Two U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft, assigned to the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, fly in formation over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in January.

Two U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft, assigned to the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, fly in formation over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in January. Senior Airman Brandon Cribelar / U.S. Air Force

What’s Wrong With the Air Force’s ‘Connect Everything’ Project

In a new report, GAO watchdogs say officials can’t say how much it costs or if it’ll even work

In a sharply critical report, a government watchdog has slammed the Air Force’s far-reaching plan to connect sensors on fighters, drones, ships and weapons into a single cloud-based network. According to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, no one knows how much the thing will cost, how well it will integrate with other services, or if it will even work. 

 Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein last year directed billions of dollars to be shifted toward networking its weapons. A central element of that effort is the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS — billed as the backbone of a fully-connected military able to fight and win with ultra-fast data and decision making. To do so, the Air Force planners have promised a t more modern, less bureaucratic approach to acquiring tech, with far fewer pre-written requirements. 

But that effort is missing some key things to bring it to life, like a cost estimate and schedule, an analysis of how much it will cost to sustain, and a plan to buy mature technologies and make sure they work, GAO said, in a report out Thursday.

It’s an unsurprising criticism for some defense contractors trying to give the Air Force what it wants. “There is a lack of knowing most of what to build, what the metics, are, what the data ought to be, how to do inter-service interoperability, and even what success looks like,” said one contractor who is directly familiar with the Air Force’s ABMS project effort, but who was not authorized to speak on the record. 

The program is intended to produce a system of systems, a network of sensors on jets, drones, satellites, etc. all linked together. The service intends for that system to replace older ones carried aboard two types of legacy aircraft, the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System or JSTARS. Those radar and command-and-control planes are seen as vulnerable targets against an enemy with advanced anti-aircraft defenses, like Russia and China. According to GAO, the Air Force already has received $172 million and requested another $302 million for the idea in fiscal 2021. 

Because so much of the technology needed to make ABMS work is software related, the Air Force took an unconventional approach to buying tech for the project by running demonstrations and awarding smaller contracts in quick four- to six-month cycles, under a chief architect. “The goal of breaking up development into smaller increments is to increase innovation by requiring multiple contractors — including those that may not usually engage with DOD — to compete for contracts more frequently,” GAO notes. The hope is that this approach will let the Air Force buy products faster and not lock them into a contract with one supplier. 

While that may be a good idea, GAO says its unclear which Air Force officials, including the chief architect, know what authorities they have to award contracts and direct programs. “Unless addressed, the unclear decision-making authorities will hinder the Air Force’s ability to effectively execute and assess ABMS development across multiple organizations,” they say, in the report.

GAO says that because Air Force officials last year decided not to designate ABMS as a single “major defense acquisition program,” in favor of buying up smaller systems, the service did not produce a buying strategy for the massive project. Air Force officials initially told GAO that the move exempted them from having to file detailed acquisition plans the watchdog sought. Last month, after GAO sent the Pentagon a copy of its findings, Air Force officials sent back a draft acquisition plan, but not a strategy. “This tailored acquisition plan does not include key information such as the overall planned capabilities and estimated cost and schedule for ABMS,” GAO officials write, in the report.

ABMS is missing a lot of puzzle pieces, according to the contractor who spoke to Defense One. For one, the Air Force has written no hard requirements for what technology it may need. But DOD does require a plan for human systems integration, as in, a plan for how humans will actually interact with all this stuff, under its 5000.02 rule. That, too, will prevent the Air Force from fully understanding how much ABMS will ultimately cost.

Without more concrete plans, budget projections, and clearer authorities, GAO warns, the entire program might go the way of other failed modernization efforts like Army’s Future Combat System, abandoned in 2011, the Joint Tactical Radio System that failed to live up to what the program promised, and the Transformational Satellite Communications System, cancelled in 2009 because the tech wasn’t mature enough to meet the vision. 

“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.”

The Air Force’s plan perhaps most closely resembles the Theater Battle Management Core System, or TBMCS, a project of the late 1990s and early 2000s to create software to be used across the services (specifically the air wings of the services) for mission planning and deconfliction. TBMCS is in use today, but it was a difficult path marked by costly and avoidable setbacks. 

Josiah R. Collens, Jr., from MITRE, described those challenges in 2007, “The requirements process… was profoundly flawed from the start. The acquisition community had a utopian vision of a single modern, integrated, joint [communications] system, but had no operator requirements to support it and no [concept of operations] that described how the system would work as a single integrated capability,” he said. “The strategy for developing and fielding TBMCS capabilities was predicated on evolutionary acquisition, but spiral development does not obviate the need for a rigorous and disciplined requirements process.”

Thursday’s GAO report suggests that ABMS is repeating those mistakes

In a letter to GAO responding to the findings, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Kevin M. Fahey said the department concurred with all four of GAO’s recommendations. Defense One has reached out to the Air Force for comment.