AF DCGS Next Generation: Transformation for Great Power Competition

By Kelly Borukhovich and Tyler Morton
Estimated Time to Read: 14 minutes

Abstract: The AF DCGS is in the midst of the most significant transformation it has seen since its inception in the mid-1990s. Primarily driven by the need to find a way to more efficiently process the glut of data now available to the intelligence community, the AF DCGS transformation to the problem-centric model of analysis is already paying major dividends in the Enterprise’s ability to provide enhanced intelligence to its customers. This article discusses the transformation and describes in detail how the AF DCGS is now oriented to prepare the air component for great power competition.

This article is the second in a series designed to educate the Joint Force on the United States Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System (AF DCGS) Next Generation (Next Gen) transformation. The first article provided an overview of the recent changes and outlined in general terms how Next Gen differs from previous AF DCGS models. The narrative below examines the major factors that drove the AF DCGS Next Gen transformation to the problem-centric model, details the organizational and procedural changes, describes how AF DCGS Next Gen fits into the larger analytic enterprise and intelligence community, and explores how the transformation positions the AF DCGS to prepare the air component for great power competition (GPC) and future conflict.

Change Agents – Data and Geopolitics.

Two major factors drove the AF DCGS’s transformation from a platform-centric model of processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) to today’s sensor-agnostic, problem-focused analytic model. The first was practical necessity. As the Department of Defense and intelligence community (IC) steadily increased airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity during the counterinsurgency and counter-violent extremist organization (COIN/C-VEO) fights in the decades following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the amount of data being collected outpaced the Joint Force’s exploitation capacity. Additionally, investments in advanced technologies expanded data acquisition across all the forms of intelligence such that the IC, once starved for data, found itself struggling to sift through the hundreds of thousands of hours of data being collected each year. The expanded collection capabilities – across the various intelligence disciplines – soon provided data in quantities the AF DCGS workforce was incapable of processing daily. The rapid and continuing growth in airborne sensors with no coincident increase in manpower meant the AF DCGS was on a path to no longer being able to process the data it was tasked to PED; this quandary precipitated a change in PED methodology within the DCGS Enterprise. In January 2020, Air Combat Command directed the AF DCGS to implement the problem-centric approach to analysis. This directive started the process to move the AF DCGS away from its exclusive tie to airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and gave AF DCGS Airmen the liberty to scour all available data to find the information that best allows them to answer customer intelligence requirements. For AF DCGS, the break from a dependence on platforms – sensor agnosticism – reduced the data versus manpower dilemma and postured the Enterprise to provide intelligence to customers regardless of source.

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(Image created by 480th ISRW)

The second factor that drove change within the AF DCGS is the return to GPC as first enumerated in the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and further expanded upon in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). In a world viewed through the classical realism lens of the NSS and the NDS, power is estimated by the “material capability to ward off pressure or coercion while being able to influence others.” In this world view, power is defined by a combination of several factors, with the two most significant being a country’s economy combined with its military power. John Mearsheimer expanded more on this in his views on offensive realism elaborating that in international politics a state’s effective power is how its military forces compare (and compete) with the military forces of rival states in relative terms. Thus, the need for timely, exquisite intelligence in the GPC battlespace is the second factor that prompted AF DCGS transformation. As a result, today’s AF DCGS is engaged in the emerging missions of competition – information warfare (IW) convergence and algorithmic warfare – to ensure the United States stays one step ahead of adversaries by leveraging the entirety of the information environment. For IW convergence, the AF DCGS is bringing to bear the synergies generated by the creation of 16th Air Force; the Air Force’s IW Numbered Air Force (NAF). As part of the IW NAF, the AF DCGS is able to leverage elements from across the IW Enterprise to improve analytic effectiveness and create enhanced IW outcomes. The IW NAF also introduces the ability for the AF DCGS to explore more deeply its connection to the five warfighting domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyber; as 16 AF matures, so will AF DCGS Next Gen. Investment in enabling technologies that support ISR professionals and warfighters alike will increase convergence efforts and support integrated operations.

