BOSTON (AFNS) --
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin arrived at Logan International Airport on Monday and stepped off the aircraft with an extra sense of urgency. His flight wasn’t late, nor was he running behind schedule for his meeting in downtown Boston. Allvin’s deliberate stride was appropriate to the stark reality the Air Force faces — the pacing threat China poses to U.S. national defense.
A report released by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence last week outlined China’s continued pursuit of advanced AI technology and its intent to surpass U.S. efforts. For the U.S. to stave off competition and remain relevant, the report outlined actions to take, including building digital talent pipelines to develop and field tech experts.
“This is a no-fail mission for the Air Force with national security implications,” Allvin said. “If we don’t recruit, train, employ and retain Airmen with digital know-how and skillsets, we risk facing a reckoning of our own making. It’s just not about having the most advanced hardware to offset our competitors—we have to get the people part of this right, too.”
The Air Force is doing just that in Boston, developing next-generational talent in a city whose impressive skyline looms over a sprawling network of 35 colleges and universities and an entrenched tech industry that deservingly has been labeled by many as the “Silicon Valley of the East.”
The city is home to Kessel Run, the service’s premier software unit, as well as the Department of the Air Force-MIT AI Accelerator, a research partnership to advance and operationalize AI projects. Additionally, it’s where the Air Force continues its close collaboration with Draper, an independent nonprofit engineering innovation company that develops novel concepts through prototyping and demonstration in real world environments.
Allvin met with each organization to receive updates on their respective efforts to increase the nation’s capacity in the realm of software development, AI, and research development test and evaluation advancement.
Kessel Run, the de facto name of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Detachment 12, is headquartered at Hanscom Air Force Base with significant supporting assets in Boston, including Kessel Run Experimental Lab. The unit comprises approximately 1,300 Total Force Airmen whose mission is to continuously deliver war-winning software to the warfighter at the speed of relevance.
“Kessel Run represents a revolution in the manner and methods the Air Force and DoD develop, acquire, deliver, support, and sustain software and data for warfighters,” said Col. Brian Beachkofski, Kessel Run commander. “Our team is revolutionizing Air Force software-based weapons systems, creating and delivering daily iterations, innovations, and upgrades with significant speed and savings to the DoD. We’ve expedited the timeline from concept to fielding from months to days.”
Kessel Run Airmen build, test, deliver, operate and maintain software from a cloud-based infrastructure and war-fighting software applications across three distinct product lines that contribute to the weapon system: Operational Command and Control that plans the future Air Tasking Order during Agile Combat Employment; Wing Command and Control that informs and executes the ATO during ACE; and All Domain Common Platform, which provides globally available survivable computing capabilities for Ops C2 and Wing C2.
Over the last year, Kessel Run has operationally scaled three stand-alone applications being used for missions, including Jigsaw, a tanker planning tool; Marauder, a mission reporting tool; and Slapshot, a master air attack plan tool. In December 2020, Kessel Run delivered to the Air Operations Center the first application suite where connected applications and services pass data seamlessly to each other.
“We’re entering a growth phase where our applications’ user base is rapidly expanding,” Beachkofski said. “To maintain momentum and accelerate support to the warfighter, it’s imperative that we continue to invest in the Airmen, tools, processes and partnerships that are driving this change.”
One example of those partnerships is the close relationship the Department of the Air Force shares with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator. The Air Force signed a cooperative agreement in 2019 to jointly create the technology accelerator hosted at MIT. A multidisciplinary team of 11 active duty officers and enlisted Airmen — as well as four reservists — across nine Air Force specialty codes work alongside MIT faculty, researchers and students to tackle some of the most difficult challenges involving AI technology, ranging from technical to humanitarian applications.
“Last year, the AI Accelerator launched ten interdisciplinary projects, involving researchers from MIT Campus, MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Department of the Air Force,” said Col. Tucker Hamilton, DAF-MIT AI Accelerator director. “The three-year projects, which encompass a total of 15 research work streams, advance AI research in a broad range of areas, including weather modeling and visualization, optimization of training schedules, and enhance autonomy for augmenting and amplifying human decision-making.”
Allvin met with Airmen who are conducting fundamental research to enable rapid prototyping, scaling, and the ethical application of AI algorithms and systems to benefit both the Air Force and society at large. He also met with Dr. Daniela Rus, Erna Viterbi professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, and thanked her for the opportunity to closely partner with the esteemed institution and its researchers.
“This partnership is incredibly important to the Department,” Allvin said. “MIT is world-renowned for its leading-edge RDT&E and is home to some of the best AI talent on the planet. Together with our Airmen, MIT is accelerating the delivery of game-changing AI capabilities and helping us do so in a way that can really stay true to our nation’s values.”
Allvin personally recognized several members from both Kessel Run and the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator.
“The Airmen at Kessel Run and the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator are at the forefront of accelerating change,” Allvin said. “They represent critical enablers who are blazing a path for the Air Force and our nation. We must continue to invest resources and time to meet our competitors in the spaces they seek to operate in, while forging skills across our service that can compete, deter and win should they seek to challenge us.”
Allvin also met with leaders at Draper, a nonprofit engineering innovation company headquartered in Cambridge that has played a key role for the nation for more than 85 years by developing innovative solutions to complex problems. Draper’s major contributions include the development of inertial guidance systems for ballistic missile applications and space missions; autonomous guidance, navigation and control systems for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles; highly reliable computing systems for undersea, air and space vehicles; Miniature Electro-Mechanical Systems for guided munitions; and the world’s smallest electronics packaging technology. In each example, Draper developed and advanced the technology, built the first prototypes, and conducted field tests and operational demonstrations. In many cases, Draper’s staff worked directly with industry partners to transition the technology into commercial applications.
“I’m excited to see the continued return on investment from organizations like Draper, not just in terms of RDT&E advancement, but their continued leadership to develop and promote tech talent on behalf of our nation,” Allvin said, highlighting the Air Force’s close partnership with Draper’s fellowship program that includes 11 top-tier science and technology universities. Draper’s Fellow Program has supported more than 1,000 graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences since 1973.
Allvin recognized 2nd Lt. Christopher Clark, MIT graduate student and Draper Fellow; Capt Riley Vann, a Harvard Fellow currently studying at Harvard Law School; and MIT students Carson Smith and Delia Stephens, both cadets assigned to ROTC Detachment 365 at MIT. Allvin commended the Airmen for their continued pursuit of advanced education and service to the nation.
“The skills you are sharpening here will carry forth and sharpen others,” Allvin told the group.
Before leaving Boston, Allvin toured open, collaborative workspaces and scanned whiteboards overflowing with notes on emergent concepts the teams were bringing to life for our warfighters. For all the teams had accomplished, it was clear their work was only just beginning.
Allvin turned, looked at the room full of leaders, and said, “Let’s get back to work.”