In 2015, the Air Force launched Air Superiority 2030, a wide-range effort to conceptualize and develop future capabilities.
As a part of that effort, the Kill Chain Integration Branch at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, has been pursuing "Data-to-Decisions." The goal of that program is to ensure rapid access to information by future decision-makers in combat.
With a number of recent advances, program managers say, the Air Force has moved substantially closer toward that goal.
"The strategic objective is to try to speed up the decision-making process, being able to provide relevant data to the folks that need it in the time frame that they need it," said Capt. Brenton Byrd-Fulbright, Data-to-Decisions program manager. "We have largely been operating in permissive environments and haven't really focused on the speed of information. But as we move into the age of information warfare, speed and being able to make decisions faster than our adversaries is going to be critical."
Today, the Air Force manages a range of data communications including voice, text, and video and geospatial feeds. Often this information exists in technology silos — systems that cannot readily communicate or interoperate. This slows tactical communication and impedes decision-making.
Data-to-Decisions is looking to cloud-based technologies to solve this problem. Program managers envision a "combat cloud," a complex network that would amalgamate data across multiple platforms in a dynamic, distributed environment.
The team demonstrated its early ideas in July and November 2016 at Hanscom. The July experiment successfully shared data between aircraft and ground operators using a cloud network. In the later experiment, testers showed that such cloud-based data could not only be shared but also effectively processed.
"We utilized some data analytics to simulate the ability to have a distributed cloud, where we were doing some automated object identification and imagery processing," Byrd-Fulbright said. "It showcased our ability to do rapid processing outside of the more conventional processing nodes and ground stations."
Formally known as the Tactical Cloud Reference Implementation (TCRI), this proposed solution offers a software platform to serve as a common framework for managing operational data and analytics. "With a cloud framework, you have the ability to create a connective tissue throughout the enterprise. So long as people use standardized data formats, you can leverage this architecture and distribute the data to anyone in that cloud network," Byrd-Fulbright said.
In addition to its in-house work with cloud architectures, the Data-to-Decisions team is reaching out to the academic community for new cloud computing models and prototypes through the recently created Hanscom Academic Cloud Team (HACT) initiative.
"The idea is to work with academics to come up with projects that could help us along, to further our work here," said Capt. Elizabeth Simkus, Data-to-Decisions lead engineer. "Right now that would include cloud-related projects and also analytics-related development, the data algorithms that do automated analysis."
Air Force officials are coordinating HACT along with the Massachusetts Open Cloud consortium, which brings on board a number of local universities including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University, as well as numerous industry partners.
While cloud might help solve the stovepipe problem, there are other hurdles to timely communication, especially with the increasing volume of data being fed into limited-bandwidth channels.
"The more stuff you have downloading at a certain time, the slower your internet is going to be," Byrd-Fulbright said. "When you look at how we operate in the military, there is so much data that is resident in an operational environment — information coming from ships and tanks and cyber and air. When you have limited bandwidth to communicate all this data, it is going to slow everything down."
To that end, Data-to-Decisions also is looking at possible enhancements to network infrastructure.
"There are plans to do more research on agile communications solutions, whether it be different waveforms or types of radios or looking at issues like network degradation," he said. "We are looking at process improvements as well as capability improvements to combat some of those issues."
He said a major experiment event is planned for May.