HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Six teams of Airmen hung up their camo and dress uniforms to don hoodies and Star Wars apparel before traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they worked with civilian software coders to build combat applications.
The group of Airmen are participating in a project they call “Kessel Run,” but the Air Force calls the Air Operations Center Pathfinder project.
Their mission is to learn from today’s best tech experts, while delivering custom-built software to warfighters. They are already saving the Air Force fuel, and they have reduced the time it takes AOC warfighters to develop targets by 85 percent, making combat operations more precise and lethal.
“Our mission here is to turn the Air Force into a software company that provides airpower,” said Capt. Brian Kroger, a program manager for AOC Pathfinder at Hanscom. He’s also leading a team that is revamping an app called the Joint Tactical Toolbox. Kroger’s comments reflect his unit’s goal to make Air Force software as responsive as the operating systems in your smartphone, in order to disrupt the adversary as effectively as Silicon Valley companies disrupt their competitors.
Kroger’s team is working with a company called Pivotal Labs, which provides people and space to teach Airmen how to code like the workers in Silicon Valley, but for the Department of Defense. Open workspaces found in Cambridge contrast with traditional government workspaces on base with closed cubicles and offices. Pivotal employees, and the Airmen they’re teaming with, work on state-of-the-art computers and have a clear line of sight across the entire floor, increasing the chance for collaboration and innovation among people who don’t use hierarchical job titles.
“Our biggest challenge right now is the Department of Defense’s hiring and personnel system,” said Lt. Col. Jeremiah Sanders, who leads the AOC Pathfinder. “It turns out that in order for this type of work environment to function, you need to select personalities who work well in team environments, rather than people who meet specific education requirements. We thought technology was the hurdle, but it turns out we can learn to do this, and we do it fast. We’re only slowed by how quickly we can fund for more personnel and select the right people.”
Program funding uncertainty in late 2017 threatened the project’s existence. At the end of January, AOC Pathfinder received adequate funding to execute the program through mid-June, as a stop-gap, until the 2018 Department of Defense Appropriations Act is passed and breathes life into the effort. Upon receiving budget authority, the program will be postured to deliver combat applications, on a weekly basis, onto military networks. According to Sanders, no one has accomplished that before.
Sanders assembled a diverse team, including junior officers and enlisted Airmen, charged with fusing their combat experience with the expertise found in Boston and Silicon Valley’s technology sectors.
“I was an intel officer for several years before I joined this Pathfinder,” Kroger said. “Sometimes, when working through the process to develop a target, I found myself bridging all these different systems by copying and pasting coordinates or other details into Microsoft Word, and then onto another system. These tools work, but when you create workarounds that complicated, because the software won’t communicate, you introduce the possibility for errors. We’re talking life and death.”
Sanders measures his program’s success in time, money and lethality.
AOC Pathfinder is averaging 120 days from development to delivery of each application. Traditional development for similar software would be accomplished as a whole suite and take up to five years.
So far, efforts by the AOC Pathfinder team have reduced the need for one tanker mission per day over the Middle East, because they created a refueling planning tool that eliminated pen-and-paper and whiteboard planning processes.
Traditional acquisition techniques require up-front funding for an entire suite of systems. AOC Pathfinder personnel estimate they have, so far, saved hundreds of millions of dollars over traditional software acquisition techniques for the same number of software programs.
The Tanker Planning Toolkit saves approximately $214,000 per day, and also reduces risk by reducing in-flight combat zone exposure for Airmen.
A deliberate targeting application, designed by Airmen, significantly reduced the potential for human error and slashed the time required for targeteers to develop targets by 85 percent. Reducing human error improves accuracy, and makes combat air forces more lethal.
A dynamic targeting application saves 25 percent of the time previously spent manually checking targeting inputs, reducing human error that can crop up during a warfighter’s more reactive type of kinetic strike. It is also auditable, meaning lessons can be easily extracted from previous successes and failures, making future operations more effective.
“When you look at the efforts being done in Kessel Run, we’re taking the commander’s intent, giving Airmen in the Air Operations Center the tools they need to make it a reality, and then providing the tools they need to assess and improve for the next mission,” said 1st Lt. Carlo Viray, project owner for a software system called Marauder. “We want our leadership to have the best information to make better decisions during tomorrow’s war.”