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How We Get to Captain America-level Battle Speeds

by Gen. David Allvin, U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff via Defense One

In the season finale of the Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the new Captain America, a former Air Force pararescueman, uses the fusion of perfect communications, flawless sensors, and artificial intelligence to lead an air and ground operation to rescue hostages and capture a group of global extremists.

While this was entertaining fiction, the fact is that future conflicts will require the U.S. military to make rapid progress toward this and other aspirational visions of command and control, or C2, as I wrote in my recent Defense One article on the Department of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS. We are on the verge of a time in which we can collect vast amounts of data from sensors in every domain, share it with troops in every service branch, process that data to provide decision-quality information, and execute operations at a tempo that exceeds our adversary—all within the span of a typical Hollywood action sequence. Deciding and acting at speeds that fast is a decisive advantage in conflict and a powerful deterrent.

Unfortunately, our fascination with technological change tends to ground much public discussion on the future of C2 in our hardware and software. We fantasize often about how we build an AI like Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S., or a command center like the one aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, or a sensor-rich loyal wingman like Falcon’s Redwing.

But for real-world programs like ABMS and the coveted Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, to come together, we need cultural and organizational advances that are duller than the Hollywood dream-tech but more essential. Process matters, as does a uniform set of rules and a streamlined bureaucracy geared toward cooperation and integration.

The Department of Defense’s Joint Warfighting Concept and accompanying JADC2 strategy have given the services clear marching orders for alignment and integration on the future of C2. There are several key areas in which the Air Force must aggressively move forward with the other services to ensure we have a truly joint solution, rather than a capability accessible to multiple services. There is indeed a difference.

The first focus area involves standard technical and non-technical approaches to moving, sharing, and employing data. Sensors don’t know what service procured them. Algorithms designed to make sense of the environment don’t know the uniform of the commander for whom the insights will inform. The purposes for which we collect massive quantities of data from myriad sensors vary, but the principle remains the same: make the data available and let the user manipulate it to serve their purposes. Proprietary data platforms with pre-baked algorithms are of limited use to the joint force.    

Sharing isn’t easy, especially when the data source is an existing aircraft or system not designed for universal data exchange. When bringing yesterday’s systems forward, we are engaged in the military equivalent of building a smart switch that lets us control our 1970’s thermostat from our phone. For the future, however, the bigger challenge is creating joint processes and standards for how the services build new tech that is inherently meshed. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has reinforced this imperative. In May, he signed a strategy document that provides the governance and foundation necessary to enable rapid integration of artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, and other crucial emerging technologies. The strategy will ensure there is cohesion among the Air Force’s ABMS, the Army’s Project Convergence, and the Navy’s Project Overmatch. The Joint Requirements Oversight Council is also playing a crucial role here, breaking down barriers and moving the services from stove-piped C2 systems toward seamless data sharing across domains and organizations.

Equally important is the early involvement of our military allies and partners as full-time teammates in the C2 journey, which is already underway within the ABMS program. We believe we can both preserve national security equities while enhancing awareness and interoperability with our allies. These are not mutually exclusive goals. For JADC2 to work, we must make the practice of partnering on data systems and standards the norm within DOD, with industry, and with our allies.

We also must more quickly integrate the service’s laboratories and test centers working on our future C2 systems. A key feature of advanced C2 is DevSecOps, the rapid, continuous development and deployment of updated software with evolving operational requirements and security concerns identified and addressed along the way. Truly joint DevSecOps requires common hubs where service lab work meets joint tactics in tough joint operational tests.

The ongoing partnership between the Air Force’s Shadow Operations Center, or ShOC-N, at Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, and the Army’s Joint Systems Integration Lab, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, can serve as a model for integrated testing. Through this collaboration, a constant stream of Air Force, Space Force, and Army C2 improvements are rigorously assessed in virtual and live operations. The multi-service perspectives that inform the design, execution, and evaluation of the Nellis tests and experimentation deliver innovative capabilities that are better prepared for the challenges of real-world operations.

This vital component of fielding effective joint C2 systems points to the third key focus for JADC2 cooperation: service experimentation must be synchronized to put sufficiently developed technology in the hands of combatant commands for further stress-testing. The COCOMs provide exceptionally demanding operational environments where JADC2 solutions must sink or swim against the currents of different mission requirements, joint and international technologies, and organizational cultures.

The dawn of airpower provided the opportunity to seek new ways to adapt technology, break barriers, and drive a change in the character of warfare. It is this spirit of innovation that is woven into the DNA of our airmen. In some eras, it can be argued that the technology trailed the vision. Today, technological advances outpace our organizational and doctrinal adaptation. In the case of ABMS and JADC2, we must flip the script and accelerate our maturation of processes, authorities, and governance in order to match the capabilities that technology has placed on our doorstep. If we get the processes wrong—if we can’t clear the bureaucratic hurdles that threaten the art of the possible—then we risk winding up with awesome, but wasted, technology. It’s a recipe for losing, and that is unacceptable.

Gen. David Allvin is the U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff.