Military Embedded Systems

The Air Force, ABMS, and the Kill Web


July 28, 2022

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

U.S. Air Force F-35A photo by Senior Airman Erica Webster

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. So far, we have covered the Army (IBCS), the Navy (CEC), and the Space Force (SF-ABMS) programs. So now it’s time to explore what the Air Force is doing to join the Kill Web. Their primary effort is called ABMS (Advanced Battle Management System), that seeks to connect all their aircraft, weapons, and sensors together into a tactical mesh network where they can talk to each other in real time. Maybe the best way to present this information is by comparison to what the other services have been doing. That might be more informative.

Like the Navy and their ships, the Air Force has been buying airplanes and weapons over the years that were never designed to talk to each other. While the Navy has the space on ships to plug-in another box to communicate on a common battle network, they may not have the space for a new antenna array on the mast. Air Force planes and weapons have severe size, weight, and power (SWaP) limitations for another box of electronics and the antennas must be woven into the fuselage somewhere. The Navy has almost 500 active ships that cost billions of dollars each, and are designed to last for about 30 to 35 years. The Air Force has about 5,200 active aircraft that cost about a hundred million dollars each, designed to last for 30 to 40 years. FYI, the B-52 bomber has been flying for over 65 years. Let’s take a specific example here, to clarify the issue. The F-22 fighter plane cannot share radar images and targeting data with the newer F-35. The F-22 computers are older and the software is spaghetti code (hard to modify, upgrade, and maintain without creating bugs). The F-35 computers are newer and the code is more modular (similar to apps on your cell phone). That means a third aircraft, with a black box, must fly near F-22s and F-35s in a battle, and translate the F-35s MADL (Multifunction Advanced Data Link) messages to the F-22s IFDL (Intra-flight Data Link) messages and vice-versa. They did that in 2021 in Project Hydra, using a U-2 as the third aircraft carrying the translator box and antennas. Let’s look at another Navy-Air Force shared predicament. In the latest proposals, the Navy plans to retire 24 older ships (five cruisers, two attack submarines, nine Freedom-class LCS boats, four docking ships, two transfer-dock ships, and two oiler ships) in 2023. The Air Force has released plans to retire about 250 older aircraft (21 A-10 Warthogs, 33 F-22s, 15 airborne warning planes (AWACS), 12 E-8 Joint Stars ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) planes, 12 C-130 cargo planes, some T-1 trainer jets, 13 KC-135 tankers, and 100 MQ-9 Reaper drones) in 2023 and 2024. Both services say that the money to upgrade and maintain those older platforms would be better spent on new more capable platforms. 

