US DoD Must Stop Neglecting “Agile Software Development”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the US Department of Defense (DoD) is not ensuring that all of its weapons systems programs comply with the new ‘Agile Software Acquisition’ program guidelines.

The DoD’s ability to respond to threats is increasingly determined by rapid software development and deploymentas well as its responsibility to acquire tangible military assets such as platforms and munitions.

The department has undergone a modernization strategy for easier to develop or “Agile software”. As of 2020, the State Department has established six acquisition pathways – or sets of policy and guidance – that are tailored to the type of capability being acquired. The department requires programs in its software path to use requirements processes tailored to support this “Agile development”.

“Agile” is about delivering working software to users in less than a year and adding features iteratively based on user needs. In contrast, the DoD’s previous acquisition model, known as the “waterfall approach,” could take more than ten years to deliver software and carries more risk.

However, requirements processes used by arms programs that develop software on a different path generally do not incorporate Agile principles. By not incorporating Agile principles into requirements processes, these programs risk developing capabilities that may not reflect changing user needs or threats.

This neglect is due to the fact that the Department of Defense does not issue corresponding guidance for weapons programs that use Agile software development in other paths. As a result, programs in other acquisition paths, such as those developing new aircraft or ships, may not be positioned to effectively oversee the iteratively delivered software capabilities.

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Software acquisition as a threat to rule-based ordering

If a number of critical weapons systems programs fall by the wayside using the legacy waterfall continuous approach, this could adversely affect the ability of the US and its allies to maintain rules-based order around the world.

Let’s consider the widely used F-16 aircraft as an example. GlobalData Intelligence tells us that global spending on the F-16 A/B will increase from $87 million to $115 million between 2023 and 2025; the F-16 C/D will increase from $626 million to $1.9 billion between 2023 and 2026.

As tensions rise in the geopolitical environment, the US and its allies are trying to contain the encroachment of national sovereignty by Russia and China and the repudiation of a US-led liberal international order.

Part of the effort to counter states like Russia and China is NATO’s unprecedented sharing of information, knowledge and skills, which will include software for interoperable systems for joint missions. With this in mind, NATO air forces can use US fleets of F-16 fighters to deter Russia from joining the alliance air policing on its eastern side in and around Baltic airspace.

If critical weapons systems and platforms like the F-16 do not have deployable software, then the US and all of its allies may be at a significant disadvantage compared to authoritarian states that mobilize every segment of their society.

The United Kingdom and Denmark, among other nations, are currently training Ukrainian pilots to operate the F-16 fighter jet with a view to introducing the aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force.

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