February 04, 2005

US Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station

Foundation for ISR Transformation


Latest version of Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station will enable participants all over the network to be part of mission planning.

By W.L. Miller

The Air Force is working on an upgraded intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system that backers see as a foundation for transformation within the broader ISR community.

The current system, made up of legacy components, is known as the Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS). The program of the Electronics Systems Center, Air Force Materiel Command, Hanscom Air Force Base, MA, reached a major evolutionary milestone when it became the focus of a significant upgrade initiated last fall.

DCGS is a globally dispersed, wide area network of fixed and mobile ground processing systems for ISR data collected from high-flying manned and unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites, of which Predator, Global Hawk and U-2 are the most familiar.

The main function of the system is to receive intelligence feeds from multiple sources at a common ground station. The data is then processed, stored, correlated, exploited and disseminated to Air Operations Centers (AOCs) to enable time-critical strikes.

The initial award to the Raytheon team for the Air Force work was for an estimated $161 million to deliver up to 29 upgraded DCGS systems to various Air Force locations between 2004 and 2009. The expenditure for the DCGS upgrade systems will likely increase over time, including requirements for Navy DCGS capabilities, which are also included in the projected scope of work.

DCGS has gone through many modifications, but the latest upgrade effort, known as Block 10.2, is the most significant. Proponents of DCGS speak of Block 10.2 as more than an evolutionary step in the maturing of integrated ISR systems. As the cornerstone, COTS-based, Air Force ISR processing system, DCGS is to be outfitted with some new and far-reaching capabilities, many of which are classified or sensitive.

“It’s a linchpin program,” said Morris Johnston, DCGS program manager for Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems. “It will become the foundation for a new level of transformation within the ISR community.”

Joe Giroux of MITRE, who is the DCGS Block 10.2 principal engineer, stresses the interoperability demands of the new age of warfare. “Over the years, battle scenarios have become much more complex and require a lot more coordination among U.S. forces and our coalition partners,” Giroux said. “DCGS is a central system in that respect. Block 10.2 will make it possible for participants all over the network to be part of mission planning.”

Interoperable Architectures

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Wert, chief of information exploitation systems at ESC, emphasized the importance of what DCGS is and where it is headed.

“In DCGS, the Department of Defense and Office of the Secretary of Defense have an over-reaching program that sets joint strategy, standards and architecture,” he said. He pointed out that each service currently has a DCGS system, and all services are building these systems according to overriding standards and architectures that will achieve interoperability.

“While some interoperability exists today at the product level,” Wert continued, “in early 2003, the OSD defined a greater level of operability and the systems architectures needed for joint operability at an information level.”

There are currently five core or regional sites and multiple national sites where DCGS operations take place. “The DCGS concept involves a federation of core sites, forward operating locations, data relay sites and elements of Air Operations Centers,” Wert said. “About half the systems within an AOC are ISR-related. These elements are all networked, either through dedicated communications lines, a Wide Area Network, satellite transmissions or other means. The forward operating locations are re-deployable.”

Bringing DCGS to a new level of operational effectiveness is the job of Lieutenant Colonel Steve Zenishek, program manager for DCGS Block 10.2. “The real program emphasis is on formulating a net-centric architecture ensuring all appropriate sites will get the necessary information at the same time,” he said. “The new contract will expand the existing network to include new Air National Guard sites.”

Zenishek said he views DCGS in the context of the changing nature of battle. “We still do mission planning, and during the mission we scan large volumes of information. Fighting an enemy using the kind of actions typified in Afghanistan and Iraq—guerilla warfare, hit-and-run operations and ambush tactics, for example—is difficult. But sensor capabilities are being developed that will make that job easier.”

Targets in traditional wars are usually industrial facilities, massed armies, fixed facilities or weapon systems. DCGS will enable the military to better contend with moving targets, whether human or mechanized, Zenishek said. “The Block 10.2 improvements will let us field a net-centric enterprise with emphasis on building a greater time-sensitive targeting capability in the AOC. By putting the Block 10.2 architecture in place, we’ll be able to transmit information faster and get it to the users sooner.”

Success in DCGS means taking people out of the information-sharing loop, where computers can do the job better through machine-to-machine interfaces, Zenishek contended. “In Operation Iraqi Freedom [OIF], we identified fleeting targets in near real-time. So it’s possible with current systems to a point, but it involves a lot of human interaction. The DCGS upgrade will automate that process so that information sharing in real-time will become routine.”

