The Air Force is becoming more Agile – one project at a time

  • Published
  • By Corrie Poland
  • Air Force Operational Energy, SAF/IEN

The term ‘Agile’ has been on the lips of Department of Defense senior leaders with increasing frequency recently – often citing its importance for developing functional, innovative software that better equips the warfighter to respond to uncertain and ever-changing environments.

So, what is Agile?  

The Agile methodology, known just as Agile, has been the cornerstone of commercial software development for decades. Various forms of Agile gained speed in the 1990s, culminating in 2001 with the “Agile Manifesto,” which sought to bring together those ideas in a more cohesive approach.

Simply put, it’s a method of developing software that is collaborative (often the developers are co-located with the customer to allow for direct and on-going communication) and adaptive (changing priorities are expected and encouraged throughout the project), with a focus on continuous delivery (getting functional software to the customer quickly for immediate feedback).

“You plan it, you build it, you launch it, you get feedback. And you do this constantly,” explained Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, former Commander of Air Force Material Command, in 2017.

While the private sector adopted Agile a long time ago, the DoD is just beginning to embed Agile methodology in acquisitions programs and other projects.

Why is the Air Force embracing it?

With a history of lengthy acquisition processes, as well as significant documentation requirements and review practices, the Air Force – and DoD as a whole - has not been very agile in software development. However, in an effort to increase capabilities at the “speed of relevance,” the Air Force is following the lead of organizations like Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to implement a more modern, less bureaucratic, approach to development that brings capabilities to the warfighter faster, and cheaper.

Previously, the DoD used a ‘waterfall approach’ to software development – which traditionally flows one direction (like a waterfall), from determining the requirements of the software to designing and implementing them. This approach has been shown to be less flexible, slow, and costly because once the requirements are set, it is difficult to go back and change aspects that may not work for the customer.  

Agile is not perfect – but it does allow for more flexibility and the ability to update the software as it is being developed, rather than after it has already crossed the finish line.

What is the Air Force doing to become more Agile?

A couple of prime examples of Agile software development in action are in the world of aerial refueling and tanker allocation.

Jigsaw – Tanker Planning Software for Aerial Refueling

In 2016, DIU partnered with the Air Force and software development company Pivotal, Inc. to develop Jigsaw, a tool that digitized and streamlined aerial refueling planning for air operations centers (AOCs). They sent Airmen to Pivotal Labs in San Francisco to not only help build the software, but to learn Pivotal’s Agile process so they could bring their skills back to their units. 

The Air Force Operational Energy team (SAF/IEN) was impressed with the tool’s results – significant fuel savings, decreased planning time, and more efficient tasking of tanker assets – and decided to fund the next phase of development, which will enable Jigsaw to match tankers to receivers automatically, using advanced data science optimization techniques.

Magellan – Tanker Allocation and Planning Software

After the success of Jigsaw, Air Mobility Command received funding from Air Force Operational Energy to initiate their own software development project, Magellan, with support from Pivotal. The goal of Magellan is to optimize how the Air Force allocates mobility aircraft for missions over extended time periods, which will give operational planners more visibility for long-term planning. This will enable planners to de-conflict recurring missions and high-demand periods, and eventually to optimize the pairing of tanker aircraft with receivers. It will also increase planning flexibility, enabling planners to more easily and quickly adjust plans when priorities change.

On April 8, 2019, Pivotal launched the project, hosting a kick-off meeting in their Chicago office, alongside Airmen who will work side by side with software developers, designers, and product managers to develop the tool. The first phase involves discovering problem areas with the current technology and   targeting specific pain points, then framing and working toward solutions. Like the Jigsaw project, the Airmen will not only create the software, but will return to their units to apply the Agile development process to new projects.  

What’s next?

Jigsaw and Magellan are only a small selection of the many Agile projects in development at Kessel Run and across the Air Force, but they are prime examples of how to do it – and the potential benefits to be gained. At Kessel Run alone, more than 20 applications (mission capabilities) have been created in collaboration with Airmen and Pivotal team members.  As an increasing number of success stories emerge from the Department of Defense, more and more senior leaders will want their initiatives start and end with Agile.

For more information on Air Force Operational Energy initiatives, visit: