JSTARS is a joint development project of the US Air Force and Army which provides a picture of the ground situation equivalent to that of the air situation provided by AWACS. Operating from a stand-off position often in excess of 200 km, it can detect, locate and classify tracks and can target potentially hostile ground movement in all weather. It relays tactical pictures via secure data links to air force command posts, army mobile ground stations and centres of military analysis far from the point of conflict and also functions as battle management, command and control aircraft.
JSTARS was first deployed in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when still in development, and has since been deployed to support peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and during the Kosovo crisis.
Recently, the lawmakers “were recently informed that the Air Force wishes to explore alternate intelligence and surveillance platforms instead of continued pursuit of the recapitalization of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet,” Isakson and Perdue said in a letter sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis. “The Air Force remains in source selection for a follow-on to JSTARS as we continue to evaluate alternative approaches for battlefield command and control that could be more effective in high-threat environments,” Grabowski said in an email to Military.com.
In 2018, the Air Force announced its plans to cancel its JSTARS replacement program and pursue a system-of-systems approach it called Advanced Battle Management System or ABMS. This was partly due to their increasing vulnerability of airborne ISR platforms to sophiticated air defense systems like S-400 and S-500. Flying below 40,000 feet, the JSTARS radar horizon is about 230 miles. That is within the reported range of the Russian S-400 SAM system—and a Boeing 707 has a large radar return. Their strategy is to “hold us off at ranges where we can either no longer perform our mission.” If JSTARS were taken down during a conflict, U.S. troops on the ground would be “blind to enemy activity.”
The National defense strategy directs the military to focus on “contested environments.” That means figuring out how to fight in places that are within the range of Chinese or Russian surface-to-air missiles. The service said it would keep the existing JSTARS until the mid-2020s. Meanwhile, it would investigate how to “network current and new sensors from air, space, land, and sea and fuse the information to create a more comprehensive battle management picture…coupled with an agile, resilient communications architecture.”
The Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) is the U.S. Air Force’s latest effort to create a next-generation command and control (C2) system. ABMS proposes using cloud environments and new communications methods to allow Air Force and Space Force systems to share data
seamlessly using artificial intelligence to enable faster decision-making. In addition amazing capabilities now available from commercial satellites, and an ambitious aim to intelligently network a variety of sensors from all domains.
The Air Force describes ABMS as its effort to create an internet of things, which would allow for
sensors and C2 systems to be disaggregated from one another. This program is the Air Force’s contribution to the DOD’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort focused on modernizing DOD decision-making processes for combat operations
ABMS has some lofty ideals—reaching across services to connect drone swarms with surveillance data from ships, or using satellite data to aim Army missiles, for instance—but is trying to solve real, persistent problems as well. Famously, the F-22 and F-35 can’t share combat information, emblematic of broader technological and cultural silos that keep useful information from service members that would help them plan next steps.
Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)
The U.S. Air Force has started work on a data architecture for its Advanced Battle Management System, the family of platforms that will eventually replace the E-8C JSTARS surveillance planes. The Air Force officials have said it will include a mix of traditional manned aircraft, drones, space-based technologies and data links.
ABMS is the Air Force’s multibillion-dollar vision for a massive network of data-processing software, cloud storage, communications hardware, and other tools to connect the force more efficiently. After about two years of planning in earnest, the service is now bringing in a broad collection of defense contractors and commercial companies to fight for a place on that team. So far, the Air Force has awarded nearly 50 companies seed money as they each look to secure as much as $950 million for their products. Their pitches fall into seven categories: Digital architectures, standards, and concept development; sensor integration; data management; secure processing; connectivity; applications; and integration of platforms and weapons such as smart munitions, attritable aircraft, and electronic warfare.
Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition revealed about the latest Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) “on-ramp” experiment in Oct 2020, which he defined as creating the “internet of military things” to enable joint all-domain command and control. Once fully established, ABMS will help the joint force “fight at machine speed,” retaining decision advantage over adversaries, he said. Case in point: Roper shared video of Army artillery shooting down a cruise missile with coordinates provided by Air Force assets. Solving this previously “wicked hard problem” that could not be solved without machine-to-machine connectivity and decision-making, Roper said, was a “watershed event” that will pay huge dividends for Air Force base defense. He credited the feat to joint efforts between the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which Roper ran before moving to his current post.
Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s tactical technology office, had said there is certainly a possibility of moving that mission to space and doing the control segment somewhere. You would have global coverage as opposed to limited airborne coverage today. “Now we have the communications infrastructure, the ground segment.” “I simply have to plant sub-constellations into the network, the nodes that we want. [Radiofrequency] nodes, or optical sensing nodes,” he said. “I‘ll be able to use the resources of the space internet, the processing and storage. I don’t see why we couldn’t plant a node with a ground moving target indicator…I think we’re smart enough to figure out how to do it now.”
In a keynote speech at Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber conference in Sep 2019, Goldfein described the future as one of “multi-domain operations” where all weapons and military forces receive up-to-the-minute intelligence and are able to share that data, something that ABMS would make possible. It could be described as an intelligent distributed network where data is piped in from sensors located in space, at sea, in the air or on the ground. That information would be instantly analyzed with artificial intelligence tools and shared across the network.
It would be like the “Internet of Things, but applied to military systems,” said Roper. This is the type of technology that will “allow us to be more collaborative,” Roper told reporters at the recent 2019 Air Space & Cyber symposium.
An official from one of the prime contractors for the JSTARS replacement admitted to AIN that the surveillance mission might be performed from space “provided that robust networking is in place.” Networking is the key to the ground-based Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) that the USAF claims can replace the other key JSTARS mission. The service plans to spend $3.4 billion on developing ABMS and the associated Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) network over the next five years.
The buzzwords being used in descriptions of ABMS include “trusted networks,” “disaggregation,” and “intelligent algorithms.” A Lockheed Martin video claims that the company’s investment in artificial intelligence, pattern recognition, and adaptive learning is already mature enough to support MDC2. “A constellation of people working together with a common picture” is the aim.
One of the challenges is how to handle the vast amounts of data available from satellites and the infrastructure required to bring this data to the ground, analyze the data and then transport it to where it’s needed.
ABMS Development Efforts
The Air Force has performed five events to date to demonstrate the new C2 capabilities it hopes to eventually field. In December 2019 the Air Force, in its first ABMS “on-ramp”—the term the Air Force uses to denote a demonstration—showed the ability to transmit data from Army radars and Navy destroyers to both F-22 and F-35 fighter aircraft. This event also demonstrated the Space
Force’s Unified Data Library (UDL), which is a cloud environment combining space-based and ground-based sensors to track satellites.
In September 2020, ABMS performed its second on-ramp. This second on-ramp demonstrated detecting and defeating a simulated cruise missile bound for the United States using hypervelocity weapons as defenses. In addition, ABMS exhibited capabilities to “detect and defeat efforts to disrupt U.S. operations in space.” According to an Air Force press release “70 industry teams and 65 government teams” participated in the event.
The Air Force held a third on-ramp event in late September 2020, in support of exercise Valiant Shield at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. During this event, the Air Force demonstrated using a KC-46 tanker aircraft to perform tactical C2 by relaying data from older, fourth-generation
fighters to newer, fifth-generation aircraft like the F-22.
In May 2021, the Air Force stated that procuring a communications pod for the KC-46 will be the first capability release for the ABMS program. The Air Force said, “In a fight, the tankers will need to be flying near the action anyway, supporting fighters, so using them as a command-and-control system, either as the primary or a resilient backup, just makes sense.”
A fourth on-ramp was held in Europe in February 2021. According to press releases, the Air Force curtailed this event due to budget constraints. This fourth on-ramp linked allied nations including the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom into combined air operations. According
to General Harrigan, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe, this fourth event tested U.S. and allied capabilities to perform long-range strike missions with F-15E aircraft launching AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), while simultaneously utilizing U.S. and allied F-35s for airbase defense missions
Air Force moving Project Maven into Advanced Battle Management System portfolio
The program office for Project Maven — the Air Force’s first major foray into using artificial intelligence to scan drone footage — is being transitioned into the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) portfolio as the service continues positioning more of its traditional backend IT capabilities to support broader warfighting functions.
The Air Force is working to fold Project Maven into its ABMS tech stack to use the program’s AI capabilities to analyze and link data from the vast array of sensors used in battle. ABMS is the technical backbone of the joint force’s concept of Join All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) — a network-of-networks that aims to link “every sensor to every shooter” across air, land, sea, space and cyber.
The Air Force is transitioning Project Maven to align AI-efforts and bring new capabilities to machine-to-machine data sharing, Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Friday. “We are bringing Maven capabilities into the developing tech stack for ABMS.”
