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USAF Capt. Bryon Kroger, left, and 1st Lt. Carlo Viray, right, reviewing combat application details Aug. 13, 2017, as part of the AOC Pathfinder progeram started just ​months earlier. USAF photo by Rick Berry.

The air and space operations centers Pathfinder program is looking to quadruple in size in the next few years, and it’s got results to support its needs. 

Pathfinder was launched in late 2017 to modernize the Air Force’s air operations center in-house, after a devastating and costly effort to do the same with industry. Basically, airmen working with innovation units like Defense Digital Service would get close to the ground and help AOCs around the globe push their systems forward. Lt. Col. Jeremiah Sanders, program manager for AOC Pathfinder, talked to Air Force Magazine about what it takes to be more innovative than most of the Defense Department, the good and the bad.

His bottom line takeaway? It’s what companies like Uber or Google, Facebook or Amazon already know: You can release software faster with higher quality, higher security, and lesser risk. All you have to do is abandon the traditional waterfall process in developing it. That is, walk away from a linear model where you start with a concept then move to initiation, analysis, and design.

One way to do this is to work on the cloud, instead of local servers. Workflows also need to change to a leaner, more agile model—in short, give stakeholders multiple, rapid capabilities, rinse, and repeat based on feedback. Sanders said teams also should be managed like a startup might. All together, these methods are “optimized for conditions of extreme uncertainty and change that define life in the 21st century,” he said.

It’s not all amorphous ideas. Pathfinder’s got real results, and it wants real money.

A Pathfinder-made, new deliver-and-target application has “significantly reduced human error” and slashed the time required for targeteers at AOCs to develop targets by 85 percent. It also saves 25 percent of the dynamic targeting chief’s time, mostly by reducing the potential for human error by half, Sanders said. Finally, the app is “auditable.” It keeps track of how it’s helping dynamic targeting and how it might not. That, says Sanders, solved a “particular issue” for Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, CENTCOM’s Combined Forces Air Component commander. This app took 120 days to develop and field, and Sanders says his team is adding features to it on a weekly basis, all based on user feedback. Nothing on the field has this kind of support.

Sanders says this novel feedback loop and the continuous, rapid delivery of needed components or capabilities in applications makes it easy for him to get “senior leader buy-in.”

“I recently briefed the successes to a room of about 90 generals at the Air Force C2 [command and control] Summit,” Sanders said, adding he was approached “within minutes by multiple four stars asking that our teams scale these capabilities to other theaters as soon as possible.” Such leaders, like Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, are “fighting” to get Sanders what he needs to keep moving forward. 

What does he need? Sanders says working like a startup is “hard and very different” from normal Defense Department procedures. Pathfinder teams are using different technologies, relying on different skills, and utilizing unprecedented management styles. Other than money, Sanders says his biggest challenge is talent. 

“The DOD’s human resource system is our biggest risk because it does not value, and is not responsive, to the individualized talent needs … that we find necessary,” Sanders said. He hopes cultural changes sweep across the Air Force. “We’re going to need to change the way the Air Force and, more broadly, the DOD, staffs our workforce in the acquisitions business.” 

With initial funding of $36 million and leveraging other accounts, triaging projects, and tightening belts, Sanders knows AOC Pathfinder can breathe at least through June.

“At that point, we need another inject of funding so we’re pursuing other ways of getting that funding,” he said, adding that he hopes Congress allows DO​D to realign money originally requested for the bloated and canceled AOC modernization program. 

Of the $120 million USAF once wanted to modernize its AOCs, it’s asking $105 million veer into Pathfinder’s coffers. The remaining $15 million, according to an AOC Pathfi​nder spokesperson, is still necessary to kill the old contract, protect government information in that process, transport “materials” from the vendor (Northrop Grumman) to USAF, and man the operation. The $105 million is “crucial to funding Pathfinder efforts for the remainder of FY18,” according to the Pathfinder office.

“The funding stream that we need is set up if we get the FY18 appropriations bill,” he said. “But it does scale up.” Scaling to other AOCs costs money, as do more people. The Pathfinder program started with about 60 people. Six development teams, each comprising eight people, worked on one AOC. “We want to essentially double that every year for the next couple of years,” leveling off at about 24 teams, Sanders said. 

Before AOC Pathfinder was on its way, the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) built a toolkit for the 609th CAOC at Al Udeid AB, Qatar. It modernized the CAOC’s tanker refueling operations into a digital space from what was a white-board-and-markers space. The results of that project, its development, and its release, were one of the reasons the original AOC upgrade project got dumped and Pathfinder stood up late last year.

The effects of that project, which Sanders calls a “success story,” are still evolving. It’s saving 25-30 man hours every day in the CAOC. It cut ​USAF’s Central Command tanker requirements by one tanker per day, which translates to saving of $214,000 just in daily fuel. Additionally, Sanders says a projection model shows this toolkit saved USAF the $390 million it would’ve cost to develop a similar program with the waterfall method. 

Can Pathfinder keep delivering successes while suffering from a talent shortage? Sanders says he’s “optimistic.”