FOCUS ON FEEDBACK: ROWPU maintenance technicians describe commonly broken parts. From left: Julie Talbot, student; William Quimbayoglen, chief, Army Water Training Division; Brian Scott, student; Matthew Clayton, student; James Walker, ROWPU maintenance management supervisor and Roger Tutton, ROWPU inspector.
Lessons learned from Project Daedalus, a mobile app for the Army Reserve, show how innovation can be fostered by Reserve Soldiers—and the obstacles that confront them.
by Col. Conrad J. Jakubow, Maj. Wonny Kim, Maj. Vikram Mittal, Ph.D., and Maj. Clay Murray
In January, a group of undergraduate computer science students started a Hacking for Defense (H4D) course at Columbia University. Administered by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), this course would attempt to meet a challenge nominated by the U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) to develop a full-stack mobile app to address safety requirements at USAR facilities.
The student team was joined by Army Reserve Soldiers from the 75th Innovation Command, who served as a project manager and expert advisors. Drawing parallels to the Byzantine labyrinth that is Army procurement, the team christened the effort Project Daedalus after the mythical Greek figure who successfully escaped Crete. Determined to not fall into the ocean like Daedalus’ son, Icarus, the team collaborated to bridge the “Valley of Death” and successfully deliver new capability into the hands of Soldiers and DOD personnel.
Sixteen weeks later, the students produced a fully functional front-end mobile-app and back-end web interface. The underlying codebase was licensed as open-source software (OSS) and a copy was delivered to Training and Doctrine Command-Mobile (TRADOC-Mobile). Amongst other duties, TRADOC-Mobile conducts cybersecurity vetting of externally developed mobile applications for Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-6 approval and acceptance as official Army apps.
Matthew Maclaughlin, chief of that division said, “I’m impressed with the quality and professionalism of the code delivered to us in support of this Army mission.”
Not only did Project Daedalus deliver [an app], but it also fostered positive perceptions of DOD with academia and future technologists. The student developer team, Bora Elci, David Cendejas, Jorge Mederos and Kerim Kurttepeli with academic supervision by Dr. Paul Blaer, were ecstatic that the Army would be using and publishing a derivative of their work. The students said that working alongside members of the DOD was a fulfilling experience for them both professionally and personally. The unique design problems challenged them to think creatively, and not only helped their academic work, but also better prepared them for professional work as well.
While this is a story of triumph, many efforts to innovate in the Army Reserve unfortunately end like Icarus rather than Daedalus’ escape. This is a true tragedy given that key technologies in the hands of motivated, trained and inspired Soldiers provide our warfighters with the edge necessary to fight and achieve success on the battlefield. While the Army Reserve plays crucial, combat-enabling roles in conflicts (e.g., port operations, obstacle clearance), it faces significant structural challenges to innovate given that:
- It does not have a designated research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) budget.
- Army Reserve Soldiers are expected to maintain combat readiness with only 40 training days per year while often geographically dispersed and with generationally older equipment.
- Army Reserve Soldiers have civilian careers that they must balance with their military professions.
However, these challenges also create an opportunity for the U.S. Army Reserve to foster innovation given the breadth of civilian acquired skills available through the force. In the case of Project Daedalus, a consultant, a chief information security officer (CISO) from a Federal Reserve Bank and a senior developer serving the U.S. Special Operations Command—all Army Reserve Soldiers from the 75th Innovation Command—leaned in to support the student team project.
In addition to providing technical guidance and problem-solving support to the student team, the Soldiers learned key lessons while navigating the common pitfalls for Army Reserve innovation efforts tied to the lack of RDT&E funds (e.g., Antideficiency Act violations) and general challenges for transitioning technology (e.g., lack of enduring sponsorship and programmed funding, intellectual property licensing).
A particularly challenging obstacle was DOD’s governance model for software development. Despite the students publishing the app as open source software, there was reluctance to approve use of operations and maintenance funds to operate the application. Legal concerns centered on whether development was “complete” and if the codebase would be used “as-is” to justify operations and maintenance funding from the Army Reserve. This is emblematic of a governance model tailored to a “waterfall,” or linear sequential development process. One does not have to look further than DOD major acquisition programs to understand what waterfall efforts look like.
While the new Army Adaptive Acquisition Framework, Software Acquisition Pathway is focused on custom military-unique software development needs, the DOD currently procures commercial-off-the-shelf software using the same framework as a multibillion dollar, 20-year life cycle program. Per the waterfall model, the Army procures commercial software once all development is complete and using operations and maintenance funds. Though operations and maintenance funding can be used post development to support minor improvements that do not provide significant additional functionality (i.e., patching), RDT&E funds are necessary for any development beyond the original functionality. Under current guidance, while there is significant room for interpretation as to what qualifies for “significant additional functionality,” there is a preference to use RDT&E funds when there is any doubt.
ITERATIVE IS HARD IN DOD
While waterfall development models are not without merit, there is no consideration in current DOD governance for modern agile development processes that emphasize continuous integration and continuous deployment. In the continuous model, which is ideal for projects that are driven by an engaged developer team with frequent customer interaction, development is never “complete” and new builds and updates are continuously deployed based on customer feedback. Software, whose developmental costs may be measured in the thousands, or even hundreds of dollars with a life cycle measured in weeks, is currently held to the same standards as a major acquisition program that is billions of dollars and decades in the making.
