Leaders discuss digital engineering, acquisition, ABMS, more

  • Published
  • By K. Houston Waters
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

Air Force and industry leaders came together to discuss digital engineering and acquisition, the Advanced Battle Management System, improvements in cloud and edge computing, artificial intelligence, and other topics during virtual presentations March 23-25.

The second week of New Horizons 2021, sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Lexington-Concord chapter, included briefings and panel discussions from Steven Wert, program executive officer, Digital, and Col. Amanda Kato, Air Force PEO, Nuclear Command, Control and Communications, both headquartered at Hanscom Air Force Base.

During a PEO Digital panel discussion that featured senior materiel leaders from multiple divisions, Wert provided an update on his $19 billion dollar portfolio. He also detailed business opportunities, shared his thoughts on what makes for an ideal acquisition strategy, and discussed his priorities for 2021.

“Speed, innovation, and technology are major priorities for us,” he said. “We really seek out non-traditional (acquisition) strategies. We want to work with small businesses and start-ups and we want to avoid existential source selections that take years and become a make-or-break for the companies.”

Additional priorities are taking care of people, executing the mission, and using defense-assisted acquisition, he said.

Wert also said Digital is very interested in leveraging partnerships with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Rome Laboratory, MassChallenge, Northeastern University, Defense Digital Service, and the Defense Innovation Unit.

Over the last decade, PEO Digital has dramatically increased its reliance on small business. In 2012, just 3% of its contracts were with small businesses. That number is now at 24%.

“My notion of an ideal acquisition strategy is to include a large domain expert, a small business or two, and maybe a start-up or two,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if we have a single effort that fits exactly that, but Kessel Run may be close. So that to me is the definition of a healthy acquisition strategy, at least in my mind.”

New to this year's New Horizons were 'Fireside Chats,' where PEOs are able to connect directly with their stakeholders. Maj. Gen. Angela Cadwell, director, Cyberspace Operations, North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, discussed opportunities relating to homeland defense. Of particular note was Pathfinder, a NORAD/USNORTHCOM program supported by PEO Digital that unites independent systems across air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains, creating a fused operational platform.

“Since homeland defense is a no-fail mission, we embarked on this prototype effort called Pathfinder, which is a data ecosystem that exploits machine learning to fuse disparate data sets to automate detection and characterization of threats against North America using pattern analysis,” she said. “This gives our commanders the right information at the right time, instant and from the front lines. To accomplish this, we had to accelerate change and leverage promising technologies that were available.”

ABMS was an important topic discussed frequently among panelists at this year’s New Horizons. Wert believes that effort requires program managers across the board, not just those starting something new, to adopt some core principles that will enable the Defense Department to achieve Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

“We just need to start getting after it,” he said. “We need to follow design patterns that enable JADC2. That is, better instrumenting our systems and our software to expose data for many purposes; then to build systems to consume data from many sources to be more effective; (and) to leverage agile software development to enable machine-to-machine connections, as we are already doing in many cases.”

During a brief on NC3, Kato provided details on her $14 billion portfolio, discussed the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center organizational structure, and overviewed business opportunities.

During last week’s sessions, keynote speaker Adm. Chas Richard, commander, U.S. Strategic Command, discussed the importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning to the concept of strategic deterrence, and Maj. Gen. Mike Schmidt, PEO, Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, and Networks, provided an overview of his portfolio and program updates.

New Horizons also featured an innovation panel titled “Accelerating Change Across the Services,” which included discussions by members of the 75th Innovation Command’s Cyber Electromagnetic Activities Team, AFWERX, NavalX, Google Cloud Computing Services, and the Silicon Valley Defense Group.

The conference kicked off last week with a panel composed of former Air Force Electronic Systems Division and Center commanders, all of whom had been stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base.