North American Airspace Defense Getting Cloud-Based Backbone Next Month

Cloud-based command-and-control for air defense over North America is set to be declared operational next month.

byHope Hodge Seck|


The cloud-based system the Air Force is co-developing with Canada to enable instantaneous combat data-sharing is just about ready for prime time, although the looming threat of a budget gap may slow its global deployment.

Cloud-based command-and-control (CBC2), a pillar of the service's Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), will hit initial operating capability roughly on schedule next month, Brig. Gen. Luke Cropsey, integrating program officer for Command, Control, Communications and Battle Management, told The War Zone and other outlets this week at the Air, Space, and Cyber conference near Washington, D.C. It's headed to three unspecified base locations within the first half of 2024, Cropsey said, with others to follow at "more scale" as what's anticipated to be a five-year rollout plan gets underway. 

For the Air Force, this will be the proving time for a system that government auditors critiqued earlier this year as insufficiently well-defined, a common criticism of ABMS as a whole, and the Defense Department-wide Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept it supports. But while JADC2 has most of its major implementation milestones well ahead of it, Cropsey emphasized the immediacy of the digital infrastructure rollout.

"The modernization of C2 isn't tomorrow; it's today," Cropsey said. "We're deploying capability starting now."

CBC2 is designed to replace the hardware-based Battle Control System-Fixed, which provides command-and-control for Canada and the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii. Officially made a program in 2022, CBC2 is "a set of microservice applications," according to an Air Force release, that can take in more than 750 radar feeds and deliver them to a single user interface.

The Western Air Defense Sector’s Battle Control System-Fixed illustrates the Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary 30-mile radius flight restricted area around U.S. Bank Stadium for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. The BCS-F is a modern real-time battle management command and control system. Fielded at the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Air Defense Sectors, BCS-F provides NORAD commanders with a highly interoperable and reliable platform in support of the nation's homeland defense air mission. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Kimberly D. Burke)

"The system then allows operators to create machine-generated courses of action to help shorten the tactical C2 kill chain and send a desired effect via machine-to-machine connections," the release adds.

In addition to delivering data faster and streamlining communication, CBC2 will build in new artificial intelligence elements. A January Government Accountability Office report states that it will build upon Pathfinder, an AI-empowered prototype that ingests "data that would in the past have been ... left on the cutting room floor," as North American Aerospace Defense Command chief Gen. Glen VanHerck put it in remarks reported by C4ISRNet.

Eastern Air Defense Sector (EADS) Airmen conducting the 24/7 air defense mission. CBC2 will drastically enhance the interfaces and data operators leverage for defending North American airspace. (USAF)

A September 2020 paper from the Canada Institute described Pathfinder as "giving new life to old sensors" for NORAD's defense.

"In a recent demonstration," the paper stated, "The Pathfinder system was tied to Federal Aviation Administration radars, and without any modification to the radars themselves, consistently demonstrated an ability to effectively detect and track very small unmanned aircraft, previously thought to be beyond the capability of the system."

This additional capability is especially relevant in the wake of the week-long Chinese spy balloon saga that began at the end of January, in which the high-altitude balloon traveled through U.S. airspace for days before being shot down off the coast of North Carolina by an F-22 armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. Three other shootdowns of unidentified objects followed in its wake. The highly publicized incidents prompted President Joe Biden to push for more stringent policies regarding the handling of airspace incursions and spawned calls for sharper surveillance and airspace monitoring, as well as demands from the Senate for a review of NORAD's “aerospace warning and control mission and procedures." 

The Air Force is also pursuing the employment of AI tools for domestic airspace monitoring in other contexts, including missile defense, with VanHerck saying that the technology's ability to detect anomalies and prioritize the most relevant information would allow observers to transition from a reactive posture to a proactive one.

SAIC received a $112 million contract in January to deliver CBC2.

Pave Paws early warning radar in Alaska. (RTX)

Cropsey highlighted the international partnership "woven into" the ABMS fabric through CBC2 as evidence of the way the Air Force was taking to heart the importance of close alliances and interoperability.

"For cloud-based C2 to be really useful in any context … it has to have the Canadians in on the ground floor," he said. "Now that's uncovering some interesting challenges in regards to the way that we think about moving things in the cloud and secure computing, [but] we've had tremendous support, quite frankly, from the office of the secretary of defense all the way down to our authorizing officials and getting [authorities to operate] for the things that we need to have in order to make that a reality."

He added that moving from a network to cloud data would create "a ton of additional trade space" in dealings with allies and partners, eliminating some of the security constraints that exist with network sharing. Taking advantage of that freedom of maneuver, he said, would require intentionality and a change of mindset.

Another successful aspect of CBC2's development, he noted, has been a concerted effort to break it down into manageable chunks, assigning dedicated personnel to supervise each microservice and "thin-slicing" the contracting to bring in the correct expertise in each aspect, with SAIC orchestrating delivery. To make this early success scalable, he said, he wants to keep the existing team small and replicate the focused approach as it's delivered to Indo-Pacific Command, Pacific Air Forces, and European Command.

The timing of getting to those further locations depends on the Air Force's success in tying CBC2 into the larger digital infrastructure, and getting reliable funding from Congress.

In its January report, GAO faulted the Air Force for leaving aspects of CBC2 undefined, including the specific benchmarks for IOC, full capability parameters, and future budget requirements.

Because of these ambiguities, "the Air Force risks that the requisite technologies will not be mature when needed," GAO found. "It also will be limited in its ability to determine whether it has sufficient resources for ABMS in future years."

Royal Canadian Air Force Cpl. Charles Milot, 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron engine technician, marshals a CF-18 Hornet during exercise Vigilant Shield. Air defense of North America is a team sport, with Canada and the U.S. working hand-in-hand to execute the 24/7 mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Justin Wright)

As he looks forward to fielding, Cropsey said a key concern was the complexity of "trying to tie together the different layers" of the system supporting the new command-and-control enterprise.

"If I don't have a digital infrastructure that connects, that activates back into the other pieces of the enterprise, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to drop CBC2 capability," he said.

And that's where the likelihood of a continuing resolution, which provides temporary and constrained funding until the passage of a new budget, comes into play. Congress has until Sept. 30 to fund the government; and if it fails to pass even a CR in that time, a government shutdown will take place.

Funding disruption, Cropsey said, would begin to impact CBC2 deployment beyond the three earliest planned locations, which remain a top priority.

"I need to actually put hardware out to host some of the stuff on, and your cost structure starts to shift as you move into fielding, as opposed to what you're doing early on for coding or writing," he said. "We'll keep those existing programs basically on track … we just won't be able to expand the actual infrastructure deployment as rapidly or to as many places as we would want."

Capability Release 1, the other major pillar of ABMS, which is planned to network fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s with KC-46 tankers, is also on track for fielding within the next year, Defense Daily reported in August.

The Air Force has undergone substantial reorganization of efforts to reach this point, including last year's creation of the C3BM office Cropsey now leads. The coming year should help to prove out the validity of the service's efforts to get its arms around its part of the sprawling JADC2 vision, which has thus far proved daunting for all stakeholders.

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