9 January 2020
After a few years spent on the drawing board, the US military has demonstrated tangible progress in trying to translate its novel concept of “Joint All-Domain Command and Control” (JADC2) into operational reality. During a 3-day exercise that took place in mid-December 2019 at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the US Air Force, Navy, and Army jointly tested the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) to strengthen the joint force’s capacity to conduct Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) across the sea, land, air, space, and cyber domains. The exercise featured a combined forces comprising of ground personnel, Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF), a Sentinel radar, a naval destroyer and aircraft carrier, and fighter jets reacting to a simulated enemy cruise missile aimed at the US homeland (Bousie and Pope 2019).
Mirroring the “Internet of Things” in the commercial sector, the heart of the ABMS is a common data architecture consisting of conventional and unconventional assets that enable a variety of cross-domain capabilities and devices to be seamlessly plugged in order to accelerate the military’s operational tempo at a rate that enemy forces cannot keep up with. This networked capacity reduces the amount of time it takes for friendly forces to receive, fuse, and act upon a wide range of data and information from different battle domains (Bousie and Pope 2019). During the exercise, a potential cruise missile was detected by QF-16s. Subsequently, through the use of new software, communications equipment, and a “mesh” network, the threat information was passed on to a US navy destroyer deployed in the Gulf of Mexico (Bousie and Pope 2019). In addition, the same information was relayed to a pair of F-35s and another pair F-22s, as well as commanders at Eglin and an Army unit equipped with a mobile missile launcher (Bousie and Pope 2019).
While the demo provided senior military leaders with the necessary lessons learned and insights into current capability gaps in cross-domain data connectivity, there is still a considerable way to go before the ABMS can fully enable the US military to simultaneously receive and share real-time battle information across multiple spaces and platforms over the decades to come. The first major roadblock appears to be fleshing out more detailed requirements for the envisioned system. According to a US Government Accountability Office report entitled “Observations on the F-35 and Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System” that was released in May 2019, “the capabilities and the strategy to deliver those capabilities are still to be determined” (US Government Accountability Office, 2019). Although the Air Force has sought to bring more definitional clarity to the ABMS by the summer of 2019 through an Analysis of Alternatives – an evaluation of the operational suitability and effectiveness, as well as the estimated costs of alternative systems to address a capability need in the US military – it was reported in December that congressional leaders still appeared to be waiting for the final report
On a larger scale, developing the ABMS would require the military to embark on an extremely complex and take on significant financial risks in creating a failsafe system that can pull in data from disaggregated sensors and distribute them to a wider-range of units. Critics of the ABMS have already pointed out the Air Force’s previous setbacks in trying to connect different systems within its own service. For instance, the Department of Defene decided to pull the plug on the previous $7 billion Joint Surveillance Target Radar System (JSTAR) Recapitalization Program, which was intended to provide surveillance and information on moving ground targets. A number of senior air force officials were not convinced that JSTARS or a JSTARS-spin off would be able to effectively close the kill chain (i.e. information collection, fusion, and distribution) in a highly contested battlespace (Daniels, 2018). According to General Mike Holmes, the commander of the Air Combat Command, “Our conclusion is, that none of the systems that were fielded now, including our current JSTARS or a replacement JSTARS, would give us the capability to do that” (Daniels, 2018).
While the ABMS has been envisioned as an alternative system for ground forces relying on overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability to thrive in a highly contested environment, the fact that the planning process and the specific parameters governing upgrades to existing platforms still remain mired in abstractions make it harder for the Air Force to convince a skeptical Congress for the necessary funding and support in the upcoming years. In the National Defense Authorization Act 2020 report, the House Armed Service Committee noted the “lack of discernible benchmarks to assess and measure progress” (Freedberg Jr., 2019). Similarly, the lack of clarity has also renewed concerns about whether or not the ABMS could be delivered on time before JSTAR’s retirement. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee noted that they remained “concerned about the speed of fielding based on current projected end of life” for the JSTAR aircraft (Freedberg Jr., 2019).
As things currently stand, the development of the ABMS is in its first phase. Started in 2018 and expected to last until 2023, this phase involves upgrading datalinks and some space-based technologies, as well as linking sensors from several stealth platforms and drones across 10 existing acquisition program (see Figure 1) (US Government Accountability Office, 2019).For FY 2020, Congress authorized $49 million for the project, considerably less than the Air Force’s expectation of $185 million (US Senate Armed Services Committee 2019; US Air Force, 2019). Moreover, industries are invited to test platforms every four months to facilitate upgrades (Hitchens 2019). The second phase, although the parameters have not been defined, is expected to start in 2024 by integrating advanced sensors and software into existing battle management command and control platforms while at the same time phasing out JSTARS (US Government Accountability Office, 2019). The third phase, planned for mid-2030s, involves fielding multi-sensor, resilient battle management command and control capability (US Government Accountability Office, 2019).
As the US moves forward to harness new capabilities and synchronize cross-domain operations, there are pertinent questions about how Europe should approach the concept of MDO and related operational concepts like the JADC2 to increase the effectiveness of joint operations within its level of ambition. While European member states will likely not be able to replicate US projects due to fundamentally varying policy positions, capabilities, and shared defence resources, they can draw on the lessons from the ABMS in order to promote greater military interoperability within the union as well as with the US military in future joint operations.
Some of the projects that have been recently added to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework already set out to strengthen European military interoperability, including improvements to command and control (C2) systems and procedures. One project that has the potential to provide a foundation for a European-style JADC2 is the Spanish-led Strategic Command and Control System for the Common Security and Defence Policy Missions project, which aims to “connect users delivering information systems and decision-making support tools that will assist strategic commanders carry out their missions” (Council of the European Union, 2019). However, to ensure that European forces dispersed in various domains are capable of operating under a common C2 system, European leaders would also need to accelerate adjustments to legislations and procedures with respect to issues such as border crossing and cross-country military intelligence sharing (Drent, Kruijver and Zandee, 2019).
To prevail in highly contested environments, commanders and personnel located across different domains need to be able to operate with a clearer picture of the battlefield and stay ahead of the adversary. As this paper has shown, the ABMS has the potential to serve as an indispensable pathfinder for future joint operations, particularly during fast-paced and high-intensity MDOs. Nevertheless, the enormous scale and complexity of the ABMS itself means that leaders and developers will need to collectively establish credible benchmarks to ensure that the program successfully achieve its stated outcomes instead of returning to the graveyard of projects that have been the case with many ambitious programs in the past.
Written by Chonlawit Sirikupt, European Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre
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