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PEO Digital soups-up intel sharing software

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Program Executive Office Digital is helping services share intelligence by updating software for the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS.  

All military branches and their special operations forces use DCGS to share intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, supporting the Department of Defense’s “Need to Share” policy, adopted in the wake of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Digital’s work makes ISR-sharing systems and data more agile by joining multiple systems into a common hub.

Software teams in the Intelligence Integration Office within Digital are adopting user-centered design to upgrade DCGS, while also sustaining current software, using $13 million in sustainment funds for both efforts. The I2O office expects to complete upgrades to all the systems where combatant commands access ISR data worldwide in five years.

“I got to this job and thought the solution was simple, but it’s not at all,” said Jennifer McBee, the PEO Digital program manager orchestrating the effort. “You have these very large systems that are critical to how information is provided in support of combatant commanders’ decision-making, and they’re spread all over the world. These large systems need to work together, but there’s no way for them to improve as a collective system. Right now, it’s almost every Service for themselves, and that’s working, but it’s not the regime we want in the long term.”

McBee’s office is conducting multiple exercises throughout the year to prove future concepts of data sharing between the services, intelligence community and coalition partners. This Enterprise Challenge effort included eight week-long tests hosted at the Hanscom Collaboration and Innovation Center, culminating with a month-long main exercise in May.

Digital is working with U.S. Navy, Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces users to find small-scale opportunities at the same time they pursue larger, system-wide changes. One part of Enterprise Challenge with the Navy asked users on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, who operate a Navy DCGS system, to provide feedback to help enhance the user experience and system interoperability.

Currently, services like the Air Force and Navy operate their own isolated data lakes. These lakes may contain duplicative data, or even data each service would find more useful, but can’t access because of interoperability limitations. On May 21, representatives from the Nimitz evaluated options in the HCIC on how to create ties between the data lakes, reducing storage needs by cutting duplicative data and shrinking infrastructure requirements, while also increasing ISR accessibility.

“The alignment between Digital and its Navy customer is critical to the new way of sharing data across an area of responsibility,” said Charles Gassert, a Navy assistant program manager working with Digital. He has been developing a new data strategy for use by battle groups to allow instant sharing of ISR data between afloat units and DCGS units deployed ashore. “Setting up instant sharing allows the systems to use cloud technologies in the immediate future.”

Digital and the Navy are positioning the Nimitz battlegroup, a collection of Navy ships and submarines that travel together, to take full advantage of this partnership as the first carrier battle group to instantly share DCGS data from ship-to-shore.

Digital and the Navy are working on another initiative that will automate and share time-sensitive information with U.S. and coalition partners. Today, allies create short, formatted messages about enemy movements and activities called sensor reports, and share them in minutes. The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are using agile development techniques to code shortcuts that automate generation and sharing of sensor reports, thereby keeping services and their allies up-to-date without creating additional workloads for ISR personnel.

“We are very excited about taking work done with Pacific Command during the past two years within Enterprise Challenge,” said Gassert. “We’re piloting it into an operational environment. We will increase data interoperability, improve knowledge used for decision-making and mature both data guidance and training improvements for our ISR forces.”

According to McBee, interoperability creates a number of benefits. If each service can provide updates and data to every other service, then collectively, the system is more resilient to data loss, corruption and attacks. Each service’s cost for storage also shrinks as they strike collective storage bargains with vendors, without risking data access due to systems being unable to read, for instance, Marine-gathered intelligence on an Air Force system.