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By Griffin Swartzell, Space Observer staff writer
/ Published June 26, 2019
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Maj. Robert Slaughter discusses the Combat Development Division with an Airman. The model's differences from traditional acquisition means that implementation requires a degree of intrapreneurship — salesmanship with the organization. (Photo by Griffin Swartzell)
To maintain superiority in space, elements within the Air Force are testing a new product design and acquisition model. Called the Combat Development Division, the model will allow Air Force space operators to more rapidly develop and acquire new tools for warfighting. Recently, Capt. Jason Lowery, 14th Air Force strategic programs and requirements lead, and Maj. Robert Slaughter, creator of Air Force software development incubator Space CAMP, organized a two-day training seminar to introduce Airmen from multiple bases to the concept of a CDD.
“The CDD concept came from the special operations community. We are implementing it here to support Air Force Space Command’s Guidance and Intent for development and operations, to acquire capabilities faster, to provide focused operator input to Space and Missile Systems Center and AFSPC, and to become more operationally responsive to emerging threats,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, 14th Air Force commander, AFSPC; and Deputy Joint Force Space Component Commander, U.S. Strategic Command. “With the signing of the new Assistant Secretary of the Air Force [Acquisition] memorandum to use rapid prototyping, the CDD created a bottom-up process that focuses exclusively on current space operators’ needs.”
The 21st Space Wing already has its own CDD. It’s a relatively new group, but it was formed from an existing group, the Rapid Capabilities Team.
“As we discussed it, since we already had something that was about 90 percent what they were asking for, our RCT would become our CDD,” says Lt. Col. Damian X. Ochs, deputy group commander, 21st Space Wing operations group.
The RCT formed under orders from Col. Todd Moore, 21st Space Wing commander, Peterson Air Force Base, to find and address issues in a forward-thinking fashion.
Recently, the RCT developed a tool for the 4th Space Control Squadron, an operations unit at Peterson, designed to allow remote operation of a weapons system. The team took around eight months to get the tool built and tested, and while the RCT did not use agile development methods by strictest definitions, they still worked substantially quicker than the typical three-year turnaround time for such projects.
“While this was all going on, the 14th Air Force started asking what the RCT is, what it was doing,” says Ochs. “As we explained it to them, they came out and said they were thinking just the same thing.”
So while the 21st Space Wing’s CDD is relatively new, Ochs says, “Our guys are [already] out turning wrenches.”
To develop Whiting’s priorities with the 14th and throughout AFSPC at large, Lowery has been working with Brig. Gen. Matthew Wolfe Davidson, 14th Air Force vice commander, AFSPC, whose background is in special operations. The CDD draws much of its methodology from what the commercial software industry calls agile development, which is considered to be a best practice in Silicon Valley and other competitive parts of the tech industry, according to Lowery. This methodology also shares many of the same organizational management philosophies as the special operations community on how to manage risk and succeed in unpredictable and volatile environments.
Traditionally, the military acquisitions community has used what software designers call the waterfall design method, Lowery says. Founded on 20th century principles of industrial engineering and scientific management, the waterfall capability development process flows one way in large, discrete steps, from requirements definition through design, building, testing, and implementation. New software and updates come out in large, discrete packages, requiring more time and personnel to implement each step.
In contrast, agile design methodologies avoid large, discrete stages and rely on a different practice of constant integration and constant delivery. While the function of each step in the waterfall method still happens, they are completed at much smaller intervals and often at the same time, as Lowery describes it.
Instead of one big product comprised of multiple features, agile design creates a minimum viable product: one tool that has one simple feature that can be produced, tested, and delivered as quickly as possible. Ideally, multiple small updates roll out very quickly, making incremental changes that spread out risk into smaller chunks. Mistakes and adjustments are, in theory, smaller, so it’s easier and less expensive to get something back on track. The model also reduces the need for systems downtime, training, or other interruptions of normal operation.
According to Capt. Lowery, culture and budgeting tends to be the CDD’s biggest obstacles. It’s hard to get buy-in and funding support, because the current acquisition paradigm prioritizes having a clear and detailed plan up front before any work begins. He explains that the CDD model relies on real-world information and feedback to influence the design of minimum viable products.
Lowery says he’s making progress by explaining how the budgetary risk for minimum viable products is much lower than a traditional program. He claims it’s much cheaper to discover an issue and course-correct partway through an agile effort because the model actively minimizes sunken costs and opportunity costs. Further, he explains that focusing on delivering minimum viable products to operators as quickly as possible is a very effective way to mitigate common risks that plague traditional programs, like scope creep, requirements volatility, and unreliable funding.
As a result, Lowery believes the CDD’s employment of Agile and Lean methodologies can be cheaper, faster, less risky, and offer more flexibility and control in a highly complex and uncertain environment, despite its seemingly counterintuitive principles.
Lowery takes tips on funding from Silicon Valley where tech startups rely on innovative entrepreneurs seeking venture capital. The CDD requires innovative and entrepreneurial Airmen who can sell ideas within their organization and find funding from venture capital-like organizations within the DoD.
Fortunately for Lowery’s own efforts, the CDD model already has a proof of concept. Recently, the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, tested the CDD methodology and hosted a demonstration to share their prototypes with the people who would be using them.
“Our CDD pilot efforts gave us very clear feedback that this methodology is a fan favorite,” said Lowery. “But this process creates a lot of new questions and challenges that we still have to figure out. How do we transition and sustain capability after we develop it? How do we manage our baselines? How do we make sure we stay synched with the broader community in order to make sure we will emerge at an enterprise solution? The honest answer is ‘I don’t know yet.’ But that’s exactly why we started this. We know we have to figure this out – so we’re going to get our hands dirty and iterate until we discover the best answer.”
The CDDs are scheduled to have more public engagements and prototype demonstrations later this fall, and will be featured at the upcoming Air Force Pitch Day for Space that was recently announced by the Secretary of the Air Force.
“Pushing innovation to the lowest level is critical for our success,” said Whiting. “This year we set up two pilot CDDs to test this concept, and if successful, we will stand these divisions up across 14th Air Force.”
For more information on the CDD concept, contact Capt. Jason Lowery at email@example.com.