Nov. 24, 2020 | By Brian W. Everstine, Air Force Magazine

The Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office will oversee future development and procurement of the Advanced Battle Management System, which looks to connect sensors and shooters in real time, as it inches toward becoming a reality.

Assigning a program executive office for ABMS means the Air Force is ready to move toward buying systems and proving that its strategy is working, Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, told reporters in a Nov. 24 briefing. Roper said it is likely the service will start buying things and attaching them to platforms within the next year. For example, new radio links have shown that they are “ready to go be purchased and installed.”

“This is the graduation in ABMS, and there will be a future graduation when we get ABMS fielded,” he said.

The decision means the office currently tasked with overseeing development of secretive and advanced programs, such as the X-37B space plane and B-21 bomber, is responsible for turning technologies displayed in recent “onramp” events into systems purchased and installed on USAF aircraft. The service already has conducted three demonstrations, known as onramps, aimed at testing and showing off some of the capabilities being pursued under the ABMS umbrella.

“The next evolution for us is showing that we can do this in a way that isn’t just demonstrated, but we can actually go put it into real systems with real impact,” Roper said.

Traditionally, USAF acquisition programs—such as a new fighter jet—would be assigned to an existing program office, such as the PEO for Fighters & Advanced Aircraft. But there are many different types of new tech that could potentially be wrapped into ABMS, such as artificial intelligence-driven software capabilities, ground-based sensors, and space-based assets. There are 29 product lines across seven product categories that are being looked at under ABMS, Roper said.

“This will be something new, and something that’s new like ABMS probably needs a new construct for how we manage and execute,” Roper said. “So the RCO will gain the components that do not have a natural home within the Department of the Air Force, … but they will also be responsible for providing the consolidated work breakdown structure, the consolidated baselines, and, most importantly, making funding trades when there’s not enough funding to do all.”

The RCO already works across organizational issues, and it has “deep experience with multi-classification issues” that will help ABMS become real. Roper said he is looking to the RCO to “ensure that we deliver usable internet-type capabilities to the Joint Force and not more partial capabilities that don’t add up to the same operational effect.”

“I would rather have 70 percent of ABMS at a 100 percent level and ready to be used operationally, than have 100 percent of ABMS completed at a 70 percent level and not [ready to use], and the RCO will have that tasking,” Roper said.

Congress, however, remains skeptical. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently threatened to cut funding for ABMS until the Department of the Air Force can better explain its strategy. While the announcement comes as lawmakers are questioning the strategy, Roper said the timing was just a “happy coincidence.”

If funding is cut, Roper said USAF wouldn’t be able to test as many capabilities in future onramps, and there will be less operational input and participation.

“Cutting the funding for the onramps means we may be in danger of making them more technology demonstrations rather than what they currently are, which is a good balance of technology and warfighter tradecraft,” Roper said. “And I hope we’ll be able to convince Congress that we need to do both.”