By Kelly Borukhovich and Tyler Morton
Approximate reading time: 11 minutes
Abstract: The DCGS Next Generation (DCGS Next Gen) delivers a new advantage to the Air Force and its Airmen. Due to the transition from COIN/C-VEO to Great Power Competition, the previous DCGS model no longer offers sufficient capability to produce the needed intelligence and outcomes to counter evolving adversary threat. DCGS Next Gen answers that by enabling analysts to fuse multi-source intelligence and merge into the newest efforts of ABMS and JADC2 to provide decision advantage at all levels.
On 31 August 2020, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), General CQ Brown, issued his strategic approach for the Air Force. The keystone of the Chief’s vision for the future, Accelerate Change or Lose signals a dramatic shift in the way our Air Force views and implements the Service’s role in an increasingly competitive environment. The clear-eyed strategy highlights, in unequivocal terms, that the advantages long provided by the Air Force are not a birthright and require deep thinking and difficult decisions to maintain. As the CSAF rolls out his strategy, the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing (480 ISRW) finds itself in the middle of a monumental transformation. The Wing’s shift from a platform-centric exploitation model to one where we focus the cognitive thinking ability of the Wing’s Airmen on problems is in lock step with the CSAF’s strategic vision for the Air Force. As the Air Force’s primary sense makers in the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) Sensing Grid, the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) transformation to the Next Generation (Next Gen) construct postures the DCGS to produce the insight decision-makers and warfighters need to stay one step ahead of our adversaries.
The 480 ISRW, the lead wing for the Air Force’s DCGS weapon system, came of age during the height of the counter-insurgency and counter-violent extremist organization (COIN/C-VEO) fight. For the past two decades, DCGS operations focused primarily on providing near-real time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) to tactical warfighters. The DCGS of the early twenty-first century was what the Air Force needed to support the Joint Force in the COIN/C-VEO fight, but that DCGS is not what the Air Force needs now and in the future. The landscape of today’s challenges has changed from a focus on COIN/C-VEO to one of near-peer adversaries competing directly with the United States. This competition spans the gamut from gray zone activities to the potential for force-on-force engagements. The DCGS model of yesteryear does not give the Air Force the flexibility to range its analytic capability across today’s diverse problem sets; its near singular focus does not allow the Wing’s greatest competitive advantage – our Airmen – to fully take advantage of the vast amount of data available to them nor does it give them the intellectual freedom to provide the in-depth analysis that will best prepare the air component for tomorrow’s threats.
To tackle contemporary and future problems, last year the DCGS undertook an effort to shift from the PED-focused organization of the past to one that provides problem-centric, sensor-agnostic, time-dominant, multisource fusion and analysis to support National Defense Strategy (NDS) priorities. Working in close coordination with the air components, the Enterprise conducted several pilot programs to prove the concept. The problem-centric tests were overwhelmingly positive and earlier this year, the Commander of Air Combat Command (COMACC) approved the concept and ordered its implementation. Since January 2020, the DCGS has been transforming itself to become a network of sensors, platforms, people, devices, content, and services that deliver outcomes in the operational environment in support of air components and tactical warfighters across the globe. This problem-centric transformation, along with the continued maturation of artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) tools, postures DCGS Next Gen to be the primary sense makers in the JADC2 construct.
The key to success for DCGS Next Gen is the ability of our Airmen to fuse multi-source data from across the intelligence community, regardless of source or sensor, into products that provide insight for decision makers. The first generation DCGS tied the organization’s PED directly to sensors. In other words, Airmen focused only on the specific airborne platforms to which they were tasked and, more detrimentally, only the specific piece in the processing chain for which they were responsible. This industrial, or assembly line, production model rigidly tied Airmen to a process and did not foster creativity, critical thinking, or allow for innovative approaches. For almost two decades, DCGS Airmen sat on the line to process imagery and full-motion video during live missions. DCGS Next Gen shatters the old model. The assembly line has been replaced by Analysis and Exploitation Teams (AETs) who converge on problems from a swarm mindset. Instead of a narrow focus on a particular subset of a problem, each AET member is asked to think holistically; they draw on their cumulative knowledge and intelligence discipline expertise to comprehensively and creatively address problems. AET members include Airmen from across the various intelligence disciplines. No longer focused exclusively on sensors or on their specific specialty, they incorporate all possible sources of intelligence and information to enhance the team’s comprehensive analysis. The AET concept fosters a culture that grows “innovative and courageous problem solvers” that creatively solve our toughest theater problem sets. Gone are single-source intelligence products; instead, the AETs produce multisource, fused intelligence that better uses existing data but that is also augmented by collection requirements developed by the AETs themselves. By becoming problem-centric, the AETs now identify intelligence gaps in their analysis and work with theater collection management teams to help deepen their knowledge of key regions and target sets across multiple domains. This expansion of Phase 0 joint intelligence preparation of the operational environment (JIPOE) and intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB) buys down risk in battlespace characterization and allows the DCGS to prepare air components and combatant commands for the great power competition of today’s era. By investing in Phase 0 analysis, DCGS Next Gen is better prepared to deliver lethal decision advantage as conflict accelerates.
The problem-centric approach of DCGS Next Gen places a premium on ensuring air component requirements are refined to provide the clarity needed for the maximum return on investment of the AETs. To do this, the 480 ISRW has placed Mission Management Teams (MMTs) at the Air Operations Centers (AOC) around the world. The MMTs serve as a conduit between the DCGS and the AOC. They are embedded within the AOC to understand theater requirements, plans and priorities, identify intelligence gaps, map problem-set stakeholders, and define analytic production requirements. By co-locating with the AOCs, the MMTs provide better advice to the AOC on how to optimize DCGS efforts to satisfy priority intelligence requirements (PIRs) and drive operational planning. The MMTs are the connective tissue that allows DCGS Next Gen to be more than a reach-back organization but one that has “skin in the game.”
