Pentagon turns to Silicon Valley for combat upgrade
U.S. pilots flying combat sorties against Islamic State and al-Qaeda offshoots soon may 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 2-year-old outpost in Mountain View, Calif. 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, for example, has developed a streamlined contracting process that cut the time needed for small technology companies to do business with the Pentagon.
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 Lt. Col. Enrique Oti said. “All that deconfliction is occurring right now, but it’s occurring over phone calls,” chat and Excel. So “we are building a system where everybody operates inside a single application.”