Air Force brings defense planning into 21st century through modern software

  • Published
  • By Corrie Poland
  • Air Force Operational Energy (SAF/IEN)

You wake up and check your smart phone for the latest weather and news of the day. As you roll out of bed, your phone tells you the best route to work based on up-to-date traffic patterns and congestion. Pulling out of your driveway, the gas light blinks on and you ask your phone to reroute you to the closest gas station on your way to work. Your estimated time to work adjusts accordingly. Along the road, your side mirror lights up as passing cars speed by, letting you know there’s someone in your blind spot. The GPS directs you to take the next exit in 1,000 feet and you begin turning off the highway. As you pull into the parking lot, your car app reads a coworker’s text to you over the stereo and advises you to park in the rear due to construction. Once you’ve parked, you seamlessly switch to your smartwatch to respond and head into the office.

For many Americans, this scenario is a familiar part of our routines. Yet, for much of the defense community, the ease and functionality of modern technology is not translated to military planning systems. While cumbersome acquisitions processes, funding issues and security concerns are often valid causes, many Department of Defense processes (and any software associated with them) cannot compete with the technology many Americans use regularly. In one corner the U.S. Air Force flies the most advanced aircraft in the world, yet in the other corner, Airmen use clunky spreadsheets and paper documents to analyze operations and mission plans.

As technology evolves exponentially for our day-to-day lives, the Department of Defense has historically struggled to keep up with the latest software and innovation. In a 2018 address to Airmen, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stated, “In a world where far more innovation is happening outside the government than inside of it, connecting to that broader scientific enterprise is absolutely vital to our future.

“Sharpening our competitive edge in this new age will require creative approaches, innovation, resources and execution at the speed of relevance,” Wilson continued. “The advantage will go to those who create the best technologies and who integrate and field them in creative operational ways that provide military advantages.”

A little over a year later in April 2019, the Air Force published a new Science and Technology Strategy, encouraging Airmen to once again push beyond the status quo and build an “Air Force that dominates time, space and complexity in future conflict across all operating domains to project power and defend the homeland.” The strategy lays out three main objectives: (1) develop and deliver transformational strategic capabilities, (2) reform the way science and technology is led and managed and (3) deepen and expand the scientific and technical enterprise.

While organizations and initiatives such as AFWERX, Spark Tank and Defense Innovation Unit, among others, provide a solid base for relaunching this effort, a culture of innovation is brewing below the surface among smaller offices and units.

For example, as part of its vision to increase combat capability through optimized aviation fuel use, Air Force Operational Energy discovered mission planners were using spreadsheets and email chains to design critical fuel logistics operational plans.

“Our current primary means of planning is by Excel modeling to answer a specific question. These models require constant cleansing of data, manual input into the model and management of the model as data changes,” said operational energy planner Derek Reid, based out of Pacific Air Force Headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Further complicating matters is the burden of distributing updates to the spreadsheet model, which often requires planners to email the spreadsheet back and forth and then look for updates.

This realization prompted the office to lead and fund the development of a fuel logistics software that enables mission planners to automatically calculate (and securely share) the demand of petroleum, oil and lubricants at operating locations, while determining optimal routing (and replenishment) of POL to defense fuel storage terminals. Using the Joint Operational Energy Modeling System capability, this innovative visual tool – scheduled to launch in 2019 – will be critical to detecting possible gaps in fuel availability – and therefore capability – more quickly and accurately.

Tools like Jigsaw, a tanker planning software for aerial refueling (and its forthcoming update, Pythagoras, which will enable autonomous planning) and Magellan, a tanker allocation and planning software, are other examples of how the Air Force is streamlining mission planning using modern software. Future Air Force Operational Energy initiatives include incorporating these planning tools into wargaming to help Airmen ‘practice the way they play.’

“We’re excited to be a part of how the Air Force is becoming more innovative and modern,” said Mike Penland, Air Force Operational Energy principal director. “Our Airmen deserve tools and resources that will make their lives easier so they can focus on the mission at hand.”

The call for smarter, faster and more innovative technology is ringing throughout the Pentagon hallways and one by one, DoD offices are picking up.