April 19, 2022 | By Greg Hadley
Preston Dunlap, the Department of the Air Force’s first-ever chief architect officer, is set to leave the Pentagon in the coming weeks, he confirmed in a lengthy LinkedIn post on April 18—and he has a long list of recommendations for those coming after him on how to combat Defense Department bureaucracy.
Dunlap’s departure, first reported by Bloomberg, marks the latest exit by a high-ranking Air Force official tasked with modernizing the department’s approach to software and technology. In September 2021, Nicolas M. Chaillan, the first-ever chief software officer of the Air Force, announced his resignation, also on LinkedIn and also offering a candid assessment of the challenges facing DAF.
Dunlap first came to the Air Force in 2019, primarily tasked with overseeing the development and organization of the Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s contribution to joint all-domain command and control—the so-called military Internet of Things that will connect sensors and shooters into one massive network.
Under Dunlap, progress on ABMS proceeded with numerous experiments. Dunlap also oversaw the development of an “integrated warfighting network” to allow small teams of Airmen serving in far-flung locations to use their work laptops on deployments.
“It’s been my honor to help our nation get desperately needed technology into the hands of our service members who place their lives on the line every day,” Dunlap wrote on LinkedIn. “Some of that technology was previously unimaginable before we developed new capabilities, and at other times it was previously unattainable—available commercially, yet beyond DOD’s grasp.”
Initially, Dunlap wrote, he signed on for two years in the Pentagon, before agreeing to extend his stay for a third year. Now, as he departs, he is joining Chaillan in pointing out the DOD’s shortcomings when it comes to innovation and pushing the department to revolutionize its approach, especially for adopting new technologies, so that it can, in his words, “defy gravity.”
“Not surprisingly to anyone who has worked for or with the government before, I arrived to find no budget, no authority, no alignment of vision, no people, no computers, no networks, a leaky ceiling, even a broken curtain,” Dunlap wrote.
In looking to break through bureaucracy, Dunlap wrote, he followed four key steps that he urged his successor to follow: shock the system, flip the acquisition script, just deliver already, and slay the valley of death and scale.
In doing so, he said, he sought to operate more like SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk that has earned plaudits for its fast-moving, innovative practices.
“By the time the government manages to produce something, it is too often obsolete; no business would ever survive this way, nor should it. Following a commercial approach, just like SpaceX, allowed me to accomplish a number of ‘firsts’ in DOD in under two years,” Dunlap wrote.
Among those firsts, Dunlap referenced the integration of artificial intelligence into military kill chains, interoperability of data and communications across different satellites and aircraft, the deployment of zero trust architecture, and the promotion of security in software development, known as DevSecOps.
In addition, Dunlap argued for a “reformatting” of the Pentagon’s acquisition enterprise, an oft-criticized process seen by many as out-dated and antiquated. By leveraging commercial technologies, shifting focus to outcomes instead of detailed requirements, putting more investments in outside innovators, and pushing forward with a concerted, rapid pace, the Pentagon can start to “regrow its thinning technological edge,” Dunlap wrote.
In order to help develop innovation and progress, Dunlap also pushed for flexibility—both in how the department works and connects, and in how it develops new systems. In particular, he argued for open systems and open architectures to allow new systems to rapidly adapt to and integrate new capabilities as they are developed, pointing to the B-21 Raider and Next-Generation Air Dominanceprograms as examples of that approach.
“We should never be satisfied,” Dunlap closed by writing. “We need this kind of progress at scale now, not tomorrow. So let’s be careful to not…
- “Lull ourselves into complacency, when we should be running on all cylinders.
- “Do things the same way, when we should be doing things better.
- “Distract ourselves with process, when we should be focused on delivering product.
- “Compete with each other, when we should be competing with China.
- “Defend our turf, when we should be defending our country.
- “Focus on input metrics, when we should be focused on output metrics.
- “Buy the same things, when we should be investing in what we need.
- “Be comfortable with the way things are, when we should be fighting for the way things should be.”
Dunlap’s departure comes at a seeming inflection point for the ABMS program he was tasked with overseeing. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has indicated he wants to take a different approach to the program, focusing more on specific operational impacts delivered quickly and less on experiments showing advanced capabilities.
“We can’t invest in everything, and we shouldn’t invest in improvements that don’t have clear operational benefit,” Kendall said March 3 at the AFA Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.. “We must be more focused on specific things with measurable value and operational impact.”
As part of that approach, Kendall has made it one of his organizational imperatives to more fully define the goals and impacts the ABMS program is going for.