AF faces integration challenge
- By Dawn S. Onley
- Sep 16, 2004
Paul D. Nielsen, Software engineering overseer
Courtesy of Software Engineering Institute
For four years, Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul D. Nielsen handled an annual science and technology budget of more than $3 billion as the service's chief technology officer.
That job ended on June 25, as did 32 years of service with the Air Force, when Nielsen retired to take over as chief executive officer and director of Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.
One of his first priorities in his new job will be to 'try and figure out what the real strategic goals' at SEI are and 'to try to elevate them,' he said.
During his military career, Nielsen also headed up the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. As head of the lab, Nielsen developed and implemented new technologies for Air Force weapon systems.
Nielsen received a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from the Air Force Academy in 1972, a master's degree in applied science from the University of California-Davis in 1973, a master's in business administration from the University of New Mexico in 1977 and a doctorate in plasma physics from the University of California-Davis in 1981.
GCN Defense reporter Dawn S. Onley interviewed Nielsen by telephone.GCN: What were your top priorities as chief technology officer of the Air Force and commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory?
NIELSEN: When I took over the job about four years ago, April 2000, I sort of set three pretty frank and brutal goals for myself.
The first was I wanted to stop the bleeding. During the 1990s, both the budget and the number of people that worked in the Air Force Research Lab had been going down for 10 years. About 40 percent of the slots disappeared during the 1990s. The Air Force got about 40 percent smaller, and the research community got 40 percent smaller. It was time to stabilize the personnel accounts to bring new scientists on board.
The second goal is a constant goal for a technologist in the services and that is you not only have to create the technology, but you have to make sure a reasonable amount of technology translates into systems. You have to get the technology actually into things that help the warfighters. Anything we can do to increase the amount of transition helps people out.
In the IT world, a lot of that ends up being software-driven. Even during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have been transitioning new information systems, new parts for information systems to the people in the field.
The third goal was to increase the profile of the Air Force Research Lab, of the men and women who work for it. I have always felt that they've been underappreciated. When you really think about it, the people who give with their brains, their innovations, not just in the government labs, they are to me just as patriotic, just as dedicated to their country as people who go out as soldiers.
We sort of had a special problem. The Air Force had consolidated its laboratories over the last 12 years. In the 1980s, we had 12 or 13 labs. In 1990, we consolidated into four superlabs. In 1997, because of this continual contraction, we integrated into one lab, the AF Research Lab. I took this job over in 2000, [when] we were only three years old.
The Navy Research Lab has been around for 75 years. We had to work hard so that everyone knew that the Air Force had consolidated its labs.
Those were my three big goals at the time.GCN: What will be your new role as CEO and director of the Software Engineering Institute?
NIELSEN: In some ways, it's a very similar role. When you lead an organization of very bright people, mostly you have to get out of their way. I like to get the pulse of the organization. These are mostly good organizations. They're not organizations in need of a great turnaround.
I try and figure out what the real strategic goals of an organization are and try to elevate them. Then, I try to make sure as best I can as a leader that I take the obstacles out of the way and bring some resources to them. Another key role is to help strike strategic alliances with other organizations.
SEI gets direct funding from the Defense Department. In addition, it receives money from the Army, Navy and Air Force, and Homeland Security Department contracts as well. The other side of the budget is, they do a fair amount of licensing of some of the products they developed in the past.
The institute is well organized, with strong processes. One of its big products is to make sure in software development that you have great processes.GCN: What direction is the Air Force headed in terms of consolidating its IT infrastructure and reducing the number of servers and databases?
NIELSEN: They are doing a lot of work in the major commands consolidating servers. It's not painless when you do this. The individual organizations don't like to give up some of their autonomy sometimes. But it makes great sense economically. It gives the same quality of service to people throughout the organization.GCN: What are some of the major science and technology challenges facing the Air Force? How are they being addressed?
NIELSEN: One of the big challenges that we have right now is still this whole concept of horizontal integration of these systems. Sometimes the systems don't connect and fuse the information as well as they should. We are trying to answer how to get our systems to talk to each other better and give us a common picture.
That has lots of pieces. How do you build better communication pipes with better bandwidth? How do you store data in multi-media databases'not just text databases, but sounds and voices? How do you mine the data to bring information and knowledge to the users?
Another big challenge related to that is that we tend to look at systems and look only at the non-human side of the system. Yet in almost all the systems that are of any consequences to us, human beings are an integral part of the system. I'm pushing real hard to get the cognitive science researchers to interact much more tightly with the classic information systems. Until you get the whole system to work and optimize, you really have not done the complete job. There are certain things that carbon intelligence does even better.
Another grand topic inside the military right now is systems engineering. There are times where it seems like we've lost the bubble on systems engineering. In the information world and space world, you have to invest up front in the conceptual architecture of your system and make the right trade to build the system correctly.
SEI has worked for years to improve software quality and software architecture. You have to design and think clearly about the right architecture first in order to build the right system. You want to build in quality, build in security. You don't want to have to strap that on. You've got to design in that quality right from the start.GCN: What are some of the improvements in science and technology made by the Air Force over the years?
NIELSEN: A sort of small area that really made a difference was support to Special Operation Forces. They have been the forgotten group to the Air Force in some sense. In the Afghanistan conflict, some things came out that really pointed out that they needed some technological improvements.
Guys ... could go into hostile areas, 8,000, 9,000 feet or higher with 150 pound packs on their backs. That's because a lot of the equipment that they had had not been system engineered as well as it could.
What we found is even in the couple of years before then we were able to decrease their load quite a bit in the Iraq war. We made some differences that lightened their pack quite a bit.GCN: Discuss some of the science and technology products being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NIELSEN: Some things are really simple. They needed better batteries. They have to carry all their power. If you have eight pieces of equipment with eight different batteries, you have to carry a lot of batteries. What we were able to do is design a common battery with a common power supply. We're also developing some high-capacity batteries'batteries that might run on fuel cells that are renewable.
Now among the thing we're working on is a better wearable rugged computer. We're trying to get computers that really end up being part of the clothing.