Integrating standard Air Force communications-computer systems worldwide presents a formidable challenge. All too often in the past, functional organizations bought new systems independently and without giving much thought to whether another system—such as one to track the movement of base-level supplies or household goods—already offered the same capabilities. They also acquired new systems that might interface with others on the base—and then again, might not.
It would be easy if Air Force Communications Command could start with a clean slate by building integrated base-level communications and computer systems from the ground up. However, that would be prohibitively expensive, and the Air Force can’t afford it. Instead, we find ourselves entering the game with some of the cards already dealt.
For example, the average Air Force base has some ninety different computer-based systems on it. AFCC must work with these systems and make them selectively talk to each other and work together as we add still more capability.
The Air Force Communications-Computer Systems Integration Office (AF CSIO), established in October 1987, is working to ensure that new base-level communications-computer systems in the Air Force will indeed work within the existing communications infrastructure.
In addition to integrating existing base-level systems, AF CSIO provides a clearinghouse service for reviewing proposed Air Force-wide communications and computer systems. This review identifies potential overlaps in capabilities and services. Consequently, by sharing and complementing the services and information of other systems, Air Force systems may become even more productive. The office will also help to “future-proof” new systems by aligning them to the growing number of international standards.
Prototyping is a key step in the systems integration process. The prototype work being done at Mather AFB, Calif., which is the Air Force computer and communications systems model base, will ultimately affect the communications architecture at other Air Force bases worldwide and set the standard for integrated Air Force communications and computer systems into the twenty-first century.
Under the model base concept, Mather AFB will be the first military installation in DoD to employ Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) technology. ISDN technology will enable many formerly independent communications and computer systems to interface with or talk to each other for the first time. Government acceptance testing of this ISDN equipment is expected to begin in mid-July 1988. And with the installation of ISDN technology with our Base Information Digital Distribution System (BIDDS) equipment, our fully integrated communications-computer systems model base should be operational by January 1989.
The Open Systems Approach
The use of open systems—those that aren’t limited to any particular vendor’s hardware, software operating system, or communications network—is another crucial element in AFCC’s efforts to provide integrated, inter-operable communications-computer systems. The proliferation of computer vendors and computer systems makes this open systems approach essential. Otherwise, we run the risk of buying noninteroperable systems to meet different needs—only to find out that they won’t talk to each other.
For Air Force communications and computer systems to meet customer needs fully, we must achieve this openness or interoperability in three areas: hardware, software, and supporting telecommunications networks.
We must be able to buy hardware and software systems that will work or interface with similar ones—regardless of who manufactured them. For instance, many software applications, such as spreadsheet or graphics programs, can only be used on one vendor’s hardware. In some offices, Air Force people find themselves flanked by two or more computer terminals whose operating systems and applications are totally incompatible. This is both expensive and inefficient.
In order to make software work independently of hardware systems, the federal government adopted a computer operating system interface standard called the Portable Operating System (POSIX). POSIX, a derivative of the UNIX operating system, is the first step in bridging the gap between different computer operating systems and applications. For example, the POSIX standard would make it possible to use the spreadsheet or graphics program on any computer that complies with the standard.
In addition, the government has also adopted the Government Open System Interconnection Profile (GOSIP). GOSIP will be used in all government computer and communications specifications and requests for proposal to make sure that even geographically separated computer systems can eventually talk to each other with the same ease as today’s telephone systems. Presently, we’re in a transitional period, with GOSIP coexisting with current standards. In roughly two years, GOSIP, which is based on internationally supported standards, will become the government standard for communications-computer systems networks.
Further, AFCC recently released a multibillion-dollar request for proposal to procure standard, multiuser small computers for the Air Force and the rest of DoD. To make sure that we don’t buy a proprietary system that won’t interconnect with or talk to those of different vendors, we specified that these computers must feature a UNIX-like operating system, which will ensure portability in application software.
A UNIX-like system is a versatile, widely available software operating system that we will be able to use in a number of different computers—from microprocessors to the largest mainframes. Additionally, it’s written in a high-level language, which makes the system easy to adapt to particular requirements.
