Lt. Col. James Forrest operates a virtual-reality headset in support of the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, Onramp, Sept. 2, 2020, at Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Lt. Col. James Forrest operates a virtual-reality headset in support of the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, Onramp, Sept. 2, 2020, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez

The Air Force’s ‘Connect Everything’ Project Just Had a Big Success

The simulated cruise missile intercept harnessed widely dispersed systems — all supervised by tablets in a flight-line hangar.

The Air Force’s ambitious second demonstration of its network-everything effort linked sensors, satellites, and a big experimental projectile to blow up a simulated cruise missile. But the star of the show, service officials said, was the data collecting and transferring that went on behind the pyrotechnics.

Some participants gathered for the Sept. 2 experiment in a conference room at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. “They’re getting to see all the different combatant commanders all coordinating inside one common operating picture that is living on a cloud,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics said in a statement. 

Then they were herded onto buses and taken out to a hangar on the flight line.

“We put a bunch of devices in their hands and, after they came up, the exact same command and control, the exact same toolset, with the exact same access, all of the power that they had in the command center was now in their hands as a tablet,” Roper said. “They could do command and control anywhere. We’ve never done that before.”

That entailed giving commanders access to both classified and unclassified information together on one device, moving information that was once only available in a command center to a thin, handheld computer, he said. 

With a fuller picture of the incoming threat and a higher confidence provided by AI analysis of the incoming data, the commanders successfully tested a hypervelocity gun, which uses a projectile that can be shot out of the Army’s 55mm howitzers or the 5-inch guns aboard Navy destroyers. 

“Hypervelocity gun weapons systems are precisely the very mobile, scalable, high-density defense with a low-cost per kill that can help us here in the homeland or could help defend a base and a forward operating location far from home against a similar threat,” said Roper.

All this made this second demonstration of the Advanced Battle Management System more ambitious than the first, which was staged last December to show that the Air Force’s fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 could better share data.

This second experiment brought in U.S. Space Command, Northern Command, and Strategic Command to test whether different sensors could quickly collect data on an incoming cruise missile, store that data centrally, run artificial intelligence or machine learning on it, and then send it for decision and action to commanders in headquarters and in the field. 

Unlike the first experiment, the second occurred in an environment where a near-peer adversary like China or Russia was relentlessly hitting U.S. satellite communications and sensors. 

“We simulated an adversary aggressively and kinetically attacking in the space domain and so our focus really was on taking Space Force systems and integrating them with other services to provide a Joint common operating picture,” an Air Force spokesperson told Defense One in an email. 

A Northrop Grumman target drone played the part of the cruise missile. 

“Obviously, cruise missile timelines are very stressing so you’d like to have your tool box working quickly. But the goal is to be adaptable so we can push software quickly against evolving threats,” Adil Karim, the chief engineer of architecture initiatives at the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, said in an AFCEA event on Thursday. 

The sensors transferred data on the incoming threat to CloudONE, the Air Force’s boutique Amazon- and Microsoft-powered cloud. From there, it went to a variety of devices, including PC tablets in commanders’ hands. 

“The ability to take in information in a timely manner, process that data, and then push it out to decision-makers and warfighters is crucial to competing and defeating a peer adversary.  And this is being done at machine speeds, so not hours and days of pouring through PowerPoint briefs…We witnessed AI and machine learning digesting information and providing a higher degree of confidence to decision makers on how to defeat threats,” said the spokesperson 

A lot of different pieces go into collecting, automatically analyzing, and then distributing that data including a cellular or satellite, mobile adhoc network, or MANET, provided by Persistent Systems; cruise missile defense sentry towers from Anduril that autonomously fuse onboard radar and optical sensor feeds, and Anduril’s Lattice system, which the company describes as “an open and extensible software platform that automates sensor fusion, network management, and distributed command and control.”

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But the most important technology on display during the demonstration was the CloudONE system, Roper said.

“The star of the show was the data that enabled its kill chain to take effect…enabled by data going into a cloud, being transported over 4G and 5G communications at machine speeds to culminate in a kill chain that took seconds, not minutes or hours to complete,” he said.

ABMS is the Air Force’s contribution to the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, an effort to fully link the devices, sensors, weapons, and service members of the military together in a sort of fully functioning digital battle web, to better defeat high-tech adversaries such as Russia and China.