Agile conquers New Horizons

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, director of the Air Force’s Information Technology Acquisition Process Development office in the Pentagon, discusses a presentation titled “Air Force Journey to Agile Software Acquisition” Feb. 27 at the New Horizons conference, hosted by the Lexington-Concord Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Newton, Mass.

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, director of the Air Force’s Information Technology Acquisition Process Development office in the Pentagon, discusses her presentation titled “Air Force Journey to Agile Software Acquisition” Feb. 27 at the New Horizons conference, hosted by the Lexington-Concord Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Newton, Mass. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Todd Maki)

NEWTON, Mass. – Two words were on the lips of nearly every single presenter at the 2018 New Horizons conference, held Feb. 27-28 here: Agile acquisitions.

Often associated with software development, agile acquisition traces its roots to the private industry technology sector, where it evolved as a way to rapidly build, field, test and rebuild components and applications. Advocates call it a tactic that defense acquisition entities can use to speed up and improve the products that are integral to daily military operations. Detractors call it an overhyped buzzword with large impact on small programs, but no hope of changing or improving the way the military buys weapons systems writ large.

"I think if you look through our portfolio, you'll see that agile is spreading," said Steven Wert, program executive officer for Battle Management at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, who spoke Feb. 28 on current and future business opportunities within his extensive portfolio. He spoke specifically about the Air Operations Center weapons system, noting that it is a "pathfinder" for the agile development of large, complex programs and is already delivering useful applications.

New Horizons, hosted by the Lexington-Concord Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, opened with a keynote address titled “Air Force Journey to Agile Software Acquisition” from Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, director of the Air Force’s Information Technology Acquisition Process Development office in the Pentagon.

“We, as contracting authorities, must communicate through our requirements documents the need for this type of development,” said Zabel. “Agile can be secure because it is fast, and so the risk of fielding it is decreased, but we have to trade in the outdated artifacts of our acquisition business for a living process. That process will allow us to fund for the unknowable requirements of the future.” 

Division heads within the Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks portfolio also presented, giving direct evidence of agile’s impact on their operations. Col. Robert King, senior materiel leader for the directorate’s Infrastructure division, highlighted how the Common Compute Environment program office has successfully implemented agile techniques in ongoing efforts to move several Air Force applications, such as the Air Force Portal, to the cloud. Similar agile techniques will be crucial to the success of another program, Enterprise IT as a Service, according to King.

“Not only does adherence to open standards encourage modularity, it supports rapid tech insertion via agile methodologies that will help designers and acquisition professionals to bridge the gap between Moore’s Law and the lengthy acquisitions cycle,” said Hanscom’s Combat Cloud Architecture Team Chief Lt. Col. Mark Andrews. “If we are truly going to continue to outpace our adversaries in support of Multi-Domain Command and Control, then we as a community have to be more agile in order to seize innovative opportunities in their infancy.”

Hanscom’s proximity to Boston’s technology sector has allowed program managers more direct exposure to agile development. As evidenced at the conference, larger, more traditional defense contractors also appear to be embracing the concept, suggesting it is likely here to stay.

Sheryl Thorp, who is helping lead efforts to examine future Air Force operations, summarized a software development effort at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, called Shadow Operations Center.

“Shadow OC co-locates software coders with the command and control cadre,” said Thorp. “They build applications in-house and this is a real peak into the future, where we’ll be stitching together domains in real-time using this type of agile development.”