Western Air Defense Sector key player in evolution of Advanced Battle Management System

  • Published
  • By Capt. Colette Muller
  • Western Air Defense Sector

A small Washington Air National Guard unit has become a key player for Air Force acquisitions in the evolution of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). Members of the Western Air Defense Sector participated in the second ever ABMS “onramp” event at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Sept. 2-3, 2020.

The onramp event was a test of a few software systems currently in development as part of a larger ABMS initiative that presently includes 28 different product lines.

ABMS is a top modernization priority for the Department of the Air Force and will become the military’s command and control backbone in partnership with all the services across the Department of Defense. The broader effort, known as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is the DoD’s concept to connect systems and sensors from the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force and allies, into a single networked architecture.

“The goal of these onramps is to deliver combat capability to warfighters and create a military internet of things that connects any sensor to any shooter,” explained Maj. Nicholas Detloff, 225th Air Defense Squadron air battle manager.

In the end, the DoD is looking for a new-age system that uses artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine interfacing.  The effect will be a much faster response (kill chain) through automation and anticipation of adversary tactics. All of this data will be hosted in a secure JADC2 cloud network.

WADS and its members will become an end user for ABMS, providing C2 air defense for the western half of the continental United States. Each September, echoes of the attacks on 9/11 reverberate through the WADS building. The attacks, now 19 years ago, abruptly changed the way the Air Force viewed air defense and the way WADS functioned. Previously only focused on outside threats, posture quickly changed to looking at all air travel inside the U.S. and moved to connected military C2 to sensors and radar previously only accessible to the Federal Aviation Administration and civilian agencies.

For the past 15 years, the systems and capabilities of homeland air defense have remained essentially the same. Air battle managers at WADS watch data from all the sensors that are currently linked and if a track is identified that is suspicious, WADS personnel act. Through this legacy system, they can initiate a series of phone calls and messages to determine an appropriate course of action and eventually scramble fighter jets if the threat is deemed valid.

The immense change that occurred on 9/11 is once again commencing at WADS, although this time less sudden, and much more deliberate; proactive vs reactionary. Rather than wait for ABMS to be delivered to WADS, the members and leaders are driving the effort to ensure ABMS is built in a way that creates the most useful overall system and ensures all necessary data and inputs are considered.

The military acquisition process is long and difficult and often very far removed from the units and people who will one day use the product. WADS is a tactical command and control unit and as subject matter experts it’s uncommon to become so involved in the beginning stages and full development of a strategic program.

“We are doing this on our own initiative,” said Col. Brian Bergren, 225th Air Defense Squadron commander. “We think we know what the future of ABMS is. We want to make our own path and secure our own future. We don’t need to sit back and wait for a product to be delivered.”

To plan this future, WADS has dedicated time, effort, and money toward their role in ABMS. They have redirected efforts of personnel assigned primarily to the operations floor to work on the ABMS project, asking the rest of the team to pick up the workload for that team member. They have members volunteering to move from Washington to Colorado in support of the program, an unusual action and sacrifice for Guardsmen who enjoy the stability of life in the Guard. They have a member who is completing an internship after hours, using his personal time after his work day to learn from a software company that is already creating software for ABMS. They are also planning to have Drill Status Guardsmen go on one-year full time orders in order to learn to be coders and then do the actual coding to build the software system they will one day be using.

The entire unit is making big sacrifices, changing the culture and mindset of WADS, and embracing the change to come. By being involved from the start, the unit will ensure important needs and functions, details and best practices are considered at the foundation of software development. All too often the framework of software is developed without this kind of input and then critical details are tacked on as an afterthought.

“It’s easy to build the front end of a system,” said Bergren. “The user interface and the obvious inputs.  What’s difficult is ensuring a solid back-end. Pulling in all the data that we, or AI, would need to make the best decision. This could be everything from sensors like weather data and radar, to more static data like specific flight rules; angle of climb, climb rate, standard routes and altitudes in a given airspace. We need to build a system that automatically pulls in all that data and then alerts the operators of the system that a track is behaving like a threat.”

Washington National Guard Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Brett Daughtery, observed the onramp at WADS. “Let’s help shape this and reach out now to our cyber and space Guard units and get them into the team from the get go,” he said. “We should build on our relationships with the Navy and our Canadian partners. We should do this as quickly as we can, learn from this onramp and go bigger.”

With WADS, Air Force acquisitions, and civilian defense contractors working together, the final system will prove to make the same logical decisions as a human operator but at a much faster speed, given its near immediate data access and analysis. Human operators will only need to confirm these machine decisions and execution can move from many minutes to mere seconds. These critical minutes could be the difference to ensuring lives are saved or a future conflict is won.