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AFCENT innovation summit fuels thoughtful debate on future Air Force and DoD operations

Innovation Summit

Maj. Eric Bow, left, 609 Air Operation Center combat plans division Targeting Effects Team chief, briefs Brig. Gen. Bradley Saltzman on the Deliberate Targeting Tool at the Combined Air Operations Center, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, March 9, 2018. The deliberate targeting tool is one of the many warfighting innovations discussed during Air Forces Central Command’s second annual innovation summit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeff Parkinson)

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar (AFNS) -- U.S. Air Forces Central Command hosted its second annual innovation summit, March 8-9, 2018, bringing military and academic minds together to brainstorm warfighting challenges and assess progress made in collaboration between the Defense Innovation Experimental Unit and the Combined Air Operations Center.

The innovation summit brought together leaders and Airmen from USAFCENT, Headquarters Air Force Intelligence and Operations, academia from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Air University, and software developers from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. Isaac Taylor, DIUx’s chief technology officer, served as the conference keynote speaker, discussing accomplishments of the partnership between DIUx and the CAOC over the past year, future software initiatives, and future air operations center concepts. Prior to his role at DIUx, Taylor spent 13 years at Google designing and building its first self-driving cars before rising to operations director of GoogleX, where he started a number of projects involving robotics and augmented reality.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, USAFCENT commander, opened the dialogue by sharing his thoughts on innovation and what it means for a warfighting team. “We’re here to win wars. We’re not innovating just to innovate – we are innovating to win.”

Taylor captured summit attendees’ attention by sharing his experiences at Google and the cutting-edge ideas and technologies already in use that Defense Department leaders should consider adopting to more effectively address national security challenges. He spoke on a number of examples of commercial use of ground-breaking technology, underscoring the need for the Air Force to transform itself into a forcing function for change.

“Be rebellious without being reckless,” said Taylor. “You need to balance doctrine with creativity and innovation because AFCENT is the best battle lab there is.”

Hidden in the Air Force is what Taylor calls a “rebel alliance” that is taking advantage of the “AFCENT battle lab.” Code named Project Kessel Run, this alliance consists of a group of approximately 70 Airmen at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, who are partnered with Pivotal Software, the U.S. Air Force Academy and AFCENT planners and operators and the CAOC. Taylor pointed out that Project Kessel Run is turning buzzwords into reality, and PowerPoint theories into operational software.

Since AFCENT’s inaugural innovation summit in March 2017, this alliance of innovative thinkers has revolutionized the CAOC with nearly a half dozen tools that have enabled more effective and efficient planning and execution of day-to-day operation, most notably the tanker planning tool.

According to Capt. Bryon Kroger, Project Kessel Run chief operations officer, the tanker planning tool “was created and fielded in only 120 days for about $1.5 million.” After six months of iteration and analysis, “the Air Force determined it had recouped its costs in a single week,” Kroger added.

The success of the tanker planning tool led to further software and app development, such as the deliberate and dynamic target manager tools. Both tools consolidated outdated and cumbersome processes that involved the use of dozens of traditional software programs and apps that had to be simultaneously leveraged to create targeting packages. Using the new tools, users now leverage a single app that streamlines the process, reducing targeting coordination by hours.

Looking forward, the combination of efficiencies gained during the past year and the projected improvements from the new tools is expected to enable the alliance and CAOC planners to significantly reduce the air tasking order production timeline. Ultimately, the alliance will assist in designing a future AOC construct.

Unlike traditional acquisition timelines, Taylor and Kroger’s approach to software development lean heavily on the concept of a minimum viable solution, where the minimum effort and resources are committed to deliver an actionable solution, followed by repeated iterations focused on improving the preceding efforts. Both believe the path to a new AOC will have to be incremental.

Taylor advised the team, “We need to work in months, not years.”

Harrigian agreed. “Don’t try and solve world hunger here – take a bite sized approach.”

“We can’t get tied up in what a building might look like,” the general added. “We have to look at the attributes of an AOC. It must be a resilient open architecture that’s accomplished incrementally. Ideally, we should on-board apps and software as we go, not wait three to five years for complete product development.”

The innovation summit concluded with two major tasks for attendees to take back for action –decreasing the ATO production timeline and developing concepts for a new AOC.

“We bought a little risk and did something different,” said Harrigian. “At the end of the day it’s people that will turn innovation into action. Like with our coders and operators; you put them together and great things happened. Our innovation efforts over the past year fired folks up and got them excited. Now we need to let them go.”

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