At the outset of the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force had just 446 operational fighters to fend off a Luftwaffe nearly ten times larger. While the pilots deserve — and received — much credit for the eventual victory, their success ultimately flowed from a cutting-edge, constantly improving network of radars, observers, and battle management that allowed the RAF to position its limited resources for maximum effect. Like a latter-day version of this Dowding System, the Air Force’s Air Battle Management System, or ABMS, is meant to exploit the power of networked information to enable a limited force to prevail against a far larger peer adversary.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office was highly critical of the ABMS program for lacking defined requirements, a program schedule, cost estimate, or affordability analysis. On the surface, this is a damning evaluation, given the terminal fates of similarly criticized programs like Future Combat System and the Joint Tactical Radio System. However, the GAO’s methods of evaluation are outdated in today’s information age. The Air Force’s approach to ABMS should continue to center around a defined operational concept, not locking in technological requirements today that will only ensure obsolescence.
ABMS is a forward-leaning set of technologies that must be fluid if they are to remain relevant. They should not be managed and evaluated with industrial-era processes that strictly follow the rules outlined in the DoD 5000-series regulations and require a predetermined technical solution. That will simply guarantee obsolescence and a process too rigid to adapt to a set of dynamic threats. Instead, rigor should focus upon the operational concepts that underpin the fundamental design of ABMS.
Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap has articulated a decentralized vision for an ABMS that promotes networked connectivity across platforms, domains, and even services. However, the effectiveness of any tool comes down to how it is used and how well it serves that purpose.
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Networking is a foundational technical capability for ABMS, but the ultimate vision cannot be realized by simply connecting sensors and moving data. In fact, it could make problems worse. Absent a clear operational concept, the availability of information could result in extreme micromanagement, given the propensity for senior leaders to reach into the tactical realm. Alternately, warfighters could find themselves drowning in data, universal availability of data could resulting in operational paralysis or operational chaos.
Thus far, Air Force “experiments” have focused on connectivity across platforms, domains, and services. But these highly scripted and rigid kill chains simply move data; they are not exploring the stickier problems of actual battle management. Instead, what must be demonstrated is how these ABMS technologies support future operational concepts.
The Dowding System was successful because it was wholly aligned with the RAF’s air defense concept of operation. It was not just a collection of sensors and networks randomly closing kill chains. The RAF needed to understand the larger battlespace to prioritize the threats, manage available assets, and synchronize capabilities as the battle unfolded. It was this broader functionality that enabled the RAF to maximize its limited assets to prevail against a superior adversary.
It took Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding more than five years of exercises and experimentation to fully develop his battle-management and command-and-control system. If requirements had been frozen in 1935, he would not have had the necessary flexibility to develop the highly effective system that warded off the Nazis in 1940.
The Air Force must prove the value and functionality of its technical priorities in today’s systems and against future operational concepts. Instead of requirements, schedules, and cost estimates, the Air Force should develop an exercise, experimentation, and migration plan. This plan should gracefully shift from today’s air battle management systems, like JSTARS and AWACS, to the future ABMS. Battle management is too crucial a function to retire on the promise of PowerPoint; a bridge is needed to the future.
The first step of developing this plan is envisioning what that that future combat operational concept is, and then shaping battle management functions to that architecture. Information architectures and battle management concepts must align to operational concepts to deliver the speed, accuracy, relevance, and advantage future conflict will demand.
This also means modularly inserting technologies into current battle management platforms as these new capabilities mature to a minimum viable product. The Air Force cannot rely on numerous technological consecutive miracles falling into place all at once. A gradual transition is how a seemingly unwieldy program can yield value and reduce risk in ways that past efforts like FCS and JTRS did not.
Finally, the Air Force should focus its experimentation on the fusion and decision functions of a battle management system. How does the system function with multiple targets and multiple assets with varying potential effects? What about the many support assets and actions? Experiments must also be tested with current platforms and tactics to be both backward- and forward-compatible.
If the Air Force’s ABMS program seems ambitious, it is. However, this is an endeavor driven by necessity. The realities of constrained budgets preclude the option of overwhelming combat power. ABMS should not be assessed against traditional acquisition evaluation criteria that would ensure technological obsolescence. Instead, the Air Force must drive greater focus, vision, and alignment into its experimentation plan if it is to achieve anything close to a twenty-first century Dowding System. And achieving that is not just ambitious; it is imperative.