For algorithmic warfare, the AF DCGS has dedicated significant research and resources in the artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) fields and is a plank owner in the Air Force’s advanced battle management system (ABMS) and joint air domain command and control (JADC2) efforts. As technology advances, AI/ML holds great promise as each repetitive task or process replaced by an AI/ML algorithm frees AF DCGS Airmen’s cognitive ability to solve problems and shorten the decision cycle. Many of the processes associated with the traditional PED model are prime areas in which AI/ML can be a force enhancer; the automation of manpower intensive tasks like scanning static images to detect changes or producing basic signals intelligence reports allow AF DCGS Airmen to do the deeper analysis that will be paramount in tomorrow’s wars of cognition. Concurrently, the intelligence requirements driving operations and decision making will occur on increasingly tighter time loops increasing the imperative to enable decisions that will create effects across the battlespace in near-real time. These decision cycles, or observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loops occurred at all levels within COIN/C-VEO operations, and meant life-or-death for our operators on the ground and in the air.  The truncated COIN/C-VEO OODA loop created the need for intelligence to be delivered at a rapid pace thus requiring near-real time PED. Similarly, the transition to GPC will create its own demand for intelligence at speed; speed that is likely to make the OODA loops of COIN/C-VEO look remarkably slow. With near-peer adversaries possessing advanced technologies across the capability spectrum that will undoubtedly challenge the AF’s ability to operate, focusing on tightening GPC OODA loops now is paramount. On any AF DCGS operations floor there are professionals with years of experience in providing time-dominant decision advantage in direct support of combat operations; this depth of operational knowledge positions the AF DCGS to now provide predictive analysis at unmatched speed and scale. The co-location of AF DCGS elements within the air operations centers (AOCs) also provides access and placement to key elements in the operations and targeting cycle; this close-in relationship serves to further decrease the sensor-to-shooter timeline.

The Change.

The AF DCGS of the COIN/C-VEO fight focused exclusively on airborne imagery, full-motion video, and signals intelligence (SIGINT) near-real time exploitation to satisfy collection requirements as outlined on collection decks from air components, warfighters, and combatant commands. This operational concept allowed AF DCGS crews to provide immediate situation descriptors (exploitation), but required minimal analytic or sensor management skills. While this organizational construct served the Joint Force well for the COIN/C‑VEO fight, it is not optimal for the type of multisource analysis the Air Force needs for near-peer competition or for operational plan (OPLAN)/contingency plan (CONPLAN) execution in support of combatant commands. While the previous AF DCGS construct produced considerable expertise at recognizing events in near-real time, it did not build the necessary analytic skills AF DCGS Airmen now need to inform decisions at both the tactical and strategic levels. AF DCGS Next Gen transformed the Enterprise into an analytic center that now focuses primarily on data source-agnostic fusion, analysis, and exploitation directly answering priority intelligence requirements (PIRs) while also deepening corporate and individual knowledge of priority targets and problems. This increased focus on joint intelligence preparation of the battlespace for the air components and the Joint Force – including the new United States Space Force and United States Cyber Command – greatly increases the amount of analysis now being conducted across the IC. Where a Joint Intelligence-Operations Center (JIOC) or an AOC may have a handful of analysts focused on some of its most challenging problem sets, now the AF DCGS adds the entirety of its analytic effort along with the ability to leverage the IW NAF and the convergence of IW, electronic warfare (EW), cyber, and ISR; this additional analytic capacity often serves as a force multiplier considerably increasing the level of effort applied to any particular problem set.

Having embraced the NDS imperative to rebuild atrophied knowledge and understanding of peer adversaries in competition, crisis, and conflict, AF DCGS multisource analysts are now the AF’s frontline sense makers for GPC. Focusing on the most pressing or emerging problem sets across the combatant commands, the AF DCGS is able to task organize around those problems and provide expertise from a wide variety of intelligence disciplines. At the core of this concept is the Analysis and Exploitation Team (AET). The analytic building block of the AF DCGS, each AET member is trained and purposefully developed to think holistically and historically, leveraging cumulative knowledge, experience, and context to comprehensively and creatively address problems. The AET is comprised of Airmen from various intelligence disciplines, including cyber, coming together to converge upon the theater’s toughest problems. This “swarm mindset” brings the talent of each member to the problem and allows for cognitive synergy within the AETs. Additionally, the AF DCGS’s unique placement and direct access to sensors gives AETs the ability to analyze events in near-real time, identify intelligence gaps, and to work with collection management teams to redirect sensors as required to enable follow-on analysis.

AF DCGS Mission Management Teams (MMTs) act as the bridge that connects the operational understanding of in-theater organizations, joint planning, and commanders’ PIRs to the AF DCGS Enterprise. These teams are co-located with and fully integrated into the AOC planning and operations cycle and are uniquely positioned to tailor intelligence requirements to ensure the AF DCGS provides precisely what the customer needs. Additionally, this embedded team provides the AF DCGS access and immediate feedback to current operations; this close connection with operations enables dynamic mission integration, dynamic re-tasking of airborne ISR, better understanding of operational priorities and targeting, and refinement of collection requirements at the speed required of future conflict.

