A new government watchdog report questions the Air Force’s ability to achieve one of its most ambitious projects to build a network of current and future systems into the “Military Internet of Things,” citing a lack of business case and missing elements for cost, integration and functionality.
The service introduced the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) concept in 2017 as it proposed canceling a planned recapitalization program for its aging Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. ABMS would instead be a “system of systems” network employing various platforms to perform airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and battlefield command-and-control missions, and replace traditional networking aircraft such as JSTARS or the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
But in the three years since, the Air Force has yet to provide key elements of a typical program business case, even as it has received funds from Congress and has begun initial “technology demonstrations,” said the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in an April 16 report.
“The Air Force has started to execute ABMS development efforts without clearly defined decision-making authorities that have been communicated to the offices supporting those efforts,” the report said. “The absence of these defined authorities may hinder management’s ability to execute and assess ABMS development across multiple organizations within the Air Force.”
The GAO includes four recommendations for the Air Force in its report, which was required by Congress under a provision in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
The recommendations include developing a plan to attain mature technologies when needed for each development area; preparing a cost estimate that is developed “in accordance with cost estimating leading practices,” to include regularly updating the estimate to reflect ABMS changes and actual costs, and update Congress quarterly; formalizing and documenting Air Force acquisition authority and decision-making responsibilities related to ABMS; and preparing a regularly updated affordability analysis. The Defense Department concurred with all four recommendations.
Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper has been spearheading the ABMS charge, and in 2019 he hired Preston Dunlap away from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to become the first ABMS architect. The program’s goal has always been less traditional than other Air Force developmental efforts, with plans to encourage innovation with smaller dollar contract awards spread out over regularly occurring technology sprints. The first such sprint took place in December 2019; the second was planned for April but has been postponed to June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thus, the Air Force did not designate ABMS as a single major defense acquisition program and did not develop a traditional buying strategy. “This tailored acquisition plan does not include key information such as the overall planned capabilities and estimated cost and schedule for ABMS,” GAO said.
Moreover, it is unclear whether Dunlap or other Air Force officials in separate program offices maintain execution authority to direct assets or efforts that may support ABMS, but technically reside in other program offices, the report added. “For example, the PEO for Space is currently executing a data integration project, which aligns with the [ABMS] development area. Although some ABMS funds have been obligated for this project, there is no documentation to support that the Chief Architect will be able to direct the PEO to change the project objectives or timeline to align with ABMS requirements once they are defined.”
The report warned that without more concrete business plans, ABMS may suffer similarly to past U.S. military efforts that have been canceled, such as the Army’s Future Combat System, the Joint Tactical Radio System and the Transformational Satellite Communications System.
“GAO’s previous work has shown that weapon systems without a sound business case are at greater risk for schedule delays, cost growth, and integration issues,” GAO said.