Nov. 16, 2020 | By Rachel S. Cohen, Air Force Magazine

Two years after the Air Force canceled its plan to buy a new fleet of airborne battle management planes, senators still aren’t sure the service has its spending priorities straight for the backup option.

The Senate Appropriations Committee became the latest group to question the Advanced Battle Management System in its version of the fiscal 2021 defense spending bill. The Department of the Air Force wants $302.3 million for ABMS in 2021, about double what it received the year before. ABMS aims to share more data between Air Force platforms to give troops a bigger menu of options on the battlefield.

“While the committee continues to support the Air Force’s new approach to command and control, the committee notes that the ABMS requirements and acquisition strategy remain unclear,” lawmakers wrote in the legislation released Nov. 10.

Instead of agreeing to the full request, Senate appropriators are offering $208.8 million to move ABMS ahead with its various demonstrations and seed money for technology development and purchases. That funding has a secondary purpose: paying the Air Force to draw up new reports on how ABMS money is spent.

Senators want the Air Force’s acquisition chief to offer an explanation of the ABMS acquisition strategy as part of the fiscal 2022 budget submission due out early next year. In addition, they call on the Air Force comptroller to ensure the upcoming budget fully funds that plan.

“The committee directs the Secretary of the Air Force to submit a report summarizing all related programs in communications, battle management command and control, and sensors that fall within the ABMS umbrella across the future years defense program,” appropriators said. “The report should reference program element funding lines and clearly link all activities with funding lines in the fiscal year 2022 budget justification documents. It should also clearly articulate all Phase One efforts, including initial operational capability timelines, the status of related legacy activities, and linkages to classified activities.”

The Air Force previously said the first phase of ABMS would last into the early 2020s and rely on short-term technology upgrades to military drones and other command-and-control systems. Those updates would prepare the force for when the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System plane retires later in the decade. The service expected ABMS would be ready for regular operations starting in 2035.

The service has already defended its experiment-heavy approach to lawmakers and groups like the Government Accountability Office that worry the way forward is unclear. Those in charge of the effort believe structuring their search for combat technologies unlike a traditional acquisition program will make it more successful.

Instead of holding years-long competitions for military-specific tools that need to be designed and built from scratch, the Air Force hopes commercial radios, artificial intelligence, display software, and more will network the force faster and more intuitively. Service officials are pushing each part of the force, from fighter jets to radar systems, to get on board as the concept matures.

Meanwhile, lawmakers say the JSTARS airframe is losing out on budget resources as priorities shift elsewhere. It’s possible the 16 E-8Cs will be phased out before ABMS is ready to replace it.

“The committee believes that [$11 million] is inadequate to support modernization of the platform through validated requirements, including avionics and communications upgrades. The committee encourages the Secretary of the Air Force to ensure that robust funding is requested in the future years defense program accompanying the fiscal year 2022 President’s Budget request to modernize the JSTARS fleet until a replacement of equal or superior capability is fielded and operational.”