’t start talking platforms until the end,” he told Defense News at the Paris Air Show in June.

“It is so easy to start talking about satellites and airplanes and forget what ABMS is going to have to uniquely champion, which is the data architecture that will connect them,” Roper explained.

“I’m actually glad we don’t have big money this year because we can’t go build a drone or a satellite, so we’ve got to focus on the part that’s less sexy, which is that data architecture,” he said. “We’re going to have to do software development at multiple levels of classification and do it securely. All of those are things that are hard to get people energized about, but they’re going to be the make-or-break [undertakings] for this program.”

Some initial work has begun on identifying the requirements for ABMS data architecture. The service in March named Preston Dunlap, a national security analysis executive at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, as the program’s “chief architect.” Dunlap will be responsible for developing the requirements for ABMS and ensuring they are met throughout the menu of systems that will comprise it.

The Air Force Warfighter Integration Center, or AFWIC — the service’s planning cell for future technologies and concepts of operation — provided feedback to Dunlap about how ABMS should work, Roper said.

The Air Force is still deliberating what ABMS will look like in its final form, although officials have said it will include a mix of traditional manned aircraft, drones, space-based technologies and data links.

The effort was devised as an alternative to a replacement for the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.

While the service first considered a traditional recapitalization program where it would buy new JSTARS aircraft equipped with more sophisticated radars, leaders ultimately backed the more ambitious ABMS proposal, believing it to be a more survivable capability.

But defense companies are hungry for more information about the platforms that will comprise ABMS, seeing the opportunity to develop new systems or upgrade legacy ones as a major potential moneymaker.

Once the service has defined an ABMS data architecture — which Roper believes will occur before the fiscal 2021 budget is released — it will need to form requirements for the data that will run through and populate it as well as the artificial intelligence that automatically sorts important information and passes it to users.

“Maybe one sensor needs to be able to fill a gap that others are creating,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at requirements at a systems level and tell satellites that you need to be able to provide this level of data at this refresh rate. UAVs, you need to be able to do this rate and so on and so forth. Once we do that, then we’ll be in the traditional part of the acquisition, which will be building those satellites, building those UAVs.”

The Air Force intends to conduct yearly demonstrations throughout this process, the first of which will involve “ad hoc mesh networking,” which will allow platforms to automatically begin working together and sharing information without human interference. By FY21, full-scale prototyping could start, he said.

In the commercial sector, where devices can be seamlessly linked and monitored over the internet, this concept is known as the internet of things. But that construct — where companies build technologies from the get-go with open software — is difficult to replicate in the defense world, where firms must meet strict security standards and are protective of sharing intellectual property that could give competitors an edge.

“Openness in the internet of things makes sense because you can monetize the data,” Roper said. “That’s not going to exist for us, so we’re going to have to have a contracting incentive that replicates it. The best theory we have right now is some kind of royalty scheme that the more open you are and the more adaptation we do on top of your system, the more you benefit from it.”

The service wants to hold a series of industry days to see whether such a construct would be appealing to defense companies, and how to structure it so that it will be fair and profitable. One unanswered is how to incentivize and compensate defense firms that build in new software capability.

“If you create the system that allows us to put 100 apps on top of it, you benefit differently than if we can only put one. But the details are going to be difficult because maybe that one app is super important,” Roper said.

“But if we can’t replicate profit and cash flow on which their quarterlies depend, then they’re going to have to go back to the old model of saying they are for open [architecture] but secretly giving you closed.”

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.

More In Paris Air Show