Software Acquisition: Still a Tough Nut to Crack

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Illustration: Getty

Effectively acquiring and sustaining the massive number of software systems the Pentagon employs is a perennial problem, experts say. It often takes too long for the Defense Department to purchase and deploy new, cutting-edge software or upgrades.

Despite efforts by Congress to root out the problem through various well-intentioned reports, issues persist, said Jeff Boleng, a special assistant for software acquisition at the Defense Department. He is a key member of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord’s executive leadership team.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of numbers staring us down — we’ve got 804, 805, 809, 813, 872, 873, 874, 868,” he said, referring to sections of recent National Defense Authorization Acts.

“Essentially, Congress is inside DoD’s decision loop here telling us how to fix software more quickly than we can actually address some of the problems and implement them,” he noted.

Boleng is working closely with the Section 872 panel which — alongside the Defense Innovation Board — is focusing on software acquisition regulations, he said during a recent event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The report will soon wrap up and is slated to be delivered to the Pentagon in April and then to Congress in May, he added.

“There’s a lot in there. Surprisingly, there’s not a ton that’s new,” he said. “I hope that the timing is right for some of these recommendations. We’ve been looking back in history at various other studies that have been done on acquisition reform, software technology, information technologies. [And] we’ve been lamenting about this problem since the ‘70s — literally when software first started to even be created for defense systems — and a lot of times we say the same things.”

Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at CSIS, said in his former life as a Capitol Hill staffer he saw many reports come and go that were meant to get after improving software acquisition at the Defense Department.

Congress “asked the department to make radical change in its approach to software acquisition some years ago — the original [Section] 804 — which was essentially do everything for software different without any definition of what that meant, what that would look like [or] how to do that,” he said.

Staffers would ask if the department was executing what Congress had requested and it was sometimes tough to make the case that it was, Hunter said.
Now, however, there is more granularity and solidity to the efforts underway, he noted.

Beth McGrath is a managing director at Deloitte who formerly worked for the Pentagon as a chief management officer for information technology and worked closely with Capitol Hill on ways to acquire IT systems faster. Software acquisition is often complicated, she said.

“Business IT seems super easy when you compare it to F-35 [joint strike fighter] or all of the other systems or major defense acquisition programs,” she said. “But I found it to be probably one of the most challenging, and some of it has to do with the … literacy of the department in terms of … how to buy and what to buy.”

Brett Lambert, vice president for corporate strategy at Northrop Grumman, said software is just one example of a transforming defense industrial base. Previously, when purchasing equipment, the Defense Department spent most of its money on the physical material to build a system instead of the guts of the platform. That has now flipped to a point where the department spends only about 30 percent on the physical side and 70 percent on software, said Lambert, who formerly served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy.

“At the same time, the acquisition system by which we acquire these products and services didn’t change that much and that’s where all the frustration grew,” he added.
Pentagon officials must be mindful of avoiding a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to software acquisition, he said.

“Not all software is created equal,” he said. Lambert noted that there is software inside of his dishwasher at home. It is important but represents only a small part of the cost of the overall system.

“But I also have software in my car that updates every day and it kept me from hitting a scooter coming down here this morning,” he said.

The software in the car is inherently more valuable because it is providing a service all day, every day and must be constantly refreshed, Lambert said. As the Pentagon acquires new software, it needs to think hard about what those systems are meant to do.

Lambert also cautioned against vendor lock.

“What you want to avoid if you’re an acquisition executive is being in a position where you’ve acquired a piece of kit or a piece of software and now you’re beholden to that single entity,” he said. “You can’t make changes to it. You can’t update it. You can’t refresh it and you’re kind of held captive to the individual who created” it.

Additionally, McGrath said the Pentagon should be wary of lowest price, technically-acceptable contracts for software.

“Being in the commercial space, I can tell you it’s a price point competition,” she said. “It’s essentially LPTA for most of the sustainment for business software.”

Despite being a common contracting method, LPTA does not leave room for innovation, she added. “It’s a race to the bottom,” she said. That dynamic has to change in order to give the Pentagon the best capability available.

Topics: Cyber, Cyber-augmented Operations, Cybersecurity, Infotech, Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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