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Path for DARPA tech to become part of military’s JADC2 enterprise still unclear

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has developed numerous tools that could help the U.S. military connect its sensors and shooters. The problem, a top DARPA official said, is getting the services to understand how to adopt novel software technologies with unique fielding requirements.

“We’ve got a portfolio of about 20 technology programs spanning different functional areas providing the tools needed to do this very rapid, just-in-time integration to meet mission needs,” Tim Grayson, who leads the DARPA Strategic Technology Office, said during a July 20 event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“Our real big challenge now is how to transition those. We don’t have a nice, clean-cut program office where we can take our tools and put them directly in a classic, conventional program of record. They’re not designed to do those kinds of things. They’re enabling infrastructure.”

Typically, DARPA produces an advanced technology that could be turned into a program of record by the services, which then continue to mature that product before competing a contract.

But many technologies DARPA is developing for the Pentagon’s future war-fighting strategy of Joint All-Domain Command and Control don’t need further development, Grayson said. They need the people who will use the new technologies so that the services can implement the advances.

“What we’re really talking about doing is not buying technology, but buying bodies — buying human beings that will go out and use these tools to conduct mission planning,” he said. “If you put it in that context, it does not sound like RDT&E, but because it’s technology and because it’s coming from DARPA, because it smells like still needing to develop something … the current mindset is, it’s got to go to some program of record.”

One recent success story is the DARPA’s System-of-systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems program — also known as STITCHES.

The tool can autonomously write a software patch that translates messages between platforms using incompatible data types. The Air Force recently started to integrate STITCHES, though Grayson said its path has been a “rocky road.”

Although STITCHES has been validated in 19 experiments, the services have been slow to adopt it because they can’t figure out whether to pay for it with research and development funding or money set aside for sustainment, according to FedScoop.

The Air Force’s 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, which was established in June, is starting a “STITCHES Warfighter Application Team” that will teach units how to use the STITCHES software and act as a help desk to support to established users of the tool.

“Someone from across the Air Force — or maybe, depending on policies, from across DoD as a joint activity — will call up SWAT and say I’ve got an integration problem,” Grayson said. “This can be anything from getting a new box on a platform to doing some large-scale JADC2 [combatant command] kind of exercise. The STITCHES team will go out [and] help them with that.”

However, Grayson acknowledged that most technologies under development by DARPA do not have a clear path to become part of the services’ JADC2 efforts: the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, the Army’s Project Convergence and the Navy’s Project Overmatch.

There are “bits and pieces” that have been adopted by the services, he said. For example, the Air Force tested STITCHES and the agency decision-making tool Adapting Cross-domain Kill-webs, or ACK, during an ABMS experiment in September 2020.

Naval Air Systems Command has started to adopt DARPA’s Dynamic Network Adaptation for Mission Optimization (DyNAMO) — which helps route information across networks to the user who needs it — for the Marine Corps.

“The challenge we have now that we are working with things like ABMS and the other JADC2 elements is, how do we keep coherence?” Grayson said. “Maybe the answer is experimentation, maybe it’s program of record transition, but we’ve got to maintain some kind of coherence across this federated portfolio as these programs go off and have their own lives.”

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