The Pentagon Still Buys Software Like It's 1987
The Defense Innovation Board recently discovered that a 32-year-old report "pretty much said it all."
The Defense Innovation Board warned that the Defense Department’s age-old approach to software procurement and development could dull the military’s technological edge.
“A large amount of DOD’s software takes too long, costs too much, and is too brittle to be competitive in the long run,” the board said in the study’s executive summary of its Software Acquisition and Practices report. “If DOD does not take steps to modernize its software acquisition and development practices, we will no longer have the best military in the world, no matter how much we invest or how talented and dedicated our armed forces may be.”
The SWAP study was mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act in fiscal 2018. It examines how the agency procures and advances software and offers recommendations on how it could do so more efficiently.
The board noted that the study largely echoes recommendations and conclusions drawn from past studies, and particularly a 1987 Report of the Task Force on Military Software by the Defense Science Board.
“This particular assessment, from over 30 years ago, referenced over 30 previous studies and is largely aligned with the assessments of more recent studies, including this one.”
In its latest study, the board emphasizes three “overarching themes” that are critical to their findings. First, the study identifies speed and cycle time as the most important metrics for software. It notes that most Defense software projects use “waterfall development processes” that take years to identify requirements and select contractors, and by the time the projects come together, the software or tactics may be outdated.
Because software is made for people by people, the report notes that digital talent matters. Yet it argues most of Defense’s human resources policies are not “conducive to attracting retaining, and promoting digital talent.” The board said while DOD presently has military and civilian expertise, it’s not taking advantage of its internal personnel through pay bonuses, outlined career paths, or access to early promotions.
The board also iterates that software is different from hardware. Though Defense buys software in the same light that it does hardware, it should actually be developed, deployed and improved using different and less-linear cycle times.
“The current approach to acquisition was defined in a different era, for different purposes, and only works for software projects through enormous effort and creativity,” it said.
The board organizes its specific recommendations for the Pentagon into “four lines of effort” that bring together multiple defense stakeholders.
It suggests that Congress and Defense must refactor statutes, regulations and processes for software to allow for more rapid deployment and continuous improvement to the field.
It also said the Armed Services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense should create and maintain cross-program and cross-Service digital infrastructure and eliminate existing hardware-centric regulations and barriers. The board also recommends they establish new paths for digital talent by presenting software development as a high-priority career track.
Defense and industry should also work together to change the actual practice of software procurement and development by modernizing approaches in a way that prioritizes speed as the most critical metric.
“In many ways this mission is as challenging as any combat mission: while participants’ lives may not be directly at risk in defining, implementing, and communicating the needed changes to policy and culture, the lives of those who defend our nation ultimately depend on DOD’s ability to redefine its approach to delivering combat-critical software to the field,” the board said.