GAO finds major weapons programs struggle to use Agile

Systems Engineering

The GAO’s 2020 Defense Acquisitions Annual Assessment conducted a survey of 42 major weapons programs’ software development approaches and found that of the 22 programs that were using Agile methodology, only 6 met the private-sector benchmark of delivering incremental  updates every six weeks. Three projects were able to deliver updates to end-users every two to three weeks; however, two of the three projects more closely resembled consumer electronics built by the private sector than traditional weapons systems. This raises questions about whether the Agile methodology used by the private sector are universally applicable to software-related projects undertaken by the defense industry. Projects that didn’t make the six-week update cycle included a hardware and software package for cyber warfare, a satellite communications program, and the Navy’s Triton drone, all things that fall outside of the original purview of Agile methodology as a way of quickly delivering software updates for products designed by the private sector.

However, Agile methodology is still important for the DoD, even if turnaround times for updates exceed the initial six-week goal. The efficacy of defense technology is heavily dependent on the software that a piece of equipment boasts. Hardware can take years to develop, whereas software updates that improve operability and efficacy for military hardware can be developed in a matter of days. However, there is much less room for error in software development for military hardware than there is in software development for commercial platforms, meaning that the software development cycle for defense programs must trade-off efficiency for security in a way that the private sector does not have to. While a buggy phone update may frustrate the end users or create vulnerabilities that can be used to exploit consumers, military software that contains bugs can potentially compromise national security or even jeopardize people’s lives. Considered in this light, the longer development cycle for military software updates seems justified when compared to Agile methodology used in the private sector.

So, what should the role of Agile methodology be in software development for defense programs? Given the different nature of software development for the private sector compared to software development for defense programs, it seems that the six-week turnaround time may not be universally applicable for software development across the DoD. The adoption of private sector Agile best practices can enable improvements in the efficiency of software development for defense programs, regardless if a six-week turnaround time is unrealistic for the program in question. Andrew Hunter, the head of defense industrial studies at CSIS, actually found the GAO report encouraging, saying, “Even the more challenging cases in the study are adapting far faster than is typical for DoD, where upgrade cycles are usually measured in years, not weeks.”

Despite the disappointing implementation uncovered by the GAO thus far, general consensus holds that defense-related software development still stands to gain by learning from the widespread use of Agile methodology in the private sector, even if DoD programs struggle to  adhere to private sector performance metrics.

Topics: Acquisition, Systems Engineering

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