BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. ― The U-2 is one of the Air Force’s oldest aircraft, having been flown since the 1950s, but the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron here isn’t waiting for the Pentagon to improve the venerable spy plane.

Instead, the squadron’s pilots, maintainers and mission planners have taken procurement into their own hands, and regularly chat with Silicon Valley companies about new commercial technologies that can make them better informed and more effective.

Dragon Lady pilots here wear pressurized space suits because their aircraft fly so high — but they now also wear Garmin watches and bring commercial tablets into the cockpit with them.

The combat system officers responsible for mission planning, navigation and sensor preparation — all challenging tasks due to the rapidly changing nature of the battlefield and the sophistication of the U-2’s sensors — will soon have new state-of-the-art computers to help synthesize data.

This gear and more was purchased by the squadron itself for about $3.3 million, and the 99th is working with leading technology firms to test out other products that could improve operations. All with little supervision from the Pentagon.

The U-2 squadron’s innovative leadership style, which has made these advances possible, has attracted the attention of Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, who has made “revitalizing squadrons” one of the priorities of his tenure. He is interested in seeing if some of the lessons learned could be applied to other squadrons across the service.

”Gen. Goldfein has told me as a commander to get ready for the fight,” Lt. Col. Matt Nussbaum, commander of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, told Defense News, a sister publication, during a Nov. 30 interview here. “I cannot succeed at the mission he’s laid out for me if I wait on the Air Force to give me the answers,”

“I came out of the Air Staff,” he said, referencing the service’s headquarters staff at the Pentagon. “I know how to get money, I know how to get things on contract. So the rest of it is just to get some bright ideas from the guys to say, ‘OK, where do we need to go with that?’ ”

An ‘atomic’ squadron

How can the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron operate so differently than the rest of the Air Force? It doesn’t have special authorities or permissions to work around the normal acquisition system, Nussbaum said. But airmen who spoke to Defense News all pointed to one important factor: Leaders give those under their command the freedom to take chances and experiment.

One of those airmen, a U-2 pilot named Maj. Ray, developed a new operational model for the squadron. (Defense News agreed not to print the last names of U-2 pilots due to security concerns.)

After being tasked with figuring out how to improve operations, Ray came up with an “atomic leadership model” that envisions squadron leaders, contracting personnel and high-powered computers as the protons and neutrons, the nucleus whose work allows the rest of the squadron to accomplish the mission. Operators, less burdened by bureaucracy, are the electrons whirring around the atom.

Ray briefed Goldfein about the atomic leadership model during the general’s Nov. 30 visit here. Goldfein then asked Ray to come up with a plan for how the Air Force could apply the model to other types of squadrons as part of a pilot program.

“The question for me is whether his concept of this atomic squadron has application beyond his individual squadron,” Goldfein told Defense News afterward.

“Part of the job of leaders is to unleash that brilliance and to create an environment where young folks with good ideas actually can get a hearing,” Goldfein said. “And we can give them some resources and time and energy to allow them to pursue [those ideas] and see where it goes.”

A $10,000 table

For the 99th, the results have been promising.

At no cost, the squadron has developed a way to bring multiple U-2 datalinks into the mission-planning cell. For example, planners now have full access to the data stream of the U-2’s defensive system, the ALQ-221, some of which isn’t visible to the pilot sitting in the cockpit.

The squadron has also pulled in expertise from the base’s contracting and finance offices to help execute contracts using the squadron’s limited funding. Those contracts are relatively small compared to the billion-dollar deals commonly made by the Pentagon, but still represent huge amounts of money for the squadron itself.

Nussbaum plans on bringing in a financial officer and contracting officer full time to help the squadron refine its requirements, draft contracts and procure new tech.

“When you work with the Pentagon or the Air Force, it’s very cumbersome if you’re a business partner, and it sucks,” he said. “But if you’re Amazon, you work directly with your customer,” he said. “Well, the Air Force squadrons are the end customer.”

Nussbaum showed a couple of items procured by the squadron. The first was a tablet that can be used by Dragon Lady pilots to obtain unclassified data in flight.

“We’re using commercial software at no cost. It’s better than any of the avionics packages the Air Force has ever given us,” he said.

Current apps include a worldwide navigation database, routes and charts, but the 99th is investing in Apple’s app development courseware so they can make their own custom, in-house apps.

Nussbaum also highlighted the Garmin D2 watches that he and other pilots in the squadron wear. The watches are commonly used by commercial airline pilots, but were not available in the Defense Department’s marketplace until the squadron took about four months to do market research and go through the contracting process.

It may seem silly that the 99th’s airmen get excited by seemingly mundane commercial tech while the U-2 carries some of the most exquisite sensors and datalinks on the planet. However, Nussbaum explained that the U-2’s cockpit is geared toward securely sharing highly classified materials with the intelligence community, not unclassified comms.

“It’s very well-equipped for a classified combat environment, it’s not well-equipped to send a note to our recovery team’s cell phone,” he said. “So I can send lots and lots of data off our sensors, but I can’t ring up someone’s cellphone on the plane. With this technology I can do that.”

The next step is taking the data collected by the watch — the flight profile the pilot flew or her physiological information — and translating it to a military format so that it can be downloaded automatically for use by instructors or to cut down on paperwork. The 99th’s airmen will be able to do that once they contract with industry for the necessary interfaces.

One of the other benefits of having squadrons more involved in procuring their equipment is that they are incentivized to make their money go as far as possible, Nussbaum said.

For instance, the 99th has already identified costly assessments that could be accomplished by the squadron at a lower price than if it paid a contractor.

“We’re regular guys and girls that serve in the military. If you’re a commercial entity and you come to me and say, ‘I’m going to sell you this table,’ but this table is $10,000, that doesn’t make sense to us,” Ray explained. “But I think when you enter into that bureaucratic process, there’s some desensitization that goes on where the money becomes less real.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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