Satellites and military space sensors often operate as a glaring, ever-present “electric eye” zooming in on earth to look for heat signatures coming from launching enemy rockets and ICBMs, force maneuvers and fast-changing tactical circumstances unfolding amid heavy fire and hostile aircraft approaching sensitive command centers and vital targets in need of Protection.
Yet, how can human decision makers somehow discern, organize and process crucial, time-sensitive operational data at the “speed of relevance?”
This predicament, of sorts, is fast-becoming more and more pressing as technologies evolve, and is exacerbated by how new streams of information flow increasingly accelerates both the speed of transmission and the sheer volume of incoming sensor data. This challenge relates to matters of the most crucial military significance, such as the speed with which an Air Force Space Based Infrared system can process the data associated with a mission event. Not only do event signatures need to be found, but they also must be distinguished from seemingly similar signals, processed and placed within a broader mission context to the maximum degree Possible.
The dynamics with this, which of course pertain to the speed and precision with which human decision makers can optimize a response, represent the inspirational foundation upon which the Air Force is now architecting its Overhead Persistent Infrared enterprise and moving quickly with rapid prototyping efforts intended to streamline the technical development process.
The challenge of organizing, distilling yet also networking, pooling or aggregating seemingly vast or limitless volumes of information is also providing the inspiration for a Raytheon Intelligence & Space innovation called Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) Mission Data Processing Application Framework.
The Raytheon system helps architect the technical apparatus to gather, store, safeguard and network OPIR related sensor information. It involves synchronizing fixed ground terminals with other nodes such as air and space assets; it also leverages cloud technology. In effect, when Spaced-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) sensors detect the key indicators of an important mission event, the data is then pooled, organized, analyzed and made available to key decision Makers.
“What we are building on a much bigger scale is the hardware and the software that enables mission applications to come in and use satellite data and bring it into a framework,” Karen Casey, FORGE Chief Engineer, Raytheon, told Warrior in an interview.
Casey explained that this includes using emerging software and hardware technologies and new architecture to, among other things, migrate time-sensitive targeting data to the cloud, increase network resiliency and better connect space, air- and ground-nodes into a fast, seamless integrated threat analysis system. “We are trying to unlock data and make it available for other uses,” Casey explained.
Raytheon Systems Engineer Jabari Loving describes it as “speed to mission,” wherein SBIRS data is processed and integrated into a broader, multi-faceted picture as “large amounts of data are pushed to the ground.”
“We can pull in sensors that look at diverse sources of information such as weather data or radar data and combine them with current SBIRS data. This enables a more complete common operating picture with improved situational awareness.
The intent of FORGE, now amid transition to operational status from rapid prototyping, is to leverage cloud migration to make otherwise inaccessible or separated data streams available to commanders while simultaneously securing transmission itself of disaggregated sources of incoming data.
“We are making modifications to the already mature prototype in preparation for delivery to operations,” Loving explained.
Casey explained that FORGE development, which began through what’s called an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) intended to facilitate rapid development, is currently focused upon transitioning from a rapid prototyping and technical insertion phase into an operational context to bring the system to new level.
Technologically speaking, Raytheon innovators engineered FORGE with the technical infrastructure to be consistently “upgradeable,” meaning it draws largely upon commercial architecture and common protocol standards to enable interoperability and rapid technology insertion as threats emerge and new technology becomes available.
FORGE also aligns with the Air Force’s strategic vision regarding the evolution of modern space and air warfare, as thinking regarding a technical and tactical transition from SBIRS to OPIR has been evolving along an interesting and highly impactful trajectory. A 2013 essay in the Air and Space Journal from the Air Force’s Air University discusses the strategic transition inspired in large measure by the advent of new technical platforms such as OPIR, and data application systems such as FORGE. As part of a discussion about the architectural transition concepts from SBIRS to OPIR, the essay, called “Missile Warning Augmentation: a Low Risk Approach,” makes a point to address the advent of “disaggregation.”
“Initial concepts introduced by the center (Space and Missile Systems Center) include changing from SBIRS to a wide field of view (WFOV) disaggregated approach,” the essay writes.
“Although the OPIR mission area has existed for decades as overhead non-imaging infrared with SBIRS and other systems, it is now the new kid on the block, integrating target-signature nuances, time, and place into persistent intelligence and operational products.”
Bearing this description in mind, one could certainly make the observation that, in an interesting way, the essay seems to anticipate the need for something like FORGE and also point out earlier technological developments which arguably helped shape the technical conditions enabling its arrival.
“The timely, near-seamless integration of observations provides discriminating capabilities. Users, now responding with analytic tools and techniques to best exploit the new capabilities, are only beginning to understand how to utilize the amazing new data,” the essay writes.
Disaggregation introduces a range of key advantages, to include a much wider sensor aperture and expansive operational envelope as well as increased survivability by virtue of spreading out potentially vulnerable functional systems. With disaggregation comes the need to of course network, process, and combine information into a more holistic, integrated picture. This, one could say, sums up some of the core operational value of FORGE.
In particular, the reference to “discriminating possibilities” in the essay seems significant as it seems to foreshadow the kinds of modern applications of data analytics, organization and information processing functions taken up by FORGE. It could almost be said that the 2013 essay points to the emergence of new levels of AI-enabled computing, cloud technologies and automation, by virtue of its reference to analyzing otherwise separated pools of data. FORGE,
Loving described, is enabled by automation, something which can help expedite this process.
“Different algorithms from a diverse set of application developers can be orchestrated to produce a decision quality product in time-frames that are relevant to warfighters. Our system does this automatically. FORGE hosts mission applications in ways that enable rapid responses to current emerging threats while providing the flexibility needed to ensure that the enterprise can evolve as mission needs change,” Loving said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.