Technology. Though the DCGS Next Gen construct is a significant improvement to the Enterprise’s ability to prepare air components for near-peer conflict, the Enterprise must continue to advance technologically to remain competitive. To ensure we outpace our adversaries, the 480 ISRW is working diligently to incorporate Open Architecture (OA) networks and AI/ML teaming efforts. Both of these technologies are critical to ensuring DCGS Next Gen is able to rapidly and seamlessly inject data into the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). OA allows data to flow at the speed of relevance and AI/ML technologies free our Airmen to focus cognitively on answering problems instead of conducting time-consuming, repetitive functions. While OA allows the data to flow, the Wing is also working to ensure DCGS data is completely discoverable by the intelligence community, that the data resides in the hybrid cloud, and that the DCGS is included in future ABMS onramp events to test and enhance these capabilities. Lastly, the transition to cloud-based systems will facilitate the Enterprise’s ability to more rapidly integrate the cutting-edge tools the analysts need. When combined, all three – Airmen, OA, and AI/ML – make DCGS Next Gen the primary sense-making node in the JADC2 sensing grid.
Warfighter Support. Through the early years of the twenty-first century, DCGS growth was linked directly to the Global War on Terror and the war in Iraq. As United States force presence increased in the theaters of combat, so did the Air Force’s requirement to provide direct intelligence support to those tactical warfighters. DCGS PED was tied directly to the troops on the ground with little room for flexibility to answer other pressing intelligence requirements. Additionally, under the previous DCGS construct, analysts only had access to data from the platforms and sensors for which they were providing PED. The DCGS Next Gen model greatly expands our analysts’ access to all platform and sensor data along with enabling new accesses to data from across the intelligence community to include publicly available information (PAI). DCGS analysts are now free to use any potential data source to enhance their understanding of problems and their ability to deliver outcomes to air components and decision-makers. With DCGS Airmen no longer tied directly to sensors, it is imperative that we also break the sensor-to-PED allocation mindset and embrace problem-centric analysis as the new model for how the Air Force supports the joint warfighter. By decoupling from the aircraft and sensors and allowing analysts to leverage all data, we have increased our ability to provide the operational and cognitive edge our forces need. DCGS Next Gen’s competitive advantage lies in its Airmen and their ability to deliver answers at the speed of relevance; the Next Gen problem-centric model maximizes that advantage and should become the standard for how Air Force intelligence supports the joint fight.
Resources and Force Presentation. Yesterday’s DCGS used a rigid manpower model based on a traditional crew construct; the number of Airmen required to support COIN/C-VEO operations was directly tied to the sensors. DCGS Next Gen provides incredible flexibility by allowing commanders to task-organize Airmen based on the complexity and depth of the problem they are answering. With the AET focus on multisource analysis, DCGS Next Gen success depends on the diversity of thought and expertise our Airmen bring to the problem-centric approach. For the Air Force to best prepare for conflict with a near-peer adversary, it needs to reinvest the DCGS resources previously provided for the COIN/C-VEO fight towards the AET model; this approach will release additional cognitive power that the DCGS can then use to solve tomorrow’s most challenging problems. As deep analytic expertise cannot be developed overnight, bolstering the AETs now will allow the DCGS to cultivate experience that will be needed as near-peer competition continues. Finally, the CSAF’s imperative to “accelerate the evolution and application of…operational concepts and force structure to optimize [the Air Force’s] contribution to Joint All Domain Operations” undergirds efforts currently underway in Air Combat Command (ACC) and the 480 ISRW. With DCGS Next Gen, ACC is exploring ways to remodel the way it presents DCGS forces based on 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) priorities. Instead of force-presenting DCGS Airmen based on platforms or sensors, the new model seeks to align AETs with the most pressing NDS concerns. By force-presenting around the NDS, DCGS Next Gen will remain strategically relevant and better prepare air components for near-peer competition and conflict.
The Air Force and Joint Force are on the precipice of pivotal shifts in thinking, planning, operations, technology, and competition. DCGS Next Gen is the DCGS our leaders need now to maintain a competitive advantage in highly contested environments. In this new construct, the DCGS is producing intelligence that answers air component and combatant commander PIRs at unprecedented levels, deepening Joint Force understanding of multidomain battlespaces and potential adversaries, and providing data at such speeds that yesterday’s DCGS has already become an antiquated concept by comparison. In the upcoming era of declining resources, problems are growing in complexity, and our Airmen are a finite resource. Difficult decisions face the Air Force as it works to build the force of the future. To ensure the DCGS fully realizes its potential as the primary sense makers for JADC2, the 480 ISRW will continue to highlight the incredible impact of the shift to DCGS Next Gen and the necessity to maintain the momentum gained from DCGS transformation. Indecision or delay now could slow the growth and put us behind our adversaries in AI/ML development, cloud computing and networking, or most detrimentally, in our Airmen’s understanding of the complex problems we now face. To win the conflicts of the future, we must continue to optimize the cerebral advantage DCGS Next Gen provides for tomorrow’s wars of cognition. The 480 ISRW, through the DCGS Next Gen concept and the problem-centric approach, is leading the way by accelerating change.
Lt Col Kelly “KGB” Borukhovich is currently the Commander of the 27th Intelligence Squadron and the Director of the 480th ISRW’s Strategic Initiatives Group. She is a graduate of the National Intelligence University and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
Col Tyler “Boomer” Morton is currently the Vice Wing Commander of the 480th ISRW. He holds a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.
Featured image created by 480th ISRW