On July 20, 2021, Heather Penney, Senior Resident Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, joined the Mitchell Institute for a special event examining her new policy paper, “Speed is Life: Accelerating the Air Force’s Ability to Adapt and Win.” During the event, Penney discussed the pathway the U.S. Air Force needs to adopt in order to succeed against the complex set of growing adversarial threats.
Penney began the forum by explaining that today’s Air Force warfighters employ a fixed set of capabilities and software that were decided upon “at least five years ago, if not longer.” But to outpace U.S. adversaries, Penney argues that “warfighters must have the ability to tailor their systems and networks to optimize their force package for any given objective.”
One of the key findings of Penney’s study is that there is a need for rapid adaptation of “blue forces” in order to accelerate change. Through her research, she was able to identify three principles that would facilitate this adaptive change.
The first is speed. Adaptation must be faster than “old blue,” and outpace U.S. adversaries’ levels of speed and adaptation.
The second principle is that adaptive changes must provide real operational benefit. Penney stated, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just better.” She also explained that operational benefits must be relevant to the competitive context.
The final principle Penney’s research identified was that adaptive change must “impose confounding effects upon the adversary and confer resilient complexity to friendly forces.” Adaptive changes must block effective targeting of blue forces by U.S. adversaries.
Penney pointed out that future operational concepts like multi-domain or all domain operations and Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) seek to harness these principles. According to Penney, the key to harnessing these principles can be found in how the Air Force uses weapon systems and aircraft in “new and creative ways.”
Additionally, operational architectures, how the Air Force fights, what they have in the battle space, and their interdependencies will be the main points of adaptive advantage. Battle networks and data links are the base of how the Air Force fights. And, according to Penney, “This will only increase in the future.”
The Air Force will also need to be able to adapt its architectures faster than U.S. adversaries can attack them. And at the heart of this adaptation are mission integration tools.
Unfortunately, there is one major barrier standing in the way of fully realizing this adaptation and mission integration. Penney explained that the primary roadblock to being able to field these software tools is bureaucratic policy.
According to Penney the “color of money,” is the first bureaucratic policy barrier. She explained, “The funding categories are fundamentally ill suited for the pace of software development. The rate at which we obligate money for different activities, and the limitations we have on who can spend what for what prevents us from fielding software tools.”
We must address these bureaucratic barriers to fielding mission integration software tools that can provide our forces an adaptive advantage.” – Heather Penney
The second barrier is a lack of a dedicated system program office. Data links are typically managed as part of the overall capability package of the major weapon system. Penney explained, “They’re subjugated to those developmental and monetization timelines and program priorities. Too often, mission integration falls below the cut line.”
The final barrier to adaptive change is the need for data link architecture to reflect operational concepts. Because different kinds of data links are incompatible, there is a need to translate and optimize heterogenous connectivity. And due to network terminals being static, change is difficult.
To accelerate change, Penney argued, “We must address these bureaucratic barriers to fielding mission integration software tools that can provide our forces an adaptive advantage.”
Currently, the Air Force builds its network through systems engineering, which figures out how to best fit these fixed systems together. Instead, the Air Force should focus on moving towards a mission integration approach. According to Penney, there must be a shift from a “What can we do?” mindset, to a “What do we want to do?” approach. And the software tools that enable this adaptive approach already exist.
The first tool is DARPA’s System-of-systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogenous Electronic Systems (STITCHES) program. STITCHES enables message translation across different systems without changing message formatting or losing data, and it does not require a common standard.
Second, is DARPA’s Adapting Cross-domain Kill-webs (ACK) vision integration tool. ACK is a decision software that can analyze thousands of potential cross-domain kill webs to recommend the best mission-specific kill chain.
The last tool that Penney cited was DARPA’s Dynamic Network Adaptation for Mission Optimization (DyNAMO) program. DyNAMO is a program that automatically routes data to the user who needs it in real-time, and manages the flow and prioritization of data so that lower priority does not create a traffic jam for higher priority data.
Penney explained that the Air Force could start fielding these tools immediately, but bureaucratic policy roadblocks still stand in the way.
One bureaucratic policy barrier that Penney discussed was Congress’ creation of the Budget Activity 8 (BA 8) funding category, which is intended to capture the full lifecycle of software in one category. But, unfortunately, BA 8 cannot be applied to broad area announcements, which are critical contractual means for research agencies.
Another layer of complication is that research agencies are prevented from using any budget activity beyond BA 4. Essentially, research agencies like DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) are constrained in how they can fund the development of software programs.
Mission integration tools also have challenges of their own pertaining to their transition to an operational community. Penney explained that the adaptive nature of these programs has been defined by General Counsel as research and development (R&D) or as Penney put it “3600 money.” She explained, “…3600 money cannot be programmed or obligated by an operational command like the Air Combat Command.”
In essence, the “color of money” is hindering speedy software development and is blocking these tools from reaching the warfighter. As a result, Air Force networks remain static and predictable, enabling the adversary’s strategy for victory.
No war was ever won by spreadsheet. It’s time we make the bureaucratic changes that will accelerate our operational change.” – Heather Penney
To remedy these challenges, Penney argued that research agencies need access to this funding, and they must have the option to do so using a broad area announcement.
Research agencies must also be able to streamline these software programs to the operational community “without necessarily requiring a full and open competition that extends the timeline to field and may not deliver the same code.”
Lastly, Penney called for operational commands to have a similar budget activity – like BA 8 – that enables them to “employ, sustain and evolve mission integration tools at the speed of software.”
“We need mission integration tools because they can connect and be the bridge between our legacy force, our current force, and our future force,” said Penney. “These mission integration tools can enable these kinds of operations today.”
She explained that the Air Force risks losing its ability to deter and win when in peer conflict due to bureaucratic policy. “We’re letting bean counters and administrative processes guide what we can field and how we can fight, not combat requirements,” said Penney. “No war was ever won by spreadsheet. It’s time we make the bureaucratic changes that will accelerate our operational change.”