Q&A: Brig. Gen Luke Cropsey, Head of Air Force Command, Control, Communications, Battle Management

By Sean Carberry

Air Force photo

Over the last year, the Air Force has reorganized offices and personnel to meet the demands of the Defense Department’s joint all-domain command and control initiative, or JADC2. The concept is to “sense, make sense and act” by linking sensors to command centers to “shooters.”

Each service has marched out on efforts to solve the JADC2 puzzle, and the Air Force’s main initiative has been the Advanced Battle Management System. Last fall, the service established the Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications and Battle Management, or C3BM, which merged the Advanced Battle Management System acquisition authorities from the Rapid Capabilities Office and Chief Architect Authorities under the leadership of Brig. Gen Luke Cropsey.

National Defense interviewed Cropsey on June 23. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What’s been the learning curve and the journey since [taking on the position]? And what have you found both on the bureaucracy and process side of things and on the technical side of things?

A. I characterize the problem space in kind of three big integration chunks. There’s the technical integration problem, right? That is kind of the one that everybody thinks about first, it’s how you can actually make the beeps and squeaks work. The physics part of this gets a vote.
So, how are you going to put the right waveforms, the right apertures, the right processing, the right apps, the right all of those kinds of things — which by itself is a wicked hard problem — but it’s not the only problem you have to go figure out how to solve.

In some ways, the bigger problem is actually how you do the authorities and the process integration, and what I’ll call the corporate side of this. So, we basically built a structure on the department side of the business that is largely built to do platform-level integration, organic kill chains.

The scenario that we’re in now is with the kind of highly contested environment that we’re expecting to see in a future fight. Those organic kill chains, those individual platforms that we’ve designed for like the last five decades, aren’t actually going to be able to get to the target to do their job the way that we’ve designed them to do. So, what happens is you have to figure out how you engineer at the next level. And that next level is how do you do a systems integration out across those platforms, extend those kill chains and be able to get out there and touch the enemy at ranges that before we’ve never had to really think about it.

And now you get into the long-range kill chain problem. And that requires a whole different level of integration. Our requirements system, our acquisition system or budgeting processes — they’re not designed for that level of problem. They’re designed for the platform problem, right?

We do the requirements by platform, we do the acquiring by the platform, we do the budget by the platform. So, now you’re looking at a PEO that has to figure out square peg, round hole.

How do you build a system-of-systems capability for C2 that will span all those different aspects of the problem, but do it in a system that doesn’t actually know how to do the piece that you’re asking it to do?

So, those are the conversations that we’re having now, in terms of what kind of governance you need to put into place so that you can still leverage what’s already there? Like we’re not rewriting Goldwater-Nichols in the next six months, so, how do you take the existing authority structure, and then put the governance that you need in so that you can still make that end system-of-systems problem functional?

Q. That seems to be what I hear a lot. Whether it’s at conferences or talking to industry about JADC2, but also whether it’s bringing in more modeling and simulation or various things, most people will say the technology is 80 to 90 percent there. It’s figuring out the governance models, the acquisition authorities and all these things to pull it all together. So, what are some of the things that you’re doing? What are you able to do within your current position, what additional authorities are needed either from higher level in the department or from Congress to be able to get at grabbing this technology that’s out there?

A. I think it depends a little bit on what level of the integration you’re looking to achieve. So, within the Department of the Air Force, the secretary has all of the authorities that he needs to fix this.

So, in terms of the way that we’re practically structured, I’m welded at the hip on the acquisition side with the ABMS Cross Functional Team on the operational side. So, I get my operational requirements, the things that I have to be capable of making the C2 go do, directly from the ABMS CFT. So, the CFT is acting as a … clearing house, to collect up all of those operational level requirements for how we do 21st century decision-making inside of the context of a shooting war and weighing that in along with the technology conversation that we’re having, so that it’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m having this operational conversation,’ and then I write this 300-page document that I then send over to the acquirer, and I hope the acquirer can figure out how to read the operational speak and give me the system that I need.

That’s not how we’re doing this. So, [ABMS CFT lead Brig. Gen. Jeffery Valenzia] and I are literally like Siamese twins around this building.

We’re completely welded together with regards to the end-to-end conversation that we need to have, because he might look at something from tactics, techniques and procedures standpoint, in terms of how the battle manager would do the actual fight, that I may not have the sticky information around. But when I see and hear what they’re talking about doing, I’m like, ‘Well, guys, we can just automate that and just take all that bookkeeping that you’re having to do in your head or on stickies out of the equation altogether and completely jam this stuff through the system.’

