We welcome Rodney Barton back to The Central Blue for his first short story, exploring the potential future of the planned Distributed Ground Station – Australia.  

It was a good day for a coup. The Vendilion parliament had just returned for a sitting week to discuss the latest mining deal with the great power nation of Keratos. Colonel William Dormand, known affectionately as ‘Wild Bill,’ had deployed his troops around key government sites in Vendilia and deployed his crack special forces contingent to secure the parliament building. The military had secured the telecommunications and media institutions and even deployed phone jammers to prevent word from getting out. It had minimal effect, with social media alight with news that the military had just overthrown the Vendilion government.  Australia’s national intelligence agencies were caught by surprise; perhaps they were too focused on Keratos’s expanding influence. The Australian government hastily convened a national security cabinet meeting to discuss response options.

The Australian Defence Force was immediately at work planning for anticipated options. The Air and Space Operations Centre (AOC) located within Headquarters Joint Operations Command contacted critical Air Force units to commence military planning. One of the key units involved was the Distributed Ground Station – Australia (DGS-AUS), located in Adelaide. This intelligence unit was responsible for the analysis of data collected from the various Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. It also had access to national intelligence resources and using advanced computer systems, it could rapidly fuse collected information and provide decision-makers with enhanced situational awareness of events – such as a military coup in Vendilia.

The DGS-AUS unit had already commenced working the Vendilion crisis, beginning with the use of publicly available information, such as Vendilion social media, to understand the mood of the population. In the past, Air Force intelligence analysts rarely used open source information, and when they did, it was typically haphazard. However, social media now pervaded society to the point where people’s lives were virtually recorded in the public domain. The open source analysts were quick to discover the locations and status of many Australian nationals in Vendilia; this information could support evacuation planning. Moreover, the social media posts provided an understanding of what was occurring around Vendilia, particularly the posture of the coup leaders.

SAAB Hololens concept for ISR planning

DGS-AUS, other units, and the AOC conducted collaborative planning using augmented reality (AR) Hololens visors. This allowed all the participants to not only view all the remote participants involved in the planning, but also the Vendilia area of interest presented in three dimensions highlighting key terrain and locations. Additional information, such as threat and friendly positions were overlaid on a 3D map, allowing planners to see how aircraft could maximise sensor performance and mitigate threats. This was a significant improvement on planning activities in the past, which typically involved large hard copy maps, spreadsheets with key targets, and significant use of PowerPoint slides to ‘sell’ the plan to leadership. Previously, planning was cumbersome, and process driven. Now, 3D representations allowed planners and decision makers to visualise the dynamics of critical events to improve their understanding.

Air Force ISR aircraft were soon flying towards Vendilia. A manned MC-55 Peregrine aircraft and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft were above Vendilia, collecting vital data around the planned collection targets. This data was transmitted back to Australia and into the network, with DGS-AUS analysts eagerly transforming the 1s and 0s into useable intelligence. In the mid-2020s the ability to fly an aircraft remotely in another part of the globe was a recent concept for the Australian military, but the communications networks had matured enough to allow beyond-line of sight control and analysis. The Air Force could also consolidate its intelligence analysts within a central location in DGS-AUS, and virtually collaborate on missions with Army and Navy intelligence analysts. Not only did this provide flexibility and economy in the Joint Force analytical effort, but it also avoided having to deploy more people forward, potentially into harm’s way.

The DGS-AUS analysts were working hard on their workstations.  But rather than just gathering information to transform into intelligence like the industrial processes of the past, they were actively hunting for key pieces of the puzzle to provide answers to decision-makers. To support their efforts, the DGS-AUS system was using multiple artificial intelligence (AI) agents to augment the analytical process. One AI agent was busy scraping relevant data from intelligence databases on Vendilion military activity around the Vendilion capital. Another was classifying objects on the screen for the analysts in real-time and reporting what it was seeing. The AI algorithm had been taught to identify dozens of objects, including weapons.  Previous intelligence reporting had indicated that the Keratos military had provided Vendilion forces with advanced crew-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAM). The AI agent, teamed with the human analyst, was able to detect and classify soldiers who were operating these high-threat missiles near the Vendilia airport. Based on AI cueing, Australian strike aircraft engaged these SAMs on the ground to prevent any threat to the helicopters that were flying in at low-level – allowing Australian special forces to secure the airport and assist in the evacuation of Australian citizens.

A USAF Distributed Common Ground System (AF DCGS), also referred to as the AN/GSQ-272 SENTINEL weapon system, is the Air Force’s primary ISR collection, processing, exploitation, analysis and dissemination (CPAD) system. (Source: US Department of Defense)

During the noncombatant evacuation operation, DGS-AUS analysts were also monitoring the response from Keratos given their influence in Vendilia. Strategic intelligence indicated that the Keratos Navy was assembling an amphibious task group in preparation for their own evacuation. The Australian government quickly directed long-range maritime surveillance around Vendilion waters. DGS-AUS analysts were now supporting maritime surveillance missions by MQ-4C Triton and P-8A Poseidon aircraft as well as the continuing ISR missions over Vendillia. DGS-AUS integration with the strategic intelligence community provided substantial cueing for RAAF assets to maintain battlespace awareness on the potentially looming threat that was heading to Vendilia…

To be continued…

Squadron Leader Rodney Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. This post was originally submitted as part of a Squadron Leader Barton’s Graduate Certificate in Public Sector Innovation through the University of Technology Sydney in 2018. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.