Accounting for software in weapons systems

The Defense Department is still trying to figure out the best way to buy software and track that spending. But could the answer be in separating out those costs from the hardware required in major acquisitions?

The Defense Department is still trying to figure out the best way to buy software and track that spending – especially when it comes to software components of big-ticket weapons systems.

One possible solution is separating out software and hardware costs, but that approach brings its own set of headaches.

David Cadman, acting assistant secretary of defense for acquisition enablers, said at an industry conference that separating costs potentially solved some problems, but could work against the very type of flexibility and agility that defense leaders and their overseers in Congress are seeking.

“We've opened up the software pathway with this idea of [yielding] a minimum viable product with these quick updates and deliveries, Cadman said Monday at the National Defense Industry Association’s virtual Systems and Mission Engineering Conference. “We've worked with the joint staff to fix the [Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System] process so that we're not forced with the IT box and that we can expand our requirements so that we make sense of it all. But I'm telling you, that's the thing that keeps me up at night.”

Cadman, who also serves as the director for acquisition data and analytics, said that while DOD has historically been somewhat “slow and stupid” when it comes to software, the Software Acquisition Pathway can help make program manager’ job easier, but there are still open questions on how to best use the tool.

“There is that inherent integration with the hardware piece,” Cadman said, noting that some of the F-35’s flight test problems could’ve been solved by software or hardware, and that it’s up to program managers to make that call.

The Defense Department has several ongoing efforts to improve its software buying and tracking, from a series of congressionally authorized pilots to the software acquisition pathway, which was part of a rewrite of defense acquisition policy released in 2020. And while information is being collected on lessons learned from the efforts, not much data on their progress and impact has been released yet.

Cadman said that overall, the initiatives, including the SWAP, are an improvement on what DOD was doing before. However, with the pilots, often referred to as BA-08 programs, he said the largest complaint has been submitting what's called “earned value reporting” on software programs.

“If you're not doing earned value, what are you doing? I mean, you can't be unmanaged when you do your program,” he said. “So I'm not saying I know what the best way to do business is, but why don't you work with us to try to figure out what is the best way to manage programs.”

Cadman noted that part of the solution lies with shifting culture, in addition to providing more tools, among program managers. But the concern is that more options could mean more variables.

“I worry...that we don't collect enough examples of what's good, I worry that we try to pick a one size fits all solution,” Cadman said.

But that idea of splitting programs, he said, could be applied to middle tier acquisitions with a carve out using the software acquisition pathway.

“I wish more programs would pick it up,” Cadman said of the software acquisition pathway. “But that's split out of how do I support a hardware program if I'm a software program, do I pull it out? Do I just implement agile practices within my major capabilities program? That's definitely a viable alternative. And we're open to those concepts.”

This article first appeared on FCW. Photo credit: A U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Erica Webster displaying helmets with multi-input displays designed to work with the F-35 Lightning II.