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Kessel Run hits hyperdrive to build combat software

BOSTON — Thirty active duty Airmen, Air Force civilians and contractors gathered in a shared workspace downtown May 7, for the opening of the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab, where they will build the next generation of combat software.

WeWork’s shared innovation space in Boston’s North End is usually home to constantly shifting startup companies, but listen closely to the T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing Airmen now milling around its fully stocked kitchenette. Instead of compound annual growth rate, or return on investment, they use terms like kill chain integration and battle damage assessment. This shared space, occupied by a smattering of startups, will also serve as the Air Force’s KREL.

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“It’s one thing to say you’re going to do business differently,” said Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel, the Air Force’s director of Information Technology Acquisition Process Development at the Pentagon. “But look around and you can see that these Airmen are learning. They’re building actual products, and they’re writing the book on how to be combat engineers for the information age.”

Zabel cut the ribbon for the 90-seat facility, complete with open floor plans, paired workstations and small, private offices where teams tackle technological hurdles faced by warfighters. Some of the Airmen now working in KREL served in air operations centers, where at the time complex plans for refueling operations were written by hand, transcribed into common office applications not designed for the task, or shouted across a busy room.

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“I’ve never seen anything like this project in 16 years with the Air Force,” said Tech. Sgt. Steven Wingrove, an analyst with the 324th Intelligence Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, who is on temporary assignment to KREL. “Purposely designing applications, so that systems work for us, is so important. I volunteered to come here because I really think there’s an opportunity to impact combat. That’s at the center of what we’re doing.”

Wingrove, like many at KREL, has a technology background. He codes on the side, and applied his HTML and Javascript knowledge to improve his unit’s SharePoint site. In the Air Force, where he’s a valuable asset, only about 300 Airmen are dedicated software engineers.

Project Kessel Run is managed by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Battle Management Directorate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. AFLCMC oversees sustainment and upgrade of the Air Operations Center.

The AOC weapons system consists of a series of applications, computer functions and Airmen who orchestrate combat airpower. The AOC 10.1 team sustains the fielded baseline and keeps existing systems functional, which allows Kessel Run personnel to focus on modernization. Project Kessel Run’s initial focus was improving the AOC that oversees most air combat in the Middle East. Now they are expanding to the entire AOC Enterprise across the globe, to include an eight-region cloud platform and the stand up of 10 additional application teams by the end of the year.

“We’re all consumers of this software,” said Michael, a government civilian intelligence analyst at the 15th Intelligence Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, on his first day at KREL. “Sometimes your job is just to make a system that is 15 years old work for you today. Hopefully, we’re starting down the road of building better systems that we can go forward and use ourselves.”

Michael and Wingrove are both on six-month temporary assignments to Project Kessel Run. They’ll spend a short time in Boston, orienting themselves at the KREL space. Then, they’re paired off with software professionals in Washington D.C., San Francisco, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, who are on contract to train Airmen how to build custom programs. Finally, they’ll come back to KREL to work with fellow trained Airmen at a type of Air Force software factory.

Three Hanscom AFB contracting and program specialists worked a series of Other Transaction Authorities, sole source contracts and small business contracts to get Project Kessel Run off the ground. KREL is the latest step. The space in which Kessel Run Airmen will ply their knowledge includes resources and facilities rivaling the fastest growing software startups, giving Air Force developers access to the tech sector culture that has revolutionized modern life.

The OTA with Pivotal, Inc., which paired Airmen and leading commercial practitioners, began in August 2017. Then, with Airmen ready to “graduate” from Pivotal Labs, the team worked with a software development company called TDMK Digital, which set up the turnkey software development environment at KREL. TDMK subcontracted WeWork’s Boston space, and provided the hardware, digital connections and resources necessary for 90 workspaces at one-year cost to the government of $1.6 million. There is an option to exercise next year for $1.5 million.

“Bottom line is we’ve proved the acquisition side of the house can keep pace with the technology side of the house,” said Kevin Dolan, a Battle Management program manager assigned to Kessel Run. “We’re exclusively supporting this effort, and it’s a real-startup feeling. A year ago there was one product. Since then, we’ve scaled to eight product teams, looking at supporting 18 by the end of the year and more than 30 by the end of 2020.”

The Boston space is modeled after the Pivotal Labs training locations in Cambridge, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which are home to similar innovation hubs. The Air Force in the Boston offices share space with startups. Major tech firms also deploy small teams to these types of shared workspaces to cross-pollinate with the type of innovation occurring.

“No matter where these Airmen are working, they’re working for combatant commanders and warfighters,” said Zabel. “You can count on these Airmen to be in contact with the warfighter’s edge, and to see where a difference can be made. They can see and articulate what needs to change, and they have the will, and now the experience, to see it done.”

Note: Michael’s last name is withheld for operational security reasons

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