The Defense Department is lobbying for a monumental change to the way it procures software, which will allow the Pentagon to develop agile software on shorter timelines.
After conducting a year-long study through the Defense Innovation Board — a group of industry professionals from companies like Alphabet and Code for America — DoD plans to ask Congress to specifically appropriate money for defense software in an attempt to change how quickly it can build and update software. But that is only one large piece of the puzzle.
To make defense software better, the report states four things will need to come together: Congress will need to change the law to reduce the time it takes to procure, the military services will need to work together to constantly test and optimize software, DoD and industry must prioritize speed while ensuring cybersecurity and the services will need to enrich their software employees.
DoD acknowledged in its report that the step would require dozens of independent groups to agree on a common direction, approach and set of actions.
However, getting monetary flexibility from Congress is a cornerstone of the process.
“Right now we have different pools of money that we have to very carefully allocate,” said Ellen Lord, DoD undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment during a Friday briefing at the Pentagon. “What we’ve been talking to the appropriators about is writing in the 2020 defense authorization bill the opportunity to do multiple pilots where we would have just one line of funds for software development. The line could allow us to move back and forth between different stages to give us what I’ll call administrative flexibility.”
Some legislative suggestions include special pathways for rapid acquisition of applications and upgrades, an expedited software requirements process and the maintenance of a fund that can be made available for quick software acquisition and upgrades.
“At the end of this path lies a new defense acquisition system that is optimized for software-centric systems instead of hardware-centric systems and that prioritizes security, speed and cycle time over cost, schedule and (rigid) requirements,” the report states. “DoD will need to create and maintain interoperable digital infrastructure that enables rapid deployment, scaling, testing and optimization of software as an enduring capability; manage it using modern development methods and eliminate the existing hardware-centric regulations and other barriers for software programs.”
The report also suggests that the military services will need to establish software development as a high visibility, high-priority career track with specialized recruiting, education, promotion, organizations, incentives and salaries.
While changing the way DoD can use money for software is a big step, Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet, said the military’s software is in dire straits.
“When I come here I think of the software as being like 1990s software,” Schmidt said. “It feels of that generation. I’ve done this a long time and it worked pretty well back then, but it isn’t appropriate for now.”
Schmidt said in his work on the study, it became clear there was a need for legislative and operational changes to bring DoD’s software into the present day.
“The groundwork that we are laying should let everyone operate in a modern way,” Schmidt said. “Our opponents don’t have the installed base of software that we do and therefore they can leapfrog and presumably produce even higher software-centric things that we have to deal with. We need to address this now.”
DoD plans to come up with an initial implementation plan in 60 days.
To fully better the software acquisition process, the board recommended requiring access to source code — a sore subject for some in industry — and enabling full security testing.
DoD must also make security a first-order consideration for all software intensive systems.
Acquisition requirements must shift from the use of rigid lists to a list of desired features and required characteristics to avoid “requirements creep, overly ambitious requirements and program delays.”
DoD’s plan is to get the initial authorities, budget and processes it needs for reform by 2020. From there it will begin revolutionizing its system in 2021 and then optimize those conditions in 2022.
The Pentagon is already taking some steps to improve its software acquisition process. It is already rewriting DoD’s primary acquisition policy document, Instruction 5000.02.
“We are going to have one process for hardware and one process for software, because truly I believe our future warfighting capability depends on hardware-enabled and software-defined systems,” Lord said in March. “We need to take those hardware platforms and continue to spiral in software to deliver more and more capability.”