Air Force pushes faster, more agile IT acquisition


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Air Force pushes faster, more agile IT acquisition

“We must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place,” says the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. “And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast.”

According to Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, speaking at the 2017 Defense Systems Summit, the same is true for the cyber operational environment.

“We have to run faster and faster to keep up with operational demand, and we have to run faster and faster just to keep ahead of the adversary,” said Maj. Gen. Zabel, Director of IT and Acquisition Process Development at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

 “We are living in a world where the operational need constantly grows, [and] the cyber threat constantly grows,” she told the audience at the Defense Systems Summit.

The solution to the ‘Red Queen Problem’ is what the character says herself: agile acquisition must run twice as fast. For Maj. Gen. Zabel this means focusing on key areas and implementing new methods that will streamline the agile acquisition process. 

The future of agile acquisition means focusing on data management, the intellectual property behind the technology, and open mission systems architecture. It also means using agile software development methods, rapid operational testing, and having a constant stream of funds.

The first necessary area of focus is data management, said Maj. Gen. Zabel. Greater emphasis must be given to data authority–whether it can be trusted–and making sure that the confidentiality, integrity, and availability criteria are met.

“Another thing that is really important is knowing, understanding, and owning your technical baseline,” said Maj. Gen Zabel. This includes ensuring systems are standardized according to open and applicable guidelines, and owning the intellectual property for the systems.

When the Air Force acquires systems without securing the intellectual property for those systems, it loses the data rights for the processes within the system performing the data incorporation functions. This results in even more obstacles when it comes time to update or repair that system, as the rights to the software may have to be negotiated and re-secured.

In terms of new methodologies for acquisition, the Air Force is embracing an open mission systems program, or an open architecture, modular approach, as the way forward.

“Open mission systems is a requirement for how every new system is built …and we are finding that it’s been a great advantage in not only opening us up immediately to a larger part of the industrial base, but also giving us…a step by step modernization path,” said Maj. Gen. Zabel.

The open mission systems method streamlines modernization because it means that systems and processes will be standardized within the domain. As upgrades for individual elements of the system become available, they can replace old modules with no additional reconfiguring.

Another acquisition method that is being involves following the agile software development model.

According to Maj. Gen. Zabel, this is an industry-led initiative designed to develop software in direct connection with its use in the field. In this way the system receives constant feedback and is able to continuously adapt according to the needs of the warfighter

“We have expectations that releases will be small capabilities and rapid and at velocity and that they will just keep on coming,” explained Maj. Gen. Zabel. “In order to do that you need to integrated development and test to make sure that what you’re delivering to the field is actually worth delivering to the field.”

With further integration of development and operational testing, the transition from prototype to fielded capability can be faster and smoother. As part of this new methodology, the Air Force has employed rapid operational testing.

In addition, to rapid testing, there are other logistical methods that also need to be implemented for acquisition agility. First among them is the need to create cash flow.

“We need to have a constant stream of money that…we expect to have a lot of directed that way forever…so we can gear it to what it needs to actually accomplish,” said Maj. Gen. Zabel. “We are going to do agile development and we are going to continuously upgrade these capabilities based on a constant stream of money.”

The current cyber threat environment is rapidly evolving at the same time that operational needs are changing. However, according to Maj. Gen. Zabel, this conundrum can be resolved by making agile acquisition even more agile.

“By being able to keep to standards, manage our data, own the data rights and the technical baseline that permeate all of our systems, that gives us the core ability to start making changes,” said Maj. Gen. Zabel. “We [will] start with small changes and scale them up and that is how we can finally get ahead of the Red Queen.”

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