Air Force will turn its tankers into flying hotspots in first deployment of ABMS

The Air Force said it's moving into a "more operational" stage for its "internet of military things," beginning by turning its new KC-46 refueling tanker into a...

The DoD Reporter’s Notebook is a weekly summary of personnel, acquisition, technology and management stories that may have fallen below your radar during the past week, but are nonetheless important. It’s compiled and published each Monday by Federal News Network DoD reporters Jared Serbu and Scott Maucione.

The Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s main contribution to DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) vision of interconnected military systems has graduated from blueprint status and into an “operational phase,” officials said on Friday.

The decision means the service is ready to take what’s been a concept and architectural development process for the better part of two years into the real world, buying actual hardware and software to install on aircraft.

The first physical manifestation of ABMS will be aboard the KC-46, the Air Force’s new, often delayed, aerial refueling tanker. Officials say they plan to turn some of the first KC-46s they’ve received into flying “hotspots” that can offload new data to F-22 and F-35 fighters at the same time they’re receiving fuel.

“Nearly two years of rigorous development and experimentation have shown beyond doubt the promise of ABMS,” Gen. CQ Brown, the Air Force chief of staff said in a statement. “We’ve demonstrated that our ABMS efforts can collect vast amounts of data from air, land, sea, space and cyber domains, process that information and share it in a way that allows for faster and better decisions. This ability gives us a clear advantage, and it’s time to move ABMS forward so we can realize and ultimately use the power and capability it will provide.”

It’s not yet clear when the Air Force will start fielding the new data “pods” aboard the KC-46, but officials said late last year that Air Mobility Command had already signaled their interest in being an early adopter of ABMS.

“They are ready to go put [ABMS capabilities] on mobility platforms so they can act as data relays,” Dr. Will Roper, the then-Air Force acquisition chief said in November. “We’ve got tankers that top you up with gas, the vision of topping you up with data makes a lot of sense: You’re going to be there anyway to get fuel. And then that tanker standing off also can act as a battlefield relay and a network node. So they’ve got the right thinking.”

The KC-46 project is known as “Capability Release 1,” and the initial work is part of $170 million the Air Force has allocated for ABMS this year.

Meanwhile, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the newly-designated lead organization for ABMS will start making “major investments” in digital infrastructure to support a broader rollout of the interconnected weapons network, said Randy Walden, the RCO’s director.

“To build ABMS, you must first build the digital structures and pathways over which critical data is stored, computed, and moved. The Department of the Air Force needs a smart, fast and resilient ‘system of systems’ to establish information and decision superiority, and ABMS will be that solution,” he said. —JS

SOCOM working on common data fabric to connect future weapons

U.S. Special Operations Command is in the nascent stages of creating a common data fabric that it hopes will enmesh data with everyday operations, and help nest Joint All Domain Command and Control within low intensity combat missions.

“A working, federated special forces data fabric is critical,” said Lisa Costa, SOCOM’s chief information officer during a speech at a National Defense Industrial Association event. “We no longer can afford to put our data into mission silos. That data has to be discoverable to everyone at the security classification that it resides. We are working that on every classification system.”

SOCOM is working closely with its chief data officer to define its data and data catalog.

“Once we do that, we’ll establish use cases and those mission roles on how we build out this SOCOM data fabric,” said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Byrd, the chief enterprise engineer at SOCOM. “We’ll also be working with our component and the services on where do we need to have interoperability and a common data fabric that scales across the services?”

The data fabric is part of a larger plea by Costa to industry for technologies that can “break glass.”

“I want you to rethink your business models,” she said. “Think about not necessarily always proposing a full stack solution, but instead focusing on providing infrastructure-as-a-service, data-as-a-service, algorithms-as-a-service, and keeping those separate so that we can mix and match them for the next unknown mission.”

SOCOM’s data journey is in line with DoD’s broader goal of incorporating data into nearly everything it does.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks recently put out a memo creating five data decrees and strengthening the Defense Department CDO office.

Hicks wrote that the changes are “critical to improving performance and creating decision advantage at all echelons from the battlespace to the board room, ensuring U.S. competitive advantage. To accelerate the department’s efforts, leaders must ensure all DoD data is visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure.”

The decrees state that the Pentagon will maximize data sharing and rights for data use, publish data assets in a federated catalog, and make data useable by artificial intelligence and machines. DoD will also store data in a safe manner that is uncoupled from hardware and software and implement best practices to secure authentication, access management, encryption and protection of data.

Under the new guidance, DoD’s chief data officer will be responsible for issuing policy and guidance regarding the Pentagon’s data ecosystem, sharing, architecture, lifecycle management and data-ready workforce. The office will also work closely with DoD’s Joint Staff and Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. — SM

Reed joins call to remove commanders from sexual assault prosecutions

Advocates for reforming the military’s prosecution of sexual assault cases gained a powerful new ally this weekend. Sen Jack Reed, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he favors a measure that would remove those cases from the military chain of command.

In a statement, Reed (D-R.I.) called for “comprehensive action to halt sexual violence, hold violators accountable, and support survivors.”