The flip side is there may be things that technically are really, really hard for me to do that from an operational standpoint, they’re like, ‘Well, we’ll just tweak the process and then we don’t have to do that hard physics problem.’ So, these are the conversations that we’re in every day together, because of the way the secretary set us up. That allows us to rapidly iterate before we actually have to put hardware out in the field and somebody go, ‘That’s not what I was thinking you’re going to give me.’ And there’s a degree of the pacing, the clock speed inside of what we’re trying to do is something that we’re trying to get after in a very deliberate fashion. We’re not talking about years here. We’re talking about how do we do these things in months?

Q. What’s your reach into the commercial technology world in terms of having kind of a library of what’s out there so that when there is an operational conversation, someone says, ‘We need X,’ you aren’t then sitting there going, ‘Okay, we need to design and commission X.’ You go, ‘Actually, this company has it, if you plug it in with that company’s thing, right?’

A. One of the advantages of having a heritage that we do is because of the way that the on-ramps were built, it generated a massive cross section of industry engagement. And they also set up some specific contractual vehicles that would allow us to get a very wide variety of players on an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, so that they would be contractually available to do exactly what you just said.

So, we have a substantial raft of potential commercial providers that could step into providing individual nodes or edges in that architecture as we identify where those holes are at.

The other thing that we’re doing is we have a very direct partnership with [Air Force innovation program] AFWERX. We’re talking with [the Defense Innovation Unit]. There’s a significant amount of dialogue and discussion directly with industry in my office in terms of conferences that we’re going out to. I spend a huge amount of time at those just circulating, listening and talking to people.

So, we’re trying to build, I would say a fully orbed ecosystem, and the commercial context and the industry context that will help inform our understanding about what’s available and where we don’t have to go reinvent the wheel.

Q. Where are things in experimentation versus fielding and delivering capabilities? There’s been a lot of experimentation. There’ve been some folks on the outside saying there hasn’t been enough delivery so far. So where does that sit?

A. Well, my boss was absolutely one of those voices, right? He’s like, ‘Look, experimentation can’t just be experimentation. There has to be a reason for doing it and that reason has got to be warfighting capability at scale.’ So, if you talk to Secretary [Frank] Kendall, you’re almost guaranteed to hear him ask, ‘What are you doing that’s going to provide me capability at scale?’

Because one offs are interesting, right? Those are kind of the science fair projects. But what are you going to do to actually put that capability, enough quantity, in the right places with trained people so that you have a warfighting capability?

So, from my standpoint, experimentation and prototyping is the servant to the operational capability you’re trying to field. And if you have a knowledge gap there, then that modeling and simulation capability, or that experimentation and prototyping, is designed to specifically go test that hypothesis, answer the hypothesis about the capability that you need to field. And then once you’ve answered it, you need to get busy, like quit talking about it and start doing.

So, there’s a whole series of acquisition related capability that we’re on the verge of starting to push out to the field over the next 12 to 18 months that were a result of some of those previous things. But it takes time to push that scale through the system. But we’re at the point now, where that scale is actually starting to deliver.

Q. Are there things that have been delivered at this point?

A. Between the chief architect’s office and ABMS team — the previous separate entities that we’ve now welded back together — we’ve had a significant amount of cross play in a number of joint exercises with various different technologies and components that we put out there that we’re using to directly inform the acquisitions that we’re doing right now. But I would not characterize them as full capability to the definition that I just gave.

There are things that we’ve experimented with specifically to solve [combatant command]-related exercise-induced challenges that are working. And because they’re now working, we’re like, we’ve got enough information on that knowledge gap to get after getting to a solution.

So, I haven’t delivered solutions at scale to this point. But we have definitely used the conversations and the experiments that we’ve had over the last couple of years to shape those acquisition strategies. And those will start popping out next year — actually, the end of this year.

Q. Is there anything in terms of any specifics of any of the capabilities, programs or dollar amounts or anything that you’re able to lay out at this point?

A. I’ve got about six acquisition strategies. They’re all in the pipeline right now. I would say by this fall timeframe, we’ll be able to talk about [them] with a higher degree of precision. But because those are all still kind of in [the works], we’re not going into those details for obvious reasons.

We have an existing set of programs that we’ve been running. There are the things that we’re doing on the tanker side, they are the things that we’re doing on the digital infrastructure side and there are things that we’re doing in the software side of the business. So, cloud based C2 for [Northern Command] is going extremely well. That’ll go [initial operational capability] by the end of fiscal year 2023.

We’re on the verge of making some significant decisions on the digital infrastructure front that will have [service]-wide implications for how we think about what we’re doing with software-defined networks and deployable digital infrastructure. And there’s a small raft of things that are on the verge of coming out that will be specific, tangible, concrete nouns. 

Topics: Air Force News

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