Seaborne Intelligence Comes Aboard

December 2009
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The U.S. Navy’s Distributed Common Ground System–Navy (DCGS-N) is undergoing operational testing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman.

As U.S. Navy intelligence changes course, a system changes with it.

The U.S. Navy is designing its newest intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting system to fit advanced information systems that already have begun to take shape ashore and afloat. The first increment is receiving its shipboard introduction as a major milestone nears this spring.

The Distributed Common Ground System–Navy (DCGS-N) has been evolving for several years. About two years ago, the program shifted course, and it now is being tested at sea aboard an aircraft carrier.

The Navy is trailing the other services in DCGS implementation, but that may give it an advantage when it comes to incorporating it into the fleet. The Navy knows the networking environment into which DCGS-N will be incorporated, so it is able to tailor the system to fit into that architecture.

And, having a better understanding of command and warfighter requirements than what existed at the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism has enabled the Navy to implement a system that comes close to the users’ wish list. The system is more likely to serve as the basis for new capabilities than as a legacy system that needs to be upgraded or replaced.

Bob Poor, assistant program manager for DCGS-N increment 1, states that DCGS-N will allow the fleet more flexibility from both workstation and work sensor perspectives. In the past, individual intelligence disciplines—the “-INTS”—would be addressed by separate computers. However, DCGS-N workstations can address multiple mission needs.

The onset of the Global War on Terrorism led to a five-year period in which the Navy learned lessons that helped it develop requirements and concepts. Over time, the service incorporated new ideas on how best to optimize the system beyond its original design. The DCGS-N has been able to satisfy some of those ideas, often by reconfiguring existing software. Another approach has been to add software to ships outside of the DCGS-N construct, and the program has coordinated efforts with fleet personnel to facilitate that goal.

For example, the 7th Fleet headquartered in Japan is trying to federate imagery analysis across the Asia-Pacific region. The fleet is working with the U.S. Pacific Command and the Navy’s Pacific Fleet commander in Hawaii. The aim is to enable different elements of the joint community and the Navy to divide image analysis to avoid redundant activities. Several applications that are under consideration for DCGS-N fielding were not even under consideration two years ago, Poor says. The DCGS-N program is working to install these applications aboard ship now, after which it would try to incorporate them into a future DCGS-N baseline.

Over the long term, Poor sees DCGS-N achieving two goals. One is to help connect the Navy’s operational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to the broader Defense Department and intelligence community enterprise. The second goal is for DCGS-N to act as a tactical gateway to share Navy-unique sensor data across that enterprise.

The first operational unit has been installed aboard the USS Harry S Truman, where it has undergone operational testing. That unit recently completed its initial operational test and evaluation, and formal results will be reported shortly. Informal returns from the ship have been positive.

“The crew loves it,” says Poor of the DCGS-N aboard the Harry S Truman. He reports that the supercarrier’s combat systems officer describes it as a “very stable system” about which operators and maintainers have expressed “significantly more confidence in the DCGS-N applications suite than in any other tool recently introduced in the afloat intelligence, command and control domain.”

Poor also relates that the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) rated it highly following Empire Challenge 09. JFCOM’s after-action report states that DCGS-N succeeded in meeting its primary and stretch goals. One of these goals involved proving a full federation between DCGS-N and the other members of the DCGS family. These included the DCGS Integration Backbone (DIB), and it especially involved sharing data among different versions of the DIB. DCGS-N also was able to share different types of imagery through the image product library.

In testing at China Lake, California, DCGS-N was incorporated with the Distributed Information Operations Services (DIOS) and the Battlespace Awareness Sensors Enterprise Service (BASES) portal. In this configuration, it served as a DIOS node in a multilevel security configuration to the National Security Agency. This allowed it to publish data into the DIB metadata catalog and share it during Empire Challenge.

Capt. Robert Parker, USN, is the program manager for battlespace awareness and information operations, Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (PEO C4I). He lauds the support from the user community, saying that the fleet buy-in has been “very spectacular.” The captain relates that DCGS-N has been assembled largely from existing products, and integrating many existing applications into a seamless whole did prove more difficult than expected.

Even though DCGS has close relatives among the other services, interoperability is neither seamless nor assured. Each of the services’ DCGS programs are at different funding and maturity levels. Trying to enable all of the DCGSs to share data in a truly interoperable manner remains a challenge, Poor maintains.

Capt. Parker notes that the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force versions are well-established and have much greater funding than DCGS-N. For example, the Army’s DCGS-A is extensive with built-in capabilities such as video teleconferencing. It also has a mature human intelligence (HUMINT) capability, which allows it to operate to a greater degree at the tactical level than the Navy is considering. For the Air Force, DCGS-AF already operates five sites.

“Each one of the DCGS programs of record really is tailored to its individual service’s requirements,” Capt. Parker points out. “Where we come together is where we have the requirement to expose data to one another. We can all have different on-the-ground tactical and operational implementations, and where we actually bring all of the systems together is through our DIB federation,” he says.


Crew members in an E-2C Hawkeye gather radar analysis data during flight. The Navy’s DCGS-N will allow analysts to avoid redundant efforts and to divide tasks for data analysis among themselves.

