WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has terminated a contract with Northrop Grumman for a network upgrade for the Air Operations Center, a key tool used by the service to plan and conduct air operations, and instead will partner with the Defense Department's innovation unit to find a quicker way to field the update.
Thursday's cancellation of Air Operations Center (AOC) 10.2 follows a stop-work order that was announced by the service in April, after lawmakers declined to shift money to the program to keep it going. By then, estimated development costs had ballooned from $374 million to $745 million and the program had slipped to more than three years late, Bloomberg News reported in December.
Going forward, the service intends to start an "AOC Pathfinder" project that will use an agile software development technique called DevOps — short for development operations — to help the service continuously upgrade the system's capabilities. The Pathfinder team will include some traditional stakeholders like the AOC System Program Office, as well as new groups within the Pentagon that have sought to bring the latest in innovative thinking to the department, such as the Air Force and Defense Digital Services and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).
"The AOC Pathfinder approach implements industry best practices by allowing airmen to communicate software requirements directly to the developers throughout the life of the system, creating valuable feedback and learning for the development team and users, and shrinking release cycles from years to weeks," said Capt. Emily Grabowski, an Air Force spokeswoman.
DevOps involves a high degree of automation, allowing programmers to quickly update and test millions of lines of software code. The process was first used by a military service on the Air Force’s OCX program, which sought to build the ground segment of the next-generation GPS but had fallen behind schedule and over budget.
Defense Digital Service, a small cadre of civilians in the Pentagon with a history of work in commercial tech businesses, suggested using DevOps to speed up software builds. OCX prime contractor Raytheon found it could turn 80 hours of coding and testing into 3 hours of work, Bill Sullivan, the company’s program manager, said in April.
Grabowski stated that DIUx also used DevOps within the air operations center community to field the "tanker planning tool" at the 609th AOC, which helps the service schedule aerial refueling.
"The Air Force is working through funding options with Congress for the new approach" on the AOC Pathfinder, Grabowski said.
It remains unclear how much money the Air Force will seek out in fiscal year 2018 for the effort, but congressional committees in their defense policy and spending bills have so far advocated for drastic cuts to the original program. For instance, the Senate Armed Services Committee authorized stripping $105 million from the program, and its House counterpart reduced it by $60 million.
SASC chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has indicated he could be receptive to the Air Force’s new approach. In a written statement, he applauded the service’s termination of the AOC 10.2 contract, calling it a demonstration of accountability in acquisition.
"At the same time, it is unfortunate that the Air Force had already spent more than half a billion dollars over the last ten years on the AOC 10.2 upgrade, and yet the program has not delivered any meaningful capability," he continued. "Even more unfortunately, this program is only one example of the Department’s troubling record on software-intensive systems."
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.