Lt. Gen. Peterson led by listening to lieutenants
Senior Air Force official says he almost missed a chance to innovate warfighting
During the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Peterson realized that cyberspace would revolutionize combat operations. It was the first military conflict in history, he said, in which air power alone defeated an enemy. The automated target folder, an innovation at that time, made all the difference.
“That capability has been advanced several times over since then,” Peterson said. “But it’s the kind of thing that when you get smart young men and women who understand technology, understand operations, and sit around and talk about how do we do this better, how do we do this in the future, they come up with unbelievably great ideas.”
For decades, target folders were manila files with mostly outdated imagery because of the time necessary to receive and post the information. Peterson’s job was to build an architecture for a target folder system at 12 expeditionary bases. Those bases housed fighter and bomber aircraft that would be used in the air war above Serbia during the Kosovo conflict. Initially, he saw no reason to change the status quo. He planned to re-create the successful, manila folder routine for the temporary sites in Europe and the Balkans.
Then some first lieutenants asked him why he didn’t want to do things differently. “Perhaps the stupidest thing I ever said in my life was, ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’” Peterson said.
The lieutenants demonstrated what they could do with the Web and ColdFusion software, and Peterson was sold. They built an automated target folder application that let aircrew members type in their target numbers from an air-tasking order. Then the target folder built itself based on the most current maps, images and intelligence reports about the target. “They had the real-time knowledge that they needed to plan their missions,” Peterson said.
Last summer, Air Force officials selected Peterson to head the new Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer (SAF/XC). The Air Force had consolidated its warfighting, business and communications offices into one organization last spring and wanted a three-star general with expertise in all three information technology areas to lead it.
“With this governance structure and planning environment, you can be very careful with the resources you have and not spend them two or three times over,” Peterson said.
On the business IT side, the Air Force wants to eliminate redundant applications. The service will reduce its 19,000 applications to 10,000 in a couple of years and eventually to 1,000. The Air Force can avoid paying $500 million in the next several years by phasing out redundant applications, Peterson said.
Gen. William “Tom” Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe, was acting chief of SAF/XC and supervised the creation of the new IT office last year. He said Peterson’s broad IT background fits the position. “He is the right person for the job,” Hobbins said.
Tiboni was a senior reporter with Federal Computer Week. He has since left FCW.