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IT modernization: Leveraging the power of information

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 22, 2006) -- Since January, the Air Force has been busy modernizing itself through the Secretary of the Air Force initiatives embodied in Air Force Smart Operations 21.

The Air Force's communications and information community is part of that modernization effort. Their focus is on restructuring information resources to ensure the Air Force leverages the power of information, information sharing and cyberspace, said Lt. Gen. Michael W. Peterson, the Air Force’s chief of warfighting integration and chief information officer.

"As we go through transformation and look for ways to recapitalize our force, we will play a role in the Air Force’s transformation from speed, stealth and precision, to cyberspace and the power of knowledge-based operations," General Peterson said. "Industry has given us great roadmaps with proven techniques, technologies and process developments that can also change the tooth-to-tail ratio. We will use efforts like Lean re-engineering, and all the AFSO21 initiatives. We have proven models to follow."

One of the changes proposed by General Peterson involves finding ways to optimize the software applications used by Airmen to accomplish daily tasks.

Software applications used in the Air Force today accomplish a myriad of tasks: changing pay information, adding the name of a new family member to an Airman's personnel records, ordering parts or fuel for an aircraft, storing maintenance records for a fighter jet, manifesting an individual on a flight or transmitting targeting coordinates for a missile strike.

In fact, the Air Force has more than 19,000 such applications in use today. And each of those applications resides in thousands of systems across the service. The multitude of applications -- many developed independently of each other -- often create more work for Airmen. One example involves Airmen working as recruiters.

General Peterson said when recruiters want to bring a person into the Air Force they must first ensure a slot is available for the recruit in technical training school. Once a recruit is entered into the personnel system, it will save time and improve personal tracking and training preparation when their desired job -- and thus the technical school they will need to attend – is automatically cross-matched against available slots in the schools.

"Instead, we must enter your name and identification information into the technical training system," he said. Recruiters must essentially enter information twice -- once into a personnel system and once into a technical training school system. That extra work takes unnecessary time.

"That’s only a small and simple example -- there are many more, with increasing complexity. These are the sort of redundancies and inefficiencies our initiatives will solve," he said. "Here’s the real advantage we’re targeting -- getting our information technology systems to do more work, so our Airmen can focus on their core mission.”

Many applications Airmen use for their job do not communicate with each other and do not use common data formats. In many areas, information does not traverse seamlessly across systems and their applications. Instead, data must be reentered into a secondary system. An Airman with a new dependant must work with the personnel flight to update Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, or DEERS, then, give the same information to the finance experts to adjust their pay and taxes.

"We can simplify personal, finance, flightline, medical, logistics -- these processes have limitations that affect our efficiency and warfighting capabilities” General Peterson said. "It should be simple to track down a replacement part and simple to make changes to your personnel record.

"We have too many people involved in these processes, and you and I spend a lot of time going around an Air Force base, or waiting on a phone to accomplish a fairly simple task," he said. "Whether it is service to you as an individual, or on the job putting things at your fingertips so you don't have to go into search mode, we’re tackling these problems, often with industry-proven capabilities and processes."

One stopgap solution used for years to get individual applications to share information was to write unique "links" between them.

"We have 19,000 applications across the Air Force, and often to get two applications to share data, we must build software to serve as a link," he said. "If I have an application that shares data with 20 other applications, that's 20 links. And if one of those applications interfaces with another 20, that's 40 more links to develop and manage. The numbers just spiral -- the complexity is enormous."

The Air Force is working on all applications sharing and exchanging data centrally, from a secure and trusted source. With shared data, critical applications across the Air Force become more effective and efficient.

General Peterson highlights the potential savings saying, "as we migrate from 19,000 applications to less than 2,000 -- our goal by fiscal year 2012 – the cost of maintaining our software spirals dramatically downward." The resources required to maintain the systems will drop significantly.

This modernization is already in progress. General Peterson said that in the past, the munitions community needed more than a dozen forms to move a weapon onto an aircraft and then put it back into inventory if it wasn't used. That volume of paperwork meant that roughly 15 extra people had to deploy with the unit.

Today, he said, the munitions community developed smarter applications that work in conjunction with the acquisition community to make ordering and loading bombs less paperwork intensive.

"It is automated, based on smart systems and radio frequency identifiers, and it tells the Air and Space Operations Center how many munitions are remaining and informs the acquisition community when to reorder," General Peterson said. "Instead of doing paperwork, it modernizes the process. Now, the munitions community accomplishes the same job with 15 less people."

That kind of modernization could be applied to hundreds of information-intensive processes across the Air Force. In the future, when an aircraft maintainer inputs the requirement for new aircraft parts the application used may alert other systems to order spare parts. Or, when an Airman has a baby, and the medical technician enters a record for the newborn, the hospital’s computer system automatically updates the personnel system with new dependant information and the finance system is queried for any pay and tax changes.

This information system modernization will not happen all at once, General Peterson said. The changes must be carefully developed and coordinated through teams of professionals from all functional areas.

"Years from now, our people will think this is the way we have always done things," he said. "When you go online for information or to accomplish a task there will be a community of interest that can help you with answers. Online searches will result in the right number or accurate, useful responses, instead of getting the thousands, or hundreds of thousand possibilities, like we get today. Those IT modernization efforts are on the way – these are really exciting improvements!"