DoD is focused on software, but it can’t forget hardware


While the Defense Department has been laser-focused on agile software development, it might have overlooked hardware, senior officials say. 

More and more functionality is being pushed into software, but some functionality is a fundamental system limitation and needs to be addressed at the system level.

“I’m the biggest fan of software and going to continuous development for software. That’s where we need to be, it’s where commercial is. But you can’t forget the hardware. In fact, I actually think that we need to collapse the hardware and software into themselves, into sprints,” William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said during the Ash Carter Exchange conference Tuesday.

“It’s got to be looked at holistically. And then the final piece of it, of course, is that we all imagine dealing with this agile threat that we have. And this happened during the IED fight, pushing out software defined waveforms, say to the [electronic warfare] community, flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we did this — that you can solve a lot of these rapid threat changes by pushing software. I absolutely believe in that we need to do that much more. However, there are times where you have to have a new rocket engine or a new sensor. And we’re seeing that mixture in counter [unmanned aircraft systems]. So it has to be looked at holistically.

And the architectures within the DoD are so old and integrated, doing iterative development at scale results in cross couplings and a lot of regression testing.

LaPlante said that’s what makes modular systems so important, but this is still one of the biggest impediments to software development within the department.

One example of such a system is the Army’s Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System or the service’s command and control system for planning and executing fires and joint fires.

The system is so old, any changes require a lot of testing because of tightly coupled components. But given the department’s shift to this new modular strategy, the service recently announced its plans to modernize AFATDS. The goal is to be able to integrate new capabilities and updates without modifying the system.

LaPlante said one of the challenges they face when it comes to adopting agile software development practices is limited talent within the government. 

But a big  part of it is modern agile advertisements — many projects are still managed using waterfall methodologies despite having the agile label.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve done the lessons learned where we saw that a system was labeled as being modern, agile, iterative development. And when you pulled it apart underneath it, you found the old waterfall. Maybe by the government, maybe the government contracting drove that. Maybe the intellectual property drove that,” said LaPlante.

“You can’t just say modern software development. You have to actually enforce it and you have to follow through and you have to get down to the details. And by the way, it takes software experts. You don’t need agile experts. Washington is filled with consultants that consult on agile. You need software experts that know iterative and agile.”

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