The Pentagon’s Plan to Speed Up Software Buying for Weapons Systems

Getty Images / Yuichiro Chino

The DOD’s dedicated software acquisition pathway is nearly two years old, and is already being used by a few dozen programs.

As the Pentagon’s business systems and its biggest weapons platforms increasingly rely on more frequent software updates, the Defense Department is working to change its processes so it can buy and deliver software as quickly as it's needed. 

One of the primary ways it's doing so is through its software acquisition pathway, which allows contracting officers and program managers to separate out the software components of various programs, from unmanned systems to enterprise software, making the buying process faster and easier. 

The Biden administration’s pick to be the Pentagon’s No. 2 weapons buyer has vowed, if confirmed, to make software modernization a priority, and put a spotlight on the two-year-old pathway. But while the Defense Department is likely to keep pushing it for new and existing programs, it may take some getting used to.

Radha Plumb, who is nominated to be deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told senators during her nomination hearing that her priority would be matching military needs with technology, and moving software modernization forward by “ensuring critical new authorities—including software acquisition pathways—are leveraged and integrated into priority systems,” while also working to control sustainment costs.

“If confirmed, my task will be to match warfighter requirements from our military with the technologies in that vibrant industrial base, to ensure our military has the capabilities it needs to prevail in critical missions anytime, anywhere,” Plumb told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. 

“To do this, we must establish clear transition pathways for critical new technologies like hypersonics, artificial intelligence, and directed energies. We must field solutions more rapidly. We must leverage new acquisition pathways to acquire software and software-intensive systems to meet the needs of our war fighters and invest in our defense industrial base to reduce foreign dependency.”

Plumb’s testimony comes just a few months ahead of the two-year anniversary of the software acquisition pathway.

The pathway now has 40 programs, Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokesperson told Defense One, and it’s showing “encouraging signs that programs can streamline processes and deliver software faster” since its debut in October 2020. Maxwell noted that acquisition programs often “need help navigating” it, and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment is evaluating how it can take “best practices of modern software development and apply agility across our programs—whether they are software- or hardware-intensive.”

But, as it is now, using the pathway requires some creativity, according to Doug Bush, the Army’s chief weapons buyer. 

Bush told reporters July 27 that the service is using the pathway for newer software programs, while working to shift older ones that use a traditional process to one for continuous development—called DevSecOps—through “schedule adjustments on software programs to move them closer to the way we like to do things,” rather than doing it formally.  

The Army is close to using the pathway as a default “for new software efforts,” Bush said, “because we think that's the most modern way to do software development.” The challenge is shifting older programs that were built to a different model, often referred to as waterfall, to the new DevSecOps method. 

“And now we're trying to adjust them to the new model. But I think so far, we're finding success in most cases…. often it just requires rephasing, restructuring the program.”

Bush said formally switching older software programs to the new pathway was an administrative burden, so the strategy is to split software developments across capability drops until technologies mature.

The Army is doing that with multiple programs, and “as we start new software programs, more of them are going to end up in the software acquisition pathway as opposed to the traditional one.” 

One of those programs is the Robotic Combat Vehicle. Bush said the Army “separated out the software element as a separate software acquisition pathway program because we want that control software to be common across many robotic platforms.” 

For the likely-to-be-confirmed Plumb, taking a flexible approach and tailoring the Pentagon’s interoperability and requirements processes for software is “essential” to more fully adopt more modern development models. 

“DOD should work to embrace rapid, iterative product development that creates innovation and gives us competitive advantage over our adversaries,” Plumb wrote in response to advanced policy questions, to “reduce cycle times and be more responsive to changing technologies, operations, priorities, and threats.”

Plumb also said that’s “particularly true for software, which is central to every major DOD mission and weapon system,” and that the Software Acquisition Pathway policy could help with that.

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