Q&A: Integrating Everything (Image Credit: airandspaceforces)
Q: Operationally focused ABMS is one of Secretary Kendall’s seven Operational Imperatives. What does the ABMS structure look like today?
A: We’ve had about nine months now, working through the combined [Advanced Battle Management System, Rapid Capabilities Office, and Chief Architect of the Air & Space Forces] teams under one roof, getting, after a very singular focus: our ability to do Command, Control, and Communications across the Air and the Space Forces. … One of the things that we’ve learned is that you’ve got to be absolutely, intensely focused on the operational problem that you’re trying to solve. If you’re not … you’ll end up in a boil-the-ocean scenario where you’re trying to do everything all at once. And history is replete with the examples of great programmatic carcasses that have littered the side of the road on attempts to do just that. We’re very diligent about staying focused on the operational problem. … [There is] lots of dialogue going on with Air Combat Command, Air Force Global Strike Command, USAFE, PACAF, you name it. That conversation is robust. And as you might imagine, everybody has some pretty strong opinions about what the need and the requirement look like.
Q: Doctrine used to be ‘centralized command and decentralized execution.’ Now it’s ‘centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.’ You’re developing the Department of the Air Force Battle Network. What exactly is that?
A: One of the things that we talked through when we were standing up nine months ago was the scope and scale of the system-of-systems problem we are trying to get after: … We needed a label that was distinct from ABMS [which], depending on the time frame you’re talking about, can be one of five different things. And making a six thing, also labeled ABMS, was going to be a challenge. So we [came up with] the label “DAF Battle Network” … as a way to better articulate the scope [of the challenge]. … The Battle Network, as we’re defining it, is composed of everything from the right sensors that build situational awareness—what’s going on in the battlespace, brings your data in, gives you that situational awareness, and allows you to start making operational decisions about where you need to go and when—and then it gives you the ability to direct the force, what needs to be in those particular places and locations and with what capability. There are lots of individual parts and pieces that make up that end-to-end chain. … If you don’t have the perspective where the architecture requirements must allow you to rapidly integrate new capability quickly and at low switching costs, you will end up with an inability to pivot to [newer technology]. … You have to create a system at an architectural level that emphasizes the architecture’s abilities over the individual performance specs of the things that are in that architecture. Because, however good you think you are today, somebody else is going to be better in another 12, 18, 24, 36 months. And if you can’t rapidly pull that in and integrate it, you’re going to lose.
Q: How does space play into all of this?
A: It’s impossible to overstate how central a role space plays in this whole conversation, whether you’re talking about the sensors, whether you’re talking about comms, space is going to play an extended role. I am absolutely blessed to have a deputy who has decades of space experience and understands that business inside and out. … I can’t do an air mission without space, I can’t do a maritime mission without space, I can’t do a land mission without space. So I have space embedded and integrated into everything that we’re doing, and we have had absolutely phenomenal support from Lt. Gen. [Michael Guetlein] and the team out there [at Space Systems Command.]
Q: You’re integrating this great system of systems, and trying to do it in a way that remains open. How are you doing that?
A: A lot of the technologies that we’re talking about integrating are things that are being generated out of the commercial tech base, not internal department R&D—although there’s certainly plenty of that going on as well. What we’re trying to do is find ways to promote more competition, not less, as we’re moving forward. And we’re thinking very deliberately around how we create the conditions for deploying capability continuously. What does that look like? How do you do it? How do we get out of “Big Bang” acquisition, where I spend a decade or better trying to get it all just right before I push it out the door? We’ve got to move to a different model where I am rapidly, iteratively, constantly moving capability forward at a rate that keeps up with how the technology is moving as a whole. … That model is something that we’ve got to go out and prove, quite frankly. We don’t have a ton of experience, historically, making that work. But I think there’s a lot of excellent evidence out there, both commercially and bright spots around the department, where they’ve taken that agile Product Manager perspective and have made it work.
Q: A distinct U.S. advantage is its close ties to allies and partners. How do they fit into what you’re doing?
A: We’re stronger in part because of our heterogeneity, but it also complicates our ability to actually get everybody moving in the same direction at the same time. So I’ll offer a couple of thoughts: One, our current network-centric view of security is killing us. Our ability to push data to the places and the people that need to get it right now is confined by whether or not you’re on a network that allows me to talk to you. My ability to scale, from an ABMS perspective, is significantly constrained by that fact. …. Until I get to a good identity management system that’s coupled in with a good zero-trust capability that allows me to start to get to network-agnostic data flows, our ability to integrate across services and with partners is going to continue to be a challenge. …
Our experience today is that if you bring that very focused operational problem into the bureaucracy side of this, and you tie what you’re asking a bureaucracy to do back to the operational outcome, you can actually generate some pretty significant speed out of the bureaucracy—especially if you can articulate in a way that says, ‘No, wait, you don’t understand: if we don’t get to this, the following operational outcomes aren’t going to happen.’ And then all of a sudden, it’s not an esoteric conversation about a widget, it’s, ‘Hey, if this doesn’t happen, these are the operational impacts.’ … I’m not waiting around for the silver bullet. We’re strong advocates of the George Patton [theory that]: “A good plan today, violently executed is a better than a perfect one next week.” So we have violent execution conversations on a regular basis.
