While the U.S. Air Force has had advanced information capabilities on fifth generation Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 and F-35 fighters and the sensor-shooter MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft systems by General Atomics, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) is to bring that capability to a new level.

For the last three years, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has spoken of the need for the service to move beyond a platform-centric orientation to a network-centric orientation, of the need to focus not on “the trucks,” but “the highway.”

“We kind of have the two lane road model that the MQ-1 and the MQ-9 are on right now,” Brig. Gen. David Harris, director of Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) and the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, said during a July 8 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual discussion. “We want to turn that into the Autobahn. We want to turn it into a really networked highway that’s resilient.”

The ABMS could direct autonomous and other assets, which could change routes rapidly on the fly because of obstacles or threats, if needed.

“We learned a lot by having a man in the loop with the MQ-1 and the MQ-9,” Harris said. “Where we want to be in the future is having a man on the loop and allow the machines to do what machines do best, rapidly process volumes of information and calculate options, and, if needed, operate autonomously.”

The Air Force recently chose 18 more companies to compete in ABMS, selections that bring the total number of participating firms to 46.

On May 29, the Air Force awarded 28 companies indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts with award ceilings of up to $950 million for Joint All-Domain Command-and Control (JADC2).

The Air Force has requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over five years, including $302.3 million in fiscal 2021.

ABMS, which the Air Force describes as the air and space “military Internet of Things,” is part of JADC2, an effort to build a cross-service digital architecture for multi-domain operations.

The IDIQ contract is divided into seven ABMS product categories: digital architecture, engineering and concepts; sensor integration; all-domain data; all-domain secure processing; all-domain connectivity; all-domain applications; and effects integration. The minimum award for each vendor is $1,000.

In response to a question during the Mitchell Institute virtual event on July 8, Harris listed several challenges with ABMS, including “the trade-offs that need to be made as we go forward by keeping the operators, software designers, and engineers together and what trade-offs do you make and what environment are you going to employ it in.”

Another challenge associated with ABMS “is the messaging on exactly what is ABMS and how does it fit, how does it nest, and getting that message right with OSD and with Congress,” Harris said. “I think internally we can see the value of it. We know how it’s going to be used. We continue working this capability, and quite frankly, the utility in it is immense, but making sure that we actually wrap this in the right packaging and send it with the right narrative higher is probably the biggest challenge right now.”

“When it comes to some of the other capabilities, like the sensors, that kind of nest into it, I don’t really see that too much as a challenge because I think it is so open that you could have a platform, a person, a myriad of things that are tied into the ABMS family of systems and still have it operate effectively,” Harris said. “But I think, just by definition, that digital environment that ABMS is, keeping it secure, keeping it accessible to those that need it, and keeping it denied from those that we don’t want [to have] it is a challenge as well.”

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are proposing some restrictions on ABMS. The HASC version of the Fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, H. 6395, provides $216.8 million, $85.5 million less than requested by the Air Force. The House bill would continue an ongoing moratorium on retiring the Air Force’s E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft by Northrop Grumman [NOC] until a comparable capability is identified and available.

HASC would also cap spending on ABMS to 50 percent until the committee receives assurance that the Air Force will not retire the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, or that any replacement aircraft would be cheaper to operate; or a justification of the increased cost of an RQ-4 replacement; or certification from Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the chairman of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), that any new platform to replace the Global Hawk would result in equal or greater capability for combatant commanders.

The SASC version of the Fiscal 2021 NDAA, S. 4049, authorizes the Air Force’s full request of $302.3 million for ABMS in fiscal 2021 but requires Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett to develop an analysis on the applicability of ABMS to the broader JADC2 efforts and requires the JROC to produce JADC2 requirements that the Air Force will meet.

SASC report language on the bill said that the committee “remains concerned regarding the progress of the ABMS effort and the speed at which the ground moving target indicator capability of the E-8 is being replaced.”

“Therefore, the committee recommends a provision that would require the Secretary of the Air Force to develop an analysis of current ground moving target indicator requirements across the combatant commands and the capability that the ABMS will require when fielded,” according to the report.

SASC also wants Barrett to submit an ABMS “bridge report” to the congressional defense committees by Jan. 1 to lay out a plan to improve Link 16 and its resilience “or create an alternative solution in terms of increased capacity, improved resilience, and techniques to reduce probability of detection.”

Last year, the Air Force established the Chief Architect Office, led by Preston Dunlap, to lead the ABMS effort. Last December, the Air Force participated in an “onramp” exercise for ABMS involving U.S. Northern Command.

The Air Force said that it has scheduled the next ABMS onramp at the end of August–an exercise that will respond to a simulated attack on U.S. space assets and that will involve three combatant commands: U.S. Space Command, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Strategic Command.