ABMS is similar to Maven in that it aims to use AI to improve the coordination of so-called kill chains and remove humans from tedious tasks. The in-development platform, however, focuses more broadly on networking and communications systems across domains to support military operations. The plan is that AI-enabled systems will process raw data collected from battle, turn it into actionable insights and push it to the people in the chain of command who need it.
The Air Force is also funneling many of its other key IT platforms into ABMS development. For instance, Cloud One and Platform One are both now supporting ABMS cloud and enterprise software development needs. Platform One was recently designated as the Pentagon’s first enterprisewide DevSecOps platform with which coders across the services can develop products to meet mission needs. The platform is used, along with cloud services from Cloud One, in other programs across the Air Force.
The department is now full-steam-ahead on using both platforms for the most advanced warfighting system development, Roper said. “There is no distinction between development systems and warfighting systems anymore in IT,” he said. “ABMS and Maven are going to start blurring that line in September.”
Rising capability of commercial satellites
Of course, commercial satellite imagery (CSI) has been available since 1985, when the first SPOT satellite with 10-meter resolution was launched. Now CSI offers panchromatic, color, and infrared still and video imagery at resolutions to 0.3 meters. Everyone can view composites of CSI on Google Earth. Meanwhile, hyperspectral and radar coverage continues to expand. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) is a multi-billion dollar industry of providers, analyzers, and exploiters. One company alone, Esri, boasts more than 350,000 defense and commercial users of its mapping, analytic, and visualization software.
An American CSI provider, Tyvak, has launched multiple microsatellites that it claims provide the “first affordable” visible and radar imaging. It also offers radio frequency and mapping (eg, ELINT) that is particularly suited to the maritime domain.
A similar claim for low-cost provision is made by British company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL). Last year it launched a smallsat named Carbonite 2 that provides 1-meter color imagery and video in a wide (5-sq-km) swathe. The UK Ministry of Defence is a partner in this program. High-resolution video from space could potentially substitute for airborne radar-based ground moving target indication (GMTI).
As the CSI constellations have grown, “revisit rates” to many points on earth are now measured in hours, not days. That clearly has operational defense utility. “High refresh rates could make near-real-time change detection a reality,” a manager from American GEOINT provider Hexagon told the Defense Geospatial Intelligence (DGI) conference in London last year. Capella Space, a Silicon Valley start-up backed by venture capitalists, is planning a constellation of 36 satellites that will offer hourly synthetic aperture radar coverage with one-meter resolution in spotlight mode.
A senior USAF officer with management experience of both classified and unclassified satellite imagery analysis told AIN last year he did not think that space collection could replace airborne collection. “Space, too, is vulnerable to countermeasures,” he said. However, constellations of small satellites are inherently less vulnerable than the few large and expensive reconnaissance satellites that have been the specialty of the U.S. classified world. Another option is reusable space planes, like the Boeing X-37B. They are also more difficult to counter. The X-37B has completed five successful missions, whose purpose remains clouded.
Some of the crucial technologies that will enable ABMS or any similar efforts will come from the world of commercial space and cloud computing. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is pursues a project called CASINO, short for Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations.
CASINO is a spinoff of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program that is attempting to demonstrate the military utility of small satellites in low Earth orbit. SMC has made CASINO one of its signature efforts to show how commercial technology could be used to process and distribute data from large LEO constellations.
Air Force Selects Ball Aerospace, Microsoft to Demonstrate Cloud Processing for LEO Constellations
The Pentagon’s Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit on Sept. 10 awarded a contract of undisclosed value to Ball Aerospace and Microsoft to demonstrate agile cloud processing capabilities in support of the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center’s Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations (CASINO) project.
The demonstration will show how simultaneous, worldwide data streams from large, distributed constellations of small satellites can be processed quickly using Microsoft’s Azure cloud and Ball Aerospace algorithms. Additionally, the demonstration will include a single downlink directly into a Microsoft data center using a Ball Aerospace phased array antenna.
“Essentially this is the ultimate intelligent edge scenario, where massive amounts of data must be processed at the edge, whether that edge is in space or on the ground,” said Tom Keane, Corporate Vice President, Azure Global, Microsoft. “This partnership with Ball Aerospace enables us to bring satellite data to ground and cloud faster than ever, leapfrogging other solutions on the market. Our joint innovation in direct satellite-to-cloud communication and accelerated data processing provides the Department of Defense, including the Air Force, with entirely new capabilities to explore as they continue to advance their mission.”
