Is the US finally ready to Join the Force?
By an Australian in Washington
For the US military, enabling and operationalising the Joint Force has been seen as a little like eating vegetables… sure they are good for you, but who wants to fill up on salad when there’s a juicy Chicken Parma on the plate in the form of a stand-alone fighter or missile system.
Over the past 18 months, the US has started to get serious – if not healthy eating, then joint all-domain command and control. They have been talking at the highest levels about what it will take to harness the strategic strength of an effectively enabled and controlled Joint Force.
In the past the US, and allies including Australia, has been good at joint de-confliction but not really focused on (or even tried hard at) joint warfighting. The challenge has been that while the ‘what’ of joint warfighting is relatively clear, understanding the ‘how’ of joint warfighting was, until recently, a series of seemingly insurmountable technological, industrial, and cultural obstacles.
The ‘how’ is now becoming clearer though as the US sees the promise of leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, and predictive analytics to enable its joint force.
In late May this year the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed the much anticipated Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy intended to guide the development and acquisition of emerging technologies and communications systems.
The US has been steadily ramping up and iterating its approach to joint capabilities and operations. The USAF had the early lift on joint capability with its series of Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) demonstrations, or ‘on-ramps’. These roadmap demonstrations began as the USAF doubled down on ABMS following its decision not to recapitalise its Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battle management capability.
The decision to walk away from the JSTARS recapitalisation was based on the conviction that large, manned airborne battle management platforms were not survivable in a conflict with near-peer or peer adversaries such as Russia or China, or were just too tempting a target, and that such individual systems could be replaced if existing and developing command and control capabilities were better able to network and interoperate.
The Presidential Budget document for US fiscal year 2022 (PB22) which was released in May didn’t contain significant buckets of money directly tied to JADC2 initiatives, but individual service budgets contained within PB22 do contain a number of divestments of assets aimed at making funds available to invest in connectivity and JADC2 more generally.
The JADC2 strategy and Presidential Budget contain the guidance that’s been missing as each of the US services move out on their own joint force initiatives. Much like Australia’s silo-busting initiatives – Projects Jericho, Pelorus, and Beersheba – the US armed services have been embarking on their own individual interoperability campaigns with an expectation that, at some point, a wand will be waved and the various joint endeavours will collide and coalesce.
ABMS gave the USAF first-mover advantage. Having conducted four ABMS demonstrations so far, the USAF’s connectivity solutions are starting to take shape. The US Army’s projects – Convergence and Titan – are enabling it to catch up, thanks in part to its now well-performing Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) program.
IBCS is arguably the most advanced and effective ‘any sensor-any shooter’ battle management system in existence today and goes a long way to proving the value of JADC2. The US Navy’s project Overmatch – with its goal of distributed maritime operations – remains immature in comparison to the efforts of the other two services. Emerging naval recapitalisation does, however, give the USN an opportunity to catch up and potentially overtake the other services.
The Marines and the Space Force are both yet to fully articulate their joint force approaches. The Space Force though – given the very nature of its global assets – is seen as a key enabler to global and coalition all-domain operations.
Ensuring that the various service initiatives can collaborate with each other and make JADC2 a reality will come down to how well the joint vice chiefs – via their Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) – can make the services ‘play nice’. The JROC has talked for decades about requirements to promote interoperability and ‘net-ready’ capabilities, but they have issued so many waivers for individual capabilities that interoperability and net-ready just hasn’t materialised to any substantive point. The fact that the US’s two main 5th generation air systems – the F-22 and F-35 – can’t effectively share data is a prime example of interoperability problem, and they’re in the same service!
Much like creating the ubiquitous internet we all experience in our daily lives, JADC2 – or the ‘internet of military things’ – will be a journey of many individual steps along a wide, unknown, and long path without a destination. It will be based on small connectivity advances along common themes, rather than investing and building to a known design or destination.
The next five years will be critical for JADC2, during which the US military services and intelligence agencies will need to choose key capabilities that can be linked for the greatest short-term effect. That will involve mandating and ensuring that key assets can interoperate across domains and services.
Those investments will enable other advances, such as integration that facilitates expanded command and control for Army, Navy, and Marines long-range fires. That incremental realisation of JADC2 will prove its value and will ensure, much like with today’s internet of things, that military and industry leaders will see that true interoperability is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’, but an essential element to capability and the driver of future concepts of operation (CONOPS).
There are, of course, other parties who will be critical to progress on JADC2 in the US, chief among those are members of the US Congress, in particular members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. They will need to support the divestment of legacy systems that will be required to fund investments in more advanced and connected systems.
Congressional buy-in is far from certain. It’s not clear that Congress is collectively as confident in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) path as the department itself is. DoD may very well want to pursue a JADC2 future, but if Congress doesn’t allow them to retire old systems and appropriate money for new efforts, it will never happen.
While a public-release version of the US’s JADC2 strategy is not expected to be available until later in the US summer, on-the-record statements by US military leadership make the key elements of the strategy clear. They now have a stick with which to hit offenders who insist on investing in capabilities that perpetuate a lack of interoperability. The JADC2 framework will reward alignment and highlight and prohibit investment in capabilities that are clearly in opposition to data sharing and a system of systems approach.
One of the offending areas specifically called out by US leadership has been ‘vendor lock’. They have said they intend to avoid being stuck with a single industry provider and the ‘franchise program’ cost relationship that such arrangements create. That will be achieved, in part, by developing a Department of Defense (DoD)-owned and open Application Programming Interface (API).
API is how software programs talk to each other through the internet. Everything from online house-hunting to ordering an Uber to avoiding police radar while driving home from the office is made possible by APIs.
In the military space, API will be foundational to the seamless system-connectivity the DoD craves. The insistence on the use of modular open systems architecture (MOSA) compliant systems will also deliver the ease of connectivity sought by the US.
MOSA will also deliver speed of development dividends because developers won’t have as many of the challenges that come with integrating diverse systems, each with their own propriety components making for endless integration headaches. MOSA dividends will extend to cost savings and, most important of all, faster delivery of advancing capabilities to the warfighter.
The RAAF’s Project Jericho caused more than a few embarrassed looks and questions along the USAF corridors of the Pentagon when it was released in 2015. It was clear that Australia was thinking ahead – arguably much further ahead – than their US partners, in particular the USAF.
If Plan Jericho is any example, Australia is going to have an easier time addressing the cultural impediments to JADC2 than the US. Individual ‘service think’ is understandable and necessary, but it’s also a major impediment to a joint force in the US. The technological obstacles to JADC2, though, will present an equally large-sized challenge for both the US and Australia.
The Joint Force promises to exponentially expand individual service, joint, and coalition capabilities. Let’s hope then that this latest US focus on cross-domain operations results in real and sustained progress.
This story was first published in the May-June 2021 issue of ADBR.