WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is forming a troop of cyber geeks hand-picked from the commercial technology sector to solve software problems on troubled weapons programs, the service's top civilian announced Friday.
Like the Pentagon's Defense Digital Service (DDS) before it, the Air Force Digital Service (AFDS) will recruit engineers from the private sector for short-term stints working for the service, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who jokingly called the group the "nerd cyber swat team."
The hope is that the group will bring in innovative new ideas and practices that can help the service smooth out longstanding issues on key programs.
"Software is frequently at the root of many of our difficulties," James acknowledged during a speech at an Air Force Association breakfast. However, the service has had some success working with DDS on the GPS Next Operational Control System (OCX) program.
"OCX ran into some problems, in part, because we collectively underestimated the level of software complexity and the cybersecurity that the project would require," she said. "So we brought in these experts — many of whom came from Silicon Valley — and they helped us to understand some very advanced, new software tools and techniques and practices. They gave us some advice that helped us collectively bring the program back on track."
That experience helped propel the Air Force to form the AFDS, James said.
The Air Force is the second military service to form its own cyber swat team. In December, Army Secretary Eric Fanning announced the launch of the Army Digital Service, which will tackle unclassified projects such as fixing cyber vulnerabilities on the service's website.
Whether the Air Force opens up the AFDS to classified programs like OCX is yet to be seen.
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service's top uniformed acquisition officer, said he and his civilian counterpart, Darlene Costello, are still deliberating which weapons systems will be involved in AFDS' first projects.
"We have begun an initial list, and Ms. Costello and I are meeting with folks to set the priorities so that we pick the right ones," he said after the event.
One of the military's biggest software headaches, the F-35 joint strike fighter program, did not make that list. The program is managed by the F-35 Joint Program Office, with the Navy functioning as the service acquisition executive, so it would be up to those entities to decide if they need outside help, Bunch said.
"I'm not going to tell Gen. Bogdan or Mr. Stackley how to run their programs," he said, referring to F-35 JPO head Gen. Christopher Bogdan and Navy acquisition lead Sean Stackley. "We trust them to do that."