BI Tools Keep U.S. Air Force Combat-Ready

By Shelley Solheim  |  Posted 2005-04-04

BI Tools Keep U.S. Air Force Combat-Ready

Before a U.S. Air Force pilot ever climbs into a fighter jet for combat, there is a long chain of people and steps in the process of making sure that the plane is ready for a mission.

Deep behind the front lines of the Air Force, there is an unofficial mantra among the IT team in charge of the forces massive enterprise data warehouse and business intelligence initiative: Get the right information, at the right time, in the right place, for the right people.

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Its been nearly four years since the birth of the AFKS (Air Force Knowledge Services) program, designed to consolidate and centralize data from the Air Forces nearly two dozen Combat Support divisions. Since its inception, the AFKS has integrated data from nearly 30 different legacy systems.

"There was lots of stovepipe data throughout the Air Force across finance, logistics, supplies and maintenance, and none of their systems talked to each other," said John Rusnak, chief architect of the AFKS, in Dayton, Ohio.

"At the end of the day, if a commander asked a question, say, for example, I want to know how many widgets we make, someone had to go to three or four different systems, put that into [Microsoft Corp.] Excel spreadsheets or into Access applications, and get that to a PowerPoint presentation. It used to take a commander between three to six weeks to get all the data pulled together."

That situation obviously wasnt going to fly with many Air Force brass—hence, the new AFKS program," he said.

"By using an enterprise warehouse for our data, we can pull it all together, integrate it, provide an authoritative source of data and use BI for end users to get the data," said Rusnak.

To help the thousands of Air Force systems users query, visualize and analyze all this data, the force is using BI tools from vendors Business Objects S.A., of San Jose, Calif., and Cognos Inc., of Ottawa.

The tools are used by employees across the force: from workers in a flight line, who can now monitor the inventory of parts or check on the status of ordered parts, to Air Force commanders, who can now quickly see which planes are mission-ready. If theyre not, commanders use a drag-and-drop tool to drill down and find out why they arent.

So far, of the Air Forces 22 Combat Support domains, the AFKS has pulled in data from domains including maintenance, supplies, finance, contracts and acquisitions and is currently working on integrating data from the civil engineering and training division.

"Weve pulled in data from six domains, not all of the data, but the data we do have we can provide a lot of different capabilities for end users, from a low-level flight manager to a four star," said Rusnak. "Were able to provide an easy-to-use tool set with a relatively authoritative view of data instead of a bunch of systems hamstrung together."

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The Air Force piloted the program on the domain responsible for maintenance of the forces more than 6,000 aircraft and for the millions of parts for those aircraft, which are spread across nearly 200 air bases worldwide.

Within the first week of implementing the new system, AFKS identified more than $600 million in excess parts and recouped $300,000, said Rusnak. And now maintenance data is available for users in near real time.

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"The ROI [return on investment] is tremendous on AFKS in general," said Rusnak. "Were getting the war fighter the support they need, getting them in the air quicker, identifying trends and doing analysis of alternatives to find out how do we do something better."

The data warehouse and BI tools are also accessible to Air Force contractors using the military domain .mil, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.

Getting suppliers hooked into supply chain data early is one of the key strengths of the Air Forces program, said Business Objects spokesperson Patrick Morrissey.

"One of the failures with a lot of people who talk about optimizing the supply chain is that they spend a lot of time on cycles internally, and then its several years before they make that information available to suppliers," said Morrissey.

Both Morrissey and Rusnak said the biggest hurdle of the project is its sheer scale.

"When you look at the scale of the Air Force, that scale is larger than anything youll see [in business]," said Rusnak.

The next step for the AFKS, Rusnak said, is to use the new insights gleaned from the BI tools to identify trends and to alter business processes to cut off potential problems in advance.

"The next step is evolution," Rusnak said. "Im getting new information. For example, maybe I was never able to notice before that parts wear out more in wintertime than in summertime. As we reach a critical mass and get the majority of data in the warehouse, [we can] look at data in new ways and move toward a more proactive approach. So Im going to put this and this together, and it really makes a difference to the war fighter—and thats what its all about."

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