U.S. Air Force refueling tankers are to play a signficant role in the service’s fielding of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).

“We have already selected ABMS Release 1, which is a subset of capabilities that make a mini Internet that gets data from clouds forward to the tactical edge, our fighters, via mobility gateways and analytics that will be fielded on our tanker fleet,” Air Force Acquisition Chief Will Roper told the Air Force Association Doolittle Forum on Dec. 14. “It’s a microcosm of the Internet where the cloud is there. The analytics are there, The tanker is playing the role of a cell tower. It’s routing data back and forth between the cloud and users, and the users are the fighters that are inside of that ‘area denial’/communication denial bubble but are not denied talking with the tanker that’s standing just outside of harm’s way.”

The Air Force fleet of tankers consists of more than 400 aging Boeing [BA] KC-135s and KC-10s and several dozen KC-46s. The Air Force and Boeing have been negotiating the terms of a contract for Pegasus Combat Capability (PC2) Block I for the company’s KC-46s–a contract which could come in the first quarter of next year and which would provide the tanker with communications upgrades, including radios compatible with DoD’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and NATO’s Second Generation Anti Jam Tactical UHF Radio (SATURN) communications networks.

Under PC2, Air Mobility Command (AMC) is envisioning a two- to four-year successive block upgrade program for the KC-46 to encompass enhanced communications, survivability, and greater autonomy for the refueling system, which has experienced significant problems with its Remote Vision System (RVS).

Roper said on Dec. 14 that commercial technologies championed by start-up companies are key to incorporate in ABMS.

The Air Force, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Space Command held the second test “onramp” of ABMS on Aug. 31-Sept. 3.

The test featured 70 industry teams, 65 government teams from all six military services, 35 military platforms, 30 geographic locations and four national test ranges, in an effort to employ cloud computing and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) to defeat threats to U.S. space systems and counter cruise missile attacks against the U.S. (Defense Daily, Aug. 25).

“In September, we demonstrated what I would say is the first militarized Internet of Things, where cloud-based analytics and AI were able to close a kill chain in a little less than 10 seconds that would have taken minutes to do in the past,” Roper said on Dec. 14. “Those minutes to seconds could be the difference between succeeding or failing on the battlefield.”

ABMS is part of Joint All-Domain Command-and Control (JADC2), a DoD effort to build a cross-service digital architecture for multi-domain operations–in effect, a military Internet of Things with machine-to-machine interfaces. The Air Force has requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over five years, including $302.3 million in fiscal 2021.

Congressional appropriators are concerned with the lack of requirements, an acquisition strategy, and cost estimates for ABMS. Senate appropriators recommended about $208.8 million for ABMS in fiscal 2021–$93.5 million less than the request, while House appropriators recommended a cut of $50 million and cited their uncertainty of the Air Force’s cost estimate of $75 million for three ABMS onramp exercises in fiscal 2021. House appropriators directed the Air Force to limit its use of funds for the onramps to $25 million this fiscal year.

By the end of February, the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) in consultation with Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap is to draft an acquisition strategy for ABMS (Defense Daily, Nov. 24). Roper signed a memorandum on Nov. 23 designating the RCO as the integrating program executive office (PEO) for ABMS.

“What do we need to do to make this real? We need to get ABMS out of research and development and into procurement and operations and sustainment,” Roper said on Dec. 14. “The secret for ABMS in 2021 is getting some dirt on it, meaning when we demonstrate it, it stays in the field. There’s a real program with a real baseline with real warfighters ready to use it day-to-day, not an exceptional event [an on-ramp exercise] that we stood up to prove the technology works. We already know the technology works. We use it every day. This is about showing we can use it on our military systems without having to wait for traditional acquisition timelines.”