OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Nebraska --
Picture a room. There are four pilots in flight suits, busy at work – one scribbling on a white board, two moving magnetic pucks around next to the scribbles and the last drawing out equations on graph paper. The room, located in the Combined Air operations Center at Al Udeid, Qatar, is tense. They’ve been at work for hours, and they have hours left to go before their day – and the task – is done. But without their work, the tanker schedule wouldn’t be created, and without the tanker schedule, aerial refueling would be impossible.
“It’s an all-day process – literally, 22 out of the 24 hours in a day they spend trying to assemble this,” said Capt. John Nagy, the software development flight commander for the 595th Strategic Communications Squadron.
It’s quite a job, but it’s an important one for the warfighter. Until recently, there hadn’t been a better option.
One of former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s keynote achievements was the creation of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Experimental Unit, which aligned with Pivotal Labs in San Francisco, California in 2015. It continues to serve as a point of partnership between the technology industry and the Department of Defense.
In December 2015, work began on Project JIGSAW, which was intended to find a way to make the scheduling process for tankers into something streamlined and efficient.
In May 2017, two Airmen from the 595th SCS at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, joined the team at Pivotal Labs, putting their programming skills to work for Project JIGSAW.
As a result of this initiative, those four pilots busy over their calculations now have a much easier job. Instead of spending 22 hours checking and double-checking equations, they now only have to push a button on their computers, and within 30 seconds they have a completed schedule in front of them.
Additionally, the new software also calculates the most efficient use of the tankers for mid-air refueling, pairing the tankers with as many aircraft as possible.
“When it takes 10,000 pounds of fuel to lift the tanker off the ground, you want to use it as often as possible,” said Senior Airman Erik Tatro, a programmer with the 595th SCS and one of the Airmen selected to partner with DIUx. “We helped make it possible, which feels great.”
Ultimately, the new program saves the DOD 350,000 pounds of fuel a week.
DIUx recruits programmers from around the Air Force and partners them with industry managers who provide guidance and ideas throughout the process.
“It was nice having the flexibility of being there, because they kind of encouraged us to look at new technologies and try different approaches to things, which sometimes can be a bit difficult in the Air Force depending on security levels,” said Senior Airman Gregory Salopek, a programmer with the 595th SCS who was also selected for the project.
As it is partnered with the technology industry, DIUx isn’t hampered by traditional military requirements for creating new programming products.
“The industry took it, and they were able to automate a large portion of the testing processes and the information assurance verifications,” Nagy said. “Things that take us months to do, they have a release going through the process and ready to go out in the wild – and then another one already started.”
Whereas in the past, the DOD or Air Force would contract a specific company to create a product, DIUx aims to simultaneously solve the problem while empowering Airmen to solve those problems for themselves.
Tatro said the process honed the skills the Air Force had already given him.
“When we’re put through technical school, we’re given the basics of coding so we know how to do it and get it done,” Tatro said. “When we were there, we learned the best practices that make the process go faster and optimize it so it uses data more efficiently.”
Salopek and Tatro are the only two Airmen from Offutt to have made the trip – technically a deployment – to the DIUx offices in San Francisco at this time, but the squadron is working to change that.
“We’re offering seats to other programmers on the base,” said Senior Master Sgt. Gregory Hiltbrunner, superintendent of the 595th SCS. “We’ve gone down to the 557th Weather Wing and said, ‘Hey, if you have some programmers interested in taking advantage of this, let us know. We’re spreading the knowledge. They can bring back processes for their own work.”
Maj. Andrew Kasperek, commander of the 595th SCS, said that DIUx helps the U.S. gain a technological advantage over the enemy.
“We want to produce products that can be fielded much quicker, especially if those products have emergent requirements, such as security,” he said. “We’re not having them come in and do our job for us, but we’re going to use those procedures and thought processes in our own work.”
The 595th SCS works on the Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which coordinates the operational functions of U.S. nuclear forces. The entire system runs on code created in the 1960s, which is unique to the unit. By sending Airmen to work with DIUx, the squadron prepares its Airmen for communications missions outside of the squadron.
“At the end of the day, we have to develop our Airmen,” Hiltbrunner said. “When they move to a different base, what are they really taking with them? Applying these new, innovative ways and partnerships lets them bring it back and make our processes better while also preparing them for that global cyber mission the Air Force has.”
Kasperek said this partnership would not have been possible for the 595th SCS if not for the recent emphasis on squadron revitalization. When the squadron had the opportunity to send Airmen to DIUx, Kasperek felt empowered to decide what was best for the squadron and the mission.
“Rather than having to justify to the nth degree why you would like to do something, command asked, ‘How can we support you in your endeavor?’” he said.
By participating in the DIUx program, Kasperek said the 595th SCS was working to fulfil the 8th Air Force’s vision for the Airmen aligned under it – continuous improvement while strengthening warrior culture and mission capabilities.