Platform One modernizing DOD software development to enable digital operations
It’s critical for the United States military (including the Air Force) to get the correct information to the right person at the right time as it carries out missions all over the world in nearly every environment imaginable. Inside Defense sheds light on the different systems that ensure that analytics are being built on accurate data.
The Air Force’s nascent DevSecOps initiative is giving warfighters modern software development services while tapping into the private sector’s data analytics, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to build more virtual-friendly weapon systems and operations.
Platform One is the go-to team for programs in the Defense Department looking to adopt commercial best practices to develop software, enabling continuous upgrades and new features with baked-in cybersecurity testing on a much faster timeline and at a lower cost than the traditional “waterfall” cycle.
This approach is crucial as the military migrates toward greater digitization so officials can leverage advanced technologies ranging from predictive maintenance tools assessing when a jet’s engine is at-risk of breaking to digital engineering tools modeling the next autonomous drone, Platform One Director Maj. Robert Slaughter recently told Inside Defense.
The software development services will also be essential when the military eventually looks to embed an AI system developed for one of its traditional weapons programs into a commercial platform, he said, like an electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle that the Air Force is investing in through the Agility Prime program.
Slaughter originally started the initiative under the name Space Camp but rebranded it as Platform One with a new launch in January under the authority of Air Force Chief Software Officer Nicolas Chaillan. Now, some of the military’s most prized modernization programs have signed up, including the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and the Pentagon’s Joint AI Center.
“As the DOD, we are not a very trusting enterprise by design,” Master Sgt. Matthew Huston, the team’s chief of enterprise services, recently told Inside Defense. “What we do at Platform One is buy down our risk with vulnerability scans upfront as well as constant monitoring while the tools are in use. This allows us to move faster across more tools knowing that there is someone/something always watching.”
Platform One doesn’t have its own line in the Air Force’s budget, so the team receives funding from military programs that have lined up to use its DevSecOps services. The effort has received about $50 million since its launch, Slaughter said, and of that total, the few major defense acquisition programs using Platform One have paid about $40 million, while smaller programs account for the rest.
“There may be smaller programs that will give us a $500K chunk to do something that would normally take them a year and a half and $5 million. And we’ll do it in 60 days and $500K, because we actually already built almost the exact same thing for the [major defense acquisition programs]. We just need to tweak it or modify it,” Slaughter said.
Platform One has submitted a funding proposal in the fiscal year 2022 program objective memorandum, which would give the team its own budget line. Even if that request is granted, though, Platform One would still charge the programs to use its services, Slaughter noted.
In addition to providing DevSecOps services to programs, Platform One is pairing technology companies offering advanced software mission applications with users inside DOD.
The team has already partnered with dozens of companies of varying sizes and experience working with the military, from Nebraska-based startup Kana Systems and Texas-based AI “industrial complex” Hypergiant Industries to traditional primes like Boeing and Northrop Grumman, according to Slaughter.
One partner, MatterMost, offers a messaging app that pilots at Air Mobility Command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and other major and combatant commands are already using to coordinate operations. The tool enables them to now receive “for official use only” information on their phones rather than depending on their personal computers to receive email.
From the company’s perspective, the Platform One team’s interest in using open-source software offers an opportunity for the product to evolve while building greater relationships between developers and users based on increased levels of trust.
“One of the great things about open source is transparency,” MatterMost CEO Ian Tien told Inside Defense in a recent interview. “When you think about procurement and sales cycle at federal, there’s the old way of doing it, but the people at Platform One are … Looking at open source for innovation upstream and downstream.”
“Instead of going through … Traditional channels, what’s out there in the environment that we can pick up and try with open source licenses? [The Platform One team] can go in and they can inspect the source code. They can see exactly what it is that they do, they can understand how flexible it is and, in the open-source environment, have conversations with the makers of the products,” Tien added.
Another Platform One partner, Northstrat, is providing its Genesis platform so operators managing resources for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites can better visualize data. The company got involved with what was then Space Camp in November 2019 through a Space Pitch Day event where it won a Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract.
“All these security scans are being run as you’re checking code in, so as I talk to my developers on the one hand, you go, ‘Oh this is frustrating. I can’t check my code … Because there’s a security fault. At the same time, that means it gets fixed now. It doesn’t get kicked down the road,” Northstrat systems engineer Chuck Vaughan recently told Inside Defense.
He said previously it would be significant if he could achieve five deliveries per year, but now software developers can deliver new features or updates weekly.
One door that Platform One opens is for small companies to work directly with DOD rather than subcontract or partner with a larger firm, giving the military better access to commercial providers.
Typically, the only way for a small company to integrate its products with a weapon system would be to gain accreditation independently, an arduous process, and then work with the prime contractor, but Platform One offers accreditation directly, Slaughter explained. What previously took 12 to 18 months now takes one month.
From an acquisition perspective, this allows the Pentagon to use a “modular” contracting approach, Slaughter said. If the ABMS team, for example, determines that an AFWERX or Defense Innovation Unit nontraditional contractor would be of use to the Air Force, Platform One enables that company to deploy or interface with any DOD system.
“How do you disrupt an industry? Use technology to cut out the middleman (think Uber, Airbnb, etc),” Nathan Parrott, director of space research startup Saber Astronautics, recently told Inside Defense. “That is what Platform One has done.”
Saber has a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research contract to provide warfighters developing space operational plans with its three-dimensional, virtual reality control center called Space Cockpit.
As the Pentagon focuses more on operations in space, Parrott said software is essential, making up about 80% to 90% of capabilities, while the rest is hardware.
Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, is particularly eager for Platform One, coupled with other data and cloud services, to offer a gateway to use AI across the military.
“Cloud One, Platform One, Data One – this family of ‘one’ systems builds a tech stack that really is about getting data … In proper custody so that analytics can be built on top of it and we can finally go do AI at scale,” Roper said at a media briefing last month.
“AI has to be everywhere all the time,” he added. “You’re either a data-oriented service, or you’re not, and as we are becoming a data-oriented service, everyone is going to be part of artificial intelligence in the future Air and Space Force.”