Abstract: Advances in modern technology have drastically increased the amount of data that is made available for the Air Force and Intelligence Community to interact with. The abundance of information impedes our ability to provide results as there is not enough manpower to work through the ever-expanding material at one’s disposal. In order to overcome the information saturated environment and the insufficient resources required to meet it, I will demonstrate that automation will solve this problem and how, through proper collaboration, to develop and implement automated solutions.
By Grant Ribler
Estimated Time to Read: 12 minutes
The United States Air Force is constantly looking for ways to speed up how it operates, from reducing the time it takes to execute the kill chain, to acquiring and fielding new capabilities. Too often our systems are dependent on perfunctory tasks that consume our Airmen’s stamina and spirit, which would be better served getting after the root of the problem. Instead, the constant demand for results dictates that Airmen are forced to deliver a product that is inefficient and not of proportional quality compared to the time and energy it took to create them. It should be no surprise then, that after this expenditure of effort that people are too fatigued, both physically and mentally, to devise a solution that better addresses the problem set. Fortunately, industry partners can bring specialized knowledge, and have the available bandwidth to dedicate to new endeavors; bandwidth that our military does not have due to the constraints of executing a constant, global mission. In this article I will argue that to maintain and expand its dominance in air, space and cyberspace the Air Force will have to develop and use automation to allow Airmen to focus on higher-order thinking and address increasingly complex issues, instead of being burdened by requirements that can be outsourced to technology. This article will show what kind of benefits can be gained by examining how my team used automation in an operational environment.
In 2020, a general officer rhetorically asked my team an important question: “Why do some efforts to automate succeed, where so many fail?” To answer it, one must examine the process by which the Air Force acquires new technologies. Technological capabilities are rarely developed without industry partnerships because tech companies bring developmental expertise that does not typically exist within most Air Force units. One danger in this defense-industry partnership is that the company that receives a competitive contract may exert too much control. Often what they possess in production expertise, they lack in experience and specific problem-solving contexts, and they lose sight of the end goal. Thus, a product can get delivered to our Airmen that does not do what they need it to do to carry out their job. It then goes unused and ends up being a waste of resources that could have been better served somewhere else. The opposite is true as well, military leadership can be overbearing and provide so much input that non-essential features are prioritized, and the development process is bogged down by requirement creep that results in failing to satisfy user requirements. Self-sabotage makes things more difficult for ourselves as we create the obstacles that impede our progress, confirming that the Air Force can be its own worst enemy. Once again, the people who actually need this automation are left with nothing to show for all the time, effort, and money that went into making a product that does not solve the original problem.
Success can be achieved by a collaborative, balanced partnership between industry and the military. In addition to having the technological prowess to build the capabilities, it is critical that the teams developing them have members who previously sat in the seat, did the job, and understand the day-to-day details of the tasks they are trying to automate. This level of understanding can never be achieved through discourse, it has to be experienced. The way the Air Force should ensure that the actual requirements are satisfied is by embedding subject matter experts into industry teams themselves. The experts will be able to impart insight as to how decisions are made and provide context as to why things are done the way they are. When both parties get the opportunity to come together and work in tandem, they can automate a process that allows the Air Force to operate with greater effectiveness across the spectrum of conflict.
The advances in technology and our dependence on it is something to be simultaneously excited about, and cautious of. Organizations have come to rely on tools that have decreased the amount of time it takes to get the job done, resulting in increased effectiveness as seen in the employment of Project Maven across USSOCOM, USAFRICOM, and USCENTCOM. However, this is often done in a bubble because when a group is trying to come up with their own solution, the problems they face come first. This works until people realize that nothing exists independently anymore and that success is predicated on contributions by the wide range of units that are required to support a mission. All of the industry partnerships in the world are for naught if the Air Force fails to require software compatibility across its organizations. Although these systems can be great at what they do, since they cannot communicate with each other, this impedes our ability to make progress towards the end goal of further automation.
Despite embracing modernization efforts, this is the situation that the Air Force currently finds itself in. The lack of interoperability forces Airmen to spend their time and energy moving between different systems that all use the same underlying information to complete a task. Especially with the ever-growing demand to have capabilities that navigate the complex and extensive amounts of data that exist, it will not be possible to operate this way with our current methods for much longer or within our “data warehouses that often become data graveyards”. In order to develop a faster and smarter force, our technologies will have to be streamlined via automation to compete with emerging threats. Imagine there is a fleeting target that necessitates a quick response but the mechanisms used to collect, analyze, and engage the target require a person to manually transfer the information between them as each tool was built with only their singular function in mind and not the process as a whole. The defense intelligence community cannot contribute to defending the nation if it cannot respond to time-sensitive threats because of software incompatibility. The Air Force can guarantee the interoperability for its systems by instituting policies that require any data exchanges be designed to operate on a common standard. As a result, this ensures that if two different programs are built by two different groups, at two different times, they can interface with one another, even if they continue to receive software updates and be modified or have reached end-of-life. Interconnectivity makes it possible for the Air Force to employ automation by establishing a shared foundation in which there are no barriers to the flow of information.
