To coordinate air coverage during wars or disaster relief operations, the U.S. Air Force relies on command centers staffed in some cases by hundreds of analysts, operators and commanders.
Computer applications that deliver weather forecasts, target coordinates, surface-to-air missile sites and a host of other critical information have been added gradually over the last two decades.
Today, each Air and Space Operations Center, or AOC, contains a hodgepodge of computers of various brands whose software can date to the 1990s. There are 40 or so applications in a typical AOC, and some are so walled off from each other that operators have to print out data displayed on one console and re-key the data into others.
“None of these systems were ever designed to play together,” said Col. Margaret Larezos, chief of the operational command and control division at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. “We expect the humans to integrate these. That’s not productive.”
The Air Force and Northrop Grumman are off and running on their eight-year, $504 million plan to modernize the hardware and software at the AOCs, now that a tumultuous series of bid protests has been resolved by the Government Accountability Office, the arm of Congress that hears complaints by contractors.
The work will occur at numerous sites, including the command center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where officials create the daily air tasking orders allocating coverage by Predator UAVs and other aircraft flying over Afghanistan. The Al Udeid facility is called a combined air operations center because it includes coalition partners. The Air Force said it has devised strategies to ensure the changes are made smoothly at Al Udeid and other sites involved in intense operations.
The key goal of the AOC Weapon System Modernization program is to link applications together seamlessly so that a specialist in the center’s intelligence cell, for example, can open a map on the center of a display and open subwindows at the edges, including digital chat and coordinates for potential targets. Those target icons could be dragged and dropped onto the map.
If operators discover they need a new kind of data, adding that function would be as simple as developing an app for an iPhone and installing it, said Northrop’s Jill Dawes, who manages the program.
The mix of computing systems at the sites will gradually be replaced with computers provided by Cisco Systems, a vendor to Northrop. However, the open computing architecture design will allow the Air Force or Northrop to switch hardware vendors in the future, if they choose.
The Air Force has 11 AOCs, including seven main centers covering specific geographic regions. Various cells within the sprawling centers encompass every aspect of air operations. There are strategic and combat planning staffs; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance cells; combat operators; and mobility flight coordinators — the “beans and bullets” function of delivering supplies.
Staffing levels for an AOC can fluctuate from hundreds during wartime operations to a skeleton “keep-the-lights-on” staff during peacetime for daily flying in the AOC’s theater. The Air Force also coordinates with joint operators and commanders from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps at the AOCs.
Because the AOC systems were not designed as a single system, operators and analysts at the centers sometimes have to transfer data from one system to another. That means that sometimes, data is printed out from one system and then retyped into another system. Or, an analyst might have to phone or use the “sneakernet” — walk over to another analyst who has access to another system to get the needed information.
The new computing architecture is known as Increment 10.2, which doesn’t sound like a big leap from the existing system, called 10.1. But it is a big leap, program officials said.
The effort has two main components: One is to create and install the software that will link all 40 of the tools to work together. The other is to create the software that will allow new applications and updates to be plugged into the system, Dawes said.
The software will be “net-centric,” with “layer upon layer upon layer of security built in,” and different levels of access for users depending on their security clearances, she said.
For example, an operator could take a map depicted on a computer screen and overlay it with weather information, she said. Or the user could look at automatically updated weapons information or lists of available aircraft, or look at saved mission information, or start up a chat with an analyst.
“It’s just a way of bringing all of these disparate systems together,” Larezos said. “It will make them play nice together.”
Having all of the data available on one screen helps the analysts and operators stay on top of dynamic situations.
“The data helps operators make decisions,” Dawes said.
It will also make it easier for the user to share information and communicate — pulling up a chat window with a weapons expert to ask about a specific target, and showing the screen information to that expert, for example.
“The data is all there for the war fighter to make quick decisions in an operational context,” she said.
‘Like an Orchestra’
As a part of the modernization, Northrop Grumman will “collapse and re-engineer” the various mission threads that are executed at an AOC to ensure that those missions can be carried out efficiently with the new software, Larezos said. That would include documenting each step in a given mission and what programs or communications are required, and how the mission affects the other missions carried out at the AOC.
One example would be dynamic retargeting in the midst of a complicated battle. Suppose a tip came in about a high-value target. An unmanned Predator plane could be shifted from the main battle to watch the potential target. A goal of the re-engineering would be to give commanders a better understanding of how changing the Predator’s mission might affect other elements of the battle plan, Larezos said.
“It’s like an orchestra, with instruments designed to play individually. But it’s amazing when you get all of those instruments playing together,” Larezos said.
The modernization also will make it much easier for software designers to create new AOC tools, similar to how programmers develop smartphone apps, she said.
Because the software will be based on a government version of open-source code, it will be much easier and cheaper for the Air Force to upgrade or add capabilities to its AOC functions, Dawes said. Northrop has developed a software development kit and handbook, available online for any developer who meets certain security standards.
With the modernized software, the Air Force’s costs of training and ownership for its AOCs will also be lower, and users will be able to handle more tasks at once instead of training for specialized tasks on one of the 40 individual systems, Dawes said. “We’re making it easier for them to see and use the data. The integration of data is a powerful improvement.”
While the modernization project may lead to a reduction in the staffing at the AOCs, cutting staff is not an express goal of the project, Larezos said.
The modernization software will be tested at separate laboratories at Langley Air Force Base, Va., before it is installed at the AOCs, said Col. Todd Whitlow, chief of the AOC Requirements Division of the Air Force Command and Control Integration Center. AOC personnel will rotate into the lab from the various centers to test the lab version and learn how to use its software, and then it will be fielded at the geographic centers one at a time.
At the field sites, the old and new systems will work side by side, and then the new systems will be changed in on a cut-over date, with the whole process taking several months at each center, Whitlow said. All of the centers will have the new software in place by 2015, he said.
The Air Force has completed a one-and-a-half-year hardware upgrade at its AOCs, and the software modernization will take about 18 months, Dawes said. Northrop will develop upgrades of the software every six months.
Because the new software is developed on a parallel system in labs, the modernization project will not affect the ongoing planning and execution of the war in Afghanistan, Larezos said.