AF DCGS workforce diversity, while an effective legacy of the previous DCGS model, has become a clear strength in the problem-centric approach. In no other intelligence analytic center is it possible to find the preponderance of Air Force imagery analysts as well as 33 other unique AFSCs that can all be leveraged in a single organization to converge upon commanders’ PIRs and emergent problems. Also contributing to the AF DCGS’s diversity are the international liaison officers who provide unique perspective, capability, and reach back to their home nations. Finally, the AF DCGS Enterprise is rounded out by its longstanding support from the Total Force; Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve wings, groups, and squadrons are everyday partners in the AF DCGS Enterprise and are seamlessly integrated into AF DCGS operations.

The AF DCGS is also unique in its designator as a weapon system/mission design series. The weapon system designation gives the AF DCGS a system program office (SPO) that is responsible for the vast communications architecture – the weapon system’s sine qua non – that connects DCGS sites to the data, sensor feeds, products, technology, applications, customers, and to one another. The weapon system SPO also bridges the requirement-to-implementation process of acquisition. By leveraging both in-house intelligence, cyber, communications, and information technology expertise for development, testing, and implementation and through its close relationship with industry, the SPO ensures the AF DCGS communications architecture keeps pace with the rapidly changing operational demand. One example is the Open Architecture DCGS (OA-DCGS) concept that is being fielded. OA-DCGS’s central tenets of servers supporting virtual machines that have been tailored to the analysts’ missions, skills, and requirements mean that the future on- and off-ramping of applications will work faster than ever before, requiring pushes of data rather than full workstation installations. Further, OA-DCGS eliminates proprietary software and capabilities thereby allowing modernization, upgrades, and development to occur without constraint. This change, when combined with the overhaul of the weapons systems communications infrastructure, ensures the AF DCGS will remain relevant as ABMS and JADC2 data delivery requirements continue to take shape.

The Effect.

Ultimately, change is not conducted for the sake of change, and a growing question from mission partners and customers is:

What does this change mean to the force writ large?

The world has changed tremendously since the first AF DCGS supported the United States’ peacekeeping role in Bosnia in 1995. The AF DCGS was born of innovative and skilled Airmen thinking through challenges in novel ways to create the world’s first virtual intelligence architecture. As GPC becomes the overarching strategic imperative, the AF DCGS is adapting the way it presents forces as well as leveraging the robust AF DCGS architecture to agilely adapt. Through the technological and doctrinal changes to the AF DCGS Enterprise, AF DCGS units have the ability to adjust operational emphasis on scale from multisource intelligence analysis to near-real time, traditional PED. Additionally, the unique authorities provided to the 480th ISR Wing Commander enable the AF DCGS to bring an entire analytic enterprise to bear on problems as dictated by current events, shifting national priorities, or the execution of OPLANs and CONPLANs.

The expansion of analytic and operational focus from strictly PED to multi-source analysis and exploitation has resulted in AF DCGS analysts having a much broader understanding of events, how they unfold, and most importantly, the awareness of what to expect “next.” Historically, analysts conducting PED would only provide superficial analysis of a single event and moment in time through the products requested and disseminated as dictated by the daily collection deck. Further, once an exploitation event was completed, there was little historical data either retained or required. Now, the inclusion of historical raw data and finished intelligence is creating a deeper understanding of regional context, operations, and problems. This persistent development of historical and operational expertise changes the analysts’ ontological perspective, enabling them to more quickly pull upon a deeper meaning and context surrounding an explicit event. Thus, through its inherent exploitation capability, coupled with the expertise gained through teaming around problems, AF DCGS Next Gen provides unmatched context to near-real time battlespace events and provides close-in predictive assessments at the speed of relevance.

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(Image created by 480th ISRW)

As the Nation enters a period which will likely be characterized by competition below the level of armed conflict, the transformation to AF DCGS Next Gen positions the Enterprise to prepare air component commanders and warfighters to compete and win. Through the analysis, exploitation, and fusion of multi-domain data and finished products derived from its unique relationships and accesses to tactical, national, and exquisite ISR sensors, the AF DCGS is now postured as the Air Force’s primary sense maker for competition and conflict.

Lt Col Kelly “KGB” Borukhovich is currently the Commander of the 27th Intelligence Squadron and the Director of the 480th ISR Wing’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 ISR Wing. He holds a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

Disclaimer: 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 United States Government.

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