I have had the unique fortune to be a part of a project that ultimately led to me executing intelligence operations with a new capability that my team implemented for our day-to-day operations. My team’s purpose was to build and execute the operational airborne reconnaissance strategy across the entire Middle East. This function, known as collection operations management, was delegated to us by the combatant command. We controlled the direction and planning of intelligence assets ensuring they had the optimal pairing of collection requirements and the capabilities of the sensor needed to collect them. When I first arrived at my office it was immediately apparent that our time was spent on simple, but labor-intensive tasks that left no time or energy to work on long-term problems or address underlying systemic issues. Existing procedures involved the exceptionally precise manipulation of numbers, icons, and graphics across Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and PowerPoint slides that all needed to parallel each other. Since all of this was done by hand it was highly prone to human error and demanded substantial quality control, to the extent that a portion of the team was just dedicated to checking the work, in triplicate, which took about as much time as doing it to begin with. Frustrated that my team and I spent the vast majority of our time and energy doing monotonous, mundane work, I tried to come up with new ideas to streamline our processes without external collaboration. Little did I know the Air Force had been trying to work with industry to create a tool that would reduce the burdensome aspect of executing collection operations management. Our goals aligned and so I reached out to the group charged with solving this problem for us. As we began to collaborate it was very apparent that I needed them, and they needed me, to make this successful. I supplied them with the nuances and latent knowledge that you could only get by being in my office, doing the job, and getting your hands dirty. This allowed them to devise the most effective way to overcome the challenges and then build the tool that could be the cornerstone for establishing a better global collection management strategy as outlined in a 2018 Joint Advanced Warfighting School essay.
This relationship was so fruitful that my leadership provided me with the opportunity to go work with and sit side-by-side with the developers, designers, and product managers who made this all possible. Shortly thereafter, we were able to make this capability operational and the benefits were immediately apparent. No longer did we have to transcribe information from system to system, it automatically pulled the data we needed. Instead of having people create multiple products that all had different formats of the same information that had to be verified against each other, the capability served as the singular source from which it automatically generated the products my office was responsible for producing. Automation transformed my team from being on duty 24 hours with ten-hour shifts and only having one day off a week to a daytime-only office with eight hours shifts and two days off a week, while being able to dedicate time to mission sets that we never could have, previously. My team and I used that extra time to talk about longer-term issues that had always existed, but that we had not had the resources to address. In the process of that exploration, we found many other areas that we could improve that never would have been examined under the antiquated way of doing business. The increased workplace productivity and reduction of the trivial aspects of the job, on top of having more time off, caused morale to soar and laid the foundation for a virtuous cycle which resulted in my team being more successful than ever before. The problems my team and I faced were not new. A RAND study identified them over a decade ago and recommended implementing the automated tools that we are using today. While this automation tool was initially developed with a specific function in mind, because of its proven results it has been identified by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a best practice and is currently being implemented across the Department of Defense.
The challenges the Air Force faces are constantly evolving, and if the Air Force is going to gain and maintain superiority to face the challenges outlined in the National Defense Strategy, it will have to evolve. The environment in which our Airmen operate is more complex and volatile than ever before, as our military’s primary concern transitions from violent extremist organizations to near-peer adversaries. These changes demand a fundamental shift in how manpower is translated into effects and will only be made possible by increasing the efficiency of the individual first. Starting at the lowest levels this bottom-up approach paves the way for entire systems to be redesigned so that Airmen can be properly equipped for their mission. Modernization is the decisive factor that will enable the Air Force to present forces that can support our nation’s new strategic approach. By leveraging technology to optimize workflows and eliminate repetitive tasks, we will empower people to focus on decision making and leave the routine work to machines. Doing so will require our leaders to embrace this opportunity for growth and avoid being overly risk-averse, impeding progress. Without investment in sustained development, our nation will lose the military advantage it has come to rely on as our adversaries are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their own goals. Automation is the force multiplier that the Air Force must integrate into the battle rhythm to ensure a competitive edge across all domains and secure our interests around the world.
Grant Ribler is currently the Chief of Non-Lethal Targeting at the 603d Air Operations Center at Ramstein AB, Germany. He was previously the Chief of Collection Operations Management at the 609th Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid AB, Qatar where he directed ISR operations in support of USCENTCOM and national objectives. He holds a B.S. in Psychology from Virginia Tech. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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