Pentagon procurement chief Ellen Lord cautiously optimistic about OCX

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OCX is the poster child for military programs where “both the department and industry are behind the curve in terms of modernization of software practices.”

WASHINGTON — Like other troubled military programs, the future version of the GPS control software is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

“It’s a program that I have spent quite a bit of time on,” said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

The next-generation operational control system for GPS satellites, known as OCX, is an Air Force program but because of its poor track record the management was transferred to the Defense Department. Some Air Force officials privately have said they don’t want it back.

Lord recently was part of a program review that included Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Will Roper and Tom Kennedy, the CEO of Raytheon, the prime contractor for OCX.

During a meeting with reporters on Friday at the Pentagon, Lord characterized OCX as the poster child for military programs where “both the department and industry are behind the curve in terms of modernization of software practices.”

Software development woes are not unusual in defense programs although OCX has stood out for its history of setbacks. The problems with DoD software acquisitions were laid out in a recent Defense Science Board report. A panel of advisers called out the Pentagon and its contractors for using outdated software development methods that the commercial industry abandoned decades ago.

The industry has moved to so-called agile development, where engineers make rapid changes, ask for user feedback and adjust the software for the next increment. Most defense programs, meanwhile, continue to use traditional “waterfall” development — sequentially going from requirement to software development and then testing.

Lord said OCX as of April 1 was transitioning to an agile approach. “I believe we are at an inflection point in terms of doing things differently,” she said. “We are pivoting from the traditional waterfall software development methodology to agile and devops. So we are coding every day, testing every night.”

She said the program is getting high-level attention from the Air Force and from Raytheon, and changes are being made in areas like floor space design so engineers can collaborate in an open space. “We have indications that this program is making progress,” Lord said. “But we don’t have enough data yet to say we are entirely confident that we’re on the road to recovery,” she added. “Early indications are very good at this point.”

Software is the “thread that runs through all of our programs,” said Lord. “It’s the functional area that I have focused on.”

Lord announced on Friday that DoD hired the chief technology officer of Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute Jeff Boleng to help fix OCX and other challenged software programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Boleng is joining Lord’s staff as special assistant for software acquisition.

There are today “islands of excellence” in software projects across DoD and the military services. “But we haven’t figured out how to focus that on major programs.” OCX will be the department’s first attempt at doing that in a major acquisition program. “I think we’re on our way,” said Lord.

OCX has been “on a journey for over a year” trying to get back on track, said Lord. “I would say it’s probably more of a cultural than a technology transition. I think they’re over the 50 percent mark.”

Is OCX out of the woods? By no means, Lord said. “The data has to speak for itself. We will be looking over the next several months to see how many lines of code are actually being developed and are working well.”

Raytheon executives have been warned that “we have a high level of management vigilance on the program,” said Lord. “If they demonstrate through metrics that they are making progress in cost and schedule, we will begin to refrain from so many reviews and so forth. We’re closely monitoring where it goes.”

In the latest DoD Selected Acquisition Reports mandated by Congress, the price tag for OCX soared by $665.3 million, or 12.3 percent — from $5.4 billion to $6 billion.

If successful, OCX will command all modernized and legacy GPS satellites, manage all civil and military navigation signals, and provide improved cyber security and resilience for GPS operations.

In November the Air Force accepted delivery of OCX Block 0 launch and checkout system from Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.