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The long-term goal is to use the service not to rescue troubled technology projects but to ensure they launch well from the start, an Air Force commander says.
The Air Force is aiming to use its relatively new digital service to get ahead of technology problems and ensure that programs get off to a good start — and therefore don’t need to be rescued later on. The Air Force Digital Service (AFDS) was created in January, in partnership with the Defense Digital Service (DDS) at the Pentagon, to make IT operations more agile and help the Air Force overcome technological hurdles.
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the military deputy for the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said last month at a breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association that the AFDS is currently working on two programs, according to a Federal News Radio report.
One is the development for the GPS Operational Control Segment, a program that went more than 25 percent over its cost estimates, the report notes. The other is the Air Operations Center Weapons Center 10.2, which is also dealing with a cost overrun.
Bunch said the AFDS is trying to improve software development and cybersecurity issues as the two programs are developed further — both programs are heavily reliant on software.
Improving the Air Force’s IT Operations
In January, when former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced the creation of the Air Force Digital Service, she called the AFDS her own “nerd cyber SWAT team,” echoing a phrase that has been used by DDS team lead Chris Lynch to refer to the DDS and the Army Digital Service, which former Army Secretary Eric Fanning unveiled in mid-December.
The main goal of the AFDS is to ensure that programs do not go over budget and run into problems, especially software-focused projects.
“This is going to be a small team of people to help us build software excellence into new programs and troubleshoot existing programs that run into difficulties associated with software,” she said at the time, according to FedScoop. “Software is frequently at the root of many of our difficulties.”
Like the DDS, the AFDS includes a unique team of industry experts who have signed up for brief “tours of duty” lasting six to 12 months. The goal is to bring in IT industry experts to improve and help troubleshoot strategic or challenged projects before returning to the private sector. Members currently supporting DDS have worked for a variety of technology-driven organizations, including Google, Shopify, Capital One and other tech firms, the Air Force notes.
James said she was able to see firsthand what the DDS was capable of when it worked on OCX, the Air Force’s next-generation GPS operational control system.
“OCX ran into some problems in part because we had collectively underestimated the level of software complexity and the cybersecurity that the project would require, so we brought in these experts,” she said, according to FCW.
Getting Ahead of Technology Problems at the Air Force
According to Federal News Radio, AFDS is working with other program executive officers about its specific programs. Bunch said the service will “give us insight as to how we are doing on those programs and if there are changes that we need to make in our strategy.
“Our goal is to use their expertise, coupled with other experts we have within the Air Force to ensure that we start our programs off properly,” Bunch said.
Currently, AFDS is parachuting into specific IT projects and rescuing programs, but Bunch wants to use the service to ensure that IT projects get off to good starts.
The AFDS, Bunch said, will ask these kinds of questions: “Do we have the right requirements? Is industry even going to understand what we are asking them to do? Can we write the requirement in a way that they can understand and propose back to? Is it clear in the request for proposal that we are putting out what we are really asking for? Do the proposals that we have in hand show a solid level of understanding by our industry partners on how to develop the software in the proper environment that’s up to commercial standards? Are we starting the program with the right approach?”
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