Software: Key to Effectiveness
Software is the key to the effectiveness of just about every major weapon system in DoD. The Air Force spent about $4 billion on software during 1987—roughly five percent of the total Air Force budget. Given the Air Force’s insatiable appetite for software-driven service, AFCC recently established a program office at Gunter AFB, Ala., in order to develop a five-year strategic plan. This plan will transform the Standard Systems Center (SSC) at Gunter into the “Software Center of Excellence”—not just for AFCC but for the entire Air Force.
The center will acquire and develop those standard software systems that serve a variety of functions and are shared by many different Air Force customers. The Air Force’s Standard Base Supply System is one example. On the other hand, the center will not develop unique, single-purpose systems, such as those used on fighter aircraft.
This “Software Center of Excellence” could become a model software acquisition agent and life-cycle manager, and as such, it would take the mystery out of software development by managing the software development and acquisition processes in the same disciplined way we do hardware. The center would also provide a bridge between academic environments that develop advanced software concepts and practical applications of these concepts for Air Force major commands and agencies.
The standard, multiuser small computer is just one example of the kind of acquisition work AFCC does for the Air Force and DoD. Since we are dedicated to off-the-shelf procurement, we complement rather than compete with our sister acquisition commands, which include Air Force Logistics Command and Air Force Systems Command. We meet our customers’ needs for standard systems from readily available, off-the-shelf commercial sources—we do not develop new, state-of-the-art systems.
Our acquisition role has expanded steadily since 1984. In fact, we have procured more than $1 billion in off-the-shelf, or nondevelopmental, items for our customers in the past four years. We expect total acquisitions to exceed $7 billion by 1993. In our business, good commercial alternatives are usually readily available “off the shelf’ to meet our customers’ needs, and those alternatives are growing.
AFCC’s acquisition people, the Engineering Installation Division at Tinker AFB, Okla., and the Standard Systems Center at Gunter AFB are working on a number of projects and programs that will give Air Force commanders more efficient, interoperable communications-computer systems.
For instance, the Base Information Digital Distribution System (BIDDS) is the key to the future for Air Force communications. This nearly $1 billion state-of-the-art system involves installing new cable, switches, and system control equipment to link all voice and data communications requirements at the base level. We’ll capitalize on the availability of off-the-shelf, commercially available equipment to replace outdated electromechanical telephone systems. BIDDS will also provide increased transmission capacity and reliable low-noise circuits capable of satisfying both voice and data requirements.
Increasingly Computer Literate
Working as the technical lead with the Army, Navy, and Defense Logistics Agency, our SSC people are meeting the needs of an increasingly computer-literate US military force. Through a procurement program known as Desktop III, we expect to buy an estimated 250,000 state-of-the-art minicomputers DoD-wide as a follow-on to the Zenith Z-248. We expect the contract, with an estimated value of more than $1 billion, to be awarded next year.
We also recently requested industry proposals for a multimillion-dollar Red Switch subsystem. The subsystem will provide very high quality, responsive, secure voice communications systems that will be less expensive and easier to maintain than present equipment and will be able to interface with current and future secure voice equipment.
The subsystem, which has the features and capabilities of modern digital telephone switches, will make possible unencrypted secure voice communications within a secure enclave. Calls exiting the switch will be protected by standard encryption devices. Additionally, it will also allow conference calls involving as many as 100 participants. The switching subsystems will complement the existing Red Switches to form a network serving the National Military Command Center, the Alternate National Military Command Center, and primary command centers of the unified and specified commands. The first newly acquired switch is targeted for operation in the fourth quarter of 1989.
Similarly, the Future Secure Voice System will further expand our Air Force’s secure voice capabilities. Also known as the STU-III/LCT (Secure Telephone Unit Model 3/Low Cost Terminal), the system features portability and self-authentication, automatically providing information concerning the security clearance of the distant party on the line. We expect the Air Force to buy more than 12,000 STU-III/LCTs initially, with another 6,000 in follow-on procurement. The system is being developed by the National Security Agency and will eventually be the standard general-purpose secure system for DoD.
