U.S. Air Force Defines Radical Vision For Command And Control

aviation graphic
ABMS illustration
Credit: Colin Throm/AW&ST

The U.S. Air Force has released the full, sweeping vision for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a two-year-old concept that proposes to disrupt modern norms for the service’s command-and-control doctrine, military acquisition policy and industrial participation.

The newly released ABMS architecture defines not a traditional program of record but 28 new “product lines” divided into six major components. The implementation strategy is not focused around traditional acquisition milestones measured in years, but rather development “sprints” fielding morsels of new capabilities every four months. The rights for much of the technology, including a new radar, communication gateway and software-defined radio, are claimed not by an industrial supplier, but by the Air Force itself.

  • USAF adopts lead systems integrator-like model
  • ABMS architecture built on government ownership

The release of the strategy on Jan. 21 comes three weeks before the Air Force plans to release a budget plan that would shift $9 billion over the next five years for a “Connect the Joint Force” initiative. The proposed funding would come from retiring certain capabilities, including aircraft fleets, within the next five years, with a clear implication: The Air Force is willing, if Congress approves, to trade some capability now to obtain the ABMS over time.

“I think of it as we’re finally building the ‘Internet of Things’ inside the military, something that is very overdue,” says Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, explaining the ABMS to journalists during the unveiling of the architecture in the Pentagon.

The scale of the project’s ambition has evolved since the ABMS was first proposed in 2018. Air Force leaders unveiled the concept two years ago as a replacement for the airborne Battle Management and Command and Control (BMC2) suite on the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars fleet. By September 2018, Roper first suggested the same technology could be applied to replace the aging fleet of Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joints and, sometime in the 2030s, the Boeing E-3C Airborne Warning and Control System.

Those aims remain intact, but the revealed architecture clarifies that the goals of the ABMS are far broader. If the system is fully realized, the Air Force will create a “combat cloud” on a mobile ad hoc network, transposing the Internet of Things model from civilian technology to the battlefield.


As a result, the nearly four-decade-old concept of a centralized command-and-control center—either ground-based or airborne—would be swept away by a future, decentralized digital network. Using computer processors and software algorithms instead of humans, machines would identify targets from sensor data, select the weapons and platforms to prosecute the target automatically, and finally notify the human operator when—or, crucially, whether—to pull the trigger.

Roper compares the ABMS’ effect on command and control to commercial services on a smartphone, such as the Waze app for drivers navigating traffic. Waze is not driven by a human staff monitoring and reporting traffic hazards, who then review each request for directions and customize a recommended route. Instead, Waze harvests traffic and hazard data from its users, while algorithms mine that information to respond to user requests for services. The Air Force’s command-and-control system is constructed around the human staff model, but Roper wants to move the entire enterprise to the Waze approach.

“If it didn’t exist in the world around us, you’d probably say it was impossible,” Roper says, “but it does [exist].”

The challenge for the Air Force is to defend and, if successful, execute that vision for the ABMS. The Air Force needs to secure the support of the other armed services, whose participation is vital to extracting the benefits of such a system. Moreover, the Air Force needs to sell the concept to Congress, despite a system that lacks obvious employment connections to specific legislative districts, such as future factory sites and operational bases. Roper acknowledges the problem of building support for an architecture, rather than a platform, such as a new fighter, bomber or ship.

“Those are easy things to sell in this town. You can count them,” he says. “But the internet is not something that’s easy to count or quantify, even though we’re all very aware of its power.”

The Air Force has briefed congressional defense committee staffs on the ABMS concept, but some remain skeptical. A Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the ABMS program doubts that other services will support the Air Force’s vision. The ABMS model also appears unlikely to be embraced by industry, the staffer says. A key point of Roper’s plan requires companies to cede some intellectual property rights on key elements of the ABMS architecture to the Air Force.

But the Air Force is not waiting. Development of the ABMS started last year, even before an analysis of alternatives is completed. In December, the service staged the first demonstration of four new capabilities: transmitting data on a low-probability of intercept link via a gateway between stealthy Air Force and nonstealthy Navy fighters; connecting a C-130 to the SpaceX Starlink satellite constellation; demonstrating a cloud-based, command-and-control network up to a “secret” classification level; and setting up an unclassified common operational picture display at a remote command center inside a tent.

As the second in the planned series of triannual events, the Air Force plans to stage the next ABMS demonstration in April, this time involving U.S. Space Force, Strategic Command and Northern Command.

Roper, an Oxford-trained physicist, has little patience for the military’s traditional development process, although he has made exceptions for complex, hardware-driven programs, such as the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. For most other programs, Roper wants to trickle out new features at Silicon Valley-speed. A common refrain by military acquisition reformers for decades has been to emphasize delivering an incomplete, “80% solution” sooner than waiting for a system that meets each of sometimes hundreds of detailed requirements. However, for Roper the timeline for delivering even an 80% solution in certain cases is far too long.

“[We should] covet the 10-15% solutions that take the next step forward,” Roper said. “Because the learning in that step is so valuable to keep the velocity.”

To execute the ABMS vision, Roper appointed Preston Dunlap last year as the lead architect. Unlike a traditional program executive officer (PEO), the architect is a role introduced to the Air Force by Roper, who previously in his career served as the chief architect for the Missile Defense Agency. The six components and 28 production lines for the ABMS are spread across multiple program offices, rather than consolidated under a single PEO. Thus, the role of the architect is to define the vision and then shape acquisition schedules as the various technologies reach maturity.

Under Dunlap’s architecture, the ABMS is built around six components: new sensors feeding databases in a cloud-based computing environment using software-defined radios, with new apps fusing the data into a common operational picture and integrated effects allowing cruise missiles, for example, to automatically retask sensors on other platforms during flight. Among the 28 product lines, the Air Force proposes to own the rights to the radar, software-defined radio and communications gateway.

The Air Force’s role resembles the lead systems integrator (LSI) model used for a series of largely failed acquisition programs 15-20 years ago, including the Army’s Future Combat System and Coast Guard’s Deepwater. In this case, however, the LSI is the Air Force, not an industrial supplier. Such an approach is not unprecedented. The Navy is using a similar model to manage the MQ-25A program, with Boeing selected as a subcontractor to deliver the air vehicle and Naval Air Systems Command providing the ground station and integrating both on an aircraft carrier.

The gateway used in the first ABMS demonstration in December offers an example, Roper says.

“We took a radio system that was actually built in concert with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to be able to deal with both platforms with the waveforms, and then a Honeywell antenna was able to speak across the frequencies associated with both radio systems,” Roper said. “So we got those three primary vendors working together underneath our government leadership.”

—With Lee Hudson

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


Silicon Valley disruption as a model for defense contractors.

So, now they are going to leave F-35s randomly on the sidewalks like dockless scooters.
To clarify a bit, when you look at most Silicon Valley successes, it is a combination of ignoring laws and regulations, and creating legal fictions to ensure their employees are serfs.

It's not just Instacart, Door Dash, Uber and Lyft. It's the dockless scooter companies making cities unwalkable, it's Amazon's conscious sales of dangerous fakes and abuse of its employees, Facebook's continuous lying about privacy, Twitter's sh%$ show, PayPal's abuse of its customers, etc.

Who knew that view of the future in William Gibson's stories would be so wildly optimistic as compared to the reality that we face?