3 minute read 03 November 2022

How the US Air Force “STITCHES” together legacy systems

STITCHES translates different systems’ technical standards to help defense technicians easily use whatever system they need. The result? A host of innovative use cases.

Like most mature organizations, the US Air Force has countless applications and systems that were developed over decades, many operating on their own technical standards, which makes interoperability a challenge. But the Air Force is responding to this challenge with an innovative solution that automatically translates the standards of one system into those of another in order to connect multiple disparate platforms, freeing technicians to use whatever system suits their purpose best.

The tool, known as STITCHES—short for “System-of-Systems Technology Integration Tool Chain for Heterogeneous Electronic Systems”—is essentially a library of technical standards and translations. In practice, one application sends data or instructions into STITCHES’ library, which processes it into the standards of the next system. Various tools can connect to each other without requiring a common interface language.

“You don’t have to know how it’s translated underneath,” says Jimmy “Reverend” Jones, STITCHES warfighter team lead with the US Department of the Air Force. “It’s about saying ‘What do you want to create?’ not ‘How do you want to code it together?’”1 The goal is to allow users to work at higher levels of abstraction, dealing with capabilities, not code.

An early use case leveraging STITCHES involved creating a connection between software-defined radio, radar warning receiver, and air-launched munition systems. The connection allows the munition system to receive in-flight updates from the radar system via the radio system, enhancing its functionality. This is the first use of STITCHES—which began as a research project out of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—in an operational setting. Technology like this typically goes through lengthy testing processes in Air Force offices, but STITCHES was put straight into the field. Jones says this process could serve as a prototype for deploying other advanced technologies in the future.

Prior to STITCHES, this kind of interface could have taken the Air Force years to program. In that timespan, new technologies may have emerged, which could have rendered the entire undertaking obsolete by the time it was ready. Colonel William “Dollar” Young, the first commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, says a primary goal of the project is to develop a system-of-systems mindset to avoid this pitfall.2

“We forgot how to do systems thinking and became overly dependent on tools,” he says. This happens when people became experts in narrow applications and coding languages, leading to a project-based mindset, with all the requirement-gathering, developing, testing, and implementing that it entails.

But this process is brittle, time-consuming, and restrictive because there is no single solution to most problems, Young says. At the same time, most of the capabilities that people need for various use cases already exist in current tools. Developers just need to be made aware of them and how to tie them together.

“I fundamentally believe that our failure to appreciate what software offers is our biggest hurdle as a department and generally as a nation,” Young says. “We’re building more and more technology but lack the ontology to tie it back to today’s problems.”

The most substantial benefits of this approach of finding an ontology may be hard to predict. As the system-of-systems mindset develops, both Jones and Young expect technicians will find new and innovative ways to use existing technologies. It’s likely that many of these use cases will be things that developers, who are further removed from problems, wouldn’t have been able to imagine. It’s that kind of flexibility—the ability to give front-line workers the tools they need to find their own solutions—that Young says will be the most impactful outcome of STITCHES.

“STITCHES allows humans to do what they do best, which is dream up a concept, and then the tool assembles the capabilities,” Young says.

  1. Jimmy Jones (STITCHES warfighter application team lead, US Department of the Air Force), interview, June 30, 2022.View in Article
  2. Colonel William Young (commander of the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, US Department of the Air Force), interview, June 30, 2022.

    View in Article

Cover image by: Jim Slatton and Natalie Pfaff


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Mike Bechtel

Mike Bechtel

Chief futurist | Deloitte Consulting LLP


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