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Pentagon advised to get agile if it wants to keep up with evolving threats

I feel the need, the need for code speed

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) is recommending the Pentagon respond better to evolving threats, such as speeding up software modernization by using agile dev practices.

According to the congressional watchdog, the Department of Defense's reaction time will be increasingly determined by how swiftly it can develop and deploy new systems, and modern weapons and IT systems rely heavily on software in order to function.

The GAO's report says the DoD has recognized software as a critical element for weapon systems requirements, yet its development practices are failing to keep up with commercial software leaders.

According to the Defense Science Board (DSB) and Defense Innovation Board (DIB), which published their recommendations in 2018 and 2019 respectively, commercial software outfits have long practiced agile methods to implement speedier and more cost-effective development processes.

In contrast, it seems the DoD still largely uses the waterfall approach, which Reg readers will be aware proceeds in a step-by-step manner from design through to testing, and the final software is typically delivered in its entirety at the end of the process.

One limit of this is that it can make it difficult to modify requirements during the development process without cost increases and delays to delivery, the GAO said.

The latest report found the DoD had partially implemented all 17 recommendations from the DSB and DIB by taking actions that included streamlining software buying and piloting new funding approaches. However it has yet to set-up a dedicated workforce of software developers or ensure the software engineers have the skills to implement reforms.

Taking such steps would better position the DoD to take the measures required to deliver software more rapidly, the GAO reports. Meanwhile Pentagon officials told the agency they had addressed "the intent of the recommendations" but do not plan to fully implement all recommended actions because it regards some as "impractical or outdated."

For these reasons, the GAO report makes seven recommendations to the DoD regarding its software modernization. These were:

  • That the relevant Senior Steering Groups (SSGs) should incorporate GAO's performance measures when tracking progress towards achieving agency goals in its modernization efforts.
  • The DoD should identify resources such as staffing and funding needed to reform software acquisition and development efforts.
  • Identification of roles and responsibilities for leaders throughout the department for carrying out the necessary reforms.
  • Finalizing an implementation plan with key milestones and deliverables to help track progress on implementing the modernization strategy.
  • A similar implementation plan with milestones and deliverables to track progress on the Software Science and Technology Strategy.
  • Establish processes to collect data necessary to measure progress against goals related to software modernization efforts.
  • Developing a department-wide strategic workforce plan to identify and address gaps in the critical skills and competencies needed for software modernization goals.

The DoD was provided with a draft of the report in order to review and comment, and the GAO said the department "concurred with the first, third, fourth and fifth recommendations."

However, it said that on the third recommendation, the DoD's stated approach of an Office of Primary Responsibility for the software modernization strategy would not ensure it has the necessary roles and responsibilities to make changes.

On the advice to identify needed resources, the DoD claimed modernization efforts will rely on individual departments to implement rather than on a centrally funded approach.

The DoD partially concurred with the final recommendation to develop a department-wide workforce plan and said it will work with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to address any identified skills or competency gaps.

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