Another acquisition effort is the Air Force Command and Control Systems (AFC2S) program that promises to improve Air Force command and control capabilities. The program complements efforts to modernize the Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS) by upgrading and integrating hardware and software for the new WWMCCS Information System. Additionally, AFC2S, which will require an investment of up to $500 million, is expected to save that much by reducing current software maintenance costs by an estimated fifty percent.
Other initiatives promise to improve Air Force high-frequency radios. Under a program called Scope Command, we will replace our aging HF radios with modern, commercially available, off-the-shelf equipment. This program will support the Mystic Star, Global Command and Control System, and HF Defense Communications System entry missions with more reliable equipment and allow for incorporation of advanced technology as it is developed.
Reliability and Maintainability
Overall, communications-computer systems have a good reputation for providing reliable service. Unfortunately, too often we got that reliability at the expense of maintainability. Further, in order to ensure reliability, we often resorted to redundancy—having a backup system available. That meant maintenance people had two systems to repair instead of one.
However, new technologies offer us both reliability and maintainability, and we’re making the most of those new technologies. In some cases, that means total replacement of an old system. In other cases, upgrading existing systems makes better sense.
For example, working with Sacramento Air Logistics Center, we recently fielded a new Air Traffic Information System that promises a dramatic increase in reliability. The system automatically broadcasts routine weather and airfield status to pilots. The time between failures jumped from 500 hours for the old magnetic tape system to 2,500 hours for the new one. We expect it to go much higher as the system matures, possibly to 25,000 hours. The key to this dramatic increase is solid-state technology that eliminates the need to clean and adjust moving parts in the old magnetic tape transport assembly.
In another case, we increased the reliability and maintainability of a system by a series of modifications instead of total replacement. These modifications changed the uptime rate of our TPN-19 tactical air control radar system from thirty-eight percent in 1985 to ninety-eight percent today.
In these days of limited defense dollars, saving money sometimes means upgrading or replacing inefficient, obsolete systems with ones that work longer and cost less to maintain, instead of just making do with the status quo.
Toward the System Specialist
In 1984, we began merging the telecommunications and data-processing career fields into a single Air Force specialty: the Communications-Computer Systems Specialist. Merging technologies made the move necessary since a number of people in separate career fields were doing similar things. The specialist that resulted from the merger is a more versatile professional. Additionally, the consolidation saved training dollars.
As our communications-computer systems become more reliable and easier to maintain, the need for two separate kinds of people—operators and maintainers—decreases. Wiring diagrams become simplified, and repairs often amount to no more than replacing a bad module with a good one. So ultimately, instead of having both kinds of people, we’ll have one—a systems specialist.
If merging the career fields makes sense, consolidation of base communications and data automation facilities can’t be far behind, and we are working toward that goal. In fact, we now have nineteen collocated or consolidated facilities, with plans to do the same with forty-nine more as the budget allows.
Until just a few months ago, AFCC conducted two separate schools at Scott AFB, Ill., for operations managers and maintenance managers, respectively. That era ended when we inaugurated a consolidated AFCC “Systems” School on April 18. The new school meets communications operations and maintenance training needs by offering a curriculum that emphasizes a systems approach. Through this school, we’re beginning to groom supervisors who will look at their jobs with that systems perspective.
This is just a glimpse of one of the ways we can and must take advantage of technology to provide Air Force communications-computer services more efficiently. These initiatives are helping us do that and promise to make the Air Force more combat-capable in the challenging years ahead.
Maj. Gen. James S. Cassity, Jr., became Commander of AFCC in March of this year and was previously Director of Command and Control Systems and Logistics for US Space Command. He is a command pilot with more than 4,500 flying hours in the EC-121, the C-46 (three years with Air Force Special Operations in South America), and the CH-3 (180 combat hours in Southeast Asia).