And his support is not merely rhetorical. His office also announced that language removing commanders from prosecution decisions would be included in the “chairman’s mark,” the first draft of the National Defense Authorization Act that serves as the foundation for the Senate’s version of the annual NDAA. That means the reforms are very likely to be in chamber’s version of the bill unless opponents mount a successful campaign to remove them either in the committee or on the Senate floor.

Reed said the language would mirror recommendations from the Independent Review Commission (IRC) on Sexual Assault in the Military, a panel Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commissioned shortly after taking office.

Last month, the panel concluded the military services should create separate civilian special victims prosecutorial offices to decide both whether to charge servicemembers with sexual offenses, and whether to bring their cases to court martial. It also recommended investigations be done outside of the chain of command.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), long a champion of removing sexual assault cases from commanders’ discretion, introduced similar reform legislation last month. The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act has already gained a Senate supermajority of cosponsors: 62 so far, including 19 Republicans.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Reed’s Republican counterpart of the committee is not among them.

“I agree with Chairman Reed that this important issue deserves robust debate as we consider this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.  I also would like to acknowledge Sen. Gillibrand for her leadership on this issue,” he said. “While I can’t support removing commanders from the decision-making process, I appreciate Chairman Reed’s commitment to ensuring this issue is debated and voted on during the full committee markup of the NDAA.” —JS

DoD lacking in response to domestic abuse

As the need for a change to the military’s response to sexual assault and harassment comes to a head with new legislation, studies and high-profile deaths, a government watchdog said the Defense Department needs to pay attention to another violence issue as well.

A new Government Accountability Office report states that DoD needs to better its response, prevention and oversight of domestic abuse within the military.

DoD reported 40,000 domestic abuse incidents from 2015 to 2019, 74% of which were physical abuse. Domestic violence has been an indicator of people who commit future violent crimes.

“Domestic abuse can result in devastating personal consequences and societal costs, and according to DoD, is incompatible with military values and reduces mission readiness. In 2019, the military services recorded 8,055 incidents that met DoD’s criteria for domestic abuse,” according to the report.

GAO said it sampled training on 20 installations and found that they did not consistently cover all of the required topics around domestic abuse and the services have not provided guidance to ensure that the training addresses DoD’s requirements.

Because of those issues, abuse survivors reported that commands and chaplains did not take action in some situations or felt that they were discouraged from taking further action.

“One survivor said the commander tried to justify the abuser’s behavior, and another said the chain of command was on the abuser’s side,” the authors wrote.

DoD’s abuse issues aren’t just with training. The Pentagon is not collecting comprehensive data on abuse allegations, despite legal requirements. Improving the collection of data could enhance DoD’s visibility of actions taken by commanders.

DoD could also not ensure that all domestic abuse allegations were screened according to policy.

GAO made 32 different recommendations to improve the domestic abuse training, prevention and response. Those included developing quality control processes for reporting accurate abuse data and developing a process to monitor how abuse incidents are screened. — SM

Air Force putting more emphasis on repairing facilities 

The Air Force said it expects to start budgeting more aggressively to tackle its facilities maintenance backlog, which tops more than $30 billion, for 2022 and out.

The increase in funding is part of the service’s infrastructure investment strategy, which was released in mid-2019. Now, almost two years later, the Air Force said it will finally start chipping away at its poor or failing facilities. At last count, 35% of Air Force facilities fell into those categories.

“I will tell you comparing to 2021 to 2022, there is a significant change of what you will see coming in into the program,” Brig. Gen. William Kale, director of Air Force Civil Engineers, said last week. The Biden administration is expected to release details of the budget next week.

“We are managing the risk in our infrastructure portfolio and we are fighting a bow wave of a lot of older facilities and we are trying to get after these facilities mainly through our operations and maintenance portfolio with facilities sustainment, restoration and modernization (FSRM) dollars,” Kale told the House Appropriations Military Construction Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. “We really paid attention to facility condition I will say over the past several years. We have made tremendous effort building databases, which enable us to track the conditions of these facilities. Ultimately, we want to get a place where we can be more proactive in the maintenance of these facilities but that’s going to take time.”

Kale reiterated the Air Force’s plan to get to a budget of 2% of replacement value and then push that up to 2.3%.

The installation investment plan calls for further increases as time goes on; increasing by about 2%, or a billion dollars a year.

“A key component of this strategy is sufficient and stable funding,” Richard Hartley, Air Force principal deputy assistant secretary for installations, environment and energy, told Federal News Network when the plan was released. “We are asking for an increase from what we’ve spent over the past few years, and that is a 2% floor we are going to try to put in place in the budget. That essentially gets us more money than we had in the recent past, and I would say that’s critical seed money to make this strategy successful. If we can’t secure enough funding to initiate this effort we will still be in the situation where we can’t change the proverbial oil. If we can’t change the oil; we are going to be in a situation where we are forced to change the engines that break.”

Part of that funding will come from divesting in facilities that are not worth repairing or are obsolete.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much the Air Force spent on facilities in 2021, because it is spread across multiple accounts. However, the service budgeted about $5 billion for FSRM and $1.4 billion for military construction. — SM

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