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586th FLTS accomplishes Air Force first in development of Kubernetes

The 586th Flight Test Squadron, 704th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, took Kubernetes supersonic in a T-38 Talon like the one shown here during another flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The 586th Flight Test Squadron, 704th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, took Kubernetes supersonic in a T-38 Talon like the one shown here during another flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A T-38 Talon crew, Maj. Scott Pontzer, front cockpit, and Capt. Trevor Breau, from the 586th Flight Test Squadron, 704th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, prepare for a test flight with Kubernetes software onboard, Dec. 11, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A T-38 Talon crew, Maj. Scott Pontzer, front cockpit, and Capt. Trevor Breau, from the 586th Flight Test Squadron, 704th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, prepare for a test flight with Kubernetes software onboard, Dec. 11, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

The 586th Flight Test Squadron, 704th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, has taken Kubernetes supersonic.

During a flight test Dec. 11, a pilot and flight test engineer with the 586th “Roadrunners” flew a T-38 Talon with operational flight program, or OFP, software utilizing the Kubernetes framework installed on the instrumentation system of the aircraft. While Kubernetes has gone airborne previously on U.S. Air Force aircraft, the 586th FLTS is the first to fly an aircraft utilizing the system at supersonic speeds, an example of the Air Force continuing to push beyond the expected uses of the technology in the commercial environment.

“We have demonstrated that Kubernetes can be deployed on Air Force aircraft,” said Capt. Trevor Breau, assistant director of operations for the 586th FLTS. “Kubernetes enables rapid software development on the order of weeks instead of years. The faster software turnaround times allows the software developers to rapidly respond to user feedback and dynamic threats. Kubernetes also offers better stability by running a backup simultaneously. If a system were to fail, Kubernetes will automatically switch to a stable version without any obvious transition seen by the user.”

Kubernetes, according to kubernetes.io, is an “open-source system for automating deployment, scaling and management of containerized applications.” The system is also portable across infrastructure providers, providing potential for making software portable across aircraft platforms.

During a previous testing event, the 586th FLTS successfully installed and ground tested the hardware and software, including meeting a milestone necessary to proceed to flight testing.

Testing requires balancing risks. Test personnel have to mitigate safety risks, while working to ensure they obtain the necessary data to inform acquisition decisions, which drives down financial risk for the Air Force.

“We demonstrated live updates to the software without any interruption to the system,” Breau said. “This is critical for an aircraft to be able to receive and implement updates while in-flight.”

Test is an important step along the way of moving a new concept or design from the theoretical to the operational. Test can prove if a new design works as stated and if it meets a mission need.

The flight test was built upon this notion and demonstrated that the OFP installed in the Kubernetes system operated as expected under flight conditions, such as altitude, attitude and speed – an important contribution to the efforts across the Air Force to employ Kubernetes.

“I’ve been dreaming for ten years about real-time or near real-time updates to aircraft software, and that dream is starting to become a reality,” said Dr. Eileen Bjorkman, executive director, Air Force Test Center. “This could be a huge leap forward in accelerating change for the Air Force.”

The OFP that was tested is for the T-38 Advanced Workstation, or TAWS. It was developed utilizing Kubernetes by SkiCAMP, a Platform One software factory. Platform One is a DOD DevSecOps Enterprise Services team, and part of the larger effort of the Air Force to shift to the Agile software development methodology. The Agile methodology is more flexible compared to the previously preferred Waterfall methodology. Agile allows for requirements and solutions to evolve as developers and customers collaborate.

“The lessons learned in developing the TAWS system are being applied to Kubernetes projects on other platforms, such as the C-12J (Huron) and Test Pilot School’s F-16 VISTA (Variable Stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft),” Breau said.

Col. Jeffrey Geraghty, AEDC commander, applauded the efforts of the 586th FLTS.

“Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. (Charles) Brown’s strategy is to Accelerate Change or Lose,” Geraghty said. “With this Kubernetes flight, the Roadrunners of the 586th have accelerated change. They demonstrated that U.S. Airpower can operate at speeds faster than any adversary’s OODA loop.”

The OODA loop stands for observe-orient-decide-act. It is a central paradigm in modern warfare strategy, articulated relentlessly by the late-strategist Col. John Boyd.

Advancements made by the combined efforts of the 586th FLTS and SkiCAMP will also be shared with the other Platform One software factories to help further the advancement of Kubernetes implementation.

“Once again, the pioneering spirit of the Air Force Test Center is on display, in this case driving measurable progress toward agile OFP development,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Azzano, commander, Air Force Test Center. “The 704th Test Group and 586th Flight Test Squadron have a long history of breaking barriers, and I’m confident their innovation will be instrumental in moving this critical technology to the next level.”