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Open architecture bringing benefits to Air Force DCGS

The Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS, weapon system is the Air Force's premier globally networked intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance weapon system. The DCGS uses 20 geographically separated, networked sites to produces intelligence information collected by the U-2, RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator.

The Distributed Common Ground System is the Air Force's primary globally networked intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planning and direction, collection, processing and exploitation, analysis and dissemination weapon system. A team from battle management is developing an open architecture for Air Force DCGS, enabling a plug-and-play-type environment. (U.S. Air Force photo)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFNS) -- A battle management team is working to improve capabilities for warfighters who process and disseminate intelligence information.

The Air Force Distributed Common Ground System is the Air Force’s key system for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. There are dozens of DCGS sites around the world with thousands of Airmen working in them 24/7.

According to program officials, the current system’s closed architecture causes Airmen to spend time performing tasks not related to their primary analytical duties.

“In order to support CFACC (Combined Forces Air Component commander) intelligence needs, (Air Force) DCGS must be able to conduct time-dominant and decision-quality analysis to optimize ISR operations, produce timely assessments and enhance battlespace awareness and threat warnings,” said Lt. Col. Joshua P. Williams, Air Force DCGS Branch materiel leader. “To ensure rapid response to changing threats and intelligence, our team worked to develop an open and agile architecture, enabling a plug-and-play-type environment.”

The battle management team partnered with Air Combat Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory to make the transition, which is partially in place.

According to Williams, the previously closed system resulted in isolated designs, non-agile processes, lengthy deployment cycles, and sometimes unsupported and end-of-life hardware and software solutions by the time a system was operational. He explained that, with the new architecture, the Air Force does not have to engineer the entire system to include hardware and software for each operational capability since it is standardized to support quick capability integration.

“We simply integrate, test, operationally verify and field,” he said.

In 42 weeks, the team created, implemented and institutionalized open hardware and software processes and specifications and migrated an operational capability to the new architecture, reducing analyst evaluation and decision time by more than 60 percent.

“Using live data with certified operators in two geographically separated locations, we were able to demonstrate the improved abilities of the open architecture by reducing analyst processing, evaluation and decision time,” Williams said. “And the operator feedback was positive across the board.”

Some of the improvements include single consolidation of disparate operator workflow, allowing the gathering and storing of intelligence in one location where it can later be quickly queried, and drastically increasing target identification time and execution.

This specific work of open architecture risk reduction is the initial phase of a three-phase plan. The risk reduction piece concluded last December. Currently, the program is deploying pilots which incorporate the new structure in three locations with three varying mission threads.

“The pilots enable a smaller-scale deployment in parallel to the current operational system and allow the program to mature the capability and processes without impacting everyday operations,” Williams said.

The piloting phase will conclude in early summer 2017 with a development and operational test. And while the deployment and mission thread work is specific to Air Force DCGS, the new architecture is being developed on open standards. This will allow other systems within the DCGS family of systems to take advantage of the improved capabilities as well.

Williams said the effort is about more than just having a government-controlled technical baseline. Because the program office now owns the design and is not contracting for the management, design, engineering, deployment or sustainment of the system, it is the integrator and must understand the interfaces, program and project dependencies.

“This effort changes every aspect of the (Air Force) DCGS program,” he said. “We have streamlined processes to support agile development and capability development, allowing for incorporation of new applications in weeks, instead of months or even years. The open architecture is truly a force multiplier for (Air Force) DCGS.”

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