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Kessel Run’s SlapShot saves lives

  • Published
  • By Damany Coleman, Kessel Run Public Affairs

BOSTON (AFLCMC) – Kessel Run’s SlapShot application was recently used in what is being said is the largest non-combatant evacuation in history by U.S. and coalition forces, with a total of 122,300 people airlifted from Kabul, Afghanistan.

The operation went from the end of July to Aug. 30, according to State Department estimates. Due to increasing threats by the Taliban and increased pressure to pull-out all military forces in the area; the Department of Defense’s priority was to get American citizens, Afghans with special immigrant visa applications, and other vulnerable Afghans out of the country. Military aircraft, mainly C-17 Globemaster IIIs, were leaving every 45 minutes from the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

When U.S. Air Forces Central and the Department of Defense expressed this dire situation to Kessel Run; they were ready to answer the call.

“AFCENT Airmen, alongside AMC, coalition, and joint partners, applied incredibly innovative solutions to complex problem-sets in order to airlift tens of thousands of Americans and U.S. personnel, allies and partners and Afghans at special risk from Kabul, up to and including the joint tactical exfiltration of ground troops,” said Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, Ninth Air Force (AFCENT) commander. “Kessel Run’s programmers more than kept pace, rapidly iterating critical applications like SlapShot in order to meet the evolving needs of leaders, planners, and operators across the world in real-time.”

SlapShot, a mission and air-combat sortie flow organizer, was designed by software engineers at Kessel Run, officially known as Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Detachment 12. The software was developed as a replacement to enter or pull data and perform quality checks that were normally manually performed by weapon system operators, or even pilots themselves in the field. This information is compiled to develop the Master Air Attack Plan, and visualizes the pairing of air combat missions with a respective air tasking order (ATO).

In regards to what it takes just to get aircraft safely off the ground and into crowded airspace, that’s no simple task. Before SlapShot, operators or pilots used excel documents or visualizations similar to a gantt chart. Today, the application features tasks in real-time, individual tasks that support the commander's intent, and then assets carrying out each task.

“During the evacuation in Afghanistan, it’s been mostly used as a very, very effective tool for situational awareness,” said Gabriel Stines, a software engineer with Kessel Run that works on SlapShot.

Stines added that it was used around the clock in operations, as well as to brief different American and coalition commanders, air traffic controllers and even the Secretary of Defense and President of the United States.

“We’ve seen truly record use of SlapShot,” said Stines. “Up until (the beginning of the evacuation), we hadn’t had this many people use the platform.”

Naturally, when software is used at this scale, there are bound to be bugs or difficulty with scaling its capabilities. Stines said that due to how SlapShot was built and having liaison officers to relay life saving information on the ground in Afghanistan, software engineers here back home at Kessel Run were able to field and fix issues in real-time.

On August 23rd - only nine days after the Taliban unexpectedly seized the capital - more than 21,000 people were evacuated in what was also the largest single day airlift in history.

Stines said that there was a brief outage on that day, due to SlapShot accommodating anywhere from 20 to 200 missions. After fixing the outage, which would cause the application’s user interface to take 3-6 minutes to load, he and other members of the Kessel Run team cut those times down to around 3 seconds, saving precious time, resources and lives.

SlapShot was also being used for passenger manifest, he said, which involved arguably the most difficult part of the evacuation - the logistics.

“We had all these people who needed food, visas and housing, and we needed to know what to do with them after landing at their destination,” Stines said. “SlapShot helped with that situational awareness and met the needs of the coalition effort. Having our (liaison officers) fielding issues and being able to iterate on the system parallel with us, and on the same day fixing problems completely… that just doesn't happen anywhere else. ”

Stines said that they were able to dry-run the changes they were making in a sort of digital staging area, while liaison officers - with literally the boots-on-the-ground, in some cases - could communicate with end users to fully realize their immediate needs. Using DevSecOps and other internal, agile processes, Kessel Run could test, iterate and deliver SlapShot’s multitenant features at the stakeholders discretion.

Josh Pritchett, product lead at Kessel Run and liaison officer with the 609th U.S. Air Force Air Operations Center, said that from initial contact to solution delivery, he was involved the entire time acting as a customer representative to ensure mission success.

Pritchett added that he also helped explain the software, and translate jargon and technical terms so as to make sure all parties understood what was being said and done at all times.

“It was a customer solutions opportunity,” said Pritchett. “That’s basically the role (liaison officers) play, and I do think we were integral in the operation's success. I had to communicate the urgency between the two parties.”

He added that, traditionally, normal acquisitions require a six to eight month iteration cycle for a new update to software.

“At Kessel Run, we can make updates or create changes at will,” said Pritchett. “As long as we understand the need, we can deliver on a solution that hits the mark for users. The difference is that a lot of traditional acquisitions is that a lot of the requirements were generated from outside of the (Air Operations Command) or user base. With C2IMERA and SlapShot, we’re sitting down with real people using the software to perform an operational need. We were able to deliver a series of solutions that created a near-term and lasting impact within a very short timeframe.”

Pritchett said that LNOs add an empathetic, hands-on approach to fixing solutions for the end users. Within hours, he and his contacts ended up fielding a fixing solution that they were able to implement the very next day.