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An Air Force Software Factory Eyes New Technology for Weapon Systems

309th SWEG is developing new IT and workforce programs to support broader DOD modernization efforts.

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image of airmen assigned to the 95th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Tyndall Air Force Base, launch F-22 Raptor aircraft during exercise Combat Archer at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Aug. 18, 2016.
Airmen assigned to the 95th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Tyndall Air Force Base, launch F-22 Raptor aircraft during exercise Combat Archer at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Aug. 18, 2016. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force/R. Bradshaw

Integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into DevSecOps will be a pivotal strategy for modernizing aircraft weapons systems in line with the Defense Department’s software modernization strategy, according to a DOD software factory.

The Air Force’s 309th Software Engineering Group (SWEG), which works to keep aircraft weapons systems relevant and supports each of the military service branches, includes 120 individual projects spanning automatic test systems, simulation, emulation, mission planning and more. It works across a variety of systems and platforms, including the F-35, F-16, F-22, A-10, KC-135 and C-17 aircraft, as well as the Milstar Satellite Communications System and the Minuteman and Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile systems.

DOD’s new software modernization strategy, released in February, launched software factories like 309th SWEG into leadership roles as the harbingers of DOD IT transformation.

One of 309th SWEG’s top priorities is improving its DevSecOps models and multi-systems engineering to accommodate more emerging technologies, such as AI and machine learning.

AIOps is poised to be the “future of DevSecOps,” Robert Devincent, 309th SWEG’s chief software officer, told GovCIO Media & Research.

“It is challenging when you’ve got 100 some odd projects and weapon systems that have a variety of mission needs,” Devincent said. “We’ve adopted things like Agile framework, Scrum, Kanban and XP. We’re looking at things like lean software development, SAFe and different ways that we can enable the teams to be more resilient, but also not be so rigid in the way that we’re doing things.”

309th SWEG created a few in-house organizations like SkiCAMP in partnership with Air Force’s Platform One, focused on the continuous development and deployment of Hill Air Force Base mission applications to the warfighter, as well as the organization’s Edge Team. Devincent said that the two groups support the Air Force base’s research and development.

“They’re essentially the ones that are interfacing with external mission partners, commercial partners, as well as some of our contracts that we have out there,” Devincent said. “Their sole purpose is to try and look ahead and find new technologies and capabilities that might help meet the needs that we have at these very unique projects.”

309th SWEG can leverage these organizations to help continuously modernize and deploy new capabilities based on customers’ needs. The team is moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach and employing a variety of tactics to meet another growing challenge around the talent pipeline.

“We’re working with software basic ordering agreements (BOAs) and technology investment agreements (TIAs), and we’re also working with small businesses to help keep up with the times, but also help us keep up with the speed of relevance. Software BOAs and TIAs have been critical for us to help us get talent and help us get things at the speed of need, rather than the traditional timeline that we get in the DOD,” Devincent said.

In response to a DOD-wide shift from passive to active cybersecurity practices, the organization is also carving a path for continuous authorization to operate (cATO).

“The concept of cATO is a great concept,” Devincent said. “Bottom line, we are not fully there as an organization. That’s an area we’re working on improving, but it is an area that we see as extremely valuable. Some of the ways that we’re enabling the future of cATO across the enterprise is by doing things like having common repositories, having pre-vetted software bill of materials (SBOMs), creating these pipelines that do automated checks and balances, while leveraging DOD reference architectures and things of that nature.”

The team hopes to create an “easy button for cATO” by developing a common repository of artifacts across the software factory as well as mission partners.

“That could help not only SWEG but others achieve a cATO by letting them know what reference architecture looks like, what it is, how to implement it, what artifacts are important in that process,” Devincent said.

Collaboration plays a major role in all 309th SWEG’s efforts across DOD and its components. The software factory works closely with the Air Force Sustainment Center and its sister organizations at Tinker and Robins Air Force bases to share best practices, processes and new technologies.

“That’s been going on very successfully for the last 10 years,” Dan Richardson, 309th SWEG’s deputy director, told GovCIO Media & Research. “More recently, the Air Force was looking at taking those three organizations and combining them in some form or fashion. We’ve been working on that over the last couple years, which would more tightly and more officially bind those organizations.”

Last month, 309th SWEG collaborated with other Air Force software factories to create an ecosystem within the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC). Under the project, the software factories will chart several integrated project teams.

“We just put forth some folks at each of the other software engineering groups … that will hopefully start to collaborate on IT areas, bringing technologies together and sharing those technologies. What used to be very elusive is hopefully now going to be concerted and more organized within AFMC,” Richardson said.

309th SWEG is comprised of about 1,900 scientists, engineers and other professionals who support DOD’s mission. About 70% of the workforce are engineers and computer scientists, Richardson said.

309th SWEG doubled its workforce over the last decade and is focused on recruiting and retention to draw top talent. The unit projects that it will grow from 1,900 employees to nearly 3,800 by 2033.

“We’re having to be very creative about how we attract or retain our folks,” Richardson said.

A large part of the talent pipeline is an internship program, which assigns students to customer projects within the 309th SWEG Software Organizational Development Office (SODO). Interns work on innovative technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality for warfare simulation. Other projects include cybersecurity, robotics and AI labs where interns support drones, as well a 3D-printing lab for hardware.

“We typically hire anywhere from 50 to 100 interns a year, and we retain about 85% of those interns at graduation. That’s successful. We view that as our main pipeline for our technical talent,” Richardson said. “The SODO has been very innovative in terms of providing work that’s meaningful and keeping not only the interns, but our new hires, engaged.”

A big challenge moving forward will be delivering on the large demand for its services to the rest of the department.

“Looking at our trend, we’re on an uphill climb as far as the demand for our outstanding talent goes,” 309th SWEG Director of Staff Melissa Jones told GovCIO Media & Research. “Looking into the future, our customer needs are only increasing, and recruiting and retaining our technical talent to meet this demand continues to be one of our major challenges. … We want to really create and foster that environment where [the workforce] can expand their skills and aren’t afraid to fail by trying things out.”

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