Microsoft Azure enables innovation with integrated cloud services, data processing and advanced analytics, and an open application platform that provides the building blocks to rapidly develop, deploy and manage intelligent solutions.
Ball Aerospace has more than 30 years of data processing experience, including developing unique and accurate exploitation algorithms for satellite systems. Ball is streamlining the integration of new features into operational systems, bringing essential mission capabilities into operations faster than before using an open architecture approach that eliminates the single-contractor integration bottleneck in traditional software development models. This modern software development practice succeeds by enabling external tool developers to rapidly design and test capabilities in an operations-like environment without risking system security or stability. Ball also has five decades of experience delivering electronically-steered flat panel, or phased array, antenna solutions for military and government customers, with two decades of experience delivering planar phased array terminals.
U.S. Air Force Awards $950 Million for Advanced Battle Management System Development
The U.S. Air Force has awarded development contracts to 28 vendors for its Advanced Battle Management System that could be worth $950 million over five years. The indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts allow for the vendors to compete for individual task orders through May 28, 2025.
The latest development contracts support the maturation, demonstration, and proliferation of Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) capabilities that will feed into the distributed ABMS network. In other words, the program aims to develop an “internet of things” type environment where systems in all domains (air, land, sea, space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum) can connect to disseminate information to personnel.
The 28 vendors included in the contract are: Alion Science and Technology, Apogee Research, World Wide Technology, BAE Systems, Boeing Defense Systems, Borsetta, CACI, Chooch Intelligence Technologies, Collins Aerospace Co, Dell Technologies, Fregata Systems, General Dynamics, Hellebore Consulting Group, Honeywell Aerospace, Immersive Wisdom, L3 Harris, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Palantir, Parsons Government Services, Persistent Systems, Raytheon, Securboration, Silvus Technologies, Simple Sense, Solid State Scientific, Viasat, and Wind Talker Innovations.
In contrast with many major military ventures that stick with the traditional defense industrial base, ABMS is bringing together well-known Silicon Valley names such as big-data firm Palantir Technologies, tiny startups like SimpleSense, and defense mainstays such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. Some are tapped for all seven lines of effort within ABMS, and others are playing in just one category.
The products, with names such as VENOM, UNICORN, and PLASMA, aim to make up the common operating picture that shows the Air Force what’s going on around the world and how to handle it. Those tools can automate and display everything from aircraft tasking orders to target tracking.
PLASMA, or the Platform for Leveraging Analytics for Streaming Multi-Intelligence Awareness, is an analytics platform that lets users set up data-analysis processes without knowing a particular programming language. The tool then automatically crunches and shares that information, according to the company Strategic Mission Elements. The company says it is waiting to hear whether the Air Force is interested in its Visual Explanation and Narration of Models, or VENOM, system. VENOM offers 23 different data visualization widgets to help predict future trends in fields like intelligence.
Canadian-run firm CAE’s U.S. branch is pitching its own modeling prowess with wargame simulation technology, dubbed Dragonfly, that uses AI to present multiple courses of action for the military to consider. “CAE’s system of systems will have a 360-degree compound-eye vision of the world, wired to react rapidly to targets, threats, and events,” the company said. “This development is expanding CAE’s existing synthetic environment expertise into space, allowing users to track and inspect existing satellites as well as use modeling and simulation to generate new satellites, theoretical satellite orbits, conjunctions, breakups, and other interactions.” CAE technology will also let the military game out electromagnetic and cyber operations.
Another participant, Cubic Corp., is offering full-motion video processing and sharing services so users around the globe can act on those images in real time. It also has radio frequency devices and sensors that can get around network jamming and security problems on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Yet others are more concerned with the pathways along which that data travels.
“NETSCOUT will bring their [network traffic analysis] expertise and solutions to the ABMS architecture to allow the Air Force to measure the quality of the services and the networks that will be connected, ” a company spokeswoman said. “The technology we bring is fully developed and currently deployed throughout the DOD.”Some offered their own ideas for how the Pentagon can test its command-and-control vision.
“SAIC proposes an experiment that will pave the way for future requirements such as distributed cluster computing and swarm capabilities,” said Vincent DiFronzo, the company’s senior vice president focused on Air Force and joint DOD commands.
SimpleSense offers tools to connect Air Force security forces with local emergency responders to ensure the military is aware of what’s happening nearby and to react faster—for example, if a burning car is sitting outside a base’s gate, or if a service member’s off-base home is on fire. That same approach to data-sharing can benefit ABMS, SimpleSense CEO Eric Kanagy said. “The companies that succeed in the next decade will be the ones to bridge existing platforms,” he said. “The problem today is not that there’s not enough data—there’s too much, in too many systems and platforms. By connecting isolated sets of data, the data as a whole becomes exponentially more valuable.”
Creating Cross-Domain Kill Webs in Real Time
Two DARPA-developed technologies – a novel decision aid for mission commanders and a rapid software integration tool – played a critical role in the recent Air Force demonstration of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The Adapting Cross-domain Kill-webs (ACK) program and the System-of-systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems (STITCHES) were among a number of technologies employed in the Sep. 2020 ABMS on-ramp demonstration, which involved attacks using live aircraft, ships, air defense batteries, and other assets.
ACK is developing a decision aid for mission commanders to assist them with rapidly identifying and selecting options for tasking – and re-tasking – assets within and across organizational boundaries. Specifically, ACK assists users with selecting sensors, effectors, and support elements across military domains (space, air, land, surface, subsurface, and cyber) that span the different military services to deliver desired effects on targets. Instead of limited, monolithic, pre-defined kill chains, these more disaggregated forces can be used to formulate adaptive “kill webs” based on all of the options available.ACK was used in an air defense scenario during the ABMS demonstration, where an air commander faced incoming aerial threats and needed to quickly decide the best way to counter them.
“The ACK decision aid software analyzed thousands of options to form cross-domain kill-webs and recommended the assets for the kill chain and the best command-and-control ‘play’ to the mission commander,” said Air Force Col. Dan “Animal” Javorsek, ACK program manager. “Once selected, the ACK software sent the ‘play’ to the C2 Incident Management Emergency Response Application (C2IMERA) and the ground-based Composite Tracker and Classifier (CTC) integrated fire control system that used automated messaging and machine-to-machine cuing over Link-16 to scramble fighters and intercept the cruise missiles.”
The machine-to-machine communications to enable this distributed fire control was performed by the STITCHES integration toolchain. STITCHES is a software-only and fully government owned (non-proprietary) toolchain specifically designed to rapidly integrate heterogeneous systems across any domain by auto-generating extremely low latency and high throughput middleware between systems without needing to upgrade hardware or breaking into existing system software. The toolchain does not force a common interface standard; rather it rapidly creates the needed connections based on existing fielded capabilities obviating the need to upgrade in order to interoperate.
“The DoD is acquiring more and more advanced electronic equipment each year which solve problems unique to our mission,” said Lt. Col. Jimmy “Reverend” Jones, SoSITE program manager. “These new systems need to work with systems deployed more than 40 years ago. STITCHES brings force composability directly to the warfighter by allowing data to be shared without system upgrades.” In addition to the ACK and STITCHES technologies, DARPA security and information system staff were able to rapidly accredit and host ACK, STITCHES, and other ABMS software on a secure DARPA network in a matter of days, significantly contributing to the overall demonstration success.
“We were extremely pleased to demonstrate two of many advanced technologies we’re developing under our Mosaic Warfare strategy, which is focused on providing fast, scalable, adaptive joint multi-domain lethality,” said Tim Grayson, director of DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO). “We look forward to continuing to develop and test capabilities that will further enable ABMS.”
Air Force ABMS Refocus: Capabilities And Kit, Not Experiments
The Air Force is rethinking its central initiative to implement All Domain Operations, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), in order to more directly focus on rapidly fielding operational capabilities — rather than on demonstrating innovative tech.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told a jam-packed audience at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference today. “To achieve effective change, we must keep our eye on the ball. For me that means focusing on the fielding of meaningful military capability into the hands of our operational users. It does not mean one or two leave behind, unmaintainable token prototypes that came out of experiments.”
Kendall said that across the board, DoD and the Air Force seem to have “embraced the idea of innovation and the pursuit of innovation, without adequate attention to how innovation should be harnessed to specific operational performance requirements.
“We should not be doing demonstrations and experiments unless we can link them to true operational improvements, unless they move us down the field to lower risk acquisition programs,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, deputy strategy, integration and requirements, told reporters that the ABMS program is focusing for the moment on Capability Release 1 (CR-1), the first set of products to emerge from the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) that is now serving as the acquisition authority for ABMS. CR-1 includes equipping KC-46 tanker jets with new pods that allow them to serve as a kind of flying cell tower between the incompatible radio systems of F-22 and F-35 fighters.
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