DARPA’s contribution to JADC2: ‘Mosaic’ warfare

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Joint All-Domain Command and Control — the Pentagon’s vision to stitch together its weapons platforms and communications systems into a seamless “internet of military things” — is likely to begin delivering some of its first capabilities by next year. And at least in the early going, the architecture that underpins that interconnectedness will need to be stitched together by hand.

But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a far different vision for how JADC2 could be operating as soon as five years from now. Under a concept called Mosaic Warfare, aided by artificial intelligence and a new cadre of technical experts, new systems of systems could be brought together on demand, depending on what a particular mission requirement called for.

And although DoD is already thinking about JADC2 as a system of systems, the Mosaic concept is radically different from the contemporary approach, which Timothy Grayson, the director of DARPA’s strategic technology office, describes as more like a jigsaw puzzle.

“What we’re doing with Mosaic is trying to bust up monolithic architectures and make them into fluid dynamic types of warfighting constructs,” Grayson told a recent conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. “We like to contrast that architecture with a jigsaw puzzle where all the different systems are carefully architected with well-defined interfaces that have to go together one particular way. The mosaic metaphor says I’ve got a collection of tiles, and they might be all different kinds of colors and shapes, but I can select the tiles that I want in a much more flexible way — not a predefined structure — to build that mosaic artwork.”

DARPA has been working on the Mosaic concept for several years, but now believes it dovetails neatly with what the Pentagon wants to achieve with JADC2. Grayson said if the toolkits the agency is working on now prove to be successful, within the next five years, commanders at the tactical edge could be constructing their own mission-tailored systems-of-systems to meet any particular mission objective. That’s what DARPA refers to as “wave two” of Mosaic.

In “wave three” — perhaps ten years from now — the agency envisions that the Defense acquisition system and its priorities will have evolved to the point where the military’s inventory of capabilities includes many more small, tailorable systems that can be produced quickly and relatively cheaply, then brought together on an as-needed basis.

“I think this is very consistent with a lot of things we’ve heard from the Air Force recently on things like digital engineering, and the approach the Air Force is taking on Next-Generation Air Dominance,” Grayson said. “If the notion is filling the palette with additional mosaic tiles, that gives me a lot of options for going out and buying things in different ways that have capability less than what a monolithic platform would need. I might need more of them, but I might buy them in small tranches, and then constantly be spiraling and turning. I don’t know how exactly what that future acquisition model looks like, but I would encourage industry to start thinking about that now.”

And in the shorter term, for the Mosaic concept to come to fruition, the military will need to rethink some of its own manpower concepts, Grayson said. He said he believes the services will need to develop specialized units as part of wave two, to actually employ the tools DARPA is building at the tactical edge.

“That force structure doesn’t exist today, and it includes what I like to call figuratively a combat support Geek Squad,” he said. “We need to think about who is going to be that combat support element who is going to support all of these Mosaic tools.”

Grayson said DARPA has already done some early work to study what that workforce could look like, but that conceptually, the teams might operate in much the same way software experts work under a DevSecOps methodology. Some of the concepts were used in the Air Force’s recent demonstration of its Advanced Battle Management System, when the service employed a DARPA tool called System-of-systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems (STITCHES).

As the acronym implies, the toolkit’s main purpose is to translate and stitch together various messages from different military hardware, such as sensors and fire control systems. But it requires trained operators.

“Imagine you’ve got an ops floor or a squadron ready room someplace, and the warfighters are there building the next day’s battle plan, very similar to what we do today. But a lot of building that mission plan involves wiring things together in different ways,” Grayson said. “So the geeks would be sitting in the back room right off the ready room, and they’re using things like the STITCHES tool, knocking out what amount to the mission data files, based upon that package that the warfighters just designed. And then ultimately, they take that stack of software and load it onto the jets or the other weapon systems. That’s the rough top level vision.”

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Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks with the managers of the federal government's largest department. Subscribe on PodcastOne or Apple Podcasts.

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