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here. Congress is not happy with either service’s platform retirement plans, concerned that they might create a capabilities gap in a near term military conflict. In 2021, the Air Force retired 17 older B-1 bombers leaving 45 in the fleet until the new B-21 bomber is ready. It’s not clear to congress how fast newer platforms can come into service and how buggy they will be. The Navy’s disastrous experiences with the LCS boats, the Zumwalt destroyer, and the USS Ford carrier make them very wary. The Air Force F-35 also had a lot of teething problems when it first came into service in 2015. If the Air Force does retire all these planes as planned, let’s see what they will replace them with. For fighter planes, the strategy is called "4+1." They presently have seven active fighter platforms in the fleet, so 4+1 would reduce that to a fleet of F-35s, F-15EXs (bomb trucks), some upgraded F-16s, and a new 6G advanced fighter plane (NGAD or Next Generation Air Dominance). The “plus 1” would be keeping some A-10 planes around for close air support (CAS) for Army soldiers on the ground. Obviously, NGAD would replace the F-22s in the fleet. Until then, the Air Force plans to increase the F-35 fleet to 1,763 aircraft. For long range bombers, the plan is to upgrade the 80 or so B-52s (yet again), maintain and upgrade the 20 B-2 bombers in the fleet, and keep the remaining 45 B-1 bombers around until the new advanced B-21 bombers start coming into service. New cargo planes and tankers are not that interesting, so the replacement for E-3 AWACS will be the E-7 Wedgetail (how many has not been disclosed). For the E-8 Joint Stars, those missions might be taken over by new drones similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, but that decision has not been made. Meanwhile, the E-8 will continue to fly until 2030 when they get that new platform figured out. Additionally, the Air Force is playing with some unmanned drones to support and protect manned fighter planes and bombers. The F-35 and the F-15EX are designed to control four or five “loyal wingman” drones that can handle ISR, communications, and weapons delivery on target. The same goes for the B-21 bomber, designed to control several drones that have different supporting missions. The drones in consideration are the XQ-58A Valkyrie, the MQ-20 Avenger, and the X-47. All of these platforms are already flying as demonstrators today. The drone aircraft design is pretty easy to define. All the software, sensors, and weapons for those drones, along with the Skyborg autonomous flight system, is much harder. Like the Navy and their ships again, the Air Force is trying to decide how many planes they need, their specific missions, and how many need to be manned or unmanned. Notice here that there is no program for the F-22 to control supporting drones. On the weapons side of the equation, a new version of the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile) hit a target drone at the longest distance ever back in 2021. The Air Force declined to say how far the missile flew to hit the target, but the range of a standard AIM-120D is about 98 miles, so this new one flew farther. This explains another Air Force objective for their fighter planes: destroy enemy interceptor aircraft from well beyond the pilot’s visual range (BVR). Also back in 2021, two F-16 fighter planes dropped six GBU-39 small-diameter bombs at White Sands Missile Range. After release, they sprouted small wings, established communication links between themselves and the ground controllers, and maneuvered toward their programmed targets. Ground controllers then changed their missions to higher-priority targets in mid-flight. Two of the bombs were to hit a new target at the same time, Two other bombs were to hit different targets, and the final two bombs were to hit another new target simultaneously. On the local network, the bomb's internal computers decided which bombs would go after which targets, autonomously. The pilots of the fighter planes were never involved after the bombs were released. All bombs hit their new targets, or close enough, according to the controller’s new orders. That was part of the Air Force’s “Golden Horde” exercise. Back in 2020, the Air Force secretly designed, built, and flew a new 6G fighter plane in one year, but they have not released any pictures or details about the aircraft. NGAD is a classified program so we don’t know how fast it can fly or what it can do. In June 2022, the secretary of the Air Force said that this new fighter plane (to replace the F-22) has matured to the extent that it is moving into the EMD (engineering, manufacturing, design) phase. To muddy the waters a bit more, the Air Force is also looking at hypersonic fighter planes and drones (Project Mayhem). They will fly at Mach 5 (3,800 MPH). So, the Navy and the Air Force are both in a similar dilemma: how to bring old and new platforms into the Kill Web, how much money should be spent on upgrading and maintaining older platforms versus buying new ones, and the assignment of missions to the platforms. Why has the Army experienced more success with their IBCS (Integrated Battle Command System) and their Project Convergence exercises compared to the Navy (CEC) and Air Force (ABMS) programs? I think it’s because the Navy and the Air Force are more platform-dependent for their missions. The Navy can’t control the seas without ships. The Air Force can’t control the sky without planes. And both services strike enemy targets from hundreds of miles away. However, the Army hits enemy targets with their tanks and artillery from a few miles away and soldiers are the platforms that control the ground. The farther away from the enemy you are, the more platform-dependent your missions become. There seems to be a distance-platform-dependency relationship that influences the Navy and Air Force's ability to adapt to the Kill Web concept rapidly. The Army has more than 30,000 tanks, artillery pieces, and armed ground combat vehicles that cost a few hundred thousand dollars each, designed to last through a few battles or 30 to 40 years in peace. The loss of one tank doesn’t degrade the Army’s combat capability as much as the loss of a ship for the Navy or a fighter plane for the Air Force. So, Army weapons platforms are less complex, less expensive, and considered expendable. They have SWAP problems too, but they don’t need highly complex boxes of electronics to join the Kill Web. That might be another factor in why the Navy and Air Force are behind the Army: their weapon and sensor system complexity. Next is the AOR (area of responsibility). That’s the patrol box. Let’s assume that the range of each services’ weapons dictate the size of their patrol box. A Navy ship might patrol and secure an area of about 100,000 square miles (about 300 miles on a side), based on the range of their anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. An Air Force fighter plane might patrol and secure an area of about 20,000 square miles (140 miles on a side), based on the range of their air-to-air missiles and the plane’s fuel load (the new AMRAAM missile has a range of over 100 miles, the F-35 has a fuel range of about 700 miles). During WWII, it took about 100 soldiers to patrol and secure one square mile. Today, an Army squad (11 soldiers) might patrol and secure an area of about 400 square miles (20 miles on a side) with ISR data from small drones. Once enemy targets are found in the patrol box by the drones, soldiers can call-in artillery from 20 miles away, or MLRS missiles (Multiple Launch Rocket System) from 60 miles away. Army soldiers have a much smaller AOR than Navy and Air Force platforms, so that might be another factor in why the Army has made more progress in joining the Kill Web. Bring satellite date into each service’s weapons platforms, and everyone’s patrol box gets bigger. Earlier this year, Congress significantly reduced funding for the Air Force’s ABMS program. That might be due to the reasons stated above: the Air Force is not clear about the number of platforms they need, their capabilities, their missions, and the maturity of the technologies involved. And congress has similar concerns about what the Navy is trying to do with their ships. So, we’ll have to watch as the Air Force develops their secret 6G fighter plane (NGAD), their new drone aircraft (MQ-Next), their new missiles and bombs (Golden Horde), and how they will tie them together into the Kill Web mesh network. I’ve taken some liberties and made some assumptions here, but it looks like the Air Force’s entry into the Kill web is being complicated by their older platforms, their severe platform-dependence, the tyranny of distance from the enemy in battle, the complexity of their weapons and sensor systems, and the size of their area of responsibility. Same goes for the Navy’s progress in joining the Kill Web. I used a few simple variables in this limited analysis, but there are many more variables involved that can lead to other reasons. Next time, we’ll take a look at the final piece of the Kill Web puzzle: the Pentagon’s JADC2 (Joint All Domain Command And Control) program. That’s how the brass want to see all the sensors from all of the services merged into a common operating picture (COP), integrating each services’ patrol box into one large patrol box. Then they want to see any sensor (from any service) connect to any weapon (from any service) and hit a target inside the COP in a matter of seconds. If the Navy and the Air Force are having trouble just making their own platforms talk to each other, how can they communicate with everything else connected to the Kill Web? JADC2 confronts that problem. It tells each service what to do, but not how to do it. And the devil is in the details.

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