Major Chuck Angus, Air Force DCGS sustainment system manager, agreed with that perspective. “The performance of the system in OIF provided many examples of how time-sensitive targeting capability was of benefit,” he said.

Angus added that he looks forward to an improved DCGS capability. “DCGS is an aging system, and Block 10.2 will bring in system capabilities that will definitely enhance the warfighter’s effectiveness.”

Intelligence and Imagery

DCGS evolved from two systems, of which the first was the U-2 high altitude surveillance aircraft and the intelligence acquisition systems associated with its mission that during the Cold War processed signal intelligence and imagery inputs. These key 1980s programs were the Tactical Reconnaissance Intelligence Ground System and Tactical Reconnaissance Exploitation and Dissemination System.

“In the early 1990s, these two legacy systems were consolidated into several sheltered systems and re-designated as the Contingency Airborne Reconnaissance System (CARS),” explained Dan Towers, Warner Robins liaison for ISR ground systems at ESC.

A CARS system was deployed to support Southwest Asia operations in the mid-1990s. To reduce airlift, deployment operations and manpower costs, the system relayed data back to the CONUS and exploited it at Langley AFB. This ability resulted in the “reachback” concept being created, and paved the way for today’s DCGS architecture.

The second point of origin for DCGS was the Joint Service Imagery Processing System (JSIPS), begun in 1987. JSIPS collected national intelligence information as well as tactical intelligence. It received inputs from various aircraft, including the U-2. This program continued into the mid-1990s, when each of the services began developing intelligence-gathering systems.

JSIPS was transformed to modernize the acquisition and processing of intelligence information by using COTS hardware and software. This design approach, the integration with other intelligence systems like CARS and a required set of DoD integration standards all combined to emerge as DCGS in 1998. The idea was to join many separately fielded systems, which handled many different pieces of the Air Force’s ISR mission.

One key limitation of these earlier systems was that they were point to point—that is, one theater or area of operations was linked to one processing site at one location. But DCGS evolution has essentially eliminated the one-to-one ratio of areas of operations and the sites supporting them. It has introduced a wide area network approach and a distributed intelligence capability with a potential to link about 30 worldwide sites representing five core locations and several remote bases. It has also made possible the distribution of support among many sites.

Web-Based Applications

The Raytheon-led team building DCGS Block 10.2 includes Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, General Dynamics and L-3.

“Every team member brings significant tools and skills to the program,” Raytheon’s Johnston said, pointing to such areas as multi-intelligence exploitation, sensor planning tools, foundational architecture, moving target indicator processing and exploitation, signals intelligence processing, situation awareness, image product library capabilities and the special interfaces necessary to link to the national intelligence community.

According to Johnston, work on DCGS Block 10.2 is well underway. The interim design review has been completed, and the final design review (FDR) was held this spring. Following the FDR, the system will be conducted in two build phases, culminating in full testing in the fourth quarter of 2004.

“The real essence of expanding DCGS,” Johnston said, “is the migration away from individual client-based legacy systems and the movement toward Web-based applications. It means making the warfighter not only as informed as possible, but also as safe as possible.

“DCGS Block 10.2 will be a radical architectural departure from how ISR has been done in the past,” he continued, as multiple ISR nodes are enabled to work together, displaying common information that quickens the warfighter’s response and puts munitions decisively on target. “Because DCGS information will be available to all DoD users, the long-term benefit of open architecture can’t be overstated. That means, in the future, the rapid and seamless addition of applications and technologies can quickly get into the field.”

For military and industrial teams, the conversion of DCGS legacy pieces to a unified, seamless net-centric program for the future will require intense technological activity over the next few years. The system will integrate some sophisticated new sensor inputs, which are now under development. While much of that information is sensitive, it is clear that there is a great deal of leading edge sensor development going on that will benefit systems like DCGS.

Wert offered this statement of the essence of DCGS: “The key to warfare is becoming more than air superiority. It is now information superiority. We have robust programs that collect ISR. The DCGS is key to fusing that information and bringing it forward to the warfighter for awareness, decision-making and targeting. That’s where the true value of DCGS lies—in total information superiority. With the startup of DCGS Block 10.2, we’re getting much closer to that goal.”

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