Q: We’re already seeing legacy platforms such as JSTARS retired. What are you looking at in terms of near-term operational capabilities to fill those gaps—or is your project more of a long-term, five-year, 10-year type of thing?
A: The Secretary hasn’t give me the benefit of picking one or the other. He said we’ve got to do both. For those of you who have heard him talk about this, you’ve probably heard the example of the JADC2 Palace. So here’s how it goes: There was a vision around how joint all-domain command and control would ultimately be able to provide a joint coalition capability from a C2 perspective. Its challenge is the fact that we didn’t actually have a blueprint for what that JADC2 Palace would look like. So everybody got busy out there making bricks with regards to the programs that we’re all trying to implement and make happen.
But because we didn’t have that overarching blueprint, whether the brick actually fit into the building or not was an open question. So what we’re actively pursuing right now is what he would call a modest house. We don’t need a palace, but we need a house with a roof on it that will actually get the job done. And so the first job that he gave me was to build a blueprint for what that DAF house would look like when it comes to our C2 modernization. … The second piece was, ‘Hey, I need you to go bake the bricks around what goes into building that house.’ So if a brick doesn’t fit the design, you need to come back and tell me, ‘Hey, we need to quit working on that, and shift the effort to something else that’s actually going to get us where we need to go.’
Q: How do these initiatives fit in with what the other services are doing?
A: We’re heavily engaged on multiple fronts, and with both sister services and with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Joint Staff. … We are engaged directly with the Navy, and their Project Overmatch. … We’re at a point now with the Navy, where we can seamlessly move apps that have been developed on the air and space side over to the Navy side of it, and vice versa. The rather rudimentary idea that we can actually share applications across services is a nut that we hadn’t cracked until relatively recently. And that happened this past spring. So that’s one example. We’re also heavily engaged with the Navy on how we build the technical architecture that will allow Navy airplanes and Air Force airplanes, and space satellites to actually do the communications problem. … On the OSD side, we are heavily engaged in conversations with the [Chief Data Officer] … around data, data fabric, if you’re looking at it from a data-centric view. And we’re also very much engaged with the acquisition and sustainment side of it under Dr. [William] LaPlante [undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment] when it comes to programmatic integration between air, space, maritime, and army-related efforts and how those get converged programmatically.
Q: So it’s all enormously complex and the scope is huge. How affordable is all of this?
A: Affordability is going to be a huge deal. Maybe the best way to think about it is the difference between what I’ll call first-mover advantage architecture versus fast-following architecture. First-mover advantage architecture, think Soviet-era, where you have very large barriers to entry, it took a nation-state worth of investment in order to move a technology forward, and technology had a trajectory that you could predict pretty well to know where it was going to be in 10 years. We built our entire system around being able to do that problem. In a lot of ways, we’re still doing that problem. With a fast-following architecture, you’ve given up on predicting where the technology is going, and you’re building an architecture that allows you to very rapidly integrate that technology at low-switching costs. If you don’t get the low switching cost piece, right, you’ll bankrupt yourself trying to integrate new technology. The architecture actually has to be designed to do that problem. If it doesn’t, or it doesn’t do it well, we either get behind the competition with regards to their ability to do it, or we bankrupt ourselves.
Q: Large-scale integration problems have historically stumped the Pentagon. What’s different this time?
A: One, phenomenal senior leadership support. I get to go see the Secretary every 90 days and give them an update on what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s surprising how many things start working. Second, the people. I have an absolutely amazing team of people working with me, the best I’ve seen. From my perspective, we don’t have a talent problem. I’ve got a bunch of unicorns in the stable. Do we need a few more? Yes, so if you know any, send them my way—I’m hiring. But between the senior leadership prioritization on this mission set, and the brain trust that we have operating … we’re at a unique juncture in history. I’ve never seen as much alignment in the past 30 years that I’ve seen here [among the services]. So that gives me huge hope that we’re actually going to figure this thing out. … When it comes to the size and the scope and the importance of the mission, the caliber of the people working for me, everybody’s moving in a positive direction. And so if you’re Red, you should not sleep well.