The Blog

Sprawling intel system is first test for Air Force’s new commitment to open architecture

Relevant links are at the bottom of this post.

Jared Serbu on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

After years of expensive updates to its Distributed Common Ground System via slow, grinding block upgrades, the Air Force is ready for a change and says it’s fully invested in an agile methodology for the vast intelligence analysis system.

The Air Force version of DCGS — already installed at 27 sites around the world at a cost of about $750 million each — makes up the basic backbone for processing and analyzing all the data that comes from its manned surveillance aircraft and drones plus other sensors from across the military. But until now, it’s been tough to add new tools to the system as quickly as they’re developed. Generally, they waited their turn for the next scheduled “block” of DCGS while engineers struggled to integrate them with the prime vendors’ system designs.

Col. Bruce Lyman, the chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for DCGS, said that’s changing quickly during a pivot to an open systems architecture. Last year, the Air Force Research Laboratory  released an open architecture prototype version of DCGS that will permit new systems to be added in a plug-and-play fashion because of previous work the Air Force has done to standardize the way its subsystems communicate with one another. The “open” version of DCGS will be tested at five pilot locations in 2016.

“We’re not going to deploy block releases at all anymore,” Lyman told an industry audience convened by AFCEA’s D.C. chapter in Arlington, Virginia on Tuesday. “We’ve completely adopted the agile methodology and we’re already driving that into the weapons system. That’s going to allow us to not only take new technology and very quickly give that to our analysts, but to add those capabilities in parallel instead of waiting for years and years to go through the usual requirements and acquisition process. We’ll be able to deploy things very quickly after we roll out the agile framework. Giving our thousands of analysts tools to analyze all the data they need right at the edge is going to be very powerful in combat.”

Last year, DCGS also served as the first test case for an open architecture-oriented rapid acquisition process the Air Force refers to as PlugFest Plus. The “plus” denotes the fact that that besides just showing off what their technologies could do while plugged into government networks, vendors showcasing their wares were promised that an actual contract would be awarded within 60 days.

In that case, it was for a rapid DCGS upgrade that automates the task of redacting intelligence information so it can be shared outside sensitive channels, cutting the time to handle that task from an hour on average to 1 minute.

For the first PlugFest experiment, the Air Force made its award by borrowing processes the Army had already set up: communicating its needs through a consortium of mostly-commercial companies that typically don’t do business with the government and using Other Transaction Authority to bypass most of the hurdles IT projects encounter in the Defense procurement process.

The process is overseen by Dr. Camron Gorguinpour, who Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James appointed two years ago as the Director of Transformational Innovation as part of her “Bending the Cost Curve” initiative.

“My job is to look across the acquisition enterprise and basically beat bureaucracy with a sledgehammer to see what we can shake loose,” he said.

With regard to open systems architecture, even though it’s been a buzzword and an objective across DoD for nearly a decade, Gourginpour said the reason the concept has only taken off in a few pockets of Defense acquisition is that it only works when it’s paired with a rapid acquisition process — the kind the IT industry uses when it’s adding new bells and whistles to smartphones.

“When the Department of Defense talks about open architectures, we’re not literally looking for an app store to buy new technology, but we’re looking for something similar,” he said. “But imagine that I found an app that took two years to download and then another year to be authorized to use it. I wouldn’t download the app or buy that phone, because that’s an idiotic business model. That’s essentially what we’re offering to our program managers when we tell them they should use open architecture.  If they’re still stuck with the traditional DoD acquisition process, what’s the point? You might as well stick with the big prime vendor you started with.”

Having tried the Plugfest Plus approach once last year using the Army’s consortium, the Air Force plans to do many more this year, but through its own newly-initiated club of nontraditional vendors: the System of Systems Security Consortium.

Using the combination of OTA authorities and an Air Force-controlled pathway to communicate what it wants to buy, the service thinks it can cut the time it takes to deliver new, modular capabilities to its systems to just three weeks.

“It’s literally a one-page online form and about a $500 fee, and once you’re a member you can compete freely for government business,” Gourginpour said. “What you’ll see over the next few months are a number of projects, involving both DCGS and hopefully a number of other Air Force programs that want to evolve their systems in an agile way.”

There are some caveats though.

When Congress first created OTA in 1958 it was for NASA , just after the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik and in reaction to an imperative that the U.S. not lose the Space Race, acquisition rules be damned. Even then, it was meant to be limited to R&D and prototyping work that couldn’t be awarded under the traditional procurement system.

Today’s rules mostly limit OTA to “nontraditional” defense firms — those that that did less than $500,000 in military contracting during the prior year, but Gourginpour said there are plenty of workarounds to those restrictions.

“Anybody can enter the consortium, but in order to compete for contracts, traditional defense firms either have to put in a one-third cost share or partner with a small or nontraditional company. But that’s actually pretty easy to do since there are a lot of those in the consortium,” he said.

Existing law also dictates that nontraditional firms make a “significant contribution” to whatever end product the government is buying through the OTA workaround.

“But ‘significant contribution’ isn’t defined by law as anything other than the fact that the nontraditional firm has to contribute some meaningful product or service toward the end goal,” Gourginpour said. “It’s also worth pointing out that if you’re a big company with a government division and a commercial division, the commercial division is considered nontraditional, so that division could be considered the nontraditional partner. The bottom line is that these challenges are insanely easily to work through, and we encourage companies of any size and nature to join the consortium.”