Air Force Embraces Agile Development for Weapons Systems

The Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (AF DCGS), also referred to as the AN/GSQ-272 SENTINEL weapon system, is the Air Force’s primary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection, processing, exploitation, analysis and dissemination (CPAD) system. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Air Force is going all-in for agile development – starting with its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.

“What we’re doing in terms of manpower and resources does not scale as much as we would need it to,” said Gen. Robert Otto, Deputy Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). “We need to free up resources that are currently engaged in the fight.”

Otto wants to apply that concept of agility to every aspect of ISR – from operations to acquisitions and systems design – in an effort to “transform virtually every aspect of our ISR enterprise.” Speaking at an Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association (AFCEA) event Feb. 16, Otto said the age of scheduled block-release upgrades is over. “We can’t do that in the future. We need an agile framework that can adapt to new data sources, software [and] analytic capabilities.”

Citing the Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), the critical communications hub for collecting, processing, sharing and exploiting intelligence, Otto said his direction to DCGS program chief Col. Bruce Lyman, was to ratchet up the speed of development from years to months or even weeks. Otto sought such developments with an eye toward injecting new technologies that can speed the flow of information from sensors to warfighters, wherever they may be.

At the same time, he added, simply developing the new technology more rapidly is not enough. The Air Force also needs to adopt more rapid acquisition processes so that new technology is not only developed, but purchased and fielded as fast as 60 to 90 days.

Otto asked: “How do we take something that is very timely and make it happen very quickly?”

Hammering Bureaucracy
Partnering with Otto is Camron Gorguinpour, Air Force director of transformational innovation, who describes his job as “looking across the acquisition enterprise and beating bureaucracy with a sledge hammer to see what I can shake loose.”

In this case, Gorguinpour’s trying to break down conventional barriers to injecting new technologies into existing programs by addressing both the development and acquisition sides of the equation. He calls the idea “open systems acquisition” and likens it theoretically to the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store. It is a means for rapidly exploring available options and then quickly making them available.

While DoD is not literally looking for an app store for new technology insertion, Gorguinpour said, it does want to overcome delays that retard systems development today. “Imagine, [if] it took two years for me to download [an app] and another two years to get authorization to use it,” he said. “No one would download the app or buy the phone.”

Likewise, new technology demonstration vehicles, like DoD’s PlugFest events, do a good job of demonstrating available technologies. But unless they are linked to rapid acquisition authority, they can’t actually deliver new technology to the end user.

Now, Gorguinpour said, the Air Force leverages “other transaction authority” to break down barriers which companies face in doing business with the government and “allows you to do things that are very tailored to a specific need.”

Following the Army’s lead, the Air Force is creating a consortium small businesses can join by filling out a simple one-page form and paying a $500 fee. Large businesses can participate by partnering with small firms, he said.

Once in the consortium, businesses can compete by responding to requirements as they are released. Gorguinpour said the first demonstration resulted in greater capability at lower cost than initially anticipated, and yielded a signed contract in about 90 days. He thinks the timing can be accelerated as the service gains experience with the approach.

Helping the Warfighter
In the case of DCGS, the mission Otto laid before Air Force Reserve Col. Bruce Lyman, the program director was pretty straight forward: On average if you get a new sensor, it takes about two years to ingest that” upgrade into the system. “Before you leave, you need to show we can do that in five days.”

It is conceptually and technologically possible, Lyman said. The problem has been the administrative hurdles posed by a complicated procurement system. But Lyman and the Air Force have developed a new contract approach and found new contract vehicles that solve the challenge.

“We’ve announced we will no longer deploy block releases at all,” he said.

In 2016, DCGS will field five operational pilots using an open architecture framework developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The framework, which consists of technology, methodology and governance, will be tested and proven through the pilots, and eventually move out of the lab and incorporate more commercial work and support.

It’s a whole new approach to upgrades, Lyman said. “This will allow us not only to take new technologies and capabilities and very quickly drive that to analysts,” Lyman said, “but also to do that in parallel, not sequentially.”

So instead of waiting years for all the different pieces to be proven and then wrapped up together in a block upgrade, “we can deploy [each piece] very quickly once we roll out that agile framework,” he said. In turn, analysts can share feedback that can drive further enhancements. Lyman calls this “innovating at the edge” – an approach he’s familiar with from his civilian technology career.

Separate Hardware from Software
The DCGS framework separated hardware from software, opening up more room for potential innovation. Built by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the framework leveraged existing tools from the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Organization and others in the intelligence community. They also looked beyond their own system to see how they could leverage services built into ICITE, the Intelligence Community Information Technology Environment.

“That allows us to take advantage of new technologies and new ways of doing business – new analytics, new cloud technologies,” Lyman said. He added the Air Force is talking to a host of potential industry partners, both large and small, integrators and specialists, looking for the best possible ideas for how to optimize the DCGS development process for agile, continuous, incremental upgrades.

IT all amounts to a cultural revolution in military acquisition, he said.

“We’re trying to change everything,” he said. “How do we rapidly get new technology into weapon systems? How do we rapidly get access to new algorithms? How do we create the actual innovative environment where we can actually move quickly, at a pace we can’t really comprehend today?”

That will have major implications not only in the service, but also among its suppliers.

Air Force leaders anticipate more competition at more points along each system’s life cycle. That means winning a contract to build an aircraft or other weapons platform may not carry the long-term lock-in suppliers have traditionally enjoyed.

Brig. Gen. Rausch, Air Force director of ISR Capabilities, explained: “We would envision you’re still going to buy the aircraft or truck. It’s the sensor that we’re trying to innovate … and there will be more competition along the way.”

The net effect, he said: “It will create more agility for us and definitely more opportunities on [the industry] side.”

The increased opportunities will come about because prime contractors won’t have a lock on future upgrades, Gorguinpour said. “More opportunities from competition rather than fewer actually helps.”

Lyman said industry is responding well to the idea. “Corporations that really, truly honestly embrace agile, do well,” he said. The ones that don’t, that cling to block releases – that’s not the future – they won’t do well.”

But it’s clear, too, that block releases are not just a function of corporate approach. They are also tied directly to government procurement models. And using small-business contracting tools to overcome institutional procurement hurdles may not work over the long term. While the strategy works historically during short-term emergencies such as with urgent wartime requirements, the process slows when the urgency recedes. Likewise, as program managers take on more of the responsibilities traditionally assigned to systems integrators, they need to add technical capabilities to manage that process – or contract out for them, if necessary.

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