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After COVID delay, high-stakes test of Army’s critical battle command system underway

WASHINGTON — A high-stakes test of the Army’s battle command system expected to control air-and-missile defense shooters and sensors on the future battlefield is underway following a brief delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenn Todorov, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for missile defense solutions, told Defense News in a recent interview.

Northrop Grumman is the developer of the Integrated Air-and-Missile Defense Battle Command — or IBCS — system. The system’s development and fielding is the Army’s top air-and-missile defense modernization priority.

IBCS has had a long and marred history due to struggles in previous tests as well as increasing requirements causing a plethora of challenging software changes.

But recent successful tests over the past several years have resulted in a deeper confidence of the system and the Army has been racing to move through a Limited User Test at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, to get to a production decision. The test will decide the fate of the program.

The program was supposed to reach initial operational capability last year, but those plans slipped in 2017 by four years following software problems in the system’s first LUT in 2016.

IBCS was originally meant to serve as the command-and-control system for the Army’s future IAMD system against regional ballistic missile threats, but now the service sees a much more expansive future for the system with plans to tie it to sensors and shooters capable of taking out other complex threats like unmanned aircraft.

According to Todorov, the Army and Northrop had to take a “COVID pause” to ensure the safety of all of the participants of the LUT before proceeding. Originally, the IBCS LUT was scheduled for earlier in the spring as COVID was spreading quickly across the country.

And while precautions are being taken to ensure that participants stay healthy, Todorov said he does not believe those measures will sacrifice any of the rigor within the test.

The LUT will have a broader range of threats than the original from ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and air-breathing threats to counter as well as the integration of some joint air assets, Brig. Gen. Brian Gibson, who is in charge of the Army’s missile defense modernization, told Defense News last year.

During the pause due to COVID, Northrop took the extra time to improve the readiness of the system, in addition to developing policies and procedures to make sure employees were taking the right precautions to avoid the spread of the virus during the LUT.

The LUT is expected to go through the month of August with endurance runs as well as two major flight tests.

In Northrop’s 2nd quarter fiscal 2020 earnings call on July 30, CEO Kathy Warden said that “successful completion of this [engineering and manufacturing development] milestone will support IBCS production, deployment, and fielding to execute the Army’s [IAMD] modernization strategy,” adding the program was on track to reach a production decision later this year.

Warden also noted the success with the IBCS program and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) puts the company on a path to contribute heavily to an anticipated “next-generation” program called the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control system — JADC2 — which would create an information architecture across all domains and services.

Northrop’s IBCS development efforts are seen as a springboard into work it could do to develop JADC2, Todorov said.

Todorov said the IBCS system particularly has gone through “tremendous advances” as it has adapted to maturing and changing threats. One of the reasons the system has been able to evolve quickly is due to its designation by Congress — among just a few Defense Department programs — to adopt an agile software-development process that allows the system to be frequently updated with software upgrades or patches, as opposed to big software drops that potentially happen only once a year.

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