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The Air Force is Implementing DevOps, Here’s What It Means for Airmen

Lean product development, user-centered design and extreme programming are terms usually associated with Silicon Valley startups, not the Air Force.

Similar to other military branches — and the Defense Department as a whole — acquisition strategies have been notoriously complex, cumbersome and in some cases yearslong, only to be scrapped without providing value. That was the case with the Air Operations Center –Weapon System (AOC) Increment 10.2 program. AOC is a major automated information system used by the Joint Forces Air Component Commander to plan, execute, monitor and assess air, space and cyberspace operations. The AOC 10.2 contract was being developed to address application integration problems and cybersecurity vulnerabilities with the previous iteration of the program.

But those efforts were scrapped in 2017 after the Air Force spent half a billion dollars over a 10-year period. “[It] really was the impetus behind trying a different way and got us on the path toward Kessel Run,”  said Lt. Col. Jeremiah Sanders, Program Manager, Air Operations Center Weapons System and Deputy Commander of Detachment 12, Kessel Run.

The Kessel Run team prides itself on integrating Agile DevOps into Air Force acquisition practices and describes its work as revolutionizing “the way the Air Force builds and delivers software capabilities.” It does this by taking industry-proven software development practices, such as Agile and DevOps, and empowering airmen to use those practices.

GovLoop recently sat down with Sanders and Steve Wert, Program Executive Officer (PEO), Digital, to discuss what’s new for Kessel Run and the Air Force, tangible outcomes, and Wert’s role in evangelizing Agile DevOps across the department.

The responses below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity

GOVLOOP: Can you talk about the success of Project Kessel Run and how PEO Digital builds on that success?

SANDERS: Inheriting the challenge of modernizing the AOC, the opportunity exists now where we’re able to take very small bite-sized chunks of that problem set, as opposed to the big bang, decadelong approach that was AOC 10.2. We stood up several very autonomous software development teams. We have about 20 teams that are building on specific operational capabilities or outcomes that we have to deliver to the AOC enterprise. We started that primarily with the 609th Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid [Air Base in Qatar] because they are fighting the current real fight over there.

And we were able to see significant operational improvements having an impact within a matter of months. We were saving millions of dollars a month — in fact, $13 million a month — in fuel, within just a few months, [and] also significantly reducing timelines and increasing validity in the air tasking cycle. And then we were able to expand those capabilities to other geographic air operation centers across the world to the point that now, we’re pushing new capability out of our development operations environment and into real-world operations every 15 hours. And we’re getting faster.

What Agile and DevOps, or DevSecOps, are talking about is really the ability to continuously deliver capability so that we burn down the risk of delivering the wrong thing. We’re able to get feedback from end users and iterate on that capability. The underlying technology infrastructure that allows distributing the software continuously on a worldwide scale, including multiple classification levels, was really a big enabler of what we’ve been able to do from a war fight perspective. We have subsequently onboarded another 20-plus teams from other activities within the Air Force and [are] also supporting the F-35 [aircraft program].

GOVLOOP: Can you make the connection between the work you do and how that is leading to fuel savings?

SANDERS: The work that we did to create software enabled them a much more efficient [approach], both in terms of human capacity and the use of our refueling aircraft for aerial refueling aircraft. And now we’ve taken that same capability and are using it in the Korean Theater, Pacific Theater and others.

WERT: Col. Sanders, is it fair to say that people are using the time that they would have dedicated fighting an antiquated system to more methodically plotting out how to put tankers where they’re needed most?

SANDERS: I would say that the software enables what used to be humans doing that on calculators and whiteboards to the point that now there are fewer humans involved. It used to take six people six to eight hours a day to do that plan. Now it takes two people 30 minutes.

WERT: In parallel with the journey that we’ve been on with Kessel Run, as a Program Executive Officer, I can direct our other software efforts to start transitioning to this Agile DevOps approach, and I have been. So, we actually now have many examples we can talk about of software efforts, like Personnel Recovery Command and Control is releasing updates every two weeks.

It’s an important part of software. When we have a downed airman, this is used to report and locate. So that’s one way that we’ve been building on the success of Kessel Run. We’re working to apply it everywhere within my portfolio.

The other way we’re spreading this is helping other PEOs establish software factories, somewhat akin to Kessel Run. There’s a small software factory that’s been stood up in Colorado Springs, [Colorado] called Space Camp. There’s an organic mobile apps team in place in Montgomery, Alabama, working for PEO Business Enterprise Systems, and he’s working to stand up a larger software factory there. And then SMC [Space and Missile Systems Center] is working to stand up a software factory out in Los Angeles.

GOVLOOP: Are there any metrics you can share that help to quantify the impact?

WERT: I struggled a little bit with that question because we have so many programs and projects. To illuminate that a little bit, though, I have reached the point where I will not approve an acquisition strategy that’s not using [Agile DevOps].

GOVLOOP: Are there clear guidelines for folks, so they understand what you’re looking for when you say Agile DevOps?

WERT: I’ve been reluctant to provide anything like a checklist to define what we’re doing because I think we’re still experimenting. But I think the key is a focus on continuous delivery. Continuous delivery may mean every two weeks because that’s the best we can do. But it’s not an episodic delivery that’s measured in years.

GOVLOOP: Anything else you’d like to add?

WERT: What I really like about this is it’s more rewarding work for our workforce. It’s definitely more rewarding working directly with end users and better understanding operations and how our systems are used.

Photo Credit: Air Force Flickr

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