Air Force Focusing IT Acquisition On Agile Software Development, Open Mission Systems

The Air Force’s information technology acquisition director is using her experience as the former vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency to alter the Air Force’s approach to meet system operational needs that currently lag behind growing cyber threats.

Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel sees her service’s transition to a procurement model focused on agile software development and improved data ownership as a model for Department of Defense system modernization.

Air Force Major General Sarah Zabel, Director of IT Acquisition Process Development. Photo: Department of Defense.

Air Force Major General Sarah Zabel, Director of IT Acquisition Process Development. Photo: Department of Defense.

“When you look at U.S. systems, and especially systems in the Department of Defense, what you see is a very large, complex, pervasive legacy-based environment. And you have these really burdensome processes for how you make a change, that makes making even a small change really hard,” Zabel said at a Defense Systems summit Tuesday.

Maintaining a commitment to openly-available standards, improving management of data, owning intellectual property and technical baselines make up the core criteria of Zabel’s new approach to Air Force IT acquisition.

Every new system must also be built with open architecture and modular mission systems in mind, according to Zabel.

The Air Force has already established a set of open architecture standards called the Open Mission Systems (Defense Daily, Oct. 20).

“We have built a lot of systems in which we did not secure the data rights for those systems,” Zabel said. “[Modular mission systems] have been a great advantage in opening us to a larger part of the industrial base, but also giving us a step-by-step modernization path where you can take any module out...and put the new one in.”

Zabel’s approach to future IT acquisition is focused on agile software development with rapidly deployed capabilities delivered in smaller increments.

Air Force leadership is pushing a model meant to foster capabilities that stay ahead of growing adversarial cyber threats.

“We’re going to do this agile development, and we’re going to continuously bring new capabilities based on a constant stream of money,” Zabel said. “It is not predictable right now what new idea someone will have to screw with us in the future. All we can is be able to rapidly change to understand what we’re seeing, and that’s the only way to get ahead of growing cyber threats.”

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