The captain allows that the different status of the three services’ DCGS programs makes it difficult for the Navy to keep DCGS-N synchronized on the DIB. Multiple DIB variants already are in operation, and each service builds and uses them according to their own requirements. Keeping the DCGSs synchronized so that they can communicate with one another is a challenge, he allows.

Because the core components of DCGS-N consist of mature commercial and government off-the-shelf products, the Navy system faced its own integration challenges, Poor notes. When a core component specializing in one particular -INT is changed or upgraded, that may affect other core components. Similarly, if a workstation utility product is changed across a ship’s network or even the whole Navy, the DCGS-N’s ability to share data may be affected adversely.

“It can be an ongoing ‘whack-a-mole’ challenge to ensure that the integration continues to be there,” he says.

Poor points out that the Navy’s service-specific approach involves coordinating DCGS-N through the Navy’s networks programs, particularly the Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services program, or CANES. This program features two core components: a hardware component known as the common computing environment, or CCE; and a software component known as afloat core services.

The innovative nature of the DCGS-N approach entails evolving the program into what would be largely a software program, Poor explains. Future iterations would eschew hardware in favor of software implementation. “We’re looking to leverage as much of the networking infrastructure way ahead as possible,” he states.

Capt. Parker offers that the system can transition gracefully to the CANES environment, where it primarily will be a software provider. By the time it is a part of the CANES hardware baseline, the program will be able to provide new capabilities every two years.

The captain notes that the maritime environment in which the Navy operates drives the applications that will ride on top of DCGS-N. In particular, the Navy connects to different types of sensors than do the Army and Air Force. The Army employs large numbers of ground sensors, and the Air Force operates many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Navy’s main concern is to absorb data from a host of airborne sensors, and then provide that data to the other services. For example, the F-18’s reconnaissance pod can provide imagery data that can be used operationally throughout the Navy afloat and ashore as well as by the other services.

Navy intelligence has extremely close ties with the Navy command and control (C2) community, Poor points out. At the core of intelligence activities always has been the ability to share data seamlessly from the ISR realm to the C2 node. Beyond that, the Navy is looking at how it can use the Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA’s) Net-Centric Enterprise Services (NCES) to share data with the broader Global Information Grid (GIG) customer field.

The Navy has the DCGS-N Enterprise Node, or DEN, at the National Maritime Intelligence Center at Suitland, Maryland, which aggregates all of the data from Navy ships. The Navy would access the NCES through DEN.

DCGS-N exploitation suites are located at the numbered fleet maritime operations centers and on large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers. The goal is to have 36 exploitation suites—11 on carriers, 11 on large-deck amphibious ships and 14 at maritime operations centers and training sites.

As always, long-term plans run afoul of budgetary constraints, especially during periods of change. The Navy is bringing intelligence and network centricity together, beginning with its new N-2/N-6 construct. That in turn will lead to new approaches for meeting emerging cybersecurity and information dominance concepts and requirements. However, the Navy faces “expectation management challenges” because of its limited budgetary resources, Poor points out.

Capt. Parker adds that DCGS-N is reaching the fleet amid a great deal of pent-up demand for it. Many requirements evolved during system development, and developers needed to be “parsimonious” to avoid changing the system baseline. “When you go through two years of development, the requirements that were exciting two years ago and the requirements that are available right now are two different things,” he says. “But, a system that is continually developing isn’t a system that’s fielding. It’s a testament to the great relationship we’ve had with the fleet that we’ve managed to stabilize the requirements baseline long enough to get a system out—which then gives us a basis for meeting some of those other requirements that have come out.”

Poor offers that one big challenge facing the program is to maintain adaptability while continuing to satisfy statutory and regulatory requirements. These can range from documentation to testing, and each event adds cost and time to program development.

In March 2010, the DCGS-N program will reach its full deployment decision review. Capt. Parker notes that the program is fielding capabilities in two blocks. The current fielding is the Block 1 baseline, and by 2012-2013 the program will field Block 2. This will allow an upgrade to provide an interface to the various families of Navy UAVs that will be operating at the operational and tactical levels. This data will be available at both maritime operation centers and the joint community. Poor offers that this might be the key to unifying the diverse UAV data that is burgeoning in the Navy.

These are elements of DCGS-N in increment 1. Experts are beginning the gap analysis to determine the capabilities that will be needed for increment 2. Its target date is the fiscal year 2014 time frame.

Another thrust is to extend the range of DCGS-N. This would entail finding a way to place its capability on unit-level platforms such as destroyers and cruisers. This would make DCGS-N information more widely available.

“In the intelligence business, it’s hard to figure out ahead of time who needs the information,” Capt. Parker says. “So, it’s better to get the information to as many people as possible and allow them to do good work with it.”

The program will award a prime mission product contract in this fiscal year, the captain offers. A strong industry team has supported the effort so far, but the program is looking forward to working with one prime contractor for faster and more efficient fielding.

Capt. Parker allows that the program wants partners that are plugged into the intelligence business line. He wants program goals met using existing elements to the maximum extent possible.

Poor echoes the captain’s point. “There simply isn’t enough money for us to reinvent the wheel. If there is a capability out there that we can leverage, that certainly is what we want to do. We’re looking for industry partners that intuitively understand that in their DNA.”





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