The Air Force contemplates its next moves in digital transformation

Like so many large government organizations, the Air Force is pursuing what it calls digital transformation. But what exactly is that, and what are the challeng...

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Like so many large government organizations, the Air Force is pursuing what it calls digital transformation. But what exactly is that, and what are the challenges to getting there. That question formed the basis for a series of workshops led by the National Academy of Sciences. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hamel is the workshop co-chair. He talked about the details with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Tell us what the process here was how did this all come together? And what was your purpose and how did you go about it?

Mike Hamel: I think everybody understands the information age has descended upon society, and more specifically, the government has challenged everybody in terms of how does it think about its work? And how does that harness that technology overall. Back in 2019, the Air Force began an initiative it referred to as the Digital Air Force Initiative, really to try to get their arms around all the myriad of applications and challenges across the Air Force, and how does it really bring digital age tools to actually improve its effectiveness and operational capabilities across the Air Force. So that was the point where we really began as the studies board talking with the Air Force, how might we help them overall, as they’re trying to proceed with this transformation, as it’s oftentimes referred to.

Tom Temin: And what is the format of these workshops? Everybody sits around a big table for four hours, or how do they actually operate?

Mike Hamel: Very good question the format of these, the National Academies often is known for its consensus studies, which will gather together leading experts will delve into great detail with many of their sponsor organizations, as well as others that have relevant experience. And those typically will extend over a very long period of time, go through a lot of analysis and peer review amongst the National Academy members and the like. The workshops are really intended to be more fast paced, a bit more informal, it’s really intended to get the experts together and to be able to talk about and pursue topics and issues and the ultimate product of it is a proceedings is really a record of the discussions that occurred. And it does go through a review. But nonetheless, it does not have any recommendations to it that the real purpose is to get on record the dialogue amongst the both the National Academy members as well as those that have been invited in. And the real key to this is actually bringing together a committee that is able to assemble and formulate the questions from the original sponsor tasking, and then likewise, reach out to find notable experts from throughout the community. And that oftentimes includes former government officials, executives, leaders from industry that have direct experience with similar kinds of tasks as well as academia and consulting organizations and alike. So it really is, how do you bring together some of the best minds and have an extended dialogue on the topics.

Tom Temin: And what about the Air Force itself? Do they have officials there also?

Mike Hamel: Absolutely. We’re very fortunate, from the time of the chartering of this, we were able to work with some of the key staff as well as the leaders in the Air Force. And in fact, the entire workshop series was kicked off by an address from the undersecretary of the Air Force, as well as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Dave Allvin as well as now the Vice Chief of Space Operations, Gen. DT Thompson. So one of the interesting parts here is that as of the formation of the Space Force, now the Department of the Air Force has some new challenges in terms of how does it support and serve two military distinct services with common sets of digital technologies and capabilities?

Tom Temin: And I wanted to ask you, yeah, what are some of the challenges in digital transformation, because often, you read some of the biggest Air Force challenges are simply operational, their planes are old, they have readiness and availability problems. You know, they’re still struggling with the F-35 and so forth. And those seem like mechanical more than digital issues. So what are some of the challenges that the study group discussed?

Mike Hamel: I think that’s a great question, because it gets at the heart of the military services really have current needs and demands, and sustaining a lot of old legacy systems. In some cases, we found amongst the business systems that the Air Force has to operate its logistics and its medical services. And like, there’s over 400 applications of some things that were invented several decades ago, that are not able to share data, are not able to be able to bring information and decision quality analyses to decision makers. And so that’s just an example where those must be sustained. You can’t simply abandon them, but you have to have a plan to transition. And a real key to this is that data is the real center of all of this, how is it that it can be made more accessible? And then how can you now migrate a lot of applications and quite frankly, new tools and techniques that are being proven in other sectors to now become the new form of how it is that the Air Force in their operations and in their business management size of the organization can actually be able to access as well as literally at the user level be able to make intelligent decisions.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mike Hamel. He’s a retired Air Force Lieutenant General and co-chair of the National Academies Air Force workshops. So it sounds like even though you don’t make record foundations. Nevertheless, some actions seem to be implied by the discussion, for example, this retiring or transforming these legacy applications. And we know that that’s possible. I think the Air Force used to have CAMS-REMUS and TICAARS. And I presume those have been retired at some point. But that kind of thing

Mike Hamel: You might be shocked to find the number of things that are still like they were even some grease pencils and acetate.

Tom Temin: Wow. So data came out of this, then that they have to have some kind of a new, I guess, paradigm for managing data. What else? What are some of the other challenges?

Mike Hamel: Well, what we observed in this is that first of all, a digital transformation as we talk to others in government, and we did reach out to other departments and agencies, as well as other large enterprises in the business world. And the first point is, this is really hard stuff. It is not just about the technology, there’s an abundance of technology, but it really is about how do you transform organizations and their culture. And in that, I think one of our observations, overall was that the Air Force, as many other federal agencies, is doing a really good job in many different respects. It’s hard things, though, when you’re trying to do this across an entire integrated enterprise that has data and applications that span the globe, and must be able to communicate and to operate with unity of effort. That’s really a key watchword in the military is how can you synchronize and to have everybody distributed across large geographic regions be able to operate and make decisions with the same common understanding. So that I think was one of the big pieces. It is a very daunting challenge to do a global kind of transformation for an organization that, quite frankly, has to respond to the threats and the operational imperatives of the day at the same time it’s planning for and investing in the kinds of capabilities that are going to be needed for the future. And frankly, information technology and capabilities are right at the forefront of how that modernization must occur not only in the Air Force, but also the other services.

Tom Temin: Because there’s something crucial, too, here that’s often unstated, but sometimes it’s stated, and that’s the difference between a military organization and say, you know, Ford Motor Company, and how are they going to sell electric trucks now that they have electric trucks that have everyone wanted gas for all these 75 years? But in the case of the Air Force, you do have the question, ultimately, of maintaining the lethality and everything they do has to support that, correct?

Mike Hamel: That is correct, whether its mission operations, or supporting functions or the business. We are now as a nation, as a world understand the importance of supply chains, and the criticality of being able to anticipate gaps, failures, and to be able to have workarounds, that’s what’s expected of our military. And that’s clearly the kind of imperatives that drive much of this.

Tom Temin: It sounds like you experienced some of the same challenges in your own Air Force career. But maybe the difference now a few years on is that the digital transformational tools are available, if people only know how to acquire them and deploy them.

Mike Hamel: You’re exactly right. And in fact, for decades, throughout my career, certainly, we developed a lot of bespoke systems, that is capabilities were purpose designed to particular military mission needs and the like. But now we’re finding that the private sector disinformation revolution is moving far faster, with more capability. And a lot of what now is going on is trying to figure out how do you adapt and adopt practices, capabilities, tools, services that are available in the private sector. At the same time, you’re fully mindful of how lucrative a set of targets and vulnerabilities this could represent for determined adversaries that now want to disrupt our ability to respond to crises or operating conflict. So it’s a very, very different and challenging environment from the way it was just a few decades ago, in how the military went about devising its operations and its support.

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