Coordinating Systems Situational Awareness

September 2006
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Master Sgt. Pete Norris, USAF, a crew commander at the new Air Force Space Command’s (AFSPC’s) Major Command Communications Coordination Center (MCCC), reviews the command’s mission system network security posture on a heads-up display. The display facilitates tracking of mission system compliance with all security system updates.
Center to deliver network operational picture.

Missile launch teams vital to defending the United States would not think of pushing the fateful button without first double-checking the reliability of their equipment and data. But until recently, the U.S. Air Force Space Command had no way to conduct comparable checks of its vastly distributed information networks. Instead, it had to contact the appropriate person at distant locations to get a handle on the operational capabilities available in approximately 175 stovepiped mission-specific applications and systems.

This summer, however, the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) initiated an effort to bring order and situational awareness to this capabilities chaos by standing up the Major Command Communications Coordination Center (MCCC) at its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Beginning modestly by focusing on the requirements in the 14th Air Force and the 20th Air Force, the center will become the focal point for all network systems across the command. Once fully operational, the MCCC will provide a cohesive picture of operational capabilities to AFSPC and U.S. Strategic Command military leadership.

The current state of the applications and systems across the AFSPC evolved in much the same way as the multitude of networks at other commands and in all the armed forces. Over the years, organizations built systems to meet specific requirements. According to Stephana Sherwood, chief, networks flight at AFSPC headquarters, the system program offices at Hanscom Air Force Base and Los Angeles Air Force Base, for example, were tasked with evaluating missile and space needs. Operations centers unique to mission support were then established to support them. “That’s always been the paradigm. When there’s a need for space control capability, the paradigm is to turn that over to one of these program offices and have it work with the defense contractor community to build the system that satisfies that need,” she explains.

Although this process supports individual missions, it can present challenges for overall network management. “Each system has its own points of contact and way of doing business,” says Maj. Jeff Devine, USAF, chief of network architectures and standards, AFSPC. “If you have a problem with the Global Positioning System [GPS] network, you have to figure out who runs the GPS network and go to them. If you have a problem with the Air Force Satellite Control Network, that’s another phone call. The MCCC will provide the warfighter with a single focal point for all of these networks so that users know where to go for help and commanders know what resources they have available at their fingertips.”

Commanders will be able to access an MCCC Web page on the secret Internet protocol router network that shows them the current status of all systems within the AFSPC, he adds. Sherwood emphasizes that the center will not operate the space and missile systems but simply make information about the competence of their operational capabilities available to command leadership.

Sherwood and the MCCC team are bringing in new network and other technologies to set up this capability in a standardized fashion. “My focus has been on our administrative networks—the nonsecure Internet protocol router network, secret Internet protocol router network, e-mail capabilities—and there’s been a shortfall in dealing with the real mission capabilities,” she states. Standardization and new technologies in the MCCC will address the needs in the warfighter area, she adds.

The AFSPC’s sole focus is communications, and the vision for the MCCC is to support every AFSPC mission area: counterspace, space force enhancement, space force application, space support and mission support. Sherwood explains that the ability to know the command’s mission capabilities at a glance will benefit warfighters in the field by increasing the efficiency and timeliness of communications. This capability is essential to positioning satellites for communicating and collecting imagery, for example.

While improving service to warfighters certainly is its top priority, the MCCC also will help the Air Force address other challenges it is facing, including an Air Force Staff initiative to transform the information work force. Sherwood relates that the initiative aims at moving uniformed Air Force personnel from nondeployable positions and force functions into Air Expeditionary Forces roles. “The intent—and here I am relaying what Air Staff is telling us—is that we’ll have civilians and contractors performing those day-to-day support missions so that our ‘blue suiters’ are battle ready and capable to deploy,” she says.

Establishing the MCCC also will help the Air Force meet the requirements of Program Budget Decision (PBD) 720, titled Air Force Transformation Flight Plan. PBD 720, published in December 2005, calls for cutting U.S. Defense Department and Air Force resources across the board. Although it is difficult to determine the exact cost savings of consolidating network capabilities monitoring, the AFSPC anticipates that fewer communications support personnel will be required on main operating bases because systems can be observed from a single location and reporting will be centralized.

While estimating cost savings may be complicated, assessing improvements in efficiencies is considerably less so. When fully operational, the MCCC will enable, for example, the AFSPC’s leadership personnel to know the capabilities level for performing its counterspace mission—a mission that may depend on 20 of the command’s total number of systems and applications.

“Right now, the leadership doesn’t know if all 20 pieces are working, and to be able to get that answer, they have to go to 20 different program office support organizations to determine the contribution of that piece to the overall capability. So we see a significant boon to efficiency and situational awareness and timeliness of information with the MCCC,” Sherwood maintains.

This configuration also moves the command toward what Sherwood views as the future of systems administration. Like other experts in the telecommunications field, she believes that the ability to communicate information should now be treated as a commodity similar to the telephone dial-tone: Plugging a computer into a jack automatically provides network access. However, while this instant access is important for everyday tasks such as retrieving e-mail and sharing applications, in the military, security is just as essential. “We believe the best way possible to ensure access and security is in a consolidated and well-coordinated fashion, not in the individual pockets of support that we’ve had to date,” she states.

Innovations in technology as well as commonplace commercial processes are helping to put this consolidation in place for the AFSPC’s center. “The advances in remote management and remote monitoring have been tremendous. Industry has known this for a long time,” she says.

To take advantage of the lessons the commercial sector already has learned, Sherwood and Col. Fred Mooney, USAF, commander, AFSPC Communications Support Squadron, visited telecommunications businesses such as AT&T, Global Crossing and Microsoft. Sherwood notes that these companies, which have employed remote monitoring techniques in their organizations for some time, showed them the technical possibilities, especially when facing a very large customer base. This was particularly helpful, she relates, because many of the command’s support operations personnel reside outside the Defense Department, and the MCCC’s designers needed to know how best to integrate customers’ needs.

Advice about how to build beneficial service-level agreements was another way the commercial sector was helpful. But Sherwood admits that some of the most valuable insights were gained from visiting the commercial centralized support cells themselves. Seeing massive rooms equipped with a multitude of computer screens manned by only a handful of people was enlightening and “gave us some good models,” she says.

In setting up the MCCC, the command is facing challenges that are familiar to many organizations both inside and outside of the military: cultural resistance and funding management. Groups that have shouldered the responsibilities of specific mission areas for years view their systems as proprietary and express strong concerns that the MCCC could interfere. Sherwood stresses that this is not the case. Although this construct is a big change in the way it does business, the goal is not to take over and introduce technologies just for the sake of introducing technologies but rather to improve capabilities’ situational awareness, she declares.

The MCCC staff hopes to address the cultural issues by building the trust of the various organizations. The initial operating capability (IOC) standup involves only five of the approximately 175 mission systems, and the center will demonstrate the worth of the situational awareness of capabilities to leaders within the AFSPC community.

From the resources standpoint, Sherwood points out that current funding allocation processes sometimes get in the way of bringing about substantial change in managing networks efficiently. Space systems projects receive a designated budget that must be spent specifically on program development; in only a few cases can these funds be used to integrate different systems. Although the service is improving this process, it is one reason the stovepipe paradigm has existed for so long, she says.

To date, the MCCC’s IOC has involved working with the 14th Air Force and the 20th Air Force to identify requirements so that it can move forward with providing a single point for capabilities awareness. “It’s a beginning and we acknowledge that. There’s a lot more to come, and I don’t see this train stopping by any means. This is absolutely the right way to go, and we’re going to get there but not without pain,” Sherwood admits.

Despite the challenges, Sherwood believes creating fully integrated capabilities for military leaders should be the goal for the future. “And I don’t mean just in the AFSPC. We ought to be able to provide leadership with the complete picture from the communication perspective, and our objective with the MCCC is to talk about communications. Is it up? Is it down? Is the throughput sufficient? Is it providing the information to the right individual?

“There’s a lot of information out there, and our four-star really needs to have situational awareness. In the case of satellite flyers, are they mission-ready? Are they troop-qualified? We’ve not been able to solve this, and I don’t think the other services have either,” she states.

The command is spending approximately $750,000 to stand up the MCCC. Most of this funding deploys new network monitoring tools to supervise the networks and systems. Staffing for the center is from the existing Network Operations and Security Center. Although the MCCC initially will consolidate operations only, the AFSPC’s long-term goal is to consolidate infrastructure, which could result in significant cost savings.


Web Resources
Air Force Space Command:
14th Air Force:
20th Air Force:


Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.