Pentagon advisory panel: DoD could take a page from SpaceX on software development

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Defense Science Board: Software has become one of the most important components of our nation’s weapons systems, and it continues to grow in importance.

WASHINGTON — Some of the costliest failures in military procurement have been blamed on software. Pentagon officials over the years have been grilled on Capitol Hill on this issue, but billions of dollars continue to be spent on software projects that are way over budget and behind schedule.

“Software has become one of the most important components of our nation’s weapons systems, and it continues to grow in importance,” the Defense Science Board said in a new report.

A DSB task force led by former Air Force acquisition executive William LaPlante and senior IBM official Robert Wisnieff looked at whether “iterative” software development practices used in the commercial industry should be applied in defense systems.

In iterative software developments, engineers make rapid changes, ask for user feedback and adjust the software for the next increment. Most defense programs use traditional “waterfall”  development  — sequentially going from requirement to software development and then testing. The waterfall approach was mostly abandoned by commercial companies years ago.

Traditional defense contractors have been slow to jump into commercial software development techniques, said the report. That is the result of “DoD culture, internal practices, and a government approach to contracting that disincentivizes their adoption.”

The task force held up SpaceX as an example of a company that uses agile software development and still meets Air Force requirements for “mission critical” space launches.

“SpaceX appears to be an ‘existence proof’ that modern DevOps commercial practices can be used effectively for rapidly changing systems that are mission critical for national security, in this case the Air Force space launch,” said the report.

SpaceX for nearly a decade has used “agile scrum” — a framework for managing software development — for enterprise resource planning, space operations, finance and human resources. There is a “continuous deployment pipeline for updating critical internal information multiple times per day,” the report said. Automated testing is used across the entire infrastructure.

The DSB suggested contractors can meet stringent military requirements and still use agile software development methods. “When SpaceX wins an award, they have the freedom to develop hardware and software organically as they see fit; however, it must remain launch certified.”

Another example is Boeing’s development of the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker. The company “segmented the software development into small pieces and is using modern iterative software development practices,” the report said. “This is in essence a hybrid approach between waterfall and modern iterative software development.” The DSB did not mention, however, that Boeing’s tanker program has experienced significant delays.

The idea that defense systems continue to use software development techniques developed in the 1970s through the 1990s is cause for concern, the task force said.

Study co-chair LaPlante, who is senior vice president and general manager of MITRE National Security Sector, told SpaceNews last month that DoD and its top contractors are 10 to 15 years behind modern commercial developers. This is a problem in space programs because DoD is not able to capture the latest technology such as software-controlled waveforms for communications satellites, he said. “You can take commercial communications satellites that are up in orbit and you can put your own waveform,” he said. “DoD could use waveforms on existing satellites. The Air Force needs to exploit that more.” Using software waveforms is one way to improve the resilience of space systems, said LaPlante. The military could upload its own waveforms on commercial satellites and not have to worry about its own satellites being attacked, he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

The Air Force has struggled with software for a long time. In recent years it terminated billion-dollar efforts to develop a digital command center and a logistics support system. The software for the ground control system of the new GPS 3 constellation is years behind schedule and its costs have soared.

“The problems appear to be caused by the same software development issues that have occurred in programs over the last two decades,” the DSB report said. “The task force strongly believes greater adoption of continuous iterative development and its associated best practices will result in significantly improved acquisition performance.”