Military

Toward a War With Fewer Phone Calls




A recent Air Force test linking up fighter jet computers means people can focus on information assessing, not just sharing.


The biggest difference between the way the United States wages war in next decade versus the last may be that there’s a lot more action and a lot fewer phone calls. That’s the hope of the Air Force, which recently connected the computers of an F-22 to an F-35 in a new test that one senior official says demonstrates how they can share data with each other without humans, so that military personnel are freer to spend their time doing something more valuable: assess data and make decisions quicker. 

It’s part of a plan to digitally stitch together virtually everything on the battlefield and get data between people and platforms much faster via massive interconnected digital architecture called the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS.

William Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters on Tuesday that while the previously-announced December test with U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, only transferred a small amount of data between the two fifth-generation fighters, it marked a successful turning point in what will be a multi-year transformation.  The goal: data will move seamlessly between jets, drones, ships and soldiers in a matter of seconds or less, where today such transfers take far longer.

“One of the things that [NORTHCOM Commander Gen. Terrence John O’Shaughnessy] did that was a real eye-opener for me in this NORTHCOM example is went through… the sequence of phone calls that have to happen today for decisions; so many people in between information, moving between different nodes in the decision chain,” said Roper. “The idea with the advanced battle management system is that the people are no-longer the glue. The information flows everywhere all at once and the people are the assessors, the analyzers, the feedback providers that help the analytics doing the pushing get better and better.”

The Air Force hopes to start running similar tests every four months. The next one, scheduled for April, will incorporate the experimental Skyborg drone as well as elements from U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM.

That’s a very fast timescale for experimentation, at least traditionally. But the point of the effort is really to create new interlinks between weapons, vehicles, or nodes that already exist.

Creating those interlinks is a lot more difficult than just writing kluge code. Those various jets, computers, radios, and such weren’t designed to talk to each other. In fact, the F-22 and the F-35 use two different tactical datalink languages.  In the case of the gateway, Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap, said, “We took a radio system that was built in concert with Northrop Grumman and then Lockheed Martin to be able to deal with both platforms and both waveforms and then a Honeywell antenna that was able to speak across the frequency of both radio systems.”

The test also showed that they could incorporate satellite data from a commercial low-earth orbit satellite (Starlink from SpaceX) into an AC-130 plane. It used the Air Force’s CloudOne (a hybrid AWS and Microsoft cloud) for battle management, and command and control. 

The Air Force envisions the Advanced Battle Management System having six distinct categories of products (and 28 different specific product lines) as represented by this list. They include everything from next-generation software-defined radio, mesh networks, secure datalinks and cloud capability to artificially intelligent software that can figure out what data analysts and operators need to see and the best way to get it to the right destination.

The latter is key to fighting faster and getting ahead of the adversary’s decision-making cycle, said Roper.

“In the case of a cruise missile, you can imagine that being the type of threat that computer vision could nail very well. It’s very specific. It’s a thin, narrow threat, flying at speeds that something wouldn’t fly at in any commercial domestic or use case. Computer vision should nail that that’s a cruise missile with a very high degree of accuracy. Until that digital backbone is there, we’re going to be asking people to figure it out by making phone calls,” he said.

The end result will be much faster and more accurate operations without lots of new pieces of expensive hardware. Roper said that the appetite among operators and senior leaders was robust. “We could not have a bigger push from the operators. [Senior leaders have determined that] the things between systems are now more important than the systems themselves, just like the thing behind your smartphone is really more important than the phone you carry.”

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