Pentagon’s Silicon Valley unit tweaks software to hit terrorists

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U.S. pilots flying combat sorties against Islamic State and al-Qaida offshoots may soon be directed to hit “pop-up” targets — such as fleeing vehicles, ambushes and attempts to plant roadside bombs — through streamlined planning tools crafted in Silicon Valley.

Starting this month, software specialists from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, will spend weeks at the Air Force’s war-planning headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. They’ll work with airmen on a beta version of a tool to replace a hodgepodge of chat, Microsoft Excel and Word and other applications now used to coordinate “dynamic strikes” against “pop-up” targets that can’t be anticipated days in advance.

The air operations upgrade is the most ambitious task yet for DIUx, the Defense Department’s two-year-old outpost in Mountain View, California. Set up under former Defense Secretary Ash Carter to tap the creative ideas of small, innovative non-defense companies, the unit’s role in the air-planning software is a sign it’s being embraced by James Mattis, Carter’s successor.

Mattis is also scheduled to show his support with a visit to DIUx on Thursday, during a West Coast trip. “The secretary sees a lot of value in us having this relationship” in Silicon Valley, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters this week.

The unit had a rocky first year, prompting Carter to reboot DIUx, replacing its first director with Raj Shah, a former F-16 pilot and combat veteran who headed a technology startup. While there was speculation that DIUx would be axed as an Obama administration pet project, it has survived with strong support from Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

DIUX’s top accomplishment so far may be procedural: developing a streamlined contracting process that’s cut the time needed for small technology companies to do business with a Pentagon bureaucracy attuned to mega-deals with old-line defense contractors inside the Washington Beltway.

The unit has awarded about $71 million in contracts for 37 pilot projects since June 2016. Companies on contract have received about $1.8 billion in venture capital backed by investors including GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet Inc., Andreessen Horowitz, and Sequoia Capital, according to DIUx.

Instead of reporting directly to the Office of Secretary of Defense as under Carter, DIUx will be managed by a new under secretary for research and development as part of the Pentagon’s latest acquisition reorganization. That means its long-term status depends on whether it’s embraced by new Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

For now, DIUx is getting a real-time opportunity to prove its value in the war on terrorists.

The Air Force enlisted the Silicon Valley unit after it became apparent that a program run by Northrop Grumman Corp. to modernize air-war planning was faltering. The Air Force in July terminated Northrop’s development phase of the network after it was estimated to cost $745 million, up from the original $374 million.

Software isn’t “something the department as a whole does well,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in an interview, citing the canceled Northrop contract as an example.

In October, Shah, the DIUx chief, and Eric Schmidt, who’s chairman of Alphabet, the company that owns Google, and also of the advisory Defense Innovation Board, visited the Al Udeid base. They saw weaknesses in air war planning, with manpower-intensive tanker scheduling done manually on a 7-foot whiteboard.

DIUx worked with Air Force planners and five software developers from Pivotal Labs in San Francisco to set up a streamlined scheduling system in less than 120 days for $1.5 million, according to the Defense Department.

The air operations center now uses an automated tool called “Jigsaw” to better match the 50 aerial tankers under Air Forces Central Command with the U.S. and coalition aircraft they’re refueling, according to Col. Paul J. Maykish, commander of the 609th Air Operations Center.

Next, the goal is for the streamlined system for “pop-up” targets to be running actual combat missions by year-end, with standardized nine-line digital messages directing pilots to new targets during hours-long sorties.

“Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel are great, but they were not designed for deconfliction in combat,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Oti, who’s coordinating the effort for DIUx, said in an interview, “All that deconfliction is occurring right now but its occurring over phone calls,” chat and Excel so “we are building a system where everybody operates inside a single application.”