< Back to Whiteboard

Multi-Domain Integration & the Future of Defence Procurement (Part II)

Hannah Croft
Hannah Croft 19 Nov 2020
Abms internet military of things

Multi-Domain Concepts and Acquisition Transformation: An Origins Story

It was all the way back in 2016 B.C (before coronavirus) when then U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein outlined his vision for conducting combined arms operations in the ‘information age of warfare’. To outmanoeuvre and overwhelm the adversary’s OODA loop, the Air Force would use utilise technologies such as AI and cloud to integrate three ‘grids’ of sensors, information and effects across air, land, maritime, space and cyber, or what he described as multi-domain command and control (MDC2). The Air Force’s new operating concept would then inform their politically controversial decision to scrap the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), which was due a recap in 2018, and instead fund the new Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), described as the ‘technical engine’ driving the USAF’s approach to multi-domain C2.

The ABMS programme has become something of a blueprint for Air Force acquisition transformation, overseen by Dr William Roper, acquisition chief and the Keith Richards of the DoD’s procurement community. Dr Roper has championed spiral development to reduce Air Force acquisition timelines and DevSecOps to bring software updates to warfighters in real time (they actually achieved this a couple of weeks ago!). Under this design and digital engineering philosophy, the Air Force’s next-generation multi-domain C2 capability looks pretty transformative:

"We’ve come so far in ABMS that we realize that it’s bigger than just replacing the capability that JSTARS provides. If you get ABMS right, you’ve just built the military’s ‘internet of things. That’s super exciting."
Abms internet military of things

Exciting, though it is, ABMS and the programme’s procurement counterculture has been met with criticism. In April this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report arguing that the Air Force ‘has not established well-defined, firm requirements for ABMS’ and the ‘lack of an ABMS business case introduces uncertainty regarding whether the needed capabilities will be developed within required time frames’. Officials from the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation also concluded that the programme lacks programmatic detail and is therefore a ‘high-risk effort’.

The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee also challenged the Air Force’s request for additional funding in FY2021, citing the ‘absence of firm requirements, acquisition strategy, or cost estimate, as well as the unclear definition of responsibilities of the chief architect of the Air Force and other offices involved in executing the ABMS programme’. Air Force officials have politely disputed these claims, of course. General Goldfein, in fact, argued that the GAO’s information was simply out of date, and the ABMS would present ‘an opportunity for GAO and others to understand how to report when you have a service that’s going as fast as we are’.

Is this a case of culture clash? Perhaps. Indeed, as with the UK, the DoD’s acquisition system is optimised to develop and field big ticket platforms with all the associated programmatic pomp and prestige attached. ‘It can be difficult’, argue the authors of a MITRE report on Joint All-Domain Operations, ‘for advocates in Congress to back ethereal “connections” and “data” over more tangible and energizing platforms’. That said, maybe the lawmakers and contracting officials are right. Maybe you do need a business case for a multi-billion-dollar programme? You tell me.

What of the Army?

Let’s go back in time again, this time to 2017. The U.S. Army had updated its Field Manual 3.0, signifying a doctrinal shift with regards to how ground forces would contribute to future joint operations. Notably, this meant the addition of ‘the physical, temporary, cognitive, and virtual aspects of the operational framework in the context of a multi-domain environment’, or what they termed as ‘Multi-Domain Battle’. The Army would later rejig the concept in 2018 - Multi-Domain Battle became Multi-Domain Operations – and stand up the new Army Futures Command (AFC).

As with the Air Force, the Army’s adoption of the multi-domain concept would coincide with a significant remodelling of its acquisition processes and culture. Army Futures Command - with a HQ in the ultra-hipster Austin, TX – was set up to focus on the delivery of six core capability modernisation priorities which were identified as critical to helping the Army realise its vision of becoming an ‘MDO-capable’ force by 2028, and an ‘MDO-ready’ force by 2035. These include long-range precision fires, network, future vertical lift, next generation combat vehicles, air and missile defence and social lethality.

Acknowledging that its historically slow procurement was inhibiting innovation, Army leadership mandated AFC to bring capability requirements time down to just 12 months with iterative prototyping and experimentation methods, as well as expanding its use of OTAs. The command is also unique in its use of Cross-Functional Teams to ‘develop a requirement, informed in appropriate cases by experimentation and technical demonstrations, through teaming, agility, and rapid feedback to enable the development of a capability document and improve the decision making for a potential program of record’. Since being set up, AFC has also established an Army Applications Lab, various innovation incubators and even a software factory (minus the chocolate river).

Army application lab

Fast forward to September 2020 and the Army and Air Force have now signed a two-year collaboration agreement to develop Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, (you guessed it: CJADC2). The agreement sets out plans for both services to define mutual standards for data sharing and service interfacing – the building blocks of connecting Goldfein’s three multi-domain ‘grids’.

The multi-domain concept has gradually seeped into DoD-wide plans and policies, too, coinciding with various organisational changes to foster innovation and the rapid development of multi-domain enabling technologies like AI. This includes the establishment of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board in 2016, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) in 2018, the publication of the DoD Digital Modernization Strategy in 2019, and the setting up of a new Joint Cross-Functional Team, also in 2019, to oversee the maturation of the Joint All Domain C2 concept (now CJADC2 – confusing I know).

Jaic diagram

JAIC has become a particularly influential actor in US procurement transformation. Set up to up to ‘accelerate and scale the use of AI across the DoD and support the full AI application lifecycle’, the AI centre of excellence has championed agile and DevSecOp practices and sought to work with non-traditional defence industry to accelerate AI projects. To push this further, the JAIC are seeking OTA authorization to sidestep cumbersome, lengthy acquisition timelines and expand their partnerships with tech industry and academia. Since August, the organisation has published a series of RFIs aimed at tech consortiums, venture capital groups, accelerators and acquisition management software companies to help with the development a prototype AI acquisition business model and digital portal (called Project Tradewind).

For companies like Rowden (super cool tech SMEs) this all sounds great. Except, if you look behind the success stories of rising alternative/small business contract awards over the past three years, you’ll see that the top ten recipients of OTA contracts include Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Furthermore, the top three OTA vendors are consortia managers (Analytic Services Inc. Advanced Technology International and Consortium Management Group Inc.) that make up more than half of total OTA contracts. Innovative in style, rather than substance, then.

So what? Well, I tell this brief origins story (who’s excited for the next Batman?) because it offers some potential indications as to how the UK and its partners and allies might navigate the multi-domain innovation pathway in the coming months and years. It also highlights the potential pitfalls – which look to be largely cultural and political in nature. Of course, the UK has already made significant organisational changes (to be discussed in further detail in Part III) such as the establishment of Strategic Command, Defence Digital and the new AI Centre of Excellence to push forward with its plans for multi-domain integration.

That said, the U.S. is a useful yardstick from which to compare and contrast (or copy) as we accelerate these changes after the release of the Integrated Review. Could we see a British Army Futures Command of some sort? Will our AI CoE grow to be as influential as the JAIC? Will we adopt something similar to UOR/OTA contracts to accelerate testing and experimentation? Let’s see.