'We Don't Have a Choice:' Military Exercises in 2021 Will Focus on This Big Problem

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Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS
Lt. Col. James Forrest operates a virtual-reality headset in support of the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, Onramp, Sept. 2, 2020, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Daniel Hernandez/U.S. Air Force)

War-gaming how and where data moves may not sound as exciting as planning a top-secret infiltration mission. But leaders must understand how quickly troops and their equipment can communicate when up against an enemy.

For the next year, the services will be running data-heavy exercises to determine how much and how fast data can be pushed through to warfighters.

"You've got to accelerate common command and control or you're going to lose," Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements at the Pentagon, said in a recent interview with Military.com.

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"You'll see the services much more aligned" as they run experiments on weapons, aircraft and other equipment relaying real-time information back to troops, he said.

Teams will practice how to "win" in their field of work by "follow[ing] a piece of data through the architecture," Hinote added.

"You have to think about the data passing through the architecture in all domains, and [making an effect]," he said. People often associate that with a weapons release on a target -- but it doesn't have to be.

"What we end up doing, with multiple runs -- like in the thousands -- is [we look at], 'How does that data get from this to this?'"

The services are under pressure to get it right, especially if they want to eclipse adversaries working on similar technological feats.

"We don't have a choice on this," Hinote said. "Because the types of scenarios that the national defense strategy says we have to be ready to accomplish can't be accomplished any other way."

Connect, Share and Learn Faster

Even before the rollout of the 2018 National Defense Strategy under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Pentagon leaders wanted troops to think more about fighting across the "multi-domain" battlespace -- incorporating space, cyber, etc. They also want the right resources to properly train and equip service members for future wars.

For example, the Pentagon's "Third Offset" strategy, advanced by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, triggered a shift within the Defense Department to develop technologies to exploit against adversaries such as Russia and China.

Hinote also cited then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein's vision to build a networked approach to warfighting, moving away from aircraft-only or equipment-only solutions. Goldfein's "connect, share, learn" strategy focused on moving the service to develop a "family of systems" that connect and share with one another to read the battlespace in real time.

"[Goldfein] saw this earlier than I think almost anybody else did -- this idea that in order for us to win, we're going to have to be able to be a team, and a team across the domains in a way that we just haven't yet," Hinote said. Under Goldfein, Hinote was the deputy director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability office, a think tank-like organization established in 2018 to analyze where the service could use innovative solutions to close gaps or enhance mission sets.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown in August debuted his "Accelerate Change Or Lose" strategy, describing the service's task at hand as a "journey," one that should leverage partnerships with sister services, partners and allies, and industry.

The service "has got to move faster," he said during a phone call at the time with reporters describing the premise of his guidance.

Brown previously led Pacific Air Forces, where he oversaw more than 46,000 airmen operating out of Japan, Korea, Hawaii, Alaska and Guam. The job afforded him a chance to observe China's military buildup on contested islands in the South China Sea and discern how China has rapidly emerged with an aim to overshadow America on the global stage.

"We got to move at the pace, at least the same pace that our adversaries are moving -- and so that's why we've got to adjust ... and be willing to change and ready to change in the same way," Brown said.

There are growing interservice efforts.

The Air Force has been moving full speed ahead on a strategy to link weapons and capabilities for better centralized oversight and control. Known as the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, the state-of-the-art program focuses on fusing intelligence sensor data from weapons and spacecraft anywhere around the world.

The service conducted a series of ABMS tests this year. One of the largest took place in September, involving U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Space Command, "70 industry teams, 65 government teams from every service including the Coast Guard, 35 military platforms, 30 geographic locations and four national test ranges," according to an Air Force news release.

Hinote said the goal over the next year is to connect equipment across the services where possible, with each adding their own specialties.

In September, Brown and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville signed an agreement for the services to cooperate on the Air Force's ABMS program and the Army's similar Project Convergence effort. The initiatives fall under the Defense Department's Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control framework.

"We need to get these systems talking together. When you are taking target data from one system and writing it down and taking it and inputting it into another system, that's just not going to work in today's world," Hinote said of the arbitrary methods service members must use to execute tasks. "Those two to four minutes could be the difference between success and failure."

Practice Versus Politics

While the U.S. devoted its attention to counterinsurgency conflicts over the past two decades, Russia began using mixed urban techniques in its hybrid warfare operations against Ukrainian forces, and China started to invest heavily in weapons and equipment that leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence.

"When you think through the types of challenges that we were trying to solve 10 years ago, they were very different from the types of challenges that you have when you're thinking about the possibility of having to deny or to defeat a Russia or China in some aggression that they may be doing," Hinote said.

But the military's data-sharing efforts are hitting some obstacles.

Challenges can involve data rights, or who owns the data or intellectual property. Sometimes, all that's needed is a waiver; other times, security protocols come into play, Hinote said.

"There will be competing perspectives on that," he said. "[But] the teams have been working really hard to overcome some of the policy challenges of connecting across different platforms.

"You get to this, 'It's technically feasible, but how are we really going to do it? And is it good enough to just use old organizational constructs? Are we going to have new organizational constructs?'" he added.

Leaders are eager to move forward, with another experiment scheduled in U.S. European Command in the spring.

Hinote said he's hopeful Congress may be "warming" to the concept, though it isn't a visible show of warfighting strength, such as planes on a flight line.

In the final version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act released earlier this month, Congress said it wants detailed benchmarks on what ABMS is intended to achieve and requests a report from the Air Force secretary by April.

It's also expected that allies and partners will eventually want in on the action.

"I think you're gonna see much more co-development of capabilities with our allies and partners than you've seen in the past, and I think that [will] take off in 2021," Hinote said.

"I think one of the big things you will see is a real effort, certainly on the part of the Air Force, as Gen. Brown writes about this in his 'Accelerate Change' paper, of collaboration," he added.

"I will be fascinated to see how Congress reacted to the felt need to be more agile in the way that we get equipment for our people."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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