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Giving Military Information Sharing a Little More Backbone
When pilots approach a distant target or soldiers drive their Humvees toward a desert outpost, how do they know if they're flying or driving into anti-aircraft fire or an ambush? Surprisingly, the crucial information about what lies ahead—how many, how well armed, how far—is often sent from staff in command centers thousands of miles away.
Circulating situational awareness data from the battle theater to distant command centers and back requires a complex series of steps. Take an Air Force mission: First, a military asset, such as a U2 aircraft or a Global Hawk or Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, flies over operational theaters and relays massive streams of data back to the United States.
Once processed and analyzed, the pertinent information—about targets, the size of opposing forces, even the weather—is sent forward for pilots to use in developing their courses of action. The pilots then report back, confirming the data they've received or updating it as they get closer to the objective. The process repeats itself until the mission is complete.
What makes this information exchange work is a network of mainly land-based stations called the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (AF DCGS). Part of an Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSD-I) DCGS program, the system has aided the different military branches for more than a decade. When the Air Force took the lead in broadening the system's scope and usability, it asked MITRE to help.
What started as an enhancement program, however, has now expanded into an initiative to make DCGS not just better, but network-centric. This means the new system will become part of a worldwide information-sharing infrastructure, using the tools and technology of the Internet and the Web to make data available any time, any place. And although the improvement program began as a partnership between MITRE and the Air Force, the other armed services have enlisted in the development effort, largely in response to concepts we've proposed.
Sharing Begins with a Network
The biggest problem with the existing system is that it consists of older technology that discourages efficient information sharing, even within the same branch of the military. "When we started working on this problem more than 10 years ago, DCGS was mostly a collection of legacy systems in each of the services—and that's still true in many cases," says Joe Howard, MITRE's director of engineering for the 950th Electronic Systems Group (and former AF DCGS chief engineer).
"When the Air Force asked us to examine ways to improve this capability, we realized that it still had separate systems—even though they were networked and could communicate information at the output and input. But there was no sharing in the middle, so to speak. Every piece acted independently, so an operator who worked on a U2 mission, for instance, didn't have access to Global Hawk or Predator data."
Leaving Smaller Footprints
"We looked at where we could have the most influence on bringing these systems together," Howard says. "As an interim solution for the Air Force, we've designed a way to tie pieces of the system together on a wideband network and allow U.S.-based ground stations to share data."
The difference between earlier conflicts and recent ones has been striking. Senior principal engineer Lou York, the DCGS technical liaison to national intelligence programs—and former chief architect for Air Force DCGS—explains: "In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force deployed several planeloads of shelters and hundreds of people, all to support the collection, processing, and dissemination of surveillance and reconnaissance data.
"During Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, the Air Force was able to support entire field operations from U.S.-based stations and only deployed a handful of operators to the field. This happened so seamlessly that the people in the operational theater didn't even realize it. It was quite a reduction of people and saved huge amounts of resources in the field."
When Is a Network Really a Network?
But despite the success of the improved AF DCGS, the DoD has a ways to go to create a system that achieves genuine net-centricity. Howard notes that when MITRE first began examining ways to improve AF DCGS in the late 1990s, being Web-enabled wasn't even part of the planning.
"At that time, 'network' meant getting an IP [Internet protocol] address so you could transfer files. No one had thought of a net-centric structure—it was all client-server. That meant all the information would be stored on proprietary servers; clients [individuals needing the data] would download and upload what they needed.
We put together a blueprint for future development of the system and began supporting the concept and requirements development. At that point, networking the sites together through the wideband connection for information was the best solution."
But then something big happened.
"The information age just exploded in front of us," Howard says. "Suddenly, it became clear that the system needed to be net-centric, not just be connected by a physical wideband network at a handful of locations. We needed to take advantage of things like Web browsers and shared software applications and connect to each other all over the world. MITRE's expertise in the concepts and tools underlying net-centric operations allowed us to make valuable recommendations to the AF DCGS program office." MITRE worked with the program office to develop a multi-part technology strategy to make the system net-centric.
"We developed an infrastructure plan to allow individual workstations to share information, draw on common databases, and share workloads—to start becoming a truly distributed mission," York says. "This helps the DoD make more efficient use of its resources. Say one site in the U.S. was supporting a mission in Iraq but couldn't handle all the work during several peak missions. The new system allows other ground sites to pick up the workload without moving people around. These are the kind of net-centric capabilities that the Air Force is seeking."
Next steps in the migration plan are already taking shape, with contractors ready to start building the software configurations and MITRE acting as system engineer for the project.
Collaborating on What's Needed
Originally, MITRE focused on the Air Force-specific parts of DCGS, designing the wideband network to connect ground stations and implementing a net-centric architecture. But the Army, Navy, and the Marine Corps also have a share in the system, and certain elements of information sharing are common to all the branches, such as log-on/access, security, domain name service, and so on.
To improve long-term interoperability, MITRE and its research and development partners began pulling together a set of Web-centric services called the DIB (for DCGS Integration Backbone), which is designed to work with any service's configuration of the system.
"Whether they use the Air Force implementation or a similar one, we're all striving for the same goal—interoperability and sharing of data and information," Howard says. "In fact, before we helped the Air Force select a contractor to build its DCGS, we had engineers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps tear apart the technical requirements. Basically, everyone agrees on the set of the services that have become the DIB. It's been so well accepted that the Department of Defense now requires the other services to incorporate the Air Force's DIB into their DCGS plans."
In the meantime, MITRE has been providing guidance to the other services to help them with their configurations of DCGS. Howard says the Army, in particular, is interested in leveraging our experience with the Air Force system and has engaged MITRE to work on developing what's called the DCGS-A (for Army).
Making Information Available Worldwide, Any Time
Organizations outside the services have also taken notice of the DIB. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which controls reconnaissance and surveillance imagery data, has begun collaborating with the MITRE DCGS team to see how to incorporate elements of our work into its overall imagery management architecture.
Once the system is up and running, the outcome will be impressive. "From within the DCGS, for instance, a piece of unprocessed information entering the system from any point worldwide will immediately become available anywhere else in DCGS," York says. "Analysts will also process it and the results will then be available either through direct access to a DIB data repository or through a Web portal. For added security, there also will be a Web page that either allows an authorized person to access data directly or to access an application that will process the data and provide results."
"We're also developing a set of Web services in addition to the portal that will allow a person with a laptop to view situational awareness information, such as seeing where the surveillance platforms are, what missions are going on, and where the sensors are. If you have the right level of authority, you will be able to query the system and have data products sent directly to you to download and use."
"The DCGS is our implementation of a net-centric service-oriented architecture," Howard explains. "We're excited because we've pulled together a lot of our experience over the past few years and made it work for our sponsor. We've had our share of bumps along the road, being the first to implement a net-centric architecture, but we're also finding that our work on DCGS is enabling us to contribute to the overall systems engineering knowledge of net-centric operations."
—by Alison Stern-Dunyak
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Page last updated: August 28, 2006 | Top of page
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