Not only may this be a policy gap on iterative software development, it is also a challenge given how the DOD programs funding. The annual DOD budget cycle is generally not receptive to line items without defined milestones and reprogramming RDT&E within program objective memorandum cycles is a painstaking process. These policy and programmatic challenges may have very real effects on the Army’s ability to innovate and achieve operational agility.
In April 2022, Davide E. Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment recounted SpaceX satellite internet constellation Starlink’s ability to rapidly neutralize Russian jamming attacks against the commercial satellite service that provides broadband internet access in more than 30 countries. As reported, “the day after reports of a Russian jamming attack emerged, ‘Starlink had slung a line of code and fixed it,’ and suddenly the attack ‘was not effective anymore.’ …He continues: ‘In the way that Starlink was able to upgrade when a threat showed up, we need to be able to have that agility.’”
Never mind how DOD would currently require the foresight to program funding two years in advance with the right office to address a dynamic 24-hour operational requirement to achieve the operational agility described by Tremper, the Army Reserve is precluded from innovating on current problems today because of the lack of any RDT&E funds.
Project Daedalus maneuvered around these constraints because the H4D program provided access and because the students covered associated development costs through an academic grant and offered the codebase for free as open source software. This was viable because of the relatively low non-labor costs (around $200) for development and the students’ willingness to share the intellectual property (IP) of their own volition. Given that H4D and the U.S. government generally do not force the private sector to relinquish IP, the Army should not expect a wave of altruistic technologists offering IP for free, as a viable model for projects with higher development costs.
ITERATE THE MODEL
This may be, however, an effective way to deliver minimum viable products to test and iterate on innovative solutions to Army problems. Bora Elci from the student team attests,
“Using Agile, we were able to deliver quickly and found ourselves running beta tests around week eight. Initially it seemed impossible to accomplish this in parallel with our classes at Columbia, but we were able to deliver a full-stack app with a mobile frontend. Our weekly meetings with [Army Reserve] team members were crucial for this success as they enabled dynamic decision-making as we uncovered new challenges.”
Project Daedalus served as a pathfinding effort on behalf of the Army Reserve on what could be done to operationalize innovation in partnership with academia. To that end, the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve (OCAR) is beginning to operationalize innovation across its component by:
- Developing a central repository for all proposals for innovation, sourced from across the Army Reserve.
- Curating a portfolio of ways and means to execute vetted and approved proposals.
- Establishing a regular battle rhythm to direct the innovation efforts and share lessons learned across the force.
These efforts are modeled after not only the Army doctrinal operations process, but the innovation process that follows three generally accepted phases: invention, incubation and implementation.
Even with set processes in place for operationalizing innovation, the Army Reserve is still challenged from the lack of laboratories and development centers available for solving active-duty challenges funded through RDT&E funds. However, there has been a historic connection between the Army Reserve and academia, given the large number of Army Reserve Soldiers in undergraduate and graduate programs. Programs such as H4D serves as an excellent opportunity for the Army Reserve to leverage research expertise and harness innovation from academia given its constraints. Indeed, at any given time, the Army Reserve is connected to dozens of H4D efforts. Although some of these projects fail like Icarus, some soar like Daedalus.
The Army Operating Concept 2020-2040 defines innovation as conversion of new ideas into valued outcomes. To innovate for the future force, the Army should encourage efforts such as Project Daedalus that not only advance solutions development for tactical problems, but also highlight needs to modernize the Army’s governance and resourcing for technology development.
In May 2021, Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels, chief of Army Reserve, said that “the Army Reserve is bringing innovation and depth to Army modernization efforts, with Army Reserve talent serving as an integral part of that effort.” Despite unique challenges the Army Reserve continues to advance toward operationalizing innovation through sustainable processes and partnerships with academia. While continually learning and improving internally, the Army Reserve welcomes changes to policy or resourcing practices so that agile innovation success stories transcend myth and become a matter of routine.
For more information go to https://www.usar.army.mil/OCAR.
COL. CONRAD J. JAKUBOW is the director of Strategy, Plans, Policy, and Prioritization, G-3/5/7, Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve. His career spans tactical and strategic echelons, and includes a deployment to Afghanistan as a civil affairs officer with Army Special Operations Command and as a Congressional fellow for the late Congressman C.W. Bill Young. He holds a Master’s in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University, along with Master’s degrees in International Relations and Business Administration from Webster University and a Bachelor’s of Science in Geography from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
MAJ. WONNY K. KIM is an innovation and information operations officer in the U.S. Army Reserve 75th Innovation Command and has served at various echelons in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He holds a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University and a Master’s in Technical Intelligence from National Intelligence University. He holds a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Psychology from Binghamton University.
MAJ. VIKRAM MITTAL, Ph.D., is an acquisition officer in the U.S. Army Reserve 75th Innovation Command. He was previously in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, with which he deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. As a civilian, he is an associate professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He holds a Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Master’s in Aerospace from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelor’s in Aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology.
MAJ. CLAY D. MURRAY, JR. is a strategist at the 9th Mission Support Command, Fort Shafter, Hawaii. He was previously a strategist at the Office of the Chief of the Army Reserve, including HQDA where he served as the strategic planner for the Army Campaign Plan 2019, 2021 and 2022. His previous assignments include serving as a military intelligence officer across various echelons in the Army, to include tours at Defense Intelligence Agency and in Iraq. He holds a Master’s in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, and a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Louisville where he was an ROTC distinguished military graduate. He is a graduate of the Basic Strategic Art Program at the Army War College, and a member of the Army Strategist Association.
Read the full article in the Summer 2022 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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