DoD/Defense One/Elizabeth Howe

Will 2021 Be the Year JADC2 Takes Off?

The U.S. military has big hopes for joint, all-domain command and control. But logistical and financial challenges are mounting.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of reports on the Joint All Domain Command and Control effort.

Pentagon leaders want 2021 to be the year that their connect-everything effort—Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2—really takes flight. In this vision of future warfare, everything on the battlefield is digitally linked, allowing artificially intelligent decision aides to help commanders find and hit targets before the enemy can adapt. But the effort faces major financial and logistical challenges.

Combatant commands and services are expanding on last year’s experiments, such as the Army’s Project Convergence. The initial draft of the Joint Warfighting Concept, a key document that will help the services develop doctrine and strategy around the JADC2 vision, is finished. 

And for U.S. special operations forces, JADC2 is already something of a reality. U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, is linking data across services to enable faster operations. The special operations community is enabling the JADC2 vision “just by the nature of our portfolio,” said Deborah Woods, program executive officer for SOCOM’s Command, Control, Communications, and Computers 

“We do that because we are supporting a joint-force focus on command and control,” connecting Air Force special operations to Army Rangers to the Navy, in order to execute incredibly difficult and sensitive operations behind enemy lines, Woods said Tuesday during an online appearance at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. That involves “making sure that we're all interoperable, and that the full software information environment is seamless from a capability perspective.”

But, Woods said, tighter budgets will make it more difficult to buy and adapt hardware and software to achieve that. In 2020, she said, her office spent $940 million and delivered more than “25,000 communications, information technology, and [influence operations] capabilities” to special operations forces worldwide. But in fiscal 2021, that budget shrank $200 million. 

Since roughly 60 percent of her office’s budget goes to operations and maintenance, that means research and development will see the biggest hit. “With the reduction in [R&D and engineering], that's going to limit our ability to test or even develop or…do engineering change proposals on capabilities we have,” she said.

Now that the office of the Joint Chiefs has all but finished its Joint Warfighting Concept, services can begin the task of developing doctrines, plans, and strategies around JADC2. Next up: a posture review to identify gaps, then more experimentation.  But budget constraints may slow those experiments, Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, who heads the JADC2 effort on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the C4ISR conference in April. 

Even aside from what the U.S. military can buy and build, it faces huge obstacles just in getting the pieces of equipment it already owns to speak to one another. In a March interview, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he wants the services to develop new “baseline standards that are common to all the services, so by the end of this year, we want those standards that are common to all the services...And we want the services to buy in.”

The Defense Department also wants contractors to ensure that the data that comes off the vehicles, weapons, and equipment they produce can be shared across the military. It’s a new requirement that will come out of the Joint Chiefs’ office this year and a big change for industry, which has made billions of dollars by holding onto data and using it to bid for services. 

“Up until today, all the services, for years, decades, have been developing their own internal systems,” Milley said in March. “And we end up having to do all these bridges and workarounds etc. So they optimize development for their own internal requirements and they sub-optimize for anything that’s needed for the joint role. But we don’t fight wars as an Army, a Navy…we fight wars as a nation, and we fight wars with allies and partners.”

Artificial intelligence is seen as key to realizing the JADC2 vision, and moving to an enterprise cloud solution is key to running machine learning programs on large, streaming datasets across the Defense Department. The DOD seemed close to that in October 2019 when it finally awarded the much-contested JEDI contract to Microsoft. But due to recent court decisions, that contract may change significantly in the months ahead, putting the department behind on one of its key objectives. 

This summer, the Army plans to scale up its experiment in linking objects across the battlefield and bringing in several services. But even successful experiments can reveal that the Department is still not keeping pace with technology. 

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic created new logistical challenges across the military, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, saw an opportunity to test how well they could integrate across services, collect data from new and disparate sources, run it through machine learning aides to get protective equipment to where it was most needed, and even anticipate where future hotspots would spring up, in order to pre-deploy resources. This proved the JADC2 vision was realistic.

In April, NORTHCOM, conducted their second major, large-scale exercise aimed at integrating data across services and deploying new machine learning and artificial intelligence aides, dubbed the Global Information Dominance Experiment, or GIIDE2. 

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the  commander of NORTHCOM, said the exercise had “achieved its objectives” in proving out some of those concepts. But, he said, the slow way that the Defense Department builds and buys technology and software is frustrating his efforts to innovate at the speed that technology is changing. 

“We can't go slow for the legacy processes that take years to field capabilities, and that was my intent, to show that the capabilities exist today to go down this path,” VanHerck said.