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​An E-8C Joint STARS assigned to Robins Air Force Base, Ga., prepares to take off Jan. 24, 2019, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The JSTARS will eventually be replaced by the Advanced Battle Management System. Air Force photo by A1C Bailee A. Darbasie.

​Preston Dunlap, an executive of national security analysis at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, started his new job as chief architect of its Advanced Battle Management System, which eventually will replace the legacy JSTARS aircraft, last week.

In his new role, Dunlap “will create and manage family of systems trade space, design margins, and define interfaces and standards to ensure interoperability across domains and permissive to highly contested environments,” a service spokeswoman said in a statement. “Leading the Advanced Battle Management System will be the Chief Architect’s first duty in support of the Multi-Domain Command and Control vision.”

The Air Force eliminated funding for the E-8 Joint STARS recapitalization program in its fiscal 2019 budget, opting instead to build a robust, open architecture family of systems that will be better capable of operating in an anti-access, area-denial environment against a peer adversary.

Beyond that, defining the ABMS is not easy, but that’s kind of the point. The service knows it wants the future family of systems to include a space component, an air component, and a command and control component, but how those three components work together, or which element might be more dominant, has yet to be determined.

Service acquisition chief Will Roper has acknowledged the program has gotten off to a slow start, but he said he expects the pace to pick up now that Dunlap is on board.

The Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, could point the way toward a radically new acquisition model for the Air Force—but first the service needs to get a better handle on what it’s going to include.  

Defining ABMS may not be easy, but that’s the point, Roper told Air Force Magazine in an interview. “The way our acquisition system works now, we presume we’re smart enough to know the right design before we bend metal. That’s crazy. There’s a huge trade space to explore,” he said. 

Rather than creating one massive acquisition program, Roper envisions multiple contributing programs, such as ABMS space, ABMS air, and ABMS networking and communications—each with its own funding, its own program manager, and its own schedule. The program manager would be tasked with pushing the program as far as possible in a set period of time, say two or three years, after which Roper said the service will be able to “re-evaluate what the next segment of the race should be and how it should be run.” 

While each of the program managers will be experts in their field, Dunlap will serve as the overarching “architect,” overseeing the big picture. He will report directly to Roper, who described the position as a system engineer or analyst who will spend a significant amount of time modeling and simulating how ABMS might work in the long run.

Roper said he expects Dunlap to have a small staff and leverage federally funded research and development centers or academic institutions, such as MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory or Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, for analytical expertise and support. 

“We’re going to try to avoid making the major defense acquisition program mistake, and instead, create a new role that we currently don’t have in defense acquisition,” Roper said. He added, “An architect, at least in theory, will be defined by the ability to do technical trades that flow back into the programs.”

The first phase will focus on developing the technology, with multiple goal lines defined by the architect. The more progress each individual program manager makes in the allotted time, the more funding will be available for the next phase of development. This way, Roper said, “You’re incentivized to go big.” 

Then, “at that chalk line in time, we’ll evaluate whether we have pushed the technology enough across those different domains to converge to an architecture that we call Advanced Battle Management System,” Roper said. “If you have, great. You integrate it, then go field it. If you haven’t, then you evaluate who did well and who didn’t, and if someone is further behind with an option to catch up, then you may terminate their tech push and shift it to someone else that still has the ability to go further. That’s where you could see the architecture shifting,” to a more space-centric or air-centric model, depending on where the most progress is seen. 

The second increment likely will be distributed unevenly across the components, Roper said, because each component is bound to mature at different rates. As the architect, Roper said Dunlap will serve as the “honest broker,” helping to motivate program managers to smartly take on risk. 

“It will be very much a tech-push program initially with rigid delivery times. If that technology does not make it, then it will have to go to the next variant. Keeping that constant delivery cadence to see if a design converges that can do the ground moving target indicator mission,” he said.

Roper is already looking at other places this process could be implemented. He’s spoken with combatant commanders and training leaders about how this approach could be used on training opportunities. Because the Air Force’s training needs are distributed across the country and utilize a variety of different trainers and simulators, each representing different missions and threat scenarios, an architect-type system could have merit there, he said.

Another possibility could be the next-generation air dominance system. Though he declined to provide much detail, saying he doesn’t want to “tell the world what we think the next generation of airpower will be,” he said a family of systems that allows for a diversified portfolio of options would make sense there, as well. 

For now, though, ABMS is the focus.

“During the next phase of my tenure in acquisition, I think getting ABMS right is a critical thing,” Roper said. “It creates a new model in acquisition, where when we have to create an integrated system, or a family of systems, we don’t automatically default to a Future Combat System-type program.” 

The Army’s ambitious Future Combat Systems program aimed to replace virtually its entire vehicle fleet. Once envisioned as a $25 billion program, it was cancelled in 2009, a massive flop.  

“The program of programs has not